True Grit

This 208 GT4 took on the grueling, 8,700-mile Peking to Paris Motor Challenge.

Photo: True Grit 1
October 19, 2023

The Peking to Paris Motor Challenge is a testament to the belief that any destination on Earth can be reached by car. The inaugural edition, held in 1907, saw victory claimed by an Itala 35/45 HP crewed entirely by Italians: Prince Scipione Borghese, mechanic and driver Ettore Guizzardi, and journalist Luigi Barzini, a special correspondent for Corriere della Sera and the Daily Telegraph.

After a journey of 60 days, the Itala was welcomed with jubilation at the finish line in Paris. Despite a 1,000-kilometer detour to attend an elegant reception in St. Petersburg, the Italians triumphed with a commanding lead of 20 days (!) over the runners-up, a testament to the car’s durability, the extraordinary fuel capacity of its side tanks, and the resilience of its 7-liter engine.

The modern-day Motor Challenge, organized by the Endurance Rally Association, is a revival of the classic competition. The often-rugged, 8,700-mile journey linking the two capitals takes participants from the starting point in Beijing, China through Mongolia, Russia, Kazakhstan, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Germany, and Belgium to the conclusion in France.

Photo: True Grit 2

Giorgio Schon (at left) and Enrico Guggiari in China in 2019.

It’s not a place you’d expect to find a vintage Ferrari, but that didn’t deter Giorgio Schon, a former rally driver and the owner of Milanese Ferrari and Maserati dealership Rossocorsa, from bringing exactly that. Schon also stands out as the only Italian to have participated twice in the rally. His first attempt was with an Alfa Romeo Giulia Super, followed, in 2019, by this 1976 Dino 208 GT4, the first Ferrari to contest the event.

Introduced in 1975 as a tax-friendly home-market alternative to the more potent 3-liter 308 GT4, the 208 GT4 boasted a modest 1,991-cc V8—the smallest such engine ever to grace a Ferrari road car—that produced an equally modest 170 hp. Otherwise, the two Bertone-bodied 2+2 models are identical, down to their claimed 2,535-pound dry weight and diminutive 169-inch length.

Schon’s car is distinctly different from other 208 GT4s, however, starting with the fact that its engine has been rebuilt to a full 2,990 cc (even larger than the 308 GT4’s 2,927 cc’s). Meticulously modified by Rossocorsa, the Ferrari also utilizes numerous components from the 308 GTB Group 4 rally cars prepared by Michelotto in the late 1970s.

Photo: True Grit 3

The entire structure was reinforced and stiffened to handle the stresses of high-speed dirt roads, uneven asphalt, and overall rough terrain. The passenger compartment was fortified with a roll cage that serves both as a protective measure and a load-bearing element. Underneath, the car’s mechanicals are shielded by a shell of 0.39-inch avional—a tough, crack-resistant alloy.

While aesthetically pleasing, the original alloy wheels proved too fragile for off-road use so were replaced with steel rallying wheels. The Ferrari wears 205/70R-14 Pirelli CN 36s for asphalt use, and for dirt stages rolls on Pirelli Scorpion 205/75R-15s. Thanks to their taller sidewalls, the Scorpions raise the car’s ground clearance on challenging routes. A spare wheel carrier was mounted on the roof.

The Ferrari’s heavy pop-up headlights were removed and their openings covered. In their stead, new rectangular headlights protected by metal mesh were positioned where the turn signals originally resided. Lightweight plastic windows (with F40-style sliders on the doors) replaced the original glass for additional weight savings.

Photo: True Grit 4

Personal belongings, spare parts, and other equipment were stored behind the front seats, under the front hood, and behind the engine compartment, as race regulations exclude external assistance and require competitors to manage repairs and punctures themselves. Given that daily distances ranged from 250 to 400 miles with average speeds around 60 mph, significant preparation was crucial.

Schon had the finished Ferrari painted in mandatory Rosso Corsa, complemented with a white roof and a green-and-white stripe on the nose. Stickers from sponsors—including Larus Miani, Liqui Moly, Pirelli, and Riva—were also added.

Between them, Schon and co-driver (and fellow former rallyist) Enrico Guggiari have contested more than 1,000 circuit races and road rallies over the past 50 years, at events spanning the globe. But could they and the purpose-built Ferrari beat this enormous challenge? In early June 2019, it was time to find out.

Photo: True Grit 5

ROSSOCORSA’S 208 GT4 navigated the rally’s many challenges seamlessly, from stream beds to the rocky Gobi Desert, Siberian steppes to Mongolian cattle tracks, rallycross courses to speed circuits. The Ferrari remained mechanically sound throughout, save for the sump protector succumbing to rugged terrain, a problem that was promptly repaired. Over the course of 36 days of competition, Schon and Guggiari otherwise only had to clean off dirt and mud, replace a tire torn by a sharp rock, repair an exhaust support, and add a liter of motor oil.

While the meticulously prepared car performed admirably, the unpredictable human factors proved much more challenging to manage. Guggiari suffered a severe kidney stone episode during the initial stage, and was eventually hospitalized by the race’s medical team. After missing two stages due to that hospitalization, Schon and Guggiari resumed the race in last place—108th out of 108 starters.

Despite this significant setback, the Ferrari achieved impressive times in every special stage across the Mongolian desert. But then, as the duo regained momentum, Schon encountered his own medical obstacle, a painful abscess that hindered him from driving on fast dirt roads. Happily, Siberia, Kazakhstan, and Russia were traversed without further physical setbacks.

Photo: True Grit 6

Outstanding performances on the timed stages pushed Schon and Guggiari forward in the ranking. By the time they reached Finland, after 27 grueling days of competition, they had climbed up to 50th place, although the leading competitors remained challenging to catch.

Their focus then shifted to the European Cup, a separate classification for the latter stages of the race, covering Finland, Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Poland, Germany, Belgium, and France. The majority of these stages took place on asphalt or dirt tracks, and Schon and Guggiari’s experience, as well as the 208 GT4’s performance, came to the forefront. The Rossocorsa team swiftly secured a lead in the provisional standings, comfortably maintaining control over their rivals—until a misstep at a Polish petrol station. There, the name “V-Power” ambiguously referred to both gasoline and diesel, and Guggiari inadvertently filled the Ferrari with diesel.

It took over five hours to drain the fuel tanks, clean the carburetors, replace the spark plugs, and retune the V8 engine. While they were able to continue, the Ferrari plummeted from first to last in the European Cup standings, albeit losing only two positions in the overall classification.

Photo: True Grit 7

The drivers reunite with their rally car in Italy in 2023.

This setback unfolded just four days before the race’s conclusion in Paris. If not for the points lost due to overseas hospitalization and the diesel refuelling incident, Schon and Guggiari could well have competed for a podium finish, as well as secured the European Cup with ease.

“We take satisfaction in reaching the finish line,” said a reflective Schon. “This marks the first instance of a Ferrari completing such a lengthy and demanding rally without issues.”

While the eighth Peking to Paris Motor Challenge, originally slated for 2022, did not take place due to the pandemic, it is set to run in 2024. Anticipation surrounds the release of the participant list, and we must wonder whether Schon and Guggiari will embark on this adventure again.

Also from Issue 210

  • Roma Spider first drive
  • 308 QV vs 328
  • Tifosi: Making Memories
  • 750 Monza technology
  • 2023 Pebble Beach, The Quail, Motorlux
  • F1: Spanish Surprise
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