The below article was written for The Big Issue, that gem of a magazine sold on Australian streets by homeless, marginalised and disadvantaged people (http://www.thebigissue.org.au)
It’s in Edition #507 – some might know the guy on the cover who’s a huge fan of Sebastian and Paul in their Silvia (AKA, prior to gender transformation, The Bulldog)
FROM PEKING TO PARIS
IN JUNE, A BRISTOL CAR WILL BEGIN THE PEKING TO PARIS MOTOR CHALLENGE FOR THE FIRST TIME IN THE RACE’S LONG HISTORY.
IT STARTED WITH a challenge – issued by way of a missive in the Paris newspaper, Le Matin, on 31 January 1907. “What needs to be proved today is that as long as a man has a car, he can do anything and go anywhere. Is there anyone who will undertake to travel this summer from Peking to Paris by automobile?”
That, and the promise of a magnum of champagne for the first to arrive, proved enough incentive for five early day revheads. The race careened from China, through route-less Mongolia, Russia and Eastern Europe, before staggering into Paris. It took two months. The victor: Italian Prince Scipione Borghese. The runner-up: a “fairground roustabout” called Charles Goddard, who drove a borrowed car and had to beg fuel from his competitors.
For the ensuing 90 years, a follow-up race was made impossible due to hostile territory, but by 1997 frigid borders had thawed enough for Round Two. In June this year, vintage cars (from 1915 to 1977) will roar from Peking to Paris for the sixth time. Paul Hickman will be there.
Hickman is not a prince or a pauper, but he is into cars. Old ones. The English-born Sydney businessman came to the passion late, after his new partner revealed an unwillingness to set foot
on his beloved yacht. While looking for a new hobby, he discovered a family connection to automobiles – more specifically, to Bristols. His grandfather was an engineer for Straker-Squire, which was absorbed into the Bristol Aircraft Company. After the war, Bristol
needed a way to keep their 70,000 staff (including Hickman’s grandfather) employed, so they decided to apply their aircraft engineering knowledge to cars.
“My family’s involvement with Bristol goes back to about 1895, prior to Bristol cars even being thought about. And
now I own four,” Hickman chortles. His burgeoning obsession with his family’s car meshed with his love of adventure when he chanced upon a book about
the Peking to Paris race. Apparently, no Bristol had ever entered. Light bulbs went off; engines roared. It was as if that 1907 challenge had been issued once more. “I’ve always wanted to do something fairly extreme,” Hickman concedes.
After two years of arduous preparation alongside his race companion and friend Sebastian Gross, the Bristol 403 (“Bulldog”) is ready. In June, the Bristol and 119 other cars will begin the 36-day journey through 11 countries. Many cars won’t complete the full 13,695km.
Race host, the Endurance Rally Association (ERA), details past troubles at the Russian border on its website: “Your Aston Martin is the same as James Bond’s? Then the fine for you is one million roubles.” Hickman describes the physical, mental and automotive challenges ahead with glee. On his blog about the race he states: “Many of our friends and family are staggered at the amount of preparation we are putting into the 403 to make it perfectly pretty, only to dint it on the first run. Stupidity, craziness, lunacy, daftness can account for this.”
The rapturous love that Hickman feels for his Bristol is undeniable: “There is something about a Bristol with all its idiosyncratic oddities that gets under your skin. The pleasure of driving these cars…is measured only by the width of the smile on one’s face.”
But, Hickman maintains, this race is about something more important. A few years ago Hickman and his wife took
in a young Mongolian couple, Bukhu and Chimka, who were struggling to start their life in Australia; Hickman frequently refers to having “adopted” them. The Bristol’s pilgrimage is a fundraiser for Bright Light, a charity run by Bukhu’s sister that supports disadvantaged Mongolian women.
On his blog, Hickman writes: “Partaking in a car rally is highly exciting and very, very indulgent. One could be selfless and, instead of rallying, donate
to others who have less opportunity.
We chose both, and hope that by drawing attention to our adventure we can also contribute to helping those who don’t
get to do car rallies, people who get few indulgent choices in life.”
Hickman’s jovial tone turns serious for the first time when Bright Light is mentioned. “Everybody should leave a mark on this world. If leaving my mark is only what I’m doing in Mongolia, then I’m happy with that,” he says.
Then he offers an effusive farewell and bustles off. June is fast approaching. There is much to be done.
by Katherine Smyrk
(This article first appeared in The Big Issue)