The Mission

The Peking to Paris Rally is a recreation of the 1907 challenge issued by Le Matin, "Is there anyone who will undertake to travel this summer from Peking to Paris by automobile?"
The 2016 version will follow a route of 13,695 Km (8,510 miles) and take 35 days. We are travelling in Rhubarb and Custard, a 1936 Buick. We know nothing about cars or rallying.

Monday, 15 August 2016

Last Post

I had hoped to make this final post once the car has been recovered from Kazan but that seems like it may be several weeks away still so here goes.

PtoP 2016 seems like a world away now, the planning the anticipation, the excitement the frustration the long hours the hard work and (in our case) the collapse at the half way point are all forgotten. But everyone wants to hear the story about how the trip was and everyone asks, 'Would we do it again?'

For me the answer is, "No." there are too many other adventures in life to repeat this particular one. there are other places I want to visit and experiences I would like to have. I couldn't take another three years out to plan a second attempt.  that doesn't mean we wont do other rallies - the Flying Scotsman is already booked for 2017 but in a way that is the point - there are plenty of rallies to go on and (this is now the heretical part) to be honest I think you can have 80% of the fun of PtoP doing a one week rally. Of course you don't get the bragging rights and the wow factor when you mention it to others but I enjoyed the Alpine Rally and 2015 Flying Scotsman just as much as PtoP.  The shorter rallies had all the ingredients - scenery, great roads and beautiful cars, but didn't completely disrupt our lives.

One thing rallying does teach you is that things go wrong.  Old cars break down, the navigator makes mistakes, the driver loses concentration.  It's a humbling experience that reminds you that we cant control all the things that go on in our lives. Bad stuff happens unexpectedly even with the very best preparation.  But good stuff happens unexpectedly too, the kindness of strangers, a beautiful view, new friends, a shared experience.  Rallying may be slightly silly and ultimately rather pointless but it's also fun and life affirming.

I shall be looking forward to our next ride in Rhubarb and Custard - once we get her back to England.

Friday, 15 July 2016

Lessons from The Rally

For the benefit of future readers who are thinking about undertaking the PtoP rally I thought it would be useful to set out some lessons learnt and tips for the future.  

Reading other blogs I came across this from Car 95 - the DB6: 

I’m cross at how poorly set up for this event she has been. The spare wheel should have been in the boot not on the roof as the roof rack like a rotating bucket of water on a string just accentuates the strain on her suspension. All the spares should also have been in the boot and not in that ridiculous low hanging box that we had to guard so carefully crossing the desert and which filled with sand and dirt. And she should have sat higher off the ground at the back on longer coils with stronger shock absorbers. And the limited slip differential was superfluous and just made her harder to manoeuvre.

When we attended Owen Turner's course before the rally he said more or less all of the above things and it just shows you that experience counts.

1. Personal Possessions

As far as personal possessions are concerned the complex camera equipment was a waste of time - everyone says the same thing.  you are far too busy to bother with anything more than an iPhone or equivalent. you might get some good Go Pro footage but you can do just as well sticking the iPhone out of the car window.

I would definitely bring a four seasons sleeping bag as it can be very cold at night.  My camping mattress was rather short and so my feet got cold resting on the ground and I needed to put a blanket under them.

Overfilling your clothes bag is a bad idea. Leave some space so that you can rummage around without getting everything out.  That said the clothes packing list was about right - although be prepared to look scruffy and rather unappetizing. The silk underwear and Jim Jams and the Rohan outerwear worked fine as they were quick drying. The thick socks were never needed (except at night) and nor was my waterproof jacket - I used the free plastic cape given to us at Gaydon - but we may have been lucky with the weather.

We definitely brought too much stuff.  Richard packed an extra bag with various 'might need' items in it.  Most of this was never needed so stick with the packing lists earlier in the blog.  The one exception was that he brought a large box of energy bars and we munched our way through them in Mongolia where there were no shops. Had we got lost in the desert we might have needed some of the extra things but unless you willfully chose another route (as one car did) there is no reason for this to happen.

