Cost, not a lack of courage, ensured that the entry field for the 1907 Peking to Paris car race was small. A massive two-thousand-franc deposit (equivalent to a professor’s annual salary) kept all but five of the aspiring contestants out of the race. That exclusion, as Kassia St Clair demonstrates in her captivating history of one of the most challenging endurance trials in the history of motoring, was precisely what the organisers intended.
The idea for the race came from the French newspaper Le Matin, the front page of which, in January 1907, contained an article lamenting that the fledgling automotive industry was being stifled by lack of ambition. What was needed was a demonstration that ‘with an automobile one can do anything and go anywhere’ – hence the idea of a race from Peking to Paris. Five entrants made for a fabulous news story populated by individual heroes. The race was guaranteed to keep Le Matin’s readers in thrall for the two summer months required to complete a seemingly impossible journey spanning two continents and covering well over eight thousand miles of inhospitable terrain.
Le Matin’s editor, Henry de Jouvenel, prime deviser of the race (and a future husband of the novelist Colette), was understandably confident of a victory for one of France’s four entrants. Two were experienced drivers in cars from the trophy-winning firm De Dion-Bouton. A third, Auguste Pons, in