Driving a 1954 Austin-Healey 100/4 from Peking to Paris in the June 2019 ERA Rally.

Thursday, 5 September 2019

0135 Germany, Belgium, France. Days 33-36

0135   Germany, Belgium and France.  Days 33-36
July 4th-7th 2019
A mad dash to the finish in Paris !

Start of the special stage in Szczecin
Day 33.  Szczecin Poland to Wolfsburg Germany. 375 kms.  Since it was only a few kilometres to the German border, I have included the start of this day in this post.  Our last day in Poland - In fact Szczecin is almost in Germany, so not far to the border.  However, first of all there was a short, sharp test to do almost in the middle of town - They had closed a cobbled section of road for us, and it was tight, twisty, and undulating, with a couple of chicanes thrown in for good measure - And we had to do two laps !! Once again, Ashton steered us quickly and safely round, and we maintained our position in the European Cup standings.

Heading into W Europe !
From there it was off across the border, into Germany (our 10th country), towards Wolfsburg, the home of VW.  But en route we had some driving tests to complete !  Unfortunately I have fewer and fewer photos as the event proceeds, partly because there was a lot of heads-down navigating to do, but also because my camera has suffered during the event, and the lens has become quite scratched.  This is very annoying because it was a brand new unit, and supposedly "tough and waterproof" - But apparently this doesn't prevent the lens becoming progressively more scratched.   I have used my iPhone where I can, but as I also use that for maps and navigating, it is not a quick transition to use the camera.  In addition, on these tighter stages (and even road sections) there is a lot of navigational input required, which doesn't leave a lot of time for photography !

The first driving test was at Groß Dölln, which is an established Driving Centre in frequent use, some
way north of Berlin.  The track has multiple permutations, and we used a fast flowing section which included sharp corners, rises over crests, and some sweeping longer bends - And a very tight chicane to slow us down !   Basically the layout was the one outlined in bold black below.
Groß Dölln Driving Centre layout
Before we started, we were once again able to watch some of the others on track.  Once it was our turn, again Gidget and Ashton were on fire, and at 3.47, we were once more up there with the usual high power brigade.
After Groß Dölln, we headed another 100 kms to Stendal Airstrip - Seemingly a light aircraft and gliding centre.  There was still the odd plane landing there, and as we had time on our hands until our allocated start times, there was time for a good German sausage in a roll for lunch - Excellent !

While waiting, we learned that they had amended the course, and there was only one pencilled diagram of the changes for us all to learn from !   And they had added a chicane, but couldn't remember whether it was left-right or right-left !  Armed with such detail, how could we go wrong ? So off we went.  I can't remember a lot about it now, except that we caught the VW Beetle up just as we came to
Wolfsberg IS VW !
a single car-width gate in a fence - How we got past them and also avoided the fence posts, I still haven't worked out ! From the gate it was back out onto the airfield, and past some hangers,  before reaching the finish line.   Once again, our time was outstanding - As if I didn't already know, I have a very skillful driver sitting on my right !!

Bugatti Royale in VW Museum
After completing that test,  it was off to Wolfsburg and the VW factory.  We parked in the main car park and
walked into the main visitor centre, where we had our ERA Main Time Control, and then were given a pass to enable us to first of all go and have a free drink and sandwich courtesy of VW, and then to visit the superb museum.

One of the first Beetles
The museum isn't just about VW's, although obviously they  are a main theme, but there are a number of cars that were Ferdinand Porsche designed (Cisitalia), and other classic designs such as the Bugatti Atlantic, Lambo 400 GT etc - Some pics here, and others in the file link at the bottom of this entry.

We then went over to our hotel in Wolfsburg, where we were split into two adjacent smaller hotels due to our numbers. After supper, we moved up to a roof top bar with views over the VW factory - What else?!
(Note. Although I was aware of the post-war story of VW, since being there, I have read a book about the start of both the VW Beetle, VW as a factory, Ferdinand Porsche, and Wolfsberg - A town built purely for the workers at VW, and originally named "The town of Strength through Joy".  I wish I had known these details when I was there.)

The quick Ferrari 308GTB
Lastly, one of our main European Cup competitors had a disaster today, that forced them to miss a stage and thus incur a 20 minute penalty, and thus drop out of contention.  As Syd Stelvio explained : "While they didn't ever meet in real life, the spirits of Rudolph Diesel and Enzo Ferrari came together in the fuel tank of the 308GTB.  So sorry to hear that, boys - They were doing so well, and but for medical problems way back in China which delayed them for a couple of days, would have been a force to reckon with overall.  This was a cruel ending for them.  But at least they recovered and were able to reach Paris.