A supply of sandwich bags is essential. make a sandwich for lunch at breakfast even if a packed lunch is provided or a lunch is promised, the arrangements often go wrong, so don't go hungry.

2. Tools & Spares

Our tools and spares list (see earlier blogs) was almost spot on as was our system of having everything in bags that were labeled and a list to guide you to the right bag.  Laminate the list and keep it in a door pocket as you will need it all the time.  Be absolutely disciplined in putting things back in the right bag.  I think the sweeps appreciated when they asked if we had something we could say right away Yes or No and find it without any delay.  We had 95% of the things they asked for and they had the other 5%.

Our most useful tools were a 13mm spanner (you really need two of these), the magnetic dish for holding bits you have taken off the car, and the piece of wood for the jack. I also found the big LED inspection torch very useful but Richard preferred the head torch. Keeping a tool roll inside the car or somewhere handy is essential and 90% of the time we only needed the contents of the tool roll (see earlier blogs) which was so much quicker than getting stuff out of the boot.The Sweeps carry really nice 'O' spanners with a ratchet mechanism - they save a lot of time, maybe get some.

Know where your tow rope is.  You will need it in a hurry.

One thing I would carry next time are lots of proper mechanics gloves. The disposal rubber ones were useful but too thin and very sweaty.

3. Daily Checks

The daily check list we had was very good (see earlier blogs).  However I'm not convinced that it is necessary to check the spark plugs every day unless you know you have a problem (on the other hand not a big job).  We actually gave ourselves a problem by doing this daily as we severed a spark plug lead when we replaced the spark plug cover.

On the other hand I probably would grease the nipples every day and not just on rest days as the new grease forces the dust out of the joints.

A daily spanner check is a must in Mongolia and Russia.  It's unbelievable what comes loose. 

Have a proper window cleaning cloth (in fact several) as the window gets filthy and needs a daily clean so that it is safe.

Clean and tidy the car interior every day - it takes no time to do and stops you living in a pig sty - and wash the car whenever you get the chance, a clean car is much easier to work on.

4. Car Set Up

Suspension - Poor suspension set up/reckless driving was the biggest single problem especially in Mongolia. You need good long struts front and rear, the car should ride high even when loaded but any suspension will bust if you drive too hard.

Tyres - I thought our Michelin van tyres worked very well on almost any surface and both wet and dry.  They were hardly worn.They would have been easy to replace too.

Electrics - It was a good call to fit the Odyssey battery and a powerful new starter motor.  I think we should have fitted electronic ignition as well, although that's not the advice given by the sweeps.  The difference is that they can fix a distributor but can do nothing for EI. On the other hand the sweeps have a real touch for a distributor that we didn't have so we kept buggering it up (albeit not fatally) and then they would later put it right.   My solution would be to make sure I didn't buy a cheap Chinese EI system and to carry carry two or three spares. 

Fuel system - There are strong opinions about this one and clearly something was very wrong with our fuel system.  Lots of people had problems with the seams coming apart on aluminium tanks so I would avoid those and opt for steel.  Two tanks won't protect you from dirty fuel unless you fill up twice as often - different filling stations for each tank. That's a right bore.  Fit the filters and pumps somewhere easily accessible and fit the cheap disposable filters not the expensive glass ones. Shield the fuel lines from engine heat - that was a big problem for many.

Sump guard - this is going to take a lot of punishment so make sure it is properly set up.

Know your Car - There's a lot to be said for building your own car, or close supervision of the build.  There were things I  would have done differently on Rhubarb and Custard.  For example two different size spanners were needed to access the fuel pumps and they couldn't really be removed except if the car was on a lift.  The reservoirs for the brake fluid had to be removed to change the oil filter and so on.  My idea would be to minimize the number of different tools needed, to minimize the time needed to replace anything and to make access to components as easy as possible. As far as possible fit simple components that can be found in remote places.

Safety and Comfort - fit rally seats and a harness, a roll bar is essential. Fit a Monit not a Brantz, much easier to use. Have an easily accesible drinks holder and tray fitted for sunglasses, energy bars, sunlotion etc. Don't fit a loud exhaust, the noise will exhaust you.

