Sunday the 2th of June 2019, from Bejing to Hohhot, China.
Day 1 in the Rally, the start!
Somehow, I could have known… the first rally day the endurance organisation likes to give its competitors a warning with willful pleasure, a slap on the cheek, so to speak. They make us all start on the Chinese wall in a festive mood, with dancers, flags and a lot of happy faces shiny with expectation… but after the first smooth and fast 150 kilometers the roads become smaller, the surface scabrous and the timing closer. The first day turned out to be a 610 kilometer nasty day with no time to waste on sightseeing, lunch or any other physical pleasures, on the contrary. Herman and I fought the Contal through all difficulties and enjoyed for the first time the new and exciting collaboration between driver and navigator. Herman just excelled to the occasion from the first kilometer and I gladly accepted his tight directions. He turned out to be a firm but fair navigator who never avoided an effort, exactly the wingman I needed on The Project. Anyway, this was a glorious day because, as I always say, half the rally is getting to the start. And we got there! Proudly on number 1, opening this enormous event, I couldn’t have been more high hearted.
But we spend about 11 hours on the road that day and I was exhausted at the arrival at the Juva Grand Hotel in Hohhot. It goddamn felt as if I just ran a marathon… and believe me, I do know what this feels like. This awareness came to me as a surprise. Never during the whole 24 months of preparation I figured that the driving itself would be so bloody wasting for mind and body. This worried me, and there was something else that first day that kept drizzling in my mind… The position of the front wheels changed. I wasn’t sure but when you look for hours down on two front wheels, your mind start playing games… I examined the Contal at the hotel and got very confused on their position… it looked as if they were slightly skewed like the wheels of a disabled sportspersons wheelchair. I mailed a picture to Rudy but he could not confirm on a cell phone image so I gave it a rest. The next day was to be prepared.
Monday the 3th of June 2019, between Hohhot and Erenhot, China.
Day 2 in the Rally.
The second day started with a speed section on a dirt track on the outside edge of the city. After that, we had to join the highway and continue our roadbook to the West. But… the Chinese did not accept the Contal to go on the highway because it was enlisted as a motorcycle and not as a car (which it was in 1906: une voiturette!). Motorcycles are not allowed on the highway. The organisation gave me, as the only competitor, a motorcycle licence and didn’t realise I could not follow the roadbook because of that. With a joined effort of some fellow competitors and together with a car from the organisation including a lot of cell phone activity we were able to get back on the roadbook after about 25 kilometers and 3 hours later… so we lost a lot of time. Ergo… Herman and I were a bit in a hurry.
Disaster struck when we stopped for petrol on km 150 of the 450 for that day: I noticed that the axle was seriously deformed on both sides and that the front wheels were about 10 degrees crooked.
This observation fell like a huge stone on my head. How is this possible? We only drove about 760 of the 14.000 kilometers without real off road situations and already an essential part of the structure of the Contal fails… to the extend that it jeopardizes the whole enterprise! Who fucked up in the calculations of the bearing capacity of this front axle… and how are we going to solve this? We started asking around for a welder and found one about 3,5 km further in a small town. This nice Chinese person was an authentic mechanic and handled the axle like a surgeon during an open heart surgery.
Bob and Tony, the sweepers who helped us, suggested to put an extra steel pipe in the hollow axle and so, after 3 or 4 hours (who is counting when your rally is at stake?) we were able to take the road again with what we thought was a resilient piece of steel between our front wheels.
It haunted through my head though that Bob muttered just before we left that the axle would bow again. “Once it has been bent… “ I heard him say it clearly! And then it happened… my mind combined the surprise of the unexpected extremely tiring driving from yesterday with the also unexpected axle problem and projected an image with Herman and me on the highway at 90 km/hour when the axle finally rupturing in three pieces making the Contal dive to the tarmac, projecting Herman as a bullet forward… The more I tried to purge my mind from that image the stronger it came back and each time with more physical damage to Herman. I didn’t connect the dots at the time, too busy to try to put this into perspective, but the consequences of the accident with Inge in the Mandalay Rally in 2015 came all back to me, that afternoon, on the Contal. Was I responsible? Would Inge have been hurt if I didn’t ask her to join me on the rally? Was I about to hurt or even kill Herman? Imagine I was dead and Herman had a broken leg, nobody would blame Herman… but imagine the worst where Herman is dead and I would have just a broken leg… I would be the one to blame. I asked Herman to sit in the front of the Contal, on the ‘suicide seat’, nobody else… As the day turned into night and we were stopped at a Chinese toll boot again (Jeeesus!), while we were subsequently trying to find our way around the highway back to the roadbook in the dark, this question took monstrous proportions in my head. With the start of the rally The Project had arrived in its final and most important chapter but during the preparations this consequence never popped up as a real and active possibility. Shure, in a rally there is always an element of danger, but throughout the 20 years I practiced this sport it never seemed so pregnant as now. I tried to imagine the condition of the front axle as we hasted towards the hotel and I nearly became crazy with uncertainty. And then, finally, after a very dark 150 kilometer without big lights (they failed after 10 minutes), we arrived at the Weihao Hotel in Erenhot, last stop in China, at about midnight. The reconstruction of the axle seemed to hold, there were no new cracks in the welding and somehow the devil in my head stopped screaming and projecting apocalyptic images of broken bodies on the tarmac. Alan McNaughton and Johnn Spiller welcomed us as the last arrivals of that day and we had some rice and chicken before we went to sleep. Tomorrow we would pass the border to Mongolia and somehow I feared that the conditions were going to be much harder than the last two days, not knowing at that moment that it would become much worse than that…
During my research on August Pons, the Mototri Contal and all matters that surrounded the first Peking to Paris in 1907, I also started to look up the history of the family Contal. There are (were) virtually no facts and figures known of this family, their factory and what became of them or their products during the last 120 years. The only real informative website I could find on the subject is that of Dr. Hendrik Svenson – Evers and Dr. Dominique Svenson, living in Granada, Spain. If you are interested, do not hesitate to visit this source of correct and vast information: lestricars.es.tl. So one of the questions I asked myself was if there still were Contal family members alive and if the brand still existed. To my surprise, it wasn’t and even more… the name and logo wasn’t protected. Only a brand of contact lenses, a coffee brand and some aluminium wares with the name ‘Contal’ were known to the trademark registers in 2017. So, nobody used it any more, it got into oblivion and was almost forgotten if not for Pons’ unfortunate adventure in the Gobi desert. This brought me to the idea to deposit and protect both the word mark and the image mark on my name and become ‘the owner’ of Mototri Contal including the surprisingly elegant logo.
