Halfway around the world in 36 days
On 2 June 2019, Lee Harman and Bill Ward set off from the Great Wall of China outside Beijing. Their destination, the Place Vendôme in Paris, lay 9,779 bumpy, muddy, dusty miles away. Their vehicle: a car built before either of them was born. This was Day 1 of the Peking to Paris Motor Challenge, also known as P2P, a classic car rally that re-creates a 1907 race famed as one of the first automobile endurance events.
Harman and Ward’s P2P story began at a 2016 Christmas party of Morgan Owners Group Northwest — a club for enthusiasts of classic cars made by England’s Morgan Motor Co. After a couple of fellow “Morganeers” discussed their own experience doing P2P, Harman and Ward were captivated. Harman, a longtime member of the Rotary Club of Arlington, Washington, suggested doing the rally to raise money for polio eradication. “I’m a physician, and I’ve been involved with PolioPlus since I was a brand-new Rotarian,” he says.
When they crossed the finish line in central Paris on 7 July, Harman and Ward had raised an estimated $50,000 for End Polio Now.
There was just one problem: “We didn’t have a car between us that was appropriate for that kind of exercise,” says Ward, a retired U.S. Army field artillery officer who worked for the Washington state government. After much searching, they found a beauty: a 1931 Ford Model A Victoria — which they dubbed “Miss Vicky” — that already had some of the safety upgrades necessary for their epic journey. But there was much more tinkering to come.
Over the next two years, Harman and Ward made 54 major modifications to Miss Vicky. “The car was pretty much totally rebuilt with new parts or new pieces, including auxiliary fuel tanks and fuel systems and on and on and on,” Harman says. The original suspension got extra attention and replacement parts.
To verify that Miss Vicky could handle traversing Asia and Europe, Harman and Ward took it for what Ward called a “shakedown cruise” — a nautical term for a performance test of a ship. In 2018, they drove from Washington state to Toronto for the Rotary International Convention. “We went all the way up Pikes Peak and back to prove the car was ready,” Harman says.
Car guys like Harman and Ward know what it takes to drive long distances. Harman’s road warrior mentality even applies to other modes of transportation: He has flown a plane from London to Brisbane, Australia, and ridden a motorcycle from Kyiv, Ukraine, to Italy. But P2P isn’t like other long-distance travel. In fact, it’s not even a race — it’s a rally. In this kind of competition, the goal each day is not to arrive first; it’s to arrive at a specific location at a precise time. If a car arrives before or after its designated time, the team loses points, and at the end, the team with the fewest deductions wins. “If you show up early, it means you were speeding, and you get deducted a lot of points,” Harman says. “If you show up on time, you get deducted no points. If you show up late, you get deducted points, but not as many as if you show up early. By the third week we had 4,000 demerits, but we were still fourth in our subgroup and 18th out of 31 in our group of vintage automobiles. We didn’t do badly for novices.”
Another difference between road-tripping and rallying is the role of the passenger. In a rally, the person in the passenger seat is in charge of more than music and snacks — he or she is the navigator, a vital role. Each P2P team is given a tour book with detailed instructions that are accurate to the hundredth of a kilometer. “To get from point A to point B, there might be 300 or 400 instructions per day,” Harman says.
“We never failed to get lost going into a city or coming out of a city, because in most places we couldn’t read the road signs and the instructions were very tight,” Ward says. “You’re doing 35 miles an hour in traffic on a four-lane street. If you’re supposed to be in the left lane to turn but you’re not, you’ve got to backtrack and come back around. Those kinds of things keep you pretty busy.”
Breakdowns are also inevitable when you push an antique automobile to its limits. Along the route — which ran from China through Mongolia, Siberian Russia, Kazakhstan, back into Russia, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, and France — Harman and Ward had to make plenty of roadside repairs. There was a dramatic tire blowout, two ruptured hydraulic brake lines, a blown head gasket, a tailpipe that fell off. Outside Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, the team was on a highway when it hit a speed bump at the bottom of a hill and caught air. “But it wasn’t the first speed bump that got us,” Harman says. “That speed bump launched us into a second speed bump. It was like skiing moguls. We came crashing down. The metal part of the Model A is attached to a wooden subframe, which we broke. The doors wouldn’t close until we got it fixed.”
But for all the rough roads, most of the accommodations were surprisingly high-end — organizers put up the teams in luxury hotels. “One of the most luxurious places we stayed was in Erenhot, China,” Harman says. “It was absolutely amazing.” In the middle of Mongolia, hundreds of miles from any large town, the P2P participants camped out. Yet even here, teams enjoyed catered meals and bottles of fine wine at their campsites.
That was also the country that the two friends found most captivating. “Mongolia has magnificent scenery,” Ward says. Harman agrees: “It’s best described as what Montana must have looked like 150 years ago — no fencing, desolate and beautiful, just gorgeous.”
After 36 days, Miss Vicky crossed the finish line in central Paris on 7 July. Harman and Ward had raised an estimated $50,000 for End Polio Now, and they had accomplished their two other goals: “One, arrive in Paris having driven the whole route by ourselves under our own power,” Harman says. “There were 106 entrants: 103 made it to Paris, 21 under their own power who had never been towed or had ignominiously ridden on the back of a flatbed truck. Vicky was one of the 21.”
The second goal? “Arrive in Paris still friends.”
— FRITZ LENNEMAN
• This story originally appeared in the February 2020 issue of The Rotarian magazine.