5. Choice of Car

On reflection I think Rhubarb and Custard is too heavy to be a really effective rally car. It was fine for us because we drove moderately but more vigorous drivers might break it.  It was very comfortable though and (when on song) you could drive all day in third gear.

I'd think really hard about taking an open car on this rally. The people who do so are total heroes. The weather can be utterly foul and the dust is worse. They must have had many many hours feeling totally miserable.

Low slung cars are completely useless for this event. Avoid.

There are long boring stretches where you just need to cover the ground and a bit of poke and the ability to overtake a lorry are good to have.

Convertibles look great in the pictures but it's often very hot and easy to dehydrate.  A closed car with the windows down is more comfortable.

Look for simplicity and ease of maintenance

If I ever did this event again I would choose a Lada Vaz 2013 which is the 1500 cc version of the Fiat 124 built by Lada (I think there was a later 1600 cc version but after 1975 so not eligible for PtoP).  With a bit of modification this car would be unbreakable, fixable anywhere and quite competitive.  Maybe I can pick one up in Kazan as PX for Rhubarb and Custard....

Tuesday, 5 July 2016

A strange Development

From: Richard Nicholl <>
Date: 5 July 2016 at 19:40:13 BST
Subject: Fwd: Buick

see below

car is “fixed”

shall i pop over ?

Begin forwarded message:

From: Фаниль Фахритдинов <>
Subject: Re: Buick
Date: 5 July 2016 at 19:35:46 BST
To: Richard Nicholl <>

Hello Richard

Thank you for your e-mail. Let me know in advance when cars Europe are going to pick up the car because I need to be in the office at this moment. Or better give my number,which is +79600485809, to them. Also, our mechanics has fixed the car in purpose of interest,however we didn't do a test drive. Could you please let us know if it works when you receive it. If it does,that's our present to you.

P.S. Thanks for invitation to Iskander. 

Best wishes

понедельник, 4 июля 2016 г. пользователь Richard Nicholl написал:

many thanks for your help
Your boys tried very hard

I have emailed cars europe and will wait for their reply

when Iskander is back in London he must meet my family for traditional english Sunday roast lunch!


Richard Nicholl

Richard's Summing Up

"He who is not courageous enough to take risks will accomplish nothing in life."

Muhammad Ali

The P to P is a big risk.

It is called "endurance" for a reason. The days are long and the driving is full on and tiring.

My reflections are that we did the "interesting" bits: China, Mongolia and most of Russia.

I have no ambitions to return to China ever. Dirty, chaotic, unfriendly (personal opinion).

Russia is just massive and the scenery is underwhelming: endless silver birch forests and not much else to look at let alone photograph. However I found the people to be friendly, interested in us and to have a great sense if humour. They inevitably want to know what we think of Putin (what they think of Boris, UKIP and Donald Trump , God only knows).

However…the "jewel" in this motley crown is without doubt Mongolia. A beautiful magical mesmerizing landscape. People who are friendly, proud of their identity and want to welcome outsiders to their country ( China: take note).

Yes I was saddened to leave the rally early, but I know Europe and have been to those places before or will do so in the future (using my non Brexit Irish passport!)

Would I recommend? Definitely yes, if only to see Mongolia.

Would I do again? Probably no, as is just a very long time ( for me anyway) to be away from family and work.

I will miss the camaraderie of our Aussie and Kiwi cousins especially and wish all the best for those still in the saddle.

Back to Earth

Monday, 4 July 2016


Harry Washington, who is 19 and co-driver to his dad Bruce, has the amazing privilege of leading the Rally and is very likely to be in the winning car, How incredible must that feel when you have just left school and are heading for university?  In camp in Mongolia (and slightly drunk)
Harry said to me that his dad could change anyone's life within five minutes but sadly I never got that much time with Bruce - our current relationship is at the Yo! Rhubarb and Custard level and there it will stay as I am in Hampstead and they are in - well somewhere else.

