WRITER: Roman St Clair
Peking to Paris is one of the world’s most demanding classic car rallies. Comprising 36 days straight of driving through some of the most remote and inaccessible places on the earth, it is a serious adventure. This year, for the first time, it will be attempted by an Arab team.
This June, Charbel Habib and his brother-in-law, Walid Samaha, will be entering the Peking to Paris Motor Challenge, as the legendary competition’s first ever Arab entrants. We know, it’s shocking that it has taken our region so long to man up, but considering the race, which is a re-enactment of the famed 1907 event (which was won by Prince Scipione Borghese) is the longest and toughest challenge anyone can drive in a vintage or classic car, perhaps the sheer scale of it has been the main hindrance. This year’s route will take the participants on an unforgiving journey from China through Mongolia, then into Russia and westwards into Belarus, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Slovenia, Italy, Switzerland and finally into France. And they will do this carrying only the spare parts, tools and personal belongings that can fit into their cars.
Covering 13,695 kilometres in 36 days, the rally is reserved for cars produced before 1975 (although they did make an exception this year for a 1977 Mercedes 280E), divided into three categories: ‘Vintage’ cars from 1920 to 1931, ‘Vintageant’ cars from 1932 to 1941 and ‘Classic’ cars from 1942 to 1975. The ride Habib and Samaha, his technical advisor, will be piloting is a 1956 Porsche 356C, owned by Habib and fully restored in his own workshop in Lebanon. “We chose the Porsche because of its cooling system,” says Habib, referring to his car’s air-cooled motor, which should prove to be better suited to hotter climes than a water-cooled unit (and with no radiator or cooling system, a lot simpler to fix too should something go wrong). It’s clear that Team Lebanon has done its homework, as vintage engines were not designed to withstand extreme conditions. During the original 1907 race, of the five cars that took part, all ended up overheating and the racers were forced into cooling the radiators with their own drinking water – hardly an advisable solution.
From left to right: Charbel Habib, Rony Karam (the FIVA representative in Lebanon), the 1956 Porsche 356C (one of 115 participating cars at this year’s race), Jean-Paul Audi (a member of the Automobile and Road Safety Commision of the ATCL) and Walid Samaha.
Back then, there were no GPS aids, or even roads for that matter, for great stretches of the journey. Even today, mechanical problems are par for the course yet even so organisers don’t permit support trucks, or equipping cars with modern-looking ski-boxes or rooftop containers. Habib says he expects the Mongolian stretch will be the most challenging. “This is the part of the rally to worry about because we are heavily loaded with spare parts and provisions, and for these ten days we will be staying in tents and driving only on tough dirt tracks.”
We ask how the others have welcomed the Middle East contingent and Habib reveals that when he and his teammate first expressed their interest in taking part in this year’s event (which was during a briefing in London in 2013), the organisers were surprised but accommodating. “They immediately wanted to introduce Arabic into the briefing and asked if we needed a translator,” he laughs.
It turns out the 356 is not Habib’s only vintage car. Among his prized collection is a 1959 Alfa Romeo Giulietta SS – one of only ten ever produced - and a 1978 Lamborghini Silhouette – one of only 54 of its kind. There’s also an ultra-rare 1990 Bugatti EB110, as well as a silver Ferrari Daytona 330 GTC, whose value is edging ever closer to the million dollar mark. Though he obviously loves to talk about cars, he evades offering up specifics on the exact number of cars in his stable. However, we’d estimate he has somewhere between 30 and 40 cars, which is impressive, but even more so when you realise they’ve been amassed over the last five years alone.
For Habib, such cars are not mere possessions or types of tangible assets; they are objects of happiness. He says he loves to use them as much as he can, preferring weekend drives along Lebanon’s mountainous roads to being bottle necked on the congested highways. “In Lebanon people simply love cars,” he says. “You should see the positive responses we get whenever we drive.”
Recently, his growing collection led him to take a more active role in his cars’ upkeep, when he decided to double down and open a three-floor workshop to handle the import and restoration of classic cars. It is here that he and his brother-in-law, along with a team of mechanics, partake in their passion for everything automobile – from welding bodies, repairing engines, reupholstering interiors, sorting electrics and even giving the vintage cars shiny new paint jobs – all while endeavouring to stay true to the originality of each car. It’s a labour of love, and the Peking to Paris rally will be the ultimate test of the quality of their work. But it won’t be the last. “From now on, every year or two I’d like to do a race,” Habib reveals.
The original 1907 race had almost no rules and the prize was just a magnum of champagne. These days, the rules have changed, but the prize is still the same. Still, Habib and Samaha are hopeful they can bring it home.