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Classic cars on the road to Mandalay

Rudyard Kipling’s Mandalay evokes a wistful longing for the romance of old Burma. Shortly after its 1890 publication, the poem quickly found a new incarnation, when put to a tune for the popular 1907 song Road to Mandalay. Over one hundred years later that sentiment is recreated again, as the Kipling ballad loans its name to an adventure organised by a colourful group of continent-hopping motorcar enthusiasts, all with one eye firmly fixed on history.

UK motoring club The Endurance Rally Car Association will spend the month of February traveling between two former jewels of the British colonial crown, Singapore and Burma. Initially comprised of 70 vintage vehicles driven by racers from 18 different countries, the convoy includes cars most often unseen through the jungles, plains and valleys of Malaysia and Thailand.

David Ayre in his 1907 Itala Parigi. (PHOTO: Colin Hinshelwood/ DVB)

The rally drivers and their entourage arrived in the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai on 17 February. The team is now just days away from its first major logistic hurdle, an historic crossing of the Burmese border at Mae Sot in eastern Thailand.

“It’s a great challenge,” says rally director Philip Young. “The [Thai-Burmese] border was closed for a very long time, some 60 years.

“Burma has never ever seen any sort of motoring event. It has taken three years of diplomacy and careful working with the Burmese government to pull this off. But we are now hopeful that we are going to be driving into Burma, which is something that has never been seen before.”

Decades of economic sanctions have made drivers in Burma quite familiar with outdated models. Yet the endurance rally cars don’t have much in common with the clunkers seen on the streets of Rangoon and Mandalay, or the villages of eastern and central Burma that the convoy will visit.

On Tuesday, a 1907 Itala Parigi led the group out of the Chiang Mai Shangri-La Hotel. Alongside Bentley and Rolls Royce models from the early 20th century, it is a true antique collectable, and one of the many cars in the rally with an estimated worth of over $US1.5 million.

Parigi owner David Ayre says he’s had to be careful, but that the car is made for adventure.

“It’s the oldest car [in the race],” Ayre began. “It’s got no front brakes, it’s got wooden wheels. You just have to be careful with it,” he joked.

“It’s also the same car used in the first Peking to Paris Rally in 1907 by an Italian prince, who won the event.”

The convoy of vintage vehicles arrived that night in Mae Hong Son, a small town nestled in the mountains that separate Thailand from Burma’s Karenni State. From there they will take a day to drive south to Mae Sot, the traditional gateway between the Southeast Asian neighbours. After formalities at the border, the team plans to drive through Mon State to the former colonial trading centre of Moulmein.

Many may think that the antique cars are more suited to a museum. The racers however are undaunted, despite the extensive repair work many have had to endure as the roads of Thailand and Malaysia have thrown up the challenge. Burma’s tourist hot sports of Inle Lake and Bagan are also on the agenda for the intrepid drivers. Yet with thousands of kilometres still to go, the exotic dream of Mandalay is still a long road ahead.