Durham man to travel across Nepal and India in vintage car challenge

Durham man to travel across Nepal and India in vintage car challenge

Durham >> Spending three weeks in a car may amount to torture for many, but it sounds like the perfect trip to Durham resident Phil Putnam, who will compete this fall in the Himalayan Challenge endurance rally.

Putnam and a friend, along with dozens of other competing teams, will zip across approximately 4,500 miles in a loop starting in New Delhi, India, winding through Kathmandu, Nepal and ending up at the Taj Mahal in Agra, India. The challenge which starts in September is open to pre-1976 cars.

It may sound like a race — but it’s not exactly.

“In a race you go as fast as you can, and this is not that,” he said. “You start at a given time and you have to hit checkpoints at a certain time to the second. You get deductions if you’re late or early.”

There will be portions of the rally where competitors race around a track for the fastest time, however.

Driving through a small town with the world’s highest elevation, they will have to take precautions to avoid altitude sickness. Along the way, they will stay in hotels to rest at night and will have a few free days near sites of interest to explore. Putnam plans to take a plane ride around Mt. Everest.

“We’ll hit some pretty exotic things,” he said.

He scored a largely free entry into the Himalayan Challenge as a co-driver thanks to the skills he can bring on board, as an expert in a tiny niche of the vintage automobile world. His chariot of choice is the Chrysler Airflow, only produced from 1934-1937.

One might ask what’s so special about this model. Putnam points to the heavy weight, strength and speed of the car. In the ’30s few cars could go above 65 miles per hour, but here was one that could hit 100 mph, he said.

“They had advances way ahead of their time,” he said. “They were just so well-engineered.”

Putnam, once the owner of Putnam Mulholland Auto Company in Chico, is now retired but his life still revolves around cars. Because he is known for his expertise with Chrysler Airflows, people will ship their vehicles to him and Putnam will work on them at his home shop.

He says he is also happy to help his competitors. People who do this are in it for fun, not money, Putnam said. There will be a first-place trophy for the Himalayan Challenge but no monetary prizes, he said.

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To get on the fun, participants need some serious money to play with. It costs about $10,000 to ship a car overseas, $25,000 to enter the race and then there’s the car itself. Putnam said it took about $40,000 to get the vintage ride ready for the competition by beefing up the suspension and installing new brakes, shock absorbers, a transmission and an engine.

The car belongs to Putnam’s partner for the rally, Monte Gingery, who owns a business in Rockville, Maryland. The two also competed in a rally together from Beijing to Paris in 2013.

On the road, the days aren’t filled with blasting music or long conversations, Putnam said. Gingery stays focused, with often bumpy terrain and poor conditions to hold his attention, and it’s Putnam’s job to voice directions out of the rally’s route book, which outlines each turn that needs to be made and at what time.

Putnam said he never gets tired of being in or around cars.

“I’ve been a car nut for my whole life,” he said. “I can’t get enough.”

Contact reporter Risa Johnson at 896-7763.

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