Even hotel decorations are Beetle parts
Day 34. Wolfsburg Germany to Liege Belgium.  600 kms.  Today was to be one of the longest days of the entire rally,
both km wise and time wise. Initially a lot of the time was spent on the Autobahn, and it was not only rush hour but it was also a Friday, and I think that half of Germany was on the move.  For Ashton it was even worse, especially since Gidget was now getting tired, and not easy to keep braking and accelerating.  We then went onto backroads, and if anything the traffic was even worse, with traffic lights and junctions everywhere.
On the autobahn we had a time control, and in the same gas station complex we filled up with fuel.  Once we had our time book stamped, we set off, but hadn't gone more than a couple of
kms down the road when suddenly Gidget's engine just died, and we coasted to a stop.  Fortunately there was a place to pull off to the side of the autobahn and we frantically searched for the problem.  Initially we thought it was the fuel pumps, and we swapped relays and tried everything, to no avail.  While I was checking fuses etc, Ashton managed to get hold of the Sweeps who were not far behind, and once they arrived they checked various things before finding that the distributor points weren't opening, so no spark. It appeared that the good old Gobi dust had caused another issue - Its abrasive qualities had slowly worn away the cam on points, to the point where they no longer opened !!  With them reset, Gidget fired up no problem, but just another reminder of things one needs to check frequently on an event like this.

Once going again, eventually we were off the autobahn and back onto less crowded back roads,
Aircraft in roundabout !
ending up in a Monastery for a coffee break at a TC before continuing on our way.  An hour or so down the road, we found an old RAF fighter jet on a plinth in the middle of a roundabout,
Lunch stop
before carrying on to our lunch stop at a delightful restaurant, where local a classic car club had turned out to welcome us.   After lunch, we sat around on the grass waiting for our start times again, and then set off once more, this time to a small village called Malmedy, which is very close to the Spa Francorchamps circuit, and closeby is the Peugeot Driving Academy track where we had a timed stage
                                                         awaiting us.

Driving through the country side
On the way up the hills for the last 10 minutes or so we both started to smell petrol - Initially wondering if it was someone
else. The smell got stronger and stronger, and when we pulled up at the circuit the car behind warned us that we were leaking fuel onto the ground.  On opening the bonnet, after some searching we eventually found the lower banjo on the front carb had come loose - It was the same banjo on the rear carb that had come loose all those kms ago as we drove into Ulaan Bataar !   Once again the shielding to protect the fuel lines from the heat of the exhaust manifold had saved the fuel from dripping straight onto the hot manifold, but that same shield also made it almost impossible to reach the banjo with a spanner.  We were pulled off to the side trying to fix it, and wondering if we would get it done in time for us to complete the stage. Eventually we got it tight, and the fuel leak stopped, so we left all the tools on the grass verge and went out to complete the stage.

Morning coffee at Monastery
The start was most dangerous.  They allowed 2 cars on track at a time, and one of the fast 240Z's was coming towards the start line just when the starter released us. The result was that there was a screech of brakes and tyres behind us, and we found out later we had ruined their run, and also only narrowly avoided being hit very hard up the rear.  Not good.  Anyway, we didn't know what had happened until afterwards, and Ashton showed his normal car control skills and absolutely nailed the turns, to the point that we finished up with the 4th fastest time, just 6 seconds slower than the fastest Porsche !  Once we had packed up our tools from the bushes, we then headed off to our Liege hotel, but didn't reach there until almost 7 pm, by which time we were exhausted.  The morning traffic had caused a major problem for everyone.

I met a distant Belgian relative who had been waiting patienty for our arrival since early afternoon, and while he kindly asked me out for dinner, I begged off after a beer in the bar, and after a quick bite to eat was soon in bed. 

Tulip notes for Menen stage
Day 35.  Liege to Ypres.   346 kms.   If we thought it was going to get easier now we are only one day out of Paris, we were very wrong.   After yesterday's very long day, today may have been shorter, but ERA took great care to provide us with (navigationally) a very full day.  The Route Books set out the instructions in distances and directions, using Tulip diagrams like these, and on most days there are less than 15 or so pages of Tulips.  But today there were 35 pages, so you can imagine how closely all the directional instructions were - Sometimes only a few meters apart.  This meant I was glued to the Monit all day, one hand zeroing the interval meter every few hundred metres, and the other hand flicking over the
Spectators on roundabouts
pages of the route book.  It was pretty busy, but I know Ashton really enjoyed it, apart from a couple of duff calls from my side !   We also had a "surprise" passage control thrown in there today just to make sure we weren't taking any short cuts - We had expected more during the rally, but I think we only had 3 in total.  We also had a couple of unmanned controls today where one has to write the "clue" written on the sign into the Time Sheets so they know we had been there.  On one instance, they claimed I had written the ""clue" in the wrong spot, but as it doesn't categorically state the correct spot, Ashton was later able to get our resulting penalty reversed, so we maintained our outright 5th position in the European Cup.   Good one Ashton 👍   Luckily we were able to miss all the hundreds of people of bicycles that were riding on the same narrow Flanders roads as us.  

