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Wheels: Beijing or Bust

Jack Smith

Checkered flags fluttered, TV cameras rolled, onlookers waved, and

ancient motors revved, as the procession of vehicles, the likes of which rarely

are seen in China, majestically rolled away from the Hong Kong Harbour Plaza

hotel. With that, the 2007 Hong Kong–Beijing Classic Car Rally was under way.

From here, the cars would proceed 2,500 miles north along the coast of China and

through some of the country’s most scenic countryside before arriving 12 days

later, in mid-April, at the Great Wall.

In correspondences with the event’s

American, British, German, and Swiss drivers, the rally’s organizer had

proclaimed that this would be one of the great automotive adventures of the new

century. In a manner of speaking, this was true; already the rally had become

more of an adventure than any of its participants had expected.

According to

the organizer, a German fellow by the name of Dieter, the excitement would begin

almost as soon as the drivers and codrivers arrived, with a welcoming bash in

Hong Kong. On their way through China, they would be accommodated in five-star

hotels and lavishly feted by the rally’s sponsors at numerous receptions and VIP

events. Should any technical issues arise, the participants could rely on the

rally marshals and their support staff to fix the problems. To ensure meticulous

record keeping for posterity, Dieter had hired Herbert Pongratz, the chief

timekeeper of the German Classic Masters series. For rally buffs who wanted to

participate but did not want to ship their vehicles halfway around the world, a

well-known Chinese collector had offered to provide vintage cars from his

collection. Each car would need a Chinese license plate and the appropriate

permits, but no need for the drivers to worry; Dieter would handle all of the

paperwork.

But as we had learned three days earlier, things were not working

out as promised. At a prerally meeting, Dieter delivered the bad news: His

corporate sponsors had backed out at the last minute, so he had been forced to

cut some corners. The welcoming banquet scheduled for the night before our

departure from Hong Kong had been canceled, as had all of the parties and VIP

receptions en route. Dieter still was waiting to hear about our hotel

reservations. The distinguished timekeeper from Germany would not be coming, and

there would be no rally marshals or support staff, either. The esteemed Chinese

collector had changed his mind, too, so the rally drivers who had come to Hong

Kong expecting him to provide them with cars were out of luck. As for those

participants who had shipped their vehicles to Hong Kong, they would not be able

to drive them, because the government officials in charge of issuing permits and

license plates were, according to Dieter, now demanding an additional $50,000.

Dieter did have some good news. Although he had spent most of the $200,000

in entrance fees that he had collected from the two dozen or so original

participants, he still had about $44,000 left, which he was carrying in a

plastic bag. Now that the participants had arrived, if they could advance him

just a little more—say, about $3,000 per car—he was confident he could secure

the permits and licenses and hotel reservations, and the rally could go off as

planned.

Dieter’s audience was first incredulous, then irate. He was either

the most naive businessman any of them had ever met, or he was a calculating,

cold-blooded embezzler. Either way, they were screwed. Here they were in China

with no cars, no permits, no license tags, no hotel reservations, and no

apparent recourse, besides chaining the German to an engine block and dropping

him into Hong Kong’s harbor. Instead, they relieved Dieter of the remaining

money and filed criminal charges with the Hong Kong police.

Later

that day, with the organizer now out of the picture, the rally drivers and

riders reconvened in the Harbour Plaza to explore their options. Some wanted

out. Without an organizer, said one American, how could there be a rally? He was

taking his vintage MGB GT and going home. A sports car magazine had sent a

delegation of three—a writer, his son, and a sales representative—to take part

in the rally, but they, too, were bailing out. It would have been a great story,

the threesome decided, but there was no way this rally was going to make it to

Beijing.

It was hard to argue with them. Most of the cars were at least 50

years old and finicky; the Chinese traffic is notoriously hazardous and

unpredictable; and the bureaucracy in the People’s Republic can be baffling and exasperating to the uninitiated.