If we were to construct a 1906 Type A Contal then at least, it would be a proper authentic Mototri Contal, without any doubt. Ideas of a modern production line with electric Contals passed the dinner table in the evenings but first of all, there was The Project. In the meantime Rudy and Els came up with the proposition that a Dutch constructor would make the frame. Since we had detailed dimensions and an owners manual from 1906 with specific building instructions was found thanks to my friend Philip Noble, this was a viable option.
We set out to make a true Mototri Contal Type A, following all the principles of the ones in 1906, as there were: one cylinder, chain driven, no suspension in the back, spring leaves in the front, gear shifter between the knees … We would make no concessions to comfort, only to safety. And it had to be able to withstand a serious bashing, of course, a Mototri Contal on steroids as it were.
Studying the matter in detail, I realised that Pons made a big mistake when he prepared for his 1907 adventure. Newspapers and letters on the matter from around the date of the 1907 rally (l’Automobile pg 246 – 249) report that an original 1906 Contal, delivered straight out of the dealership in Paris, Avenue de la Grande Armée 64, weighed 180 kilogram and could take two persons and some small luggage. The engine was a Villamain 1 cylinder that had between 2,75 and 4 horse power. Auguste changed all that in order to be able to transport 600 kg(!) from Peking to Paris… Therefore, the Pons-P2P-Contal was, among other things, lifted to be higher of the ground and the wheels were changed and made stronger. Next to the leaf springs two big shock absorbers were mounted additionally to diminish the trembling of the steering wheel and to accommodate the oscillation of the Contal. The complete concept of the steering wheel was changed and the engine was modified to a 9 hp constructed by the house Dion-Bouton. So there was never any doubt that even the Pons-P2P-Contal was not an original factory-Contal. This is furthermore not how this rally was originally set up in 1907 nor is it the philosophy of the endurance organisation today. This rally was never a beauty contest nor an authenticity competition. It is an endurance rally with old cars, nothing more and nothing less. And therefore the vehicles are (were) to be prepared in the proper way the bad roads and elements of the time frame dictates. This was well understood by Auguste Pons. (So much for the ‘replica critics’).
But nevertheless and more precisely, Auguste made two mistakes. He made his vehicle too heavy and he put in a meager 15 liter petrol tank. Both mistakes nearly cost him his life and ruined his great adventure. If we were going to do this we had to avoid these flaws. We decided to go for the BMW F650 Rotax 45 hp engine, put in a 40 liter petrol tank (consumption was 6,25L/100Km on the rally) and we set out to make the whole vehicle not heavier than 300 kg without Herman and me on it. Now that was a solid plan and that is how it was executed.
After we struggled with the Dutch frame constructor for almost a year (2018) to get him to finish the basics of his work, Rudy and Els could start with the rest of the construction. Just as a matter of incorrect historiography I do not mention the frame builder’s name since he not only delayed The Project with at least eight months but he is also the idiot that is responsible for the wrong choice of steel, alloy and flange thickness of the front axle. I remember him asking if the axle would hold Herman and our luggage for 14.000 kilometer on which he answered full of confidence: “it will carry an elephant from Peking to Paris”… That story isn’t finished yet!
Christmas came and Christmas went and we changed from 2018 to 2019… the year of the rally. Since there was a lot of test work still to be done once the Contal was operative, I got nervous. Rudy and Els worked their asses off and by the end of February 2019 we were able to test our machine briefly on the tracks of the circuit in Valkenswaard, The Netherlands. This was (too) late since the Contal was to be shipped to Bejing not later than Monday 11th of March. After testing and adjusting small items on the Contal I had to gear it up, put stickers on it and by the time I got used looking at the little Countess in her battle dress we had to send it away for its great adventure. Seeing the back of the truck that was going to bring it to the harbour close slowly, I realised the brief testing might become a problem in the race… and it did.
End of part 2