Saturday 8th of June 2019 about 17h35, Tsagaan-Uul, Mongolia.
Day 7 in the Rally, Camp 3.
I arduously park the Contal in one of the designated petrol bays and cut of the engine. My body is sending warning missiles to my brain that it is suffering. My hands are completely numb, up to the wrists. I bend over the handlebar and lay with my upper body on my arms, face down. We made it to the third Mongolian camp, that is the main thing… but at what cost? I am exhausted and the Contal feels strange, I think it is the front axle again. Before I can bring myself to mount off the bike and look at it, I remain in this bent posture for it gives me some solace, don’t ask me why. I register the Dutch Mazda Z 240 driver approaching me with an apology for putting Herman and me in a storm of dust and stones by passing us at high speed and turning in immediately in front of us an hour earlier. The last thing on my mind is to adress this lackbrain so I growl loudly from my pleated position to fuck off, hoping he will get the message. He does. Then I realise the bluetooth connection between Herman’s and my helmet is still operative and knowing that Herman hates my aggravated moods I quickly shut it down. This makes me sit up again and in doing that I see Tomas de Vargas approaching me with his arms open and a huge smile on his face so there is no time left for my self-pity sulking. I look at him and realise we wrote another little page of rally history by finishing this day through the worst tracks that Mongolia has to offer. All 180 kilometer offroad of them… He congratulate me warmly and funny enough this gives me the courage to come down from the bike, hug him, and bent down to look at the axle. My worst fears are proven right and are plainly visible and what I see is even worse. The axle is not only bent, it is completely broken in two places, all around. I can see the inner iron pipe we shoved in the original axle in China on the second rally day, when it first showed its unforgivable weaknesses… But the Chinese repair clearly capitulated on day seven. It withstood the next five Mongolian days but now it clearly surrended to the pocked tracks we had to digest with the Contal. This was day 07 of the 36 rally days… My God how are we going to get any further? Tomorrow is a 342 kilometer day over the Mongolian mountains… I could not mentally resist the crushing awareness that this rally, this two year long project, was going to end here, on this Mongolian grassplot, in the Tsagaan-Uul Campsite. I want to stay on my knees forever there in that petrol bay but someone asks me to make room for the next arrival. This brings me back to reality so I call on Herman to come and assist: Contal to the repair site, plastic sheet underneath, tripods under the front, dismounting the complete axle… there is work to be done. At the same time I realise we need a new back tire for tomorrow, if there was going to be a tomorrow… so I go searching for a mecanic who could assist me with that and call Gerard that we need a spare tire. My brain was functioning again and as a logical result any physical discomfort is pushed to oblivion.
That evening, that night… we saved our rally. Thinking back on it… notwithstanding there would be more rough situations to come, this was the most critical moment and we were about to tackle it cold-blooded. This is day 07, from Unitiin Brigada camp to Tsagaan-Uul camp… 380km. Two days to go in Mongolia.
How did I get there? Why, and even more important, what has inspired me to participate in the toughest classic car rally on earth on a goddamned three-wheeler? These simple questions have been put to me more than a thousand times the last two months but are nevertheless not easy to answer… Let me start by creating the context, as it was for me, around this extreme event… as I saw it at the time.
In July 2013, Inge and I rolled over the finish of the 5th P2P on the Plaçe Vendôme in Paris in our newly bought Bentley Racing Green Speed 8. It wasn’t so new any more by then but we were ever so proud with our gold medal and had the time of our life. In the years that followed we enlisted and successfully finished the Inca Rally, the Baltic Classic, the Classic Outback, the Flying Scotsmen and some other adventures in Africa. One rally went wrong though, the Road to Mandalay in 2015, where Philip Young unfortunately died in Bangkok after a third heart attack and Inge got very badly hurt in the face by a boulder. This was – unknowingly at the time – a turning point for ERA but was and still is not a small matter for me personally because it planted unperceived the seeds in my mind that would freak me out in this 7th Peking to Paris with the Contal.
So let’s scroll 749 days back from the Tsagaan-Uul camp and try to find out what made me commence ‘The Project’ where I set out to drive a three-wheeler from Peking to Paris, in the footsteps of one of the greatest adventurers I ever read about: August Pons. This is how it actually started officially: with a few mails.
My mail to ERA on Saturday 20th may 2017 17:52 (two months after closure of the list of competitors of the P2P’19):
Dearest friends from RallyWorld,
I wanted to surprise ERA with it, but necessity knows no laws… Remember I would send in my entree for the P2P’19 two months ago… but you have not received it yet. This is because I want to enter with… a Contal three wheeler, but could not find one as yet. The Contal three wheeler was one of the five competitors in 1907, as you know very well. Having one back in the race would be an enourmous stunt… but also a challenge reserved only for fools. I want to be this fool.
Response from Fred Gallagher on Tuesday 23th of May 2017 06:36, with in CC Eleonora Piccolo and Annette Daley:
You are mad!
If you can really find a Contal then we will have to give you number one. Ele and Annette will kill me but of course we will find a place for you even though we are “full”. I look forward to discussing this with you in Copenhagen.
Best wishes, Fred
My response on Wedneday 13th of September 2017 12:30to the ERA team:
Dear Fred, Ele and Annette,
Indeed, I am mad.
Driving from Peking to Paris in a Contal Mototri Tricycle cannot be done in 36 days they say… yet, Mick and I will do it! It is time to give Pons and Foucault their final place in motorcycle history and finish what they started in 1907 (and nearly paid for with their lives in the Gobi desert).
Since your mail dd 23th of May I not only found a Contal but also became the owner of the name ‘Contal Mototri’, the brand and the future products of Contal Mototri. What else did I prepare so far?