On the other hand, most of the people in the

room already had traveled great distances to get here, and they were more

inclined to pay a couple thousand dollars more to stage the rally than to turn

around and go home. True, only 21 participants (and eight vintage cars)

remained, but they constituted a Who’s Who of vintage rallying. They included

Bob Coy from Richmond, N.H., the founder of the United States Classic Racing

Association (USCRA), America’s first vintage motorcycle racing organization. Jim

Taylor, from upstate New York, is a trustee of the Saratoga Automobile Museum

and a member of Britain’s Historic Endurance Rallying Organisation (HERO) who

has driven in rallies through Africa, the Andes, the Alps, and Tibet. For him

and his codriver, Fred Nelan, from El Paso, Texas, the Hong Kong–Beijing stretch

in Taylor’s cream-colored 1941 Buick convertible would be a warm-up for the

following month’s Peking to Paris Motor Challenge. From the United Kingdom,

there was former McLaren Formula One team manager Alastair Caldwell, a legendary

figure on the long-distance rally circuit. For this event, Caldwell had selected

a 1956 Silver Cloud Rolls-Royce and a charming, platinum-haired companion named

Hilary Parsons. Tom Hamilton, from East Rochester, N.Y., is president of the

U.S.-based Mercedes 190SL club, and his codriver, Bruce Adams, from Southern

Pines, N.C., is perhaps the world’s leading expert on restoring Mercedes 190SLs.

Adams is the author of four books on the subject and rebuilt the salmon-pink

roadster that Hamilton brought to China.

The most ambitious of the group

were Germans Kurt Schneiders and Ralf Weiss, partners on the Beastie, a bright

blue 1918 American LaFrance fire tender. With its wooden spoke wheels and chain

drive, the vehicle resembled a more feral Stutz Bearcat. Like Taylor and Nelan

in the Buick, the Germans planned to use the Hong Kong–Beijing stretch as a

shakedown cruise in preparation for the Peking-to-Paris rally.

Other

participants included Angeleno Justin Ding, who brought his 1951

silver-and-burgundy Bentley Mark VI convertible, as well as his mechanic and a

photographer. Germans Holger Diederichs and Dieter Everskemper shared the wheel

of a white Mercedes 230SL, while Swiss doctors Hans Bernbach, a vascular

surgeon, and Giancarlo Galeazzi, a radiologist, drove a jet-black 1972 Ferrari

GTC/4.

The sole neophyte was American Jim Rice, owner of a

sage-and-gold 1952 Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith, which he had invited me to

codrive. Asked how he had prepared his car for the rigors of the rally, Rice

responded, “I had it waxed.”

Rice’s inexperience in rallies notwithstanding,

he would be an invaluable participant in this venture. In 1987, Rice arrived in

China with a recently earned degree in political science from UCLA, a backpack,

and $100. Today, at age 41, he is vice president and country manager for Tyson

Foods, one of the largest food producers in Asia. Rice also is a governor of the

American Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai and speaks fluent Mandarin. Certainly,

we rallyers assured each other, if anyone could persuade the local authorities

to provide the necessary permits and tags and otherwise ease our passage up the

coast, it would be Rice.

Alas, no sooner had Rice parked his gleaming Rolls,

which he had recently restored, than one of his fellow travelers knocked a dent

the size of a golf ball into the front left fender. The culpable party

immediately offered to pay for the damage, but Rice was more concerned that the

collision was an omen for the rally.

Actually, the “classic car” nomenclature

in the rally’s title became something of a misnomer. Some vehicles were not so

old. Coy and his friends Will Herman and Jim Cummings from Marblehead, Mass.,

originally had planned to ride along on motorcycles. A few days before

departure, however, Dieter advised them that he could not obtain motorcycle

permits. Instead, he asked, how would they like to drive an antique Red Army

jeep? That could be fun, they thought, and accepted. The jeep never

materialized, so Herman, a partner in a bicycle parts factory in China, where he

spends six months a year, borrowed a compact Lexus from a friend.

