A Shaftesbury man who drove a classic British car 15,000 kilometres from Peking to Paris is sharing his story to raise funds for Donhead St Andrew’s church.
Sir John Stuttard’s Rolls Royce turned heads as he steered it across rivers, on potholed roads and along the foothills of Everest – because it is painted pink! Alfred’s Keri Jones went to see the car – named ‘Harrison’ – at home in St James.
Sir John, a former Lord Mayor of London, is clearly proud of his special vehicle. He is highly knowledgeable about this make and model too, following extensive research. “Rolls-Royce built two sizes of car,” explained John. “The big one was the Silver Ghost. They had a smaller one with 20 horsepower. That one is called a ‘2025’. It’s one of the most reliable of the Rolls-Royce models. It was in production from 1929 to 1935.”
“This one was made in December 1934,” said Sir John, as we walked around the vehicle inside his large garage. “It was made for a Mr H H Stuttard. We saw it at an auction in 1989 and thought, we must have this car,” he said.
Although the first owner shared John’s surname, he had no idea that he was actually buying a Rolls-Royce once owned by a distant relative from Lancashire. “When we bought the car, we investigated it,” said John. “We got in touch with our relatives and got some of the photographs of the car back in the 1930s. I wrote a book subsequently on the Stuttard Rolls-Royces.” He named his car ‘Harrison’ after the first owner.
Five of the cars owned by John’s wealthy mill-owning relatives were still in Britain. “I traced one to Australia and another one to New Jersey,” said John, who explained that many of the cars were sent to The States in the 1960s, when soaring UK fuel prices made them too costly to own.
I climbed inside ‘Harrison’ and as I sank down into the plush passenger seat, I was immediately struck by how comfortable the car was. I imagined that travelling from China to France would have felt like riding on a Chesterfield sofa. The interior workmanship was of the highest quality. “It is walnut veneer, inlaid with brass. As you can see, this is all original. Fortunately, this car hasn’t been messed around with,” said John, adding, “It’s the original engine, everything is there. The only thing that was replaced is the rubber piping and the electrics.”
Harrison isn’t a museum-piece, despite its excellent state. “Since 1989, we’ve taken it on a number of tours in France, in particular to Monte Carlo and Italy,” said John, as he showed me the plaques he had collected from European rallies.
Also on the garage wall was Harrison’s Chinese number plate. The Rolls needed a special registration number when it set off on a challenge that began in 1907. John put together a team for the 70th anniversary, in 1997.
His trip attracted attention from the Financial Times, who wanted to spray the car in their newspaper’s distinctive colour. “I agreed to this on the condition that they paid for painting it back, but at the end of the tour, the car coachwork was badly damaged and we had to have quite a lot of repairs done. We decided to keep it FT pink because it is the only pink Rolls-Royce that has travelled from Peking to Paris,” said John, who added that Harrison is in demand for the weddings of the daughters of his friends.
The rough terrain on the Peking to Paris run explains the need for Harrison’s repairs. “Everyone thought we were absolutely crazy taking the car on such a long arduous journey. It’s 10,000 miles across the worst roads in the world. Tibet, Nepal, Pakistan – the roads were simply appalling,” said John, as he flicked through the photos on his laptop that he will illustrate his forthcoming talk with.
“Is that a road?” I asked. “That is,” confirmed John, as he showed me a picture of cars trying to find their way through a mass of sticky, black, treacle-like mud. “And interestingly enough, you can see Lord Montague taking a photograph of our car, just about to cross it. Mudslide is the right word for it,” said John.
Even so, the car coped well with the challenging road conditions and the climate. “We were on the highest road in the world. 17,300 feet. And we were camping at 18,000 feet the following day when we got to Everest. It was so cold at night that our breath froze on the inside of the tent. Yet the car was perfectly okay.”
