River Deep. Mountain High.
The very first Himalayan Challenge held in the autumn of 2018, was one of the toughest events that the Endurance Rally Association has ever run and, just getting to the finish was quite an achievement in itself.
Three Medcalf prepared vintage Bentleys started from Delhi in October and, naturally, three of them finished in Agra. You’d have expected nothing less though from such a stellar group of cars and crew, who’d already chalked up wins and firsts across the world.
Graham and Marina Goodwin for example, had taken the overall on the Road to Saigon along with Pyman their Super Sports in early 2018. Jonathon Turner, here in the Himalayas with his son Freddie, was one of the trailblazers as a competitor in the 1997 Peking to Paris again aboard his trusty 1929 – Bentley 4½ whilst Bill Cleyndert and Jacqui Norman had already won the inaugural 2017 Baltic Classic in their incredible Super Sports Continuation.
High in the Himalayas, and over the course of 22 tough but rewarding days, this Medcalf trio saw the normal rules of endurance rallying torn up and re-written, whilst the topography of Himachal Pradesh and Northern India was forever changed. Thanks to a week of incessant and heavy rain, the crews saw bridges and roads washed away, tracks and forests swallowed by landslides and rivers turned into black boiling torrents.
Unfortunately, a full five days of competitive driving had to be clipped from the schedule because of this deluge, leaving the rally organisers with a bit of a logistical headache. The iconic Rohtang Pass which was both a literal and actual highlight of the event was snowbound, whilst the lesser mountain roads leading to it had all but disappeared.
Like the crews themselves though, the ERA rose to the challenge and, with the help of Competition Director, Guy Woodcock, (enjoying his first long distance event), John Spiller, the Clerk of the Course was able to navigate his way through a fully blown natural disaster and deliver an excellent alternative following a longer than scheduled stopover in Manali.
The dramatic escape from the hills called for a 25 km pre dawn convoy down the very soggy Kulu Valley and along the Beas River, which ultimately brought the rally to the only crossing point left standing. An apparently flimsy and unsteady cable stayed suspension bridge at Raison which was around 200m long. More importantly though, at approximately 2m wide there was just enough room to accommodate a WO Bentley – along with its anxious crew. Deft touches on the steering wheel and sensitive use of the throttle ensured that all of the rally made it to the other side.
The next stop was Shimla, the one time summer Capital of the Raj but the going was still tough. The crews had to contend with the unpredictable local traffic, the weather damaged roads, the constant hairpins and the altitude. Suspension, clutches, brakes and steering were therefore tested almost to the very limit. The rally pressed on over the sacred River Ganges and towards Nepal, where visits to a couple of safari parks in the low lying Terai led to two rest days in Kathmandu.
Once they’d reached the magical and ancient capital of this beautiful mountain kingdom, two of the three Bentleys enjoyed a privileged visit to the Basantapur Palace, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Jonathan Turner’s 1997 Peking to Paris car was joined by Bill Cleyndert’s Super Sports Continuation and, both were quickly swallowed up by the hordes of tourists keen to get in on the action and to grab quick selfie.
Flights over Everest and a breakfast at Base Camp crowned a memorable visit.
At the finish line in Agra, in the shadow of the Taj Mahal, the three – by now travel stained – Bentley’s proudly lined themselves across the road so that their crews could soak up the congratulations of the crowd.
Getting an old car through the youngest yet the highest mountain range in the world is no mean feat but this threesome made it all look so easy.
Back at the William Medcalf Vintage Bentley workshops they’ve cleared three service bays in anticipation for the Bentleys return.