A pair of

drivers still were without a car: Peter Jenny, a Swiss surgeon who collects

antique Fords, and his pal Ruedi Müller, a Rolls-Royce buff and organizer of

Switzerland’s largest vintage car show, Oldtimer in Obwalden. Like the American

motorcyclists, the two Swiss had been assured that a vintage ride would await

them in China. Without said vehicle, and with no chance of a refund, they were

offered places in the Buick van that would serve as a chase car. “Does riding in

a Buick van count as being in a rally?” grumbled Jenny.

Assured that it did,

he and Müller agreed to come along. “If nothing else,” Müller said, “it will be

nice to see something of China.”

A few details still had to be ironed

out: None of us knew exactly how much the rally was going to cost each driver,

and without an itinerary, we did not know where we were going or when we would

arrive. Nevertheless, by the time the meeting at the Harbour Plaza adjourned, a

sense of mission had set in. Would we encounter breakdowns along the way?

Chances were good that we would. Would some of us lose our way and perhaps drive

hundreds of miles in the wrong direction? Most likely. Would there be moments of

despair when we wished we had never left Hong Kong? Yes, that was a given. But

somehow, though most of us had met just a day or so earlier, we were confident

that our sense of destiny—plus, perhaps, a tow truck or two—would see us

through.

Once out on the road, the cars would travel in a convoy with the

chase van close behind, just in case. “We’ll be just like a wagon train crossing

the prairie in the Old West,” said Hamilton.

“Or,” observed Adams, as the

meeting broke up and everyone headed for the elevators, “the Donner

Party.”

It was difficult to say what kind of rally this was

supposed to be. Dieter’s promise to name a “winner” implied a contest. But what

would the victory be based on? The fastest driver? The best dressed? The most

congenial? “A rally can be fellows in helmets driving very expensive, very

high-powered cars and racing very fast against the clock,” Caldwell suggested in

his clipped British accent. “Or it can be a bunch of old farts driving across

the countryside, getting pissed at every stop.”

Although Taylor had brought

a boulevard cruiser to this event, he generally preferred 4x4 touring rallies.

“It’s a way to see the world,” he said while lolling in a chair at the hotel’s

café, which overlooks the waterfront. “You get to go places most people never

get to see.”

The Andes was one of those places for Taylor and Nelan, who

first met Caldwell six years ago during the 55-day Inca Trail rally. Caldwell

was driving a 1964 Ferrari 330 GT and along the way he twice broke the rear

axle, lost his steering gearbox, and lost one codriver, who became sick and had

to return home. Caldwell and his Ferrari still completed the 15,000-mile-long

drive. To Nelan, Caldwell’s experience in the Andes is the essence of rallying.

“It’s like Alastair says: ‘The purpose of a rally is to never quit, to push on

no matter what.’”

Those were stirring words, but without license plates, we

were not pushing on anywhere. Not to worry, said Mark, the Chinese travel agent

who, as has become customary in China, had adopted an English name for business

dealings. Mark had been hired—but not yet paid—by Dieter. His agency could take

care of everything: hotel reservations, guides, interpreters, additional chase

cars, and plates and permits. Furthermore, he would travel along in one of the

chase cars. It was unclear whether he would accompany us to guarantee his

customers’ satisfaction or to make sure he received his fee.

Saturday faded into Sunday, the day the rally originally was scheduled to

start, and the license plates still had not arrived. By Monday, our high spirits

of two days earlier had given way to ennui. We were beginning to think the

plates would never arrive, and that we were doomed to sit in the lobby of the

Harbour Plaza forever, reminiscing over bygone rallies in distant climes. Then

the travel agent arrived with great news: No, he did not have the plates, Mark

explained, but we would be allowed to leave Hong Kong without them. Once we

reached the town of Shenzhen on the mainland, he would deliver them to us at our

hotel. However strange this development, it lifted our spirits as we prepared to

get our show on the road.