It's nice being back home, lovely to be with friends and family again and to swap notes on the rally and what it all means. At the same time it is strange to remember your friends and rivals who are still on the road and battling through.

We flew back from Kazan via Istanbul and it says something of my sense of direction that I couldn't quite believe I was travelling in a straight line but that's how far east we were.  Somehow we have to recover our car from Russia - but I expect that money will fix that problem.

The more interesting question is how do we recover ourselves emotionally? And it is not so easy - my mood goes from high to low and back again.  I can rationalise our exit and condemn it in the same breath. I can enjoy this evening in the pub with my friends and yet be in tears as I write this. I'm a bit broken and a bit exhilarated. I'm a bit down to earth and a bit in space. A bit accepting and a bit frustrated.  I'm annoyed, thrilled, fed up and fazed.

We've been invited to rejoin the rally in Europe and to follow along in another car. I've told Richard tonight that I can't do this. We had a Rally car that we thought would get us across half the world and that hasn't happened. Following along in a modern something wouldn't be the same.  I would love to give a wet eyed and warm farewell to  our fellow travellers in Paris but for me it would be fake to be at the dinner - is it okay if I give you my group hug now?

I hope that Bruce and Harry win - but nothing is certain.  Can you call me Bruce? I just need five minutes of your time...

The pub

Back in Civilisation!

Explorer Beard Day 25

Winston gives it a trim.

Re: Shall We Stay or Shall We Go?

Yes. I lost the last campaign I voted 'stay' in too.

Sent from my iPhone

> On 3 Jul 2016, at 15:56, Neil Lawson-May <> wrote:
> Sorry to say it's back to London for us.
> I've sent you a note.
> Regards
>> On 3 Jul 2016, at 15:46, Paul Rivlin <> wrote:
>> I vote stay
>> Sent from my iPhone
>>> On 3 Jul 2016, at 08:35, Neil Lawson-May <> wrote:
>>> <IMG_3052.JPG>

Sunday, 3 July 2016

Last Day

One of the things that makes PtoP so exciting is the extreme efforts crews take to stay in the race. There are cars with new suspensions, new radiators, new windscreens and even new crew members but all still pressing forward to Paris. It takes courage to keep going despite the fact that the car is broken and held together with gaffer tape.

But it also takes courage (perhaps more courage) to know when to call a halt, to acknowledge that going on doesn't make sense and that despite all the planning, effort, attention to detail, money and sheer graft on the route the race is over for this car and this crew.

And that's what's happened to Rhubarb and Custard. It's proved impossible to rebuild the carburettors and make them serviceable. As a result it would be a struggle to drive back to the hotel never mind catch the rally 2000 km away. It seems absurd that a car which has otherwise nothing wrong with it, has been brought low by an invisible problem when the rally car park is full of crippled cars that nonetheless are able to keep going.

However it would be folly to attempt to catch the rally under our own steam and not much better to have the car trucked along the route - what can't be fixed in a workshop can't be repaired in the field and we would at best be limping along and require constant attention and it's more likely that the car would simply die.

So, like Napoleon and Hitler before us, we've been beaten by Russia, almost exactly half way through the rally. We have the offer to rejoin in a different car at a later point but at least tonight I don't find that appealing. The point was to take Rhubarb and Custard the whole way and that can't be.

We've had some wonderful messages of sympathy from friends, family and other crews for which we are grateful. Even the staff at the hotel gave us their support and I confess that I had a tearful moment when I was writing thank you notes to the sweeps, medics, organiser's and marshals.

We've had a great time and it seems that at least this time it wasn't meant to be. Don't give up on the blog though. There will be time for further reflection and comment before we close the book.

Re: Shall We Stay or Shall We Go?

I vote stay

Sent from my iPhone

> On 3 Jul 2016, at 08:35, Neil Lawson-May <> wrote:
> <IMG_3052.JPG>

Rally Day 24

I know this is the wrong thing to say, but what a huge relief it is not to have to march to the beat of clocking in and out of rally checkpoints and having a rally time card run your life. There's a part of me that says hang the sodding rally and let's just get the car going and have an old fashioned saunter through Russia and into Europe, enjoying whatever and whoever we find on our way.

