‘If you’re ever going to break down, I recommend not doing it in the middle of the Gobi Desert.’
Jonathan Turner, chief executive of Yorkshire-based fuel distribution business Bayford and Co, has gained a lot from participating, twice, in the 10,000-mile Peking to Paris rally. He is happy to share what he has learnt on his travels, which is good news for his listeners, because it is a fascinating and peculiarly British adventure.
The story begins in 1907 when five cars set out on the inaugural Peking to Paris rally. Newspapers questioned whether it could be done, but it proved a triumphant coming of age for the motor car, with an Italian count by the name of Borghese scooping the top prize.
Ninety years later, Turner’s attention was grabbed by a planned rerun of the rally, organised by the Endurance Rally Association.
‘I’ve always had a passion for mucking around with old cars,’ Turner explains. ‘My best mate [Adam Hartley] and I had done the Monte Carlo rally in my 1929 4.5 litre Bentley, which meant driving through the Alps in January with no roof. At one point we had to be pulled out of a ditch by a snow plough. It was loads of fun.’
The Peking to Paris rally, he acknowledges, made Monte Carlo look like a snowball fight. ‘We really didn’t know what we were letting ourselves in for,’ Turner says. ‘We were the first people to cross Friendship Bridge in Nepal since the Chinese revolution… Every time someone gets blown up or shot at, I think, “I’ve been there.”’
Turner was quick to sign up for a repeat performance ten years later, on the centenary of the original rally. This time, however, there were some differences. The route was through the north, via Mongolia and Russia rather than Nepal and Iran. There was also more media interest, with a Sky TV crew following events. And Turner had decided it was not enough merely to do it again.
‘My idea was to do the rally in the same car as [Borghese] drove in 1907,’ he says. Turner and Hartley eventually tracked down the 1907 Itala in an Italian museum, not precisely the same car, but the same model. ‘It had the wooden wheels, no front brakes, no windscreen, no doors. The dashboard was just a piece of wood with a steering wheel stuck in it. It’s basically a skateboard with bigger wheels and a couple of seats.’
Halfway across the Gobi Desert, things started to go wrong. ‘The crankshaft broke,’ says Turner. ‘In terms of trying to repair a car, that’s the worst thing that can happen. We waited six hours before anyone came by.’
Even when someone did, the duo’s troubles were not over. They were towed for 12 hours just to get to the nearest town. ‘Getting food and water was pretty difficult. The tow rope broke many times. It was a joke,’ he says.
It took 12 days, and a massive detour through Eastern Siberia, before Turner got back on route. ‘It was never an option to give up,’ he says. ‘I mean it never, ever crossed our minds that we wouldn’t get to Paris.’
Despite his determination, Turner admits that being stuck in the middle of Siberia does ‘focus the mind’: ‘I have three young kids and a business with 250 staff. My father said I was irresponsible and that I should just come home. I could see his point. But I didn’t sign up to suffer a little bit of hardship then come back.’
The drivers were exposed not just to the elements, but to the risk of being robbed or worse. At best, the lack of a common language made communication a challenge. Nevertheless, Turner stresses that most people he met along the way were eager to help, even if they were baffled by his presence.
‘People say that Russia’s an awful place, but it’s not! People there eat like us, drink like us, laugh like us. They’re lovely people.
‘I can’t get my head round the fact that if I broke down in Leeds and went to the BMW dealer there they’d probably say, “Sorry, mate, we don’t have time to fix that today.” There, everyone bent over backwards to help.’
Having been shot at while crossing one checkpoint, Turner is far from naïve about the dangers he faced in some of the route’s remoter locations. What makes his journey so striking is the fact that he returned from it with his faith in the kindness of strangers reinforced.
That faith may soon be tested again. Turner plans to do the rally a third time, passing along the old Silk Road, through ‘the Stans’ and Iran.
‘Iranian people are lovely, despite what you might read in the press,’ he says. ‘Iranians will embrace us so that we can come out and tell everyone it’s a great place.’
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