The next morning, the staff from the Harbour Plaza

lined up to wave good-bye as we climbed into our vehicles. Although the hotel

management was proud to have the attention-getting classic cars parked out front

of its establishment, it was not so pleased by the oil, brake fluid, and coolant

some of the cars had leaked onto an otherwise immaculate pavement. I slid into

the front seat of Rice’s Silver Wraith while a young female reporter from the

Singapore-based ESPN rode in the back with a cameraman, who would capture the

crowd’s reaction as we passed. “The concept of vintage cars doesn’t exist in

China,” said Rice, explaining the turnout. “Once a car is 15 years old, you have

to get it off the streets. So most Chinese have never seen anything like

this.”

Our mood was ebullient as we rolled through the streets of Hong Kong

toward the border—Beijing, here we come! But just as Shenzhen hove into view,

our parade rolled to a halt. Word traveled up and down the line that Taylor’s

Buick had overheated. Such breakdowns are common in classic car rallies, but

this one was particularly worrisome because, as part of our agreement with the

Chinese officials, the cars would be permitted to travel without licenses

provided that we entered Shenzhen as a single group. Rice had pulled his Rolls

over to the side of the road and was busy on his cell phone, trying to line up a

tow truck, when Bernbach stepped out of his Ferrari and advised Rice that he had

run out of gas. Taylor solved the problem by instructing the surgeon to siphon

some fuel from his Buick, which, it seemed, would not be operating for a while.

About four hours after leaving the Harbour Plaza, we crossed into the

mainland and entered Shenzhen—a city with wide boulevards lined by new high-rise

apartments—with the big Buick convertible dangling from a tow chain like a

gaffed tuna. It was something less than the grand entrance that we had

envisioned.

We had spent almost all day traveling the few miles from Hong

Kong’s harborfront. At this rate, it could take a year to reach Beijing—that is,

assuming we ever got out of Shenzhen. As we were about to learn, before our cars

could roam unrestrained through China, they first had to be inspected. A

critical aspect of this inspection, an official told us, would be the exhaust

test, which made no concessions to a car’s age. We held our collective breath as

the cars rolled up to and through the inspection station. As one would expect

from a fleet of vehicles made before the age of catalytic converters, all of the

cars failed.

After a discussion with Rice, the local officials proved to be

remarkably flexible. If we had one car that would pass, the officials said, they

would inspect that vehicle eight times with the different license plates

attached.  One after another, each driver removed his car’s license plate

and attached it to the van.

While awaiting the results of our inspection, we

went to our hotel, touring the town as we went. Shenzhen was China’s first

economic free zone and has become one of the country’s wealthiest towns, if not

the wealthiest. But with economic vigor came a number of sticky social problems.

The influx of women to work in the town’s textile and light manufacturing plants

had created a gender imbalance, with seven women to each man. As a consequence,

in a town where family values once were vaunted over all else, divorce is now

rampant. Instead of splitting, some affluent entrepreneurs house their

girlfriends in what the locals call “concubine villages,” which abound on the

outskirts of town. A more propitious sign of the town’s economic boom is the new

Kempinski Hotel Shenzhen, which has a lobby and bar that are decorated with

stylish abstract glass and chrome sculptures. The decor is modern, but the

Chinese obsession with lucky numbers and symbols is evident throughout the

building. The hotel’s phone number ends in 8888, the designs on the ceiling form

figure eights, and in the lobby, the lighting fixtures are shaped like

flames—another good-luck totem.

Reminders of the rigidity of life in the

People’s Republic occasionally intruded. Upon checking in, I asked one of the

desk clerks for my key, which she held in her hand. “No, she will give it to

you,” she answered, indicating the clerk standing next to her, who was occupied

with another guest.

“But you are holding it,” I pointed out.

“No, I

cannot give it to you.”

“Why not?” I asked.

“She must give it to

you.”

