John Quam grew up around old cars on his family’s farm in Iowa. His dad collected vintage cars, so John was no stranger to the likes of Hupmobiles, Kissels, and Holsmans – more than 70 cars in all.
John was drawn to the 2008 100th anniversary re-creation of the 1908 “Great Race,” a pioneering around-the-world journey in a new-fangled contraption called the automobile. American George Schuster won that race in a Thomas Flyer, in 169 days. When the organizers of that 2008 race re-creation went bankrupt and canceled the event, John joined a few other die-hards – including Luke Rizzuto – in replicating on their own the U.S. portion of that 1908 journey, starting in New York City’s Times Square and ending in San Francisco.
Successful, together Luke and John planned to “finish the race” in 2014, all the way to Paris via Japan, China, Siberia, Russia and Europe. They were joined by retired Air Force officers Eileen Bjorkman and Leo Janssens. Sounds easy? MIR was asked to manage the logistics of car shipments and paperwork, border crossings, visas, guides, itineraries and accommodations. Still, it was no Sunday drive.
For John – a mere 70 years old – recycling this 1908 “Great Race” dream became a quintessential journey of a lifetime. This is his story, in his own words.
Note: MIR president Douglas Grimes highlights some of MIR’s landmark overland expeditions, including this one of driving Siberia and beyond in a vintage car. Each of the four “Longest Race” participants that Douglas mentions has an utterly unique story to tell: John Quam, Luke Rizzuto, Eileen Bjorkman, and Leo Janssens. John is featured here.
It’s the ultimate in recycling: pulling out a basket-case of a car buried in the family barn for 50 years, sprucing it up, and driving it around the world.
This wasn’t just any old car, it was our family’s 1928 Plymouth Roadster, the first of its kind. The Roadster was pretty much missing everything except for the body shell and frame.
It was a lot of work, but I recycled that jalopy into a head-turning car, the one I drove this year on our “Great Race.” I do mean head-turning!
MIR helped us get special permission and documents to transport our cars to the starting point in Japan, a country that frowns on American-made cars, and has rarely seen vintage cars. I think that’s just one of the reasons we’d always draw a crowd in Japan when we’d park the Roadster.
We had to promise to drive our old Plymouth and new GMC out of Japan. Not just promise; we had to pay a $5,000 deposit to ensure that our cars actually left Japan. They mean business!
Along the way there were new parts, like two replacement shocks and a spare tire tube as well as Gorilla Tape – it’s stronger than duct tape – and recycled plastic ties to hold the whole thing together. Talk about the wonders of recycling!
Great Race, Great Dream
Current politics play a bigger role than they did in 1908. We would talk to Russians, mostly through translators, and they’d say, “We were taught to distrust Americans,” just like we in the U.S. were taught to distrust Russians. And yet, it was such a great experience meeting them!
If you research the original 1908 Great Race and read the portion that we duplicated in China, Siberia and Russia, you’ll see they went through a lot of hardships, adversities and difficulties back then. You know what? That was 1908 and they weren’t deterred; in 2014 it’s the same thing but a little different. The roads were horrible back then, and many are today – especially in Siberia.
We met Doug Grimes of MIR, and he helped us with so many things. I tell people there’s no way you’re going to wake up one morning and say, “I think I’ll drive off around the world.” It’s not going to happen. In getting the cars to Japan to Russia to China to Siberia and beyond, we had tons of logistics, border red tape, translators and paperwork. We had to handle problems in so many different environments, and we had MIR’s local people along the way who understand how to operate within those systems, especially at the borders.
MIR pulled it off for us: we weren’t part of a big massive bus tour group; we were on our own – with MIR’s help and backup – which is what we wanted. MIR helped make this great dream come true.
Siberia: No Man's Land, No Car's Land
One day we drove 4 hours and got 10 miles in Siberia. They tear up roads in Siberia and don’t put them back, like a big section of road 5 feet across, 4 feet wide, and 6 to 8 inches deep. Nothing’s marked! No cones or flaggers, no lights. It could rip the whole front end off your front car. We would never think of driving at night. It’s no Sunday drive.
You just can’t take your eyes off the road for one second: so many potholes, boulders, and ruts. Even a two-lane road becomes five, with three lanes and two shoulders and everybody’s weaving in and out of traffic. Seriously, there are no basic traffic laws!
Siberia is No Man’s Land, but as difficult as it is people are out and about, smiling, hospitable. You have this stereotype of Siberians downtrodden, shuffling their feet. As dirt-poor as some of the towns are, they make the best of it and they work the system to their own advantage – so resourceful! I was so impressed with the people, from my perspective of what they go through and how they adapt – especially in Siberia.
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Example: We got a flat tire in Siberia. End of the world? You’d think. Instead, a very helpful Russian auto mechanic repaired our flat in seven minutes flat. By the way, the invoice for that spare tire was $3. I gave the Siberian guy $3 and then another $3, but he wouldn’t take that. Finally I convinced him to take the $3 and buy a drink after work. That worked!
Another example: It took us 12 hours to get across the Russian border at Vladivostok and into China, using the commercial entry that George Schuster used in 1908. Regular cars can’t use that border anymore, and because of that no one has ever re-created the original 1908 race the way we did. They would have to drive 1,000 miles around; so to be faithful in replicating the 1908 face, we had to drive through. It was a deal breaker if we couldn’t do it.
