The Incredible Automobile Race of 1907
The Itala driven by Prince
Borghese from Peking to Paris.
In 1907 eleven men set out to take the newly-born
automobile on an adventure across two continents and over deserts and
In a article in the French newspaper Le Martin in
January of 1907, the editors raised a challenge to the world:
...We ask this question of car
manufacturers in France
and abroad: Is there anyone who will undertake to travel this summer from
Paris to Peking by automobile? Whoever he is, this tough and daring man,
whose gallant car will have a dozen nations watching its progress, he will
certainly deserve to have his name spoken as a byword in the four quarters
of the earth...
The contestants consisted of eleven men driving five cars:
Charles Godard and Jean du Taillis (a correspondent for the Le Matin)
would drive a 15-horsepower (HP) Dutch Spyker. A pair of French auto
dealers sponsored matching 10HP De Dion Boutons. Another Frenchman named
Auguste Pons would try his luck with a tiny three-wheeled 6HP Contal. The
final, and most powerful car, was a 40HP Itala driven by Prince Scipio
Borghese was an Italian aristocrat, but his family had
lost much of its money and he had opted for a career in the army. By age
36 Borghese had learned to be a consummate planner and had travelled
extensively before the Le Matin challenge appeared. Driving with him would
be more Italians: Ettore Guizzardi, Borghese's mechanic, and Luigu Barzini,
It was decided that to avoid the monsoon rains, the race
would be reversed and start in Peking in May with the cars driving
westward to Paris. The course would take the contestants over numerous
mountain ranges and two major deserts. In many cases there would be no
real roads, but forest paths and caravan trails.
Prince Borghese used all his planning skills to give his
team the best chance of winning the race. He arranged for extra fuel and
spare parts to be cached along the route. Before the race started, he took
a three-hundred mile ride on horseback to the mountain passes north of
Peking carrying a bamboo pole cut to the width of his car to see if the
Itala could squeeze through the tight trails. Where the way was too
narrow, Borghese found an alternate route or hired troops of coolies to
widen the path.
Godard, driving the Spyker, was perhaps the exact opposite
of the Prince. A bit of a con-man, Godard did a minimal amount of planning
and sold most of his spare parts to purchase his first-class passage to
Peking. He would be dead-broke when he arrived. His partner on the trip
protested his lack of foresight, but Godard replied. "Either I shall never
see Paris again or I shall come back to it in my Spyker, hot from Peking!"
The start of the race was set for June 10th. The only
problem was that the Chinese government, after first authorizing the race,
refused to provide the racers with papers to travel through Mongolia. As
the race day approached, both Godard and Borghese decided to start on
time, papers or not, and risk the ire of the government. After they
declared their intentions, the rest of the group decided to join them.
A French military band led the cars out of the city on the
appointed day as the crowds around them cheered and celebrated with
firecrackers. It wasn't long before the group began to have problems,
though. A hard rain soaked the crews in the open cars and turned the road
Soon they approached the Western mountains that separated
northern China from the Mongolian plains. The paths were narrow. In some
places the trail was cut out of a cliff with a shear drop into a gorge
only inches from the car's tires. Much of the road was too steep for the
car's little engines, and mules or men pulling ropes hitched to the cars
were needed to drag them through the mountain passes. Once the Itala got
away on a downhill slope with Guizzardi at the wheel. The brakes could not
hold the vehicle on the steep grade. The mechanic spun the wheel wildly,
trying to keep the car from driving off the narrow road into the gorge
beside the trail. By some miracle he brought the Itala to a stop at the
After the mountains the next obstacle for the racers was
the forbidding Gobi Desert. Pons quickly ran out of gas and he and his
co-driver found themselves stranded. They began walking back to
civilization, but they had almost no water. Fortunately nomadic Mongolians
found the pair before the heat killed them. Pons, having narrowly escaped
with his life, decided to give up the race, leaving only the four
remaining teams to trek across the hot, sandy wastes. His little
three-wheeled car was left to rust in the desert.
The racers kept on track through the desert by following
the telegraph line. The engines on their cars were not built with such
intense heat in mind and quickly started boiling over. This meant the
teams were forced to feed the radiators their own reserves of drinking
water to keep them running. A dangerous practice.
Barzini used the telegraph to report back to his newspaper
as often as he could. At the tiny village of Hong-Pong, Barzini strode
into the telegraph office to send that day's report. He noticed that his
telegram was marked as "No. 1" At first Barzini thought that meant it was
the first telegraph sent that day. He was amazed to find out it meant that
his was the first telegraph to originate from Hong-Pong in the six years
the station had been there.