“But she is busy, and you are free. And you are holding the

key.”

“But she is the person who gives the keys.”

And on the debate went,

until she-who-must-hand-over-the-key was free. With a gracious smile, she took

the key from her colleague and gave it to me.

Fortunately for us,

the auto inspectors were not as stringent as the hotel clerks. The results of

the cars’ exhaust test arrived the next morning. This time every one had passed,

and we greeted the news with cheers. But before we could cruise out of town, we

had one more formality to observe. A police bus pulled up to the hotel, and we

were ushered aboard for the short ride to a sprawling police barrack. There, we

were led up a flight of stairs and into a room that, according to the signage,

was the “Classroom of the Full Marks Education.” As we found seats, a pair of

policewomen marched in and announced that we were selected for a singular honor:

We were about to become the first foreigners in Shenzhen to be awarded drivers’

licenses, as soon as we received our driver’s ed, which amounted to a litany of

dos and don’ts: Do call 122 if in an accident. Do not tailgate. Do check out the

car’s rain brushes (windshield wipers) before beginning a trip. Do not drink

alcohol or use psychotropic drugs while driving. A briefing about Chinese road

signs followed, and then the policewomen proclaimed, in Chinese,

“Congratulations, you’ve just passed.” It would not be the day’s only surreal

moment.

Upon returning to the Kempinski, we learned that the license plates

were not in the hotel, and neither were Caldwell and Parsons. They apparently

had decided to push on by themselves. This, the travel agent cautioned, was not

a good idea. Driving without a license plate was a serious offense in China,

which is why we were going to ride behind him in a convoy until we reached a

rest stop midway on our journey to Chaozhou, about 200 miles to the north.

There, Mark assured us, somebody would meet us with the plates.

Two hours

later, we arrived at the specified rest stop, and, to no one’s surprise, the

plates were not there. Several of us were about to bid Mark zai jian and proceed

on our own when he announced he had just received news of Caldwell: The Brit had

been stopped for speeding and arrested on numerous charges. He and his friend

Hilary were now languishing in a jail somewhere outside Chaozhou. Those who had

been heading for their cars stopped in their tracks. A traffic ticket was one

thing, but nobody wanted to cool his heels in a Chinese hoosegow. We agreed to

wait a little longer, but we were running out of patience with Mark. His modus

operandi curiously evoked Intourist, the erstwhile Soviet travel agency whose

real mission was to contain Westerners as they toured Cold War Russia.

It

seemed impossible to get a straight answer from him. Should one of our group

ask, “Why on earth would you give us a guide who doesn’t speak English?” (a

frequent lament), Mark would turn to one of his subordinates—any number of whom

were traveling along for no apparent reason—and raise his voice and wave his

arms as if to say, “Who gave us this guide who doesn’t speak English?” The

recipient of this harangue would respond in much the same manner, which could

mean something like, “Don’t you remember? He’s your brother.”

The two of

them would go on this way until the original complainant lost interest and

walked away. During one such bout of theater, Müller looked on appreciatively.

“You see what he is doing?” said Müller, a management coach and a student of the

Chinese doctrine of the 36 Strategies, a set of leadership proverbs. “He will

never confront you directly. He will deflect your attack until you are worn

down. That is his strategy.”

After another hour passed, no strategy of the

travel agent’s could dissuade us from informing him that we had waited long

enough. Even if it meant that we would wind up sharing a cell with Caldwell, we

were moving on. If the Chinese government wanted us to carry license plates, it

could damn well deliver them to us in Chaozhou. Off we went, as darkness closed

in around us.

By this time, given the laxity of our rules—actually, we had only one rule:

make it to Beijing—we had begun swapping rides in each other’s cars, and I was

more than willing to give up the shotgun seat in Rice’s Silver Wraith. The car

says something about the British class system that prevailed until at least the

middle of the last century. The rear seats are as comfortable as mattresses, but

those in front are as unyielding as oak.