The rollback truck to get the cars across was a no-show – stuck in China – so we rented a flatbed truck. But still – how to get the cars on? In our first attempt, a local Siberian ingeniously created a homemade sling for lifting our cars with a crane onto the truck – what a contraption! I wouldn’t dare put a lawn mower in it!
That’s when our MIR guide and translator, Svetlana, spent three hours searching for a truly original Siberian solution – “out of the box” – and found it at an abandoned train loading dock. We drove the Roadster and GMC over there, and although it was really difficult we safely loaded the cars from the dock onto the truck, and got them across the border into China. No one had ever managed to do this, and we pulled it off. We were on our way!
Border Crossing: From "Nyet" to "Da"
We’re on our way, but then we get to the borders. Let’s just call them “unique.” You’ve got to have real patience, and you can’t get too disturbed right away. Every border has some kind of red tape, usually documentation. You’ve got to just ride it out. Borders are where “nyet” – “no” means “maybe,” and if you stick around long enough and start handing over papers, “maybe” becomes “da” – “yes.”
Here’s my lesson: If they say “nyet, you don’t just walk away. You just get into this thing and keep plowing away, handing over papers and documents. Once, a border-crossing supervisor came over to our MIR Russian-speaking guide, Natalya, when we had problems getting through – and said, “I understand you have a problem.” And our MIR guide said, “We don’t have a problem. Do YOU have a problem?” You just dog it out like that.
It seemed to work, and we got through OK– call it “border magic.” It all really brings home the expertise of MIR’s guides and translators, especially in these difficult border situations.
There’s this other dimension I try to explain to people when they say, “Wow, you were at the border that long?” It’s the truth: every border crossing I came to, they would empty the place: the entire administrative building would come out. Guards would take pictures of the Plymouth Roadster, and then hop in the car to have their picture taken! They’d stare at it as if it were some alien monster.
Plus, we’re Americans. There aren’t that many Americans in the Siberian region and that part of China that we were in. It’s just not a tourist area. When we got to Moscow and talked to Russians there, they’d say, “Where did you come from?” And we’d say “Vladivostok. We drove across Siberia to get here.” And the Russians would say, “Why would you ever do that? I was born and raised in Moscow and I would never think about going there.”
So there’s this feeling of “You must be crazy. No one in their right mind goes to Siberia. No one goes there.” I guess that’s the point: You don’t voluntarily go some place where no one wants to be, like Siberia. You get exiled there.
A Helping Hand
MIR and its people know how to work the system and get things done. We knew that if we really got into trouble, the MIR guides could call the MIR office and get more help. It’s one thing to be able to speak a language, but you’ve got to be steeped in someone’s culture and know how to negotiate, what you can push and what you can’t, and how you can shape the whole thing. That doesn’t happen overnight. Locals know how to do that.
Take someone like MIR’s Ksenia, who worked with us and lives in Siberia. Ksenia understands everything, how stuff works. She told us, “We don’t have a lot out here in Siberia, but we’re very creative getting things done without a lot of resources. We’ll come up with a way to work around it.” That was true of all the MIR folks: Sim, Ksenia, Svetlana, Natalya, Karen.
Anybody can line up hotels and such, but when it comes to physically traveling with a party, especially in a situation as unique as our vintage car “Great Race,” and driving around in old cars in unusual countries, it puts a whole new spin on everything.
It’s not like you’re hopping on a train or taking a bus or even just loading luggage into your car and taking off.
Recycling a Dream
In the end, duplicating the 1908 “Great Race” was the greatest adventure I ever had. Before I went, people would say, “What about this awful thing?” or “What if something bad happens?” Well, a tree could fall over and kill me. There are things that are going to happen, and sometimes the bad stuff makes a trip incredibly memorable.
My dad once told me that in life you’ll remember only the very best and the very worst, and the stuff in between goes by the wayside. You wouldn’t have a story if you just get in a car and drive across Siberia and nothing happens. I have truckloads of stories!
Now my recycled Plymouth Roadster’s all cleaned up, and I’m ready for the next big adventure!
–– John Quam
Learn MoreDiscover why the Great Race of 1908 was important not only to the auto industry, but to the entire world in MIR’s special stories on these automotive adventures. For starters, MIR President Douglas Grimes offers an overview on MIR’s expertise in overland expeditions, and especially on this complex multi-country journey by car. Then read the travel stories of John Quam’s motoring colleagues in the “Longest Race,” each with a unique perspective on why they traveled and what they experienced along the way:
- Luke Rizzuto: “Longest Race: Living a Vision, 1908 Style”
- Leo Janssens: “Longest Race: Driving to Parts Unknown, 1908 Style”
- Eileen Bjorkman: “Longest Race: Driving Siberia, 1908 Style”
You can also delve into the day-to-day journey of these four “Longest Race” participants in their own travel blog, “World Auto Tour.” It chronicles the pitfalls, pit stops, and motoring passions as they re-create in 2008 and 2014 this electrifying, around-the-world “Great Race.”
Does all this compel you to imagine your own adventurous journey? If so, imagine that journey with MIR. With nearly 30 years of logistical expertise, MIR specialists help you create your own hand-crafted itinerary focused on your own interests and activities, and on your own timeline. Truly, it’s a “journey of a lifetime.”