Travel in the desert, as it turned out, was faster than
the mountains. It had taken five days to get over the mountains, much
slower than a camel caravan. The Itala only took four days to cross the
desert, however, something that a caravan did in seventeen days. As the
race left the Mongolian plain to enter the mountains at the Russian
border, Prince Borghese's team (in the Itala) was in the lead at least a
half-day in front of the competition.
Wilderness of Siberia
Borghese hoped that he would make good time travelling
through Siberia. The maps showed a military road stretching across the
wilderness. What the maps did not show was that the road had been
abandoned when the Trans-Siberian Railway had been completed four years
before. The forest had reclaimed much of the road and many bridges had
been washed away. Others were in bad shape. Borghese took to running at
them at full throttle trying to get across before they collapsed
The race nearly ended for the Itala when it tried to cross
one bridge. Guizzardi was at the wheel and Borghese ordered him to drive
slowing across the rickety structure. They'd gotten more than halfway when
suddenly the planks under the Itala's rear wheels gave way. The back of
the car plunged through the bridge as the vehicle did a backwards
somersault. Barzini, the reporter, fell the farthest. He found himself
under the bridge with a rain of broken planks and debris falling on him.
Borghese found himself hanging under the car covered with oil. Guizzardi,
who was thrown from his seat in the fall, managed to extract the Prince
and the reporter from the wreckage. It was a miracle that all three
survived without major injury.
The Itala was in good shape, also. A heavy beam had slowed
the fall of the front of the car and spare tires had cushioned the impact
of the rear. It took three hours to pull the car from the wreckage of the
bridge and get it back on to the road, but when Guizzardi cranked the
handle, the machine started right up. "She seems quite safe," he said with
Occasionally the racers would use the railway tracks for a
road. Two planks would be used to allow the car to mount the track with
one set of wheels riding on the outside of the rails and one on the
inside. At first the tracks seemed a great relief after fighting their way
through waist-deep mud and ruts. After a while, though, the jarring and
jerking of the auto along the sleepers became quite nerve-racking. The
motorists called the movement a "horrible dance."
Once the Itala got stuck on the tracks before an oncoming
train. The crew worked furiously trying to get it loose with levers. They
got it safely off just in time.
They had been having trouble with the Itala's wheels all
through Siberia. In order to cope with the mud, Prince Borghese had
wrapped chains round the wheels to give them traction. This worked well
but put strain on the wooden spokes making them crack. Temporary repairs
were made but the problem continued to worsen. Finally the left-front
wheel splintered into pieces leaving the Itala stuck, unable to move
Fortunately the nearest village contained a cartwright of
considerable skill. He managed to chop a new wheel for Borghese out of
aged pinewood using only a hatchet. "The hatchet becomes in the hands of
the Russian peasant a wonderfully exact tool," observed Barzini. In only a
few hours after this major problem occurred it had been solved and the
Itala was on its way again.
The Final Lap
On July 20th the Itala passed a marble signpost designating the line
between Asia and Europe. The Itala rolled in to Moscow a week later ahead
of the competition by almost seventeen days.
From that point on the trip became comparatively
uneventful. Only one incident caused any problem for the Prince. A
policeman in Belgium stopped the Itala for going over the speed limit.
When the policeman asked for identification, the Prince announced, "I am
Prince Borghese - we have just driven from Peking, China." There was a
delay as the policeman confirmed this incredible tale.
On August 10th, 1907, the Itala entered Paris winning the
race. It had taken sixty-one days to drive from Peking to Paris. Crowds
cheered and lined the streets into the city. "It all seems absurd and
impossible; I cannot convince myself that we have come to the end, that we
have really arrived," wrote Barzini.
The pair of De Dion-Burtons and the Spyker arrived in
Paris 20 days later. Godard, who had been removed as the driver in Berlin
over a money dispute with Le Martin, never completed the trip and a
driver from Spyker had to steer the car into Paris.
Prince Borghese and the other drivers had proved that the
car was here to stay. Others have attempted to trace Prince Borghese's
trail, but with limited success. In 1957 Luigi Barzini Jr. asked clearance
from the Russians to retrace his father's route, but they would not give
him permission. In 1997 a road rally was held to commemorate the race, but
the route did not pass through Siberia.
So 1907 race has never quite been repeated. The racers'
feat stands alone as one of the most sensational achievements, unequalled,
in automobile history.
The race route
from Peking, China, to Paris, France.