I joined Müller and Jenny in the

van, our rear guard, and rolled north behind the Beastie. The ancient two-seater

had been running exceptionally well, a tribute to Schneiders’ and Weiss’

mechanical skills and preparedness. But about an hour from the rest stop, the

Beastie slowed and then came to a stop in the right lane of the highway. I

leapt—pantherlike, I thought—out of the van and immediately stumbled into a

6-foot-deep, V-shaped culvert. “Be careful,” I yelled up to the Germans and the

two Swiss while picking myself out of the concrete ditch. “There’s no

shoulder.”

Schneiders and Weiss already had scoped out the situation. After

placing an emergency marker on the highway behind us, they affixed lights,

surgeon-style, to the front of their caps and calmly set to work as the two

Swiss and I looked on.  This was far from an ideal spot to perform repair

work: The highway traffic raced past perhaps six inches from the Beastie’s

fenders. The situation worsened when a car pulled over and disgorged a half

dozen of the Chinese who had been accompanying the travel agent. They milled

around, leaning in to see under the hood. The scene grew even more congested

when a pair of policemen arrived and, in the manner of police everywhere,

demanded to know what was going on. At least, that is what we presumed they were

saying; like the travel agent’s companions, they, too, spoke no English.

Finally, with its yellow flasher casting an eerie strobe effect over the

scene, a tow truck pulled up behind us just as one of the policemen noticed that

something was missing. There was no mistaking his meaning when he demanded in

Chinese, “Hey, where’s the license plate?” 

Meanwhile, a mechanic from

the tow truck had crawled underneath the Beastie to hook it up, then slithered

out as it was hoisted into the air. It rode higher and higher until—bang!—the

chain snapped, and the antiquated fire tender smashed against the roadbed where

the mechanic had just been lying.

“We need a bigger tow truck,” said

Schneiders.

It was long past midnight when the van reached the hotel, where, the next

morning, we found Caldwell and Parsons enjoying breakfast. “No, we weren’t

arrested at all,” Caldwell explained derisively. “Nothing of the kind. The

travel agent made up that story to keep you all in line.”

This morning,

Mark’s admonitions to stay close went unheeded, as we assembled for the ride to

Xiamen. It appeared that we were about to lose Schneiders and Weiss, whose

Beastie had busted a valve. The Buick seemed doomed as well, with its recurrent

overheating problems. But it was not mechanical problems that concerned Rice as

I settled into the driver’s seat and wheeled his Silver Wraith out of the hotel

parking lot and onto the highway. “Remember,” he said, “the Chinese have 2

percent of the world’s driver’s licenses but 12 percent of the accidents.”

Actually, the Chinese motorists’ disproportionate accident rate belies the

country’s highway system, which is one of the world’s best and newest, with nary

a pothole to be seen. Besides the excellence of the roads themselves, the

highways are remarkable for their service areas, where facilities resemble huge

marble palaces, veritable toll-road Taj Mahals.

Apparently, however, the

highway system is so new that many drivers have not yet figured out how it

works—or at least, how Westerners think it should work. You could be cruising

along at 80 mph and encounter a pair of pedestrians strolling along in the

passing lane. It was common to find entire families standing in a superhighway’s

right-hand lane, kids and bags and all, waiting for a bus to come and pick them

up. We found one highway completely shut down to allow workers to trim the

median hedges. Farther along, we saw workers performing the same task totally

unprotected, with their rumps hanging out over the road only inches from the

passing traffic.

However, driving is the riskiest in the cities. There,

intersections are clogged with cars, trucks, pushcarts, bicycles, scooters,

wheelbarrows, and handcarts swirling about kaleidoscopically. “It’s like driving

in a video game,” said Rice as a lorry suddenly veered toward the Rolls’ genteel

flanks, forcing me to brake and wheel to the left. “Chinese drivers are taught

not to look to the left or the right. They’re only supposed to check the

mirrors.”

