Looking back on our Peking to Paris adventure, a few specific thoughts come to mind. Obviously, the spectacular scenery which rolled by one kilometer at a time far outweighed the aggravation of border crossings, suspension eating roads, and the not insignificant dangers that we encountered. Persevering through one country at a time gave us a unique perspective on the social and economic forces at work in each as well as the prospect of oil and gas revenues and the presence or absence of water. However, given my particular fascination with things mechanical, I also saw the whole trip as a constant battle of our machines for survival. The goal of driving into the Place Vendome under our own power pulled us unrelentingly onward. I was particularly fascinated by the problems some machines had while others made seemingly effortless progress. Some cars failed early, even before the start, others spent a large percentage of the 14,000 kilometers on flat bed trucks, and still others limped in, or were towed into camp and hotel parking lots, only to be hammered upon and made semi-operable by their crews and, more often by the incredible support mechanics. Finally, there were a few cars that required only semi-routine maintenance, leaving their drivers and co-drivers time for restorative beers, showers and blissful rest. I came to wonder whether we might compile statistics for each car on the percentage of time spent “on the hook”, or disassembled and then reassembled at the end of the day. Could each car’s “break down index” present clues as to the stoutness of its design, its level of preparation, or perhaps just plain good luck or poor luck? Also, were there some problems that could be minimized by being caught early, or were there also ticking time bombs just waiting to explode, either in Mongolia, or further along on the smooth roads of Iran and Turkey or Greece? This, for me, is food for thought and perhaps worthy of study by future rallyists.
In our case, our car kept rolling along by what seemed, to me, to be a combination of original design and fortunate preparation. Even though the choice of our Cadillac sitting in the parking lot of the Hotel Shangri-La in Beijing may have appeared to have been a poor one, its 7 inch thick frame nonetheless allowed all of its tender bits and pieces such as the muffler to be tucked up out of harm’s way. The Cadillac’s suspension was simple and of the same robust design used on other much heavier Cadillac models that year. The overhead valve V-8 engine, new that year, was truly under-stressed as demonstrated by the fact that later in the 1950’s, Cadillac extracted nearly double the horsepower from essentially the same engine design. However, there were some things we just had to live with: principally the car’s weight, and its overall size, as well as drum brakes that faded at the end of most timed sections. As for preparation, we need to thank Mike the Spring Guru of Eaton Detroit Spring, who got the ride height and spring rates spot on as well as assuring me that we wouldn’t break a spring no matter how hard we tried. Also, there is Jim Reid of Reid’s Automotive Racing Engines who worked on our motor for more than six months to cure it from eating its valve rockers. I had my doubts, but Jim’s experience told him that he had found the problem and solved it. Steve, of Lee Myles Transmissions, got the Hydromatic transmission in our car right on the first rebuild. He assured me that if it could survive service in a battle tank during World War II, then it would get us through Mongolia and up the slippery slopes of Turkey, Greece, and Italy. Charlie Beck, with his experience in preparing cars for the Carrera Pan America breathed on our suspension and made the Cadillac handle like dancing with my mother’s best friend Marion: light and amazingly maneuverable despite her considerable girth. And let’s not forget Bob Moran and his amazing welding, and Dale of J P Carroll who built a radiator that never needed a drop of water. Above all, I have to rank the choice of tires and wheels as the top contributor to our performance. I must thank Co-driver Chuck. Before he signed on, I had purchased 15 inch brand X tires and felt well-prepared. But Chuck did his research. Talking with previous Peking to Paris participants and the folks at Tire Rack, he discovered that 16 inch Michelin LTX A/T 2 tires had survived previous Peking to Paris rallies unscathed. Fortunately, 16 inch tires were offered on the heavier 1949 Cadillac models. So they were within the rally regulations. Chuck also found some stout 16 inch steel wheels and had them painted regulation Cadillac red. We made it all the way to Paris on one set of tires and never touched the spares. Best of all, on that muddy, greasy mountain “road” in Turkey, they marched right up on our very first try, clawing all the way. I suspect that my original choice of tires would have left us mired at the bottom.
Finally, I need to acknowledge that we had our full share of good luck. We narrowly missed some potholes that could have swallowed us whole, and the sheep did only superficial damage. Also, we could have easily squashed any number of Kamikaze motorbikes that swarmed around us in Turkmenistan, Iran, and Turkey. And who knows what else could have gone wrong? In the end, with the help of many and some good luck, we made it.