Harrison also took thirteen river ford crossings in Nepal and a drive through the most polluted city in China in its stride, because the cars were built for the rough roads in South Africa, Australia, India and Kenya in the 1920s. The vehicle chassis is very strong and there were effective shock absorbers built in, John explained, although he added that some of the roads were surprisingly good.
John showed me a picture of a handmade sign welcoming the Peking to Paris rally to Iran, beneath a foreboding poster portrait of Ayatollah Khomeini. “The government there had used their oil revenues to good effect, in terms of building the infrastructure. But in other countries, it was quite tough. We had eight punctures altogether,” said John.
“In Pakistan, where we had the most punctures, we found they had the best tyre repairs. As you entered a village, there would be a tyre repair shop and as you left the village another tyre repair shop, so it was quite easy to get tyres repaired,” he recalled. “They did it by putting a plug through where the hole was and by vulcanizing the inside of the tyre. It is something which could not be done in the UK as it would not pass the MOT test.”
Driving skills on the route were often below expected UK standards, particularly in Pakistan. “Where the road is a dual carriageway, lorries are coming at you on both sides, so you have to weave your way through these lorries. It is extremely dangerous.”
John hasn’t forgotten a near disaster in the west of China. “We were going up a very long incline with 1,000-foot drop on the right-hand side. Coming down the road in the opposite direction was a Beijing Jeep. He wouldn’t get over to his side of the road. He came in the middle. I knew that if I went to the right I would go into the side of the road, which might not be robust with a drop with no guardrail. Fortunately, before the rally started, we had put a bull bar on the front of the car to protect it. At the very last minute, I drove the car into the Beijing Jeep to push it onto its side of the road. This car weighs two tons. A Beijing weighs one ton. I pushed the Jeep back onto his side of the road and he carried on going down the hill and we carried on going up the hill. None of us stopped. Thank goodness I did that,” said John.
And John recalls some seeing some heavily overladen vehicles. “In China, you might see a tractor with a trailer behind it, laden with turnips, and the wife is spread-eagled on the top of this pile in order to stop any of the turnips falling off. It’s a strange sight to see.”
It would be difficult to retrace John’s journey today because of increased tensions and safety concerns in some of the regions he passed through, but back in 1997, John says he felt very safe, particularly in China. “I was working in Beijing at the time. I was head of our firm and we employed the son of the Chinese Foreign Secretary. He was very helpful. He introduced us to the Ministry of Public Security, and they arranged permission for the cars to cross China. Initially, they wanted one million dollars per car. We suggested that that was a little bit too greedy. In the end, it finished up at £500 per car,” said John.
“We were travelling through China for thirteen days and they provided officials from the Public Security Bureau, who were dressed in their uniforms, lining the route almost one person every half mile. In Iran, we had a similar situation, where somebody knew one of the Vice Presidents and he was able to guarantee safety through the Iranian army and police. We didn’t feel at all threatened.”
John was behind the wheel for the journey, which followed part of the traditional Silk Road. His crew shared vital languages skills that proved useful in those days before Google and Wi-Fi. “There was a team of four men in the car. One of them had been in the Foreign Office and had spent a lot of time in China. He spoke fluent Mandarin and that was very helpful during the first twelve or thirteen days of the tour. Another of the group had lived in Pakistan and Iran. He spoke Urdu and Farsi. Our engineer, Roy, was a smoker. There was no time to stop and let someone out to have a cigarette. He got on the running board, holding onto it, had his cigarette and then tapped on the window and said, ‘I have now finished, can you let me back in again?’” John recalled.
John has more stories to share about his mammoth trip during his talk on Saturday 22nd June at 6.00pm at the Charlton Remembrance Hall. The event is raising money for St Andrew’s Church Development Appeal.
“Someone I knew in London lives in The Donheads, and knew I’d undertaken this journey. One loves reliving memories, particularly if they’re pleasant and exciting experiences,” said John.
Tickets can be reserved on 01747 828279 at £10 each, which include canapés. You might also get to see Harrison. “Anyone coming to the lecture can actually see what the beast looks like,” said John.