Many of the commuters we encountered did not observe those rules.

Drivers and passengers would lean out of their windows to snap photos of our

cars with their cell phones. At every rest stop and hotel parking lot, crowds

formed around our vehicles; children and grown-ups alike posed in front of the

Rollses and the Bentley or kneeled down next to the Ferrari and the Mercedes.

Almost every morning, the local newspapers carried stories of the ghostly

“grandfather cars” that had returned from the past; it may have been our

imagination, but it appeared as though the crowds were growing larger as our

journey progressed.

I took the wheel of Hamilton’s 190SL for the 200-mile drive from Fuzhou to

Wenzhou. On either side of the highway, farmers grappled with plows pulled by

oxen; above them, the hillsides were studded with ancient temples and tombs. The

serenity of the moment was dispelled when the traffic inexplicably came to a

crawl and we found ourselves seemingly tethered to a truckload of intensely

malodorous pigs. For miles we inched along, gagging from the stench and

listening to the oink, oink, oink of their porcine serenade.

In Wenzhou, at

the Overseas Chinese Hotel, Hamilton and I made our way to the lobby bar. There,

a sign promised martini cocktails and a two-for-one happy hour. It sounded

promising. After all, there was nothing like a dry martini to cleanse the senses

of pig sounds and smells. Only, contrary to the sign’s promises, the bartenders

and waiters never had heard of the cocktail. This, I decided, was a situation

easily remedied. Taking out a sheet of paper, I drew first a martini glass and

then an olive. After taking down bottles of gin and vermouth from a shelf behind

the bar, I poured some of their contents into a shaker and added a few cubes of

ice. A few moments of spirited shaking followed, and then I filled the martini

glasses.

My demonstration elicited a heartfelt “Aah!” from the onlookers,

who refused my efforts to pay or tip them for their indulgence. “Today we have

learned about the martini,” a waitress said in halting English. “Before you,

nobody ever taught us.”

Truly, no missionary had ever felt so proud. But when

another American strolled up to the bar and optimistically asked, “Happy hour?

Two for one?” he was met with blank stares. I left the waitstaff to sort things

out for themselves.

We finally received our license plates in Wenzhou, but

their arrival was an anticlimax, because we already had traveled hundreds of

miles without them. A more welcome sight was the Beastie Boys, who had caught up

with us after somehow repairing their car’s busted valve.

As we were setting

out from Wenzhou the following morning, Weiss invited me to climb aboard for a

test-drive. Although the fire tender’s 14-liter engine was healthy, a new

problem had emerged: The fall from the tow truck’s chain caused an oil leak. The

oil was dripping onto the right rear brake drum, rendering it inoperable and

leaving the Beastie with only one brake that did work. “Luckily, we still have

our horn,” said Weiss, as he dodged a milk truck that seemed intent on ramming

us. “That’s the most important piece of equipment. You can never lose your cool

when you’re driving in China. Once you do, you’re done.”

If the Chinese

traffic appears menacing to someone in a car, when viewed at exhaust-pipe level

from a motorcycle sidecar it is downright hair-raising. In Shanghai, the

Ritz-Carlton’s resident jazz band leader offered to take us for a spin in the

sidecar of one of his custom-built motorcycles. Danny Woody, a California

native, based his one-off bikes on the 32 hp, 750 cc, circa-1938 Russian-spec

R71 BMWs. “The basic motorcycles are now used by the Chinese Communist Army,”

said Woody, as he accelerated into the street. “I rebuild them for the

brown-leather-jacket crowd.”

After the tedium of the first few days, time

seemed to pass quickly once we departed Shanghai. We fell into a routine,

generally planning to leave each place by 8 am but departing closer to 9:30,

then regrouping in a catch-as-catch-can manner at rest stops. There, we would

perform whatever light maintenance was necessary, take pictures, and grab a cup

of coffee that tasted as though it had been run through an oil filter.