Tyne Cot cemetary
Arriving at Tyne Cot
After our dash through the countryside, we ended up at the Tyne Cot War Cemetary where we were able to spend some time to get our minds around the vast numbers of grave sites, many of which are for unknown soldiers.  Just looking over the now quiet and sunny fields made it difficult to imagine the horrors of the conflict in the wet and muddy fields that existed in the winter of 1917.  Tyne Cot is one of many such cemeteries and memorials in this area, and they are a grim reminder of the human failings of the past.

Arriving in Ypres
After leaving Tyne Cot, we had our last test of the rally - in a little town called Mesen, where we had to go 1 1/2 times round the tiny cobbled town square, (avoiding concrete blocks) before shooting off down a road.  However Gidget was quite hot, and in the line up before the start the fuel vapourised and we had to go right round the square on 2 or 3 cylinders, which didn't help our time !  She cleared her throat as we set off down the country road, but then there were a couple of speed bumps !  We could perhaps have taken them a little faster, (hindsight is easy) but still - We continued fast down the road for maybe 300 meters more before we had to brake really hard and do a sharp left hand turn - Onto a bumpy dirt track through a field !   ERA were determined to have their final pound of flesh !   We ended up with the 10 fastest time overall, but as most of our competition were slower, it didn't affect our position overall.

Entering Ypres car park
On from Menen into Ypres, our last overnight stop before Paris.  We were directed through the main square, and into the car
park beside St Martin's Cathedral, which dates from the 1500's, and at over 100 metres tall is one of the tallest buildings in Belgium.  We have had crowds lining the roads everywhere for the last 2 days, which really made our journey through Belgium very special, but those crowds were nothing compared to those waiting for us in the town square beside the Cathedral. 
Our last stop in Ypres
We passed under the now customary inflatable Finish arch, and had to be led through the crowds by a guide on foot in order to reach our parking spot because it was so crowded  It was indescribable.  We were met not only by a couple of Ashton's good friends, Mark and Janie, but also the President of the local Healey Club Philippe Deckers, who had driven some distance to greet us - In his immaculate Healey, of course !  We spent some time just relaxing in the crowd and chatting to people, and also managed to be given a few beers !  We must have looked thirsty !   We later went off and found our little hotel up a side street - The 230 or more of us were spread through some 15 hotels or so in order to fit us all in !   At 8 pm Ashton went to the Menen Gate for the Last Post, and I am sorry I didn't join him - at the time I just didn't understand quite what it was - and I understand it was very moving.

John & Marian go for dinner
Everyone then came from their various hotels around the centre of town and met at the designated restaurant for our final "on the road" dinner together. Tomorrow in Paris is more formal, and more about the prize giving, but tonight is for the competitors - To eat together, to talk together, and to enjoy each other's company one last time before we all split up, and return to almost every corner of the world - Russia, Hong Kong, USA, Canada, Australia, Switzerland, Poland, Britain, New Zealand, Slovenia, Aruba, Germany, Italy, Sweden, France, Netherlands, Finland, and even Belgium - Although they are already "home" tonight !  Yes, that is people from 18 countries taking part in the 2019 P2P !   And the evening was an excellent opportunity for everyone to enjoy themselves in the company of all the other like-minded people - An excellent evening.

Leaving Ypres
Day 36.  Ypres Belgium to Paris France.  285 kms.   No competitive stages today - Only a PC just outside Paris where we would hand over our Time Cards for the last time.  And with no competition, we were able to enjoy the drive in the sunshine, in convoy with our fellow competitors, as we headed towards Paris
Well wishers along the way
through the little villages - And everywhere people beside the road, waiting for us to pass, and waving to us as we passed, acknowledging our immense journey more than half way round the world.

Heading towards Paris
The downside was that the closer we got to Paris, the worse the traffic became.  Many of the older cars were having overheating problems long before they reached central Paris, and this made it very difficult for all.  By the time we reached the Rue de Rivoli and were only a couple of kms from the Place Vendôme, the traffic was almost solid, and it seemed we would never reach there.  However, at just
Place Vendôme at last
on 2.30 pm on Sunday 7th July, Car 77, Gidget the Austin Healey, entered the Place Vendôme, and crossed the Finish Line.   We had driven the entire way, never having been towed or put on a truck - We had driven every inch - Well apart from a couple of push starts on the 2 days when we had no starter motor !   Ashton had driven the entire distance, and I had navigated (or tried to) the whole distance.

