Jill Kirkpatrick and Tony Connor have been wedded blissfully for 20 years and they agree that one truism of their happy marriage is that they avoid driving together. So when Kirkpatrick “offhanded and flippantly” mentioned to her husband that they ought to consider competing in the Peking to Paris Motor Challenge, a vintage-car race that would take them from the Great Wall of China to the Place Vendome in Paris, Connor said he just about fell out of his chair.
“He loves cars and I love adventure travel,” Kirkpatrick said. Then Connor finished her sentence saying, “And the mother of all rallies is what she decided to do.”
So the couple left Washington in June 2016 and spent 36 days covering 8,500 miles across the Eurasian continent, fording rivers, rumbling over washboard dirt roads, circumnavigating mountain passes in the Swiss Alps and tent camping in the Mongolian grassland. What’s more, the prize for winning the rally is simply a shot of pride and a bottle of champagne.
If you want to drive the Peking to Paris rally, you’ll have to wait until 2019, but the association sponsors vintage-car endurance races several times a year: The next is the Baltic Classic in May, a two-week rally that starts in Copenhagen and ends in Berlin.
To enter, participants pay a registration fee to the race organizer, the Endurance Rally Association, which covers much of the cost of the trip, including lodgings and most of the fuel. Connor, who works in finance, said that he was able to arrange taking the time off for the trip with the help of his team back in the office. The overall cost, not including preparing a car and shipping it to the start point, is in the five figures.
The month-long journey — the sixth such rally so far — tested Connor and Kirkpatrick to their limits and beyond. They averaged one meal a day and three-to-four hours of sleep a night. And because of an agreement they made beforehand, they finished without a single argument about Kirkpatrick’s directions or Connor’s driving.
That alone was a feat, they agreed, considering that the rally is an epic trial of human and mechanical capacity even under ordinary circumstances. Then there’s the fact that Connor and Kirkpatrick drove the entire race in a Porsche.
“This rally will move ‘impossible’ for you,” Connor said. Kirkpatrick chimed in: “It was the hardest thing I’ve ever chosen to do in my life.”
The rally dates to 1907 and is now a race specifically for cars made before 1975. The 2016 rally included a parade of classics such as a 1917 American LaFrance speedster, a 1930 Ford Model A and a 1933 Rolls-Royce Phantom II.
Then there was the car that Connor calls “the second love of my life,” which he shipped from the District and drove for the entire race equipped with D.C. plates. When Connor began looking for a car to fit the criteria for the rally, he contacted a dealer who specializes in classics. What the dealer found was an “outlaw” 1956 Porsche 356A, meaning that original parts of the car had been replaced with more modern versions, including its suspension and engine.
Connor bought the two-seater coupe and began a series of modifications to prepare it to complete the trip over the rugged and unforgiving terrain. He installed a steel plate to protect the undercarriage, reinforced the steering column and doubled the fuel-tank capacity. He also rerouted the exhaust through the rear fender for river crossings and adjusted the car’s suspension to gain additional clearance. But one aspect of the car never changed: its color, a silty brown. Connor and Kirkpatrick named the vehicle Java in memory of a close family friend’s chocolate Lab, whose coat resembled the paint color.
But during the rally, the Porsche was known as “car 58” for the number emblazoned on its doors. When the race began in June, a total of 107 cars lined up at the start. Only 97 had completed the entire journey by the race’s end in July. Connor and Kirkpatrick crossed the line in Paris third in their class, happy just to have finished. During the race, Connor made major repairs, including one that necessitated a stop in Kazan, Russia, to replace the whole back end of the car after its rear suspension failed.
Minor repairs, meanwhile, were ongoing. On the couple’s first day traversing Mongolia — the second day of the race — the dashboard’s speedometer and fuel gauge stopped functioning. For the rest of the rally, Connor “guessed” the speed and gas level. In all, Connor estimated that the 8,500 miles they covered was the equivalent of 100,000 miles of wear and tear. Yet for all of the time Connor spent covered in motor oil while tinkering with the car to make it run, he said that they never had a flat tire.
Kirkpatrick said that surprise was one of many for the couple on the trip. She said that despite their preparation for the rally, they realized shortly after it started how little they really knew. Mongolia, for instance. There, they saw yaks. And also some of the roughest roads they encountered. During one river crossing the Porsche, with its relatively low road clearance and the steel plate underneath, turned into an ark and began to float. That is, until Connor stomped the accelerator, the tires gained traction and the Porsche shot out of the water.
“Mongolia will take a bit out of your soul,” Connor says. “But it will replace it with something more beautiful.”
Then there was the daily pace. Although Connor and Kirkpatrick were aware that the event was designated a race, they didn’t know that each day began with a wheel-spinning start and went flat-out from there.
“We thought you cruised along,” Kirkpatrick said. Not so. “There was nothing gentlemanly about it. . . . It was lawless.”
Other revelations awaited down the road. There was the time they were driving along a superhighway in Russia when the pavement suddenly ended without warning. Then came the high alpine passes of Italy, where Connor’s fear of heights crept up as they navigated the narrow road at an elevation of 4,000 feet.
Connor and Kirkpatrick agreed that the most suspenseful moment of the trip — alternatively the most hysterical — involved the immigration officers at the border crossing between Mongolia and Russia.
Pulling up to the border, the pair opened the doors, the trunk and the hood for inspection.
“We looked homeless and hadn’t showered,” Kirkpatrick said.
One of the border guards approached with a German shepherd on a leash. Another spotted a suspicious plastic bag of little green crystals. Two more officers then separated Connor and Kirkpatrick for interrogation about what they thought was methamphetamines.
It wasn’t until Connor poured some of the crystals onto an oil leak that the border guards learned that the crystals were an absorbing chemical for vehicle spills.
“We couldn’t look at each other without laughing,” Kirkpatrick said.
“It was ‘Breaking Bad,’ ” Connor said.
Not all teams were as carefree as Connor and Kirkpatrick. The sleep deprivation, physical hardship and mental strain of the rally took its toll. Bickering led several navigators to leave their drivers midrace. Some teams abandoned the rally altogether, going their separate ways. The thought of quitting never occurred to Connor and Kirkpatrick.
As the pair crossed Europe toward Paris, they realized how much the rally had changed their perspective on themselves and the world around them.
“Everything looks right but it doesn’t feel right,” Connor said. Glancing at his wife, he said: “She looked the same and completely different.”
Rolling across the finish line at Place Vendome, Connor and Kirkpatrick gallantly waved a pair of American flags.
“I didn’t want it to end,” Connor said. “We’re already thinking about 2019.”
For more information about the Peking to Paris Motor Challenge and similar road races, visit the Endurance Rally Association’s website at endurorally.com
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