But, over breakfast, that option quickly disappears. We've got two problems. First the car is only 80% fit for purpose and we are facing over 2,000 kilometres before we can get out of Russia. So far Rhubarb and Custard hasn't gone more than 250km without breaking down. There's a strong chance of being stranded in a Russian forest and then what happens?

Second problem, our visas expire in 3 days so we have to be out of Russia by then. What's more our Belarusian visa is only valid for a three day window of time. I don't think Belarus is place to be with the wrong paperwork.

We've got three options. We can take the car as it is and see how we get on. Richard feels this is the default but I'm dead nervous about it. I'm afraid I've turned on Rhubarb and Custard in the way that zoo keepers look at an animal that's become a man killer. I think there's a fundamental problem with this car which can't be solved just with Russian goodwill and hard work.

Second option is to leave the car here and fly home - let the transport company in the U.K. sort this mess out. If we flew back now we could drive my BMW roadster out to Hungary and meet the rally for the leg through Western Europe. This is definitely the sane option but it feels like giving up. The burnt out Rolls Royce was refurbished in Ulaan Bataar and driven night and day across Mongolia and Russia to meet the rally in Kazan so where's my spirit of derring do?

Last idea is to have the car put on a truck and sent to, well somewhere, to meet the rally whilst we fly. This will cut at least 2,000 km of unsupported driving off our route. But if Rhubarb and Custard is broken this just all puts off the inevitable engine collapse for a few more days.

The only thing to be done is to go back to the garage, turn the key and see how we feel. It's going to be sentiment not logic that rules the day.

But all bets are off when we arrive at the workshop. One of our mechanics has driven over a carburettor specialist to look at the car and it's all in bits again. There's nothing for us to do but sit on the pavement outside and drink tea. I'm feeling more Russian every day.

Rally Day 23

There's a little cafe here run by a very shy Russian lady who spends her day watching soaps on a TV with no aerial - the picture is barely visible. Her clients are mechanics from dozens of car workshops lining the street but, despite the fact that they are all work with their hands and like to watch her TV. none of them has offered to fix her aerial. That's Russia for you - a shrug and a willingness to accept things as they are, to accept that life can't be changed.

Unless...unless something special needs to be done like fixing a Peking to Paris rally car that's fallen behind and needs to be made well. A little group of mechanics worked until 2 am yesterday trying to get Rhubarb and Custard going.

First out came the fuel tank, which was full of rubbery bits like black baby aliens. There were also sheets of what looked like glue floating in the petrol. What any of this was or where it came from we don't know but to the surprise and great reluctance of the locals we asked them to fit a brand new fuel tank. An hour later a small Lada petrol tank appeared and several hours after that it was fitted and working and I was beginning to contemplate a beer.

No such luck. Our mechanics didn't like the noises coming from the engine and so the carburettors were taken apart and patiently rebuilt with scientific precision. No good, and so the electrics were fettled. Still no good. Eventually the problem was identified as being a broken exhaust valve fitted between the cylinder exhaust outlet and the exhaust pipe - I must say I had no idea we owned such a thing.

It was an heroic effort which if applied to the TV in the cafe would have transformed local viewing habits, but sadly a test drive was accompanied by lots of popping and banging from the exhaust.

"Will this get us to Minsk?" I asked - Paris being too far to contemplate at this stage. A long silence, a long discussion, more silence, "Maybe."

Decision making was put to one side for the day and we left the car at the garage. Despite being the early hours of the morning the White Nights here meant that there were no street lights and the sky was still light. At our hotel couples in spotless all white outfits reluctantly shared a lift with oily, dusty and black faced Richard and me as they headed to the 25th floor nightclub to celebrate these special Kazan days when the sun never quite sets.

Has the sun set on Rhubard and Custard? Should we be like good Russians and simply accept life as we find it or should we fight to stay in the rally? As the disco beat throbbed through room 1809, I fell asleep leaving those questions for the morning.

Explorer Beard Day 23

The Carburettors are taken apart

The petrol tank is replaced