-) I found the only living relative of Auguste Pons, John de Bry, who is a paleographer historian at the center for historical archaeology in Florida USA. He is the son of Pon’s sister and wants to wave the departure flag in Peking… wouldn’t that be a historical moment for ERA?
-) I found the 1908 drivers licence of Auguste Pons because he lost his former in the Gobi desert in 1907. See annexe.
-) With Mick Matheson as my co-driver I make a strong team. His father, John Matheson, is a former ERA client in a RR from the first P2P ever. Mick is an excellent mechanic and experienced in long-distance rallies.
-) I have the the original newspaper copie of the 1907 release of the ‘new’ Contal and the start of the P2P’1907 with the Contal from l’Automobile, the leading French automotive newspaper at the time, in annexe. Interesting, no?
So, without any further delay, here is my registration for the P2P’19. I will proudly carry the number one as promised and will also make ERA proud. Let’s write another page in the history books and make a lot of noise about it.
It is clear that in the 14 weeks after Fred’s mail in May ‘17 I shifted in a higher gear. The precise moment though, that the idea of driving P2P’19 on a Contal Mototri got in my head, which lead to the mail of the 20th of May 2017, is difficult to pinpoint. I was reading Barzini’s book on the original Peking to Paris with Prince Borgese as the hero for the third time in the winter of 2017 and again, the very brief story of the little tricycle struck me as unfair, underdocumented and unfinished. I must have seen this as an opportunity, as an open goal, somewhere around Februari 2017… knowing that there was enough time to find a Contal Mototri and to get prepared before the start in 2019. I calculated there were about 27 months to get this project at the startline in Bejing and deepened the search for general information and of course, an original Contal Mototri. But this second quest was more difficult than I originally calculated. With everything I have learned now on that specific subject, I would guess there are only four or five original Contal’s left in the world. One of them (The Broual Contal) got sold last year on the Paris Artcurial Rétromobile fair to someone with deeper pockets than mine (N° 3279-10 févr 2018). But that was not such a bad thing since it was a 1907 Type B model with the chassis not in tubular round steel (Type A) but U-shaped. This is not the P2P’07 Contal. The P2P’07 Contal is a 1906 version with a tubular frame. So I searched and searched… but found nothing. I pondered on the possibility to go for another tricycle alltogeter. With Alan McNaughton Gisby (yes, thé Alan from HERO/ERA) , Classic Car Project Consultant, we opened a worldwide search for tricycles of all sorts. A Phoenix Trimo, a Motosacoche Triporteur T2A, a Leon Bollee 1897 Voiturette 650cc and even a De Dion Quadricycle passed our attention… but none could qualify for The Project: P2P19 in Pons’ footsteps. A visit to the John Warrick Online Museum where the history of the 3-Wheelers is deepened brought no insight either.
Then I got an email from my friend Pierre Darge, a very well connected automobile journalist and family friend of Pierre Fillon, president of the Automobile Club de l’Ouest… Le Mans. Pierre told me that there was a Type A 1906 Contal in the museum of the 24 Hours of Mans and that I could ask for a rendez-vous to go and see it. On the 12th of September 2017 Francis Piquera, responsable des collections de véhicules historique, anwered my request for a visit. On thursday the 19th of October at 14:00 we were expected for what was going to be a most memorable and important visit in the reserve of the museum of the 24 Hours of Le Mans in Le Sarthe. With me came Rudy and Els Leblon who agreed to assist in The Project. They were to become one of the key elements in the whole adventure. Rudy and Els are nothing less than a leading authority when it comes to tricycles around the turn of the century. Together we aimed to measure the Contal completely, draw it out and photograph every inch of the little machine. This would later appear to be a unique excercice since this had never been done before. There is almost no information to find on the Contal History and certainly not on the way it was build.
At the same time I had a third option under investigation. My search brought me to the book of the re-enactment of the original Peking to Paris by Peter George, journalist, former foreign correspondent and producer and co-creator of the Peking to Paris documentary series recreating this first international road race of 1907. The original initiators of this re-enactment were Warren Brown and Lang Kidby. I bought the book and the two DVD’s on the documentary, but to be honest, this didn’t help me much. In the documentry the Contal is (again) barely in the picture… A new search brought me to Mick Matheson who participated on this event in 2005. I called him in Australia and you know what? He had the 2005 replica Contal Mototri covered in dust standing in his garage for 12 years. The thing was still ‘alive’ so after some handling I bought it on the 5th of September 2017 and had it shipped to Belgium where it arrived on the 15th of November 2017. At the same time Mick and I agreed he would be my co-pilot on the 2019 event, a promise he had to take back when I visited him in Australia in September 2018 to discuss The Project further with him. Oeps! Anyway, the replica was mine and now I could start to consider how the P2P19 was to be prepared.
These two Contals had the same essential problem though. It was clear to me that both were not capable to race 14.000 kilometers during 36 days. Not the original chassis nor the Australian replica. The whole Project depended on the logistics of the ERA P2P19 organisation and therefore a 100-days adventure (the Itala did it in 108 days in 1907) was not an option. The Australian replica was built from a few photographs they found on the internet. It had a BMW F650 motorcycle engine, an Austin 7 front end and a custom-made frame. But what I got in my garage would, in my experience, never ever make to Paris in the race. The steering mechanism was wrong and the front leaf springs made it wobble to topple. No way I was going to take on The Project on that machine. Only the 45 horsepower Rotax engine could interest me because it had the gearbox and engine in the same oil bath and a very strong reputation when handled at low revs. The original 1906 Contal on the other hand was clearly very fragile. A simple study in the University of Ghent showed that the chassis would never withstand the bashing it was going to get in Mongolia. So I sat down with Rudy and Els and we cooked up needle-shaped plan.
End of part 1