Two Sacramentans to drive Bejing to Paris -- in '46 Ford

05/16/2013 12:00 AM

05/17/2013 9:59 PM

Tuesday will be Departure Day for Dr. Ernie Johnson and Ed Haag, and they're as ready as they'll ever be.

Satellite phone. Check.

Visas and passports. Check.

Duct tape. Check.

Spare car keys. Check.

Car

Car? Oh, yeah, it's waiting for the Sacramento team in Beijing, where they shipped it by freighter a few weeks ago.

The burgundy-colored 1946 Ford Super Deluxe, with a carbureted, 95-horsepower flathead V-8 engine, is the most important part of the check list. Within the cramped front-seat quarters of No. 42, the duo will make a once-in-a-lifetime journey, motoring 7,610 miles through eight countries in 33 days (four are "rest days").

Haag and Johnson will join 99 other rally teams from around the globe (including five other American teams) in the fifth Peking to Paris Motor Challenge, May 28 to June 29. They will depart Beijing (formerly Peking) and eventually drive in triumph (or at least elation) to the finish line on the Avenue des Champs-Élysées, the world's most famous street. They hope.

In the fast lane of international auto competitions, the PPMC rally is epic and not a little eccentric. The field of entrants evokes some nostalgia, as the cars must have been made before 1974. The oldest entry is a 1917 La France Tourer, the newest a 1973 Holden 48-215 FX. In between are MG, Packard, Rolls-Royce, Porsche, Datsun, Bentley, Chevrolet, Cadillac, Volvo, Volkswagen and other marques, including a 1967 Ford Mustang convertible.

The world's media will watch, of course. CBS News is one of several television networks that have sent teams to document the event.

Haag, 66, is a landscape architect. Johnson, 83, recently retired from his medical practice of 50 years. Now these two guys from Sacramento, who have been friends only a few years, are partners in a global adventure. How did that happen?

"A friend who's going to participate suggested it to me," Haag said. "I've always wanted to do something like this, and when the opportunity came up, I jumped on it, just like Ernie did.

"I'm doing it for the adventure and to see a part of the world I've never experienced," Haag said. "I'm interested in environments and landscapes, and we'll see vegetation and climates that will be new to us."

As for Johnson, "I decided it was time to have some fun and do something interesting," he said. "I know nothing about automobiles, so I will be navigating with a GPS. I'll bring the medical supplies and cameras, then I'm just going to enjoy the view."

Haag is the car expert of the two. He and Johnson paid $7,000 for the Ford Super Deluxe, which Haag found in Arizona.

"I chose a 1946 model because that's the year of my birth," Haag said. He chose a Ford because the parts are readily available.

Working in his garage at home, Haag rebuilt or replaced all the car's vital parts, including installing a larger-capacity fuel tank and radiator.

"I took out the rear seat and packed two extra tires and all the spare parts," Haag said.

Given that the car is a classic made of comparatively primitive components, will handling be an issue on the brutal course?

"It has a tendency to roll a little bit and corners like a marshmallow," Haag allowed. "In the wind it moves like a kite or a sailboat, so you've got to stay with it."

Their adventure has its price. The partners split the final bill – about $20,000, including shipping the car and their own round-trip airfares.

"We're hoping to sell the car when we get to Paris," Haag said. "We've already seen some interest."

We sat talking at a table inside Johnson's spacious home. The front door opened and closed, and Johnson's wife, Muriel, walked in. She's a community leader who has served on the California Arts Council and the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors.

What does she think of all this?

"At first I wondered, 'Are they crazy?' " she said. "But the more excited they got, the more I thought, 'This will be a great adventure. They're going to meet interesting people and see history in the making.' I just hope they make it."

The Johnsons will be in touch with each other via shortwave radio, a communication method they've been practicing.

"So I can bug him – 'Are you all right, dear?' " she joked.

To celebrate, Muriel Johnson and the couple's daughter will be on the Champs-Élysées to greet the two adventurers.

"If that funny old car makes it, and all those (other drivers) from around the world make it, surely we can make it and welcome them back," she said. "I'm going to wave my little American flag. It will be exciting."

"My wife thinks I'm crazy, as well," Haag said. "But she will be in Paris celebrating, too."

Long road ... history, too

The Peking to Paris Motor Challenge is sponsored by the London-based Endurance Rally Association, a British company that has organized 60 rally events worldwide, including PPMC events in 1997, 2007 and 2010 (www.pekingtoparis. com).

The original PPMC was held in 1907, in response to a challenge issued by the French newspaper Le Matin: "What needs to be proved is that as long as a man has a car, he can go anywhere. Is there anyone who will undertake to travel this summer from Paris to Peking by automobile?"

Five teams – four French and one Italian – picked up the gauntlet. Those being the early days of motoring, there was only one rule: Get there. Sixty-one days later, Prince Scipione Borghese and Ettore Guizzardi of Italy crossed the finish line to claim the prize: a magnum of Mumm champagne.

A similar rally was held in 1908, the New York to Paris Race, won by Team USA. It required 169 days, with one leg by ship across the Bering Strait. It inspired the 1965 comedy "The Great Race," starring Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon.

But the challenge Johnson and Haag face isn't a movie, and the risks are real.

"The race has a staggered start, so you can't follow the cars ahead of you. You're on your own," Haag said.

The trek will take them through China, Mongolia, Russia, Ukraine, Slovakia, Austria, Switzerland and France. Haag speaks a little Italian, Johnson a bit of German.

Most of the route will be off-road over rugged terrain, from barren desert to mountain passes at 11,000 feet. They will face extreme temperatures and may have to weather violent rainstorms and sandstorms "that could take the paint off the car," Haag said.

"We'll have to ford several rivers that aren't bridged, so we'll drive through them," he said. "We'll be given maps when we arrive in Beijing, so we'll better understand the terrain."

There are more worries: In past rallies, teams have become lost and have had to call for help on their satellite phones. Tuberculosis and dysentery aren't uncommon where Haag and Johnson are going. Their diets will change, and Johnson anticipates a 10-pound weight loss.

"We'll drink bottled water and will not eat any raw fruits or vegetables," he said.

In Mongolia, they'll sleep in tents on the ground, then later in small hotels in other countries. Driving distances will average 250 to 300-plus miles a day. Though they will carry extra gasoline, in the more desolate stretches they will have to rendezvous with tanker trucks.

Their anxiety level will be high, their mantra will be "caution."

"We're keeping our fingers crossed," Haag said.

Johnson added with a laugh, "I asked my grandson, who's a freshman in high school, 'Would you like to do this – go to Russia and Mongolia'? And he said, 'Do they have air conditioning?' "

Call The Bee's Allen Pierleoni, (916) 321-1128.

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