Looking at the videos of the finish, we seem to have missed the proffered hand shake of Tomas de Vargas de Machuca, Chairman of the Hero Group, after he handed us our Finisher's Medals - Whoops !  And failed to spot Prince Paolo Costantino Borghese, great-nephew of Scipione, who was also standing there at the finish line !  Ah well, next time ! 

14,000 kilometres, 114 degrees of Longitude, 12 countries, 8 time zones, 1,300 waypoints, and about 1800 litres of fuel - Oh, and two rear springs and a clutch !    All in just 36 days.
To put the journey into perspective, there have been over 4000 people who have conquered Mt Everest over the years, but in the 7 ever events, less than 700 people have ever conquered the Peking to Paris, and maybe less because many people (like Gerry Crown !) have done it more than once.  It is an achievement to celebrate, and to be proud of.   And I have to thank Ashton from the bottom of my heart for giving me the opportunity to be a part of his dream.

With our cheer squad !
As we crossed the finish line in Place Vendôme, Ashton and I had over 20 family and friends there to greet us and celebrate with us. 
They, and many others still at home, had followed our journey every step of the way (when the Spot Tracker was working !), and for their love and support and friendship, we thank them all - Without you all the journey would have been much more difficult for us both.  👏

Gidget on the truck
In the excitement and relief of reaching Paris, and being surrounded by family and friends, Gidget got a little ignored.  We took off our bags (with our few clothes), and grabbed our phones and instruments etc, and put the roof up, and left her !  She was due to be collected that evening by CARS as all cars without Central Paris Permits have to be out of the city before Monday morning.  So she
Loaded & ready to head home !
was left totally as she arrived - Dusty, dirty, and not very likely to be allowed back into Aus without a good scrub !  But we were not about to give her a wash in Place Vendôme !   I did come back later to collect a few things I had forgotten, and make sure the big box of spare parts was safely stored on the passenger seat, but the next thing I saw was photos taken by a friend of Gidget high up in the air on a transporter.  She was right at the front, overhanging the windscreen - I do hope she didn't drip too much oil down onto the windscreen !!!

Ashton & Caroline at dinner
That evening we dressed in our finery and went down to the amazing ballroom of the Intercontinental on Rue Scribe - Certainly one of the most famous and elegant hotels in central Paris.  The ballroom itself is incredible, and the ceiling and chandelier were worth a photo on their own.  A great movie compilation of the rally to warm us up, with cheering and clapping as some of the more memorable moment from the last 36 days were replayed,
Ceiling of ballroom
then the delicious dinner interspersed with speeches and Trophy Awards.  Accolades to Gerry Crown and Matt Bryson who won the Classic section for the third time.  (This was Gerry's 6th P2P - The only one he hasn't done was the original 1907 event, but at 87 years old, he almost could have !) a remarkable record, and we wonder if he will ever stop !   And of course to Graham and Marina Goodwin who won the Vintage category in their 1925 Bentley Super Sports - A fitting victory in this the 100th anniversary of Bentley's founding. 

Gidget saying goodbye to friends !
With the dinner over, I was soon in bed, exhausted.  We spent the next 3 days in Paris, during which I tried not to sleep the whole time !  We said hurried farewells to all we saw, which were far too few in the rush of the evening.  We have made some very good friends during the Peking to Paris, and it would be great to not only keep in touch with them, but also to meet up with them or even compete with them again one day.

What an event !   2 1/2 years of working almost every day (and night !) to not only rebuild Gidget from the ground up, but to make her "P2P ready" culminated in the 36 days of the mad dash from Peking to Paris. It certainly was not what I envisaged when the idea was first discussed !   But Gidget made it, and of that fact I am extraordinarily proud - I rate it as one of my more successful achievements in my life.   And having spent all that time preparing the car, Ashton then drove her the entire way so she not only made it to Paris, but arrived with the distinction of making it the entire way under her own steam - Something that cannot be said of many.    I now need to restart my life and work out where I go from here - Right now, I am not sure !

Thank you for following us on our journey - It has been a pleasure having you all along for the ride.

Rest of the pics are here :- https://photos.app.goo.gl/pQ6vFrsR8yz37L2J6
Gidget in the Gobi Desert, Mongolia                  Photo courtesy of Gerard Brown


  1. you can be proud of yourselves , both of you , as I have driving on these roads in a much more confortable conditions , and this was not easy, even for us, every day . Congratulations . Joel

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Ashton & Giles welcome any visitors, support, and comments as we prepare for our Adventure !