The Peking-to-Paris challenge is organised by the Oxfordshire-based Classic Rally Association. A motley fleet of great, good and plain dodgy cars is setting off to emulate the first great international rally. In 1907, a seven-litre Italia driven by Prince Borghese took the honours on the first Peking to Paris run - a 60-day haul across continents where the need for roads had not yet been recognised. A hapless British journalist spent the journey sitting on the vehicle's tool box, reputedly filing copy by writing the story then placing it in a bottle and hurling it at an unsuspecting local, with instructions to telegraph the contents to London.
Today's contestants, who hail from 22 countries, will enjoy the benefits of satellite communication. They have it easy - but not that easy. The briefing session, held at the Brooklands circuit in Surrey three months ago, was enough to put off all but the most motivated.
The organisers have spiced up the challenge by routing the rally across the bleak Tibetan plateau. Lord Montagu's 1915 Vauxhall Prince may struggle with the rarified atmosphere three miles up in the Tibetan Himalayas. Shortly afterwards, past Everest base camp in Nepal, the competitors can expect to encounter the first immovable objects of the elephantine variety - the animals apparently enjoy sleeping on warm Tarmac.
The descent from Kathmandu into Delhi is scheduled to take three days, during which drivers will plunge from a region where humans are as rare as the high-altitude air to one where, to quote an organiser: "As soon as you stop you'll be surrounded by people." Heaven knows what they will make of a 1967 Ford Anglia Estate, though the 1966 Wolseley 24/80 should provide comfortable resonances of the Hindustan Ambassador, the car of preference in the Indian capital.
Delhi to Lahore is likely to be vehemently hot and tiring. Given the multiplicity of hazards on this busy stretch, the rally's timing will be suspended.
Timing is not quite such an issue as it was in 1907. The organisers stress that the competition is against the elements and schedules rather than against each other; it is not a race. The main aim is to reach Paris, with a secondary target of incurring as few penalty points as possible.
There are many rivers to cross - and lots of them have no bridges. The advice to drivers is to send the co-driver in to check the depth, not forgetting to tie a rope to him or her first. Some of the more assertive vehicles can try to drive across, but for the Morris Minor level of entrant it is probably safer to drag the car through. If all fails, help is following an hour or two behind in the shape of a rescue vehicle. This brute will tow you out of deep water or thick mud, though of course the penalty points start racking up.
Iran gets little praise internationally these days, but the country is reckoned to be a motorists' paradise compared with the preceding terrain. Once the difficult frontier crossing is negotiated the 1,000-mile trip through the country should be a cruise. Iran has entered three cars for the challenge, and the national motor federation has arranged free (and undiluted) fuel for everyone within its borders.
Across Turkey, the biggest hazards are convoys of not-stopping-for-anyone trucks and bands of bandits. But after a brief day's rest in Istanbul (this is not a trip for tourists) the remainder is easy. The former Yugoslavia is being circumvented by use of the Patras-to-Acona ferry across the Adriatic, followed by the sort of drive that millions of us made this summer, threading a course through Germany and along France's overcrowded autoroutes. The eve of the finish, 17 October, is spent at Reims, where competitors can stock up on Champagne for the finish, six weeks from today. My money is on one of the pair of early Sixties Peugeot 404s to be among the winners.
And if making the trip in a Morris Oxford sounds bad enough, just imagine this: in one of motoring's greatest-ever gestures of optimism, no fewer than three Citroen 2CVs have entered .
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