Occasionally one of the cars would wander off to take in the countryside. By the

sheerest of coincidences, explained Rice, our itinerary would lead from Shanghai

through Changyi, site of the Tyson poultry ranch that is home to 30 million

chickens and 20 million ducks. Here we would stop for lunch. Although this idea

met with some groans and rolling of eyes, nobody could complain about the

reception we received. White-helmeted police lined the streets as we entered the

town, and Rice waved regally to his employees as we rolled past the tidy

dormitories in which they live. The moment was temporarily marred, though, when

the wind whipped a dirty plastic bag up from the street and wrapped it around

the Spirit of Ecstasy on the Rolls’ hood. “Oh, no,” said Rice. “This is

embarrassing.”

After remaining in place for several hundred excruciating

yards, the plastic bag finally dropped off the hood ornament. But then the Rolls

began to sputter, until it did the unthinkable: It stopped. “This is even

worse,” said Rice, as he pressed the ignition button in exasperation. The engine

restarted, and the Rolls continued on its way.

Lunch—in a luxurious

restaurant set within a huge greenhouse—was delightful. The mayor of Changyi

offered many bottoms-up toasts, while a charming young lady in a cheongsam kept

our glasses filled with the local Cabernet Sauvignon; right behind her came

another staffer with ice cubes for the wine. Two days later, Rice’s problems

with the Rolls were becoming more serious, and with Beijing still 400 miles

away, it appeared the car might not make it. The Rolls had sputtered into

Tsingtao, home of the beer, and in desperation its owner turned to a local Buick

dealer. Within a few hours, the Chinese mechanics had diagnosed the problem,

lathed a new distributor shaft, and rebuilt the distributor. They had the big

car purring—for a fee of only $32. “Do you think they’d restore entire cars at

these prices?” asked Rice.

In Jinan, about 130 miles from Tsingtao, we had barely checked into our hotel

when a crowd began gathering outside. As noted earlier, the Chinese had been

following our progress northward from Hong Kong on television, in the

newspapers, and on the Internet. “We’re celebrities,” Rice said.

Indeed,

when Weiss and Schneiders handed out souvenir cards bearing pictures of the

Beastie, they were nearly knocked off their feet by admirers surging forward to

claim some memento of the car’s visit. “The rally is a way of sharing our cars

with these people,” said Ding, looking on as some children in the crowd timidly

reached out to touch his Bentley convertible’s bumper and fenders. “It’s a part

of history they’ve been denied. This is the best part of the rally.”

We

expected that the crowds would be no less enthusiastic in Beijing. Unlike

Shanghai, a city of entrepreneurs and individualists pushing and shoving their

way to the fore, Beijing is a city of bureaucrats. Its status as the seat of the

Chinese government seems evident in its traffic: Cars moved in a more orderly,

patterned fashion. The city’s many ring roads might contribute to this sense of

order. Paris has only one road that traverses its boundaries in a circular

fashion, but Beijing, a city of more than 15 million people, has six, all of

which weave their way in and out of each other high above the city streets. The

scene embodies what was once a futuristic vision of a city.

Our arrival at

the Great Wall was going to be our grand finale, but as it turned out, we were

not the only ones who had planned to visit the landmark that day. We wound up

parking perhaps a half mile from the wall, where we lined up the cars and posed

for photos. We had come to the end of the road.

The next afternoon I

donned tie and jacket to meet an old friend for drinks at the Grand Hyatt

Beijing. “How did you come to Beijing?” he asked, as I took a seat and waved the

barman over.

I looked out the window, past the city’s elevated ring

roads and toward the walls of the Forbidden City, before answering.

“I

drove.”

Jim Rice and five other drivers from this year’s rally have formed a company,

Hong Kong Motorsports, which is planning a new Hong Kong–Beijing rally for

October 2008.  As of July, more than 20 drivers had expressed interest in

participating. For more information about the rally, contact Rice at jimrice@usanet.

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