Peking to Paris rally - the drive of Phil Haslam’s life

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City architect Phil Haslam, of Liani Design, is retired and spending what he calls his “architectural afterlife” traversing the world. The journey of his life? The toughest endurance rally on the planet...

Born as a young child in Sheffield, I ran a small, but enthusiastic, architectural office for 35 years, tending to the needs of people who required inspirational ideas to support their constructional fantasies.

As we entered the new Millennium, I needed to develop a hobby for my architectural ‘afterlife’. Having always had an automotive fascination, I thought owning a classic car might offer an opportunity to expand my mechanical knowledge (nil) and satisfy a latent adventuring wanderlust.

So it was that I first acquired a 1946 Allard for the princely sum of £19,0000. It was an ugly beast, but it led us into a way of life from which I have never recovered.

After the Allard, I acquired a 1933 Aston Martin le Mans, which had some fabulous provenance, as it was originally owned by Sir Malcolm Campbell. Fast on its heels came a Jaguar XK120, the combination of the two cars offering us a wide range of historical driving opportunities.

However, obsession really took hold in late 2005 when I made the heroic decision to enter the Peking to Paris Rally, to be run in 2007. This was to be the centenary event following the route and exploits of Prince Borghese in 1907.

It is renowned for being the toughest endurance rally in the world, travelling through some of the most geographically hostile areas of China, Mongolia and Central Russia. Neither of our cars could withstand such terrain so we decided to buy a 1950 Chevrolet convertible, a rugged car with a truck-like engine. I bought one which had been fully restored to as-new condition, needing only a small amount expending on it to prepare for the rally.

Two years and tens of thousands of pounds, four engines, one court case and fifty shades of grey (hair) later, we were ready to go, and in April 2007 we waved the car goodbye on its sea-bound voyage to Peking.

The problems we had encountered in the preparation had caused us so much heartache, it was with enormous trepidation that Yvonne and I drove out of Peking, heading into the wilderness of Mongolia and the Gobi Desert. Would the car make it? Would we have to abandon it in the wilds of Mongolia? Would we never see the shores of Great Britain again?

The rally lived up to its reputation. The days were long and hot, the terrain indescribably rugged. Six days crossing Mongolia with no roads, no distinguishable landmarks and our only form of navigation being a simple, wayward GPS based on grid references, took us through expansive grasslands, snow-capped mountain ranges, along lunar-like rock-strewn valleys and across vast areas of magnificent, featureless desert terrain.

Through Mongolia and the Gobi Desert, staying in our little two-man tent, we then crossed over the Altay Mountains into Northern Siberia, tracing our way through Yekaterinburg, into Moscow, taking a brief northerly diversion into St Petersburg before the homeward run through Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Poland, Germany and a triumphant arrival in the Place Vendôme in Paris, a total of 18,000 kilometres.

En route, we encountered major problems with the car, smashing the suspension on innumerable occasions in the unforgiving terrain.

There were many times when we really thought our race was run, but around every corner there was someone with an enthusiastic welcome and a keenness to assist, which gave us renewed faith in human nature. Almost on a daily basis, we were aided by ever-smiling locals who welded and bolted the car back together. Remarkably, we finished a dizzy sixth place out of 120 cars, and took home a prestigious gold medal.

The experience was life-defining. We had driven halfway around the world, through some of the most incredible scenery imaginable. We had laughed, wept, endured indescribable privations and made lifelong friends and acquaintances. This truly was the ‘drive of my life’.

Read more about Phil’s journeys in his book, Turn Left for the Gobi, available via haslamfoo@yahoo.com