The 2020 Dakar Rally is going on now, with a convoy of race vehicles that bear as much resemblance to a factory vehicle as a NASCAR Toyota Camry does to one in a rental car lot. It's the first rally to be held in Saudi Arabia, the third region to host the rally. But in 1979, it was a race across Africa, in modified factory cars...and in the earliest days, the Range Rover Classic was dominant in the field.
A Range Rover won the first race, in 1979 -- one of 13 Range Rovers entered in the race. One would win again in 1981, came in 5th in 1980, 4th in 1982, 3rd in 1983, 2nd in 1984, 6th in 1985, 8th in 1986, 2nd in 1987, 3rd in 1988, and 9th in 1990. In the peak year of 1985, 40 Rangies began the journey. The Rangie was a key to success at Dakar alongside Peugeot 504s, Mercedes G-Wagens, Lada Nivas, Mitsubishi Pajeros, and Toyota Land Cruisers.
The Paris-Dakar Rally was the brainchild of Thierry Sabine, who was racing in the 1977 Abdijan-Nice Race from Côte d'Ivoire to France. He got hopelessly lost on his motorbike in the Ténéré desert, spending three days wandering the sands. Under the Libyan sun, with nothing to see but the sand, Sabine fell in love with the West African desert. He decided to plan a rally to traverse the region, with the intent being "to cause those who stay behind to dream."
On December 26, 1978 the first rally (considered the 1979 edition as it finished in the New Year) set off from the Place du Trocadéro in Paris. 182 competitors departed in cars, on motorcycles, and in trucks. The journey would take them 10,000 km/6200 miles to Africa. They drove south across France to the Mediterranean, then sailed across to Algiers. They transited the Algerian desert to Tamanrasset, then continued to Agadez and Niamey in Niger. From there it was off to Gao in Mali, where there was a rest day. From there, it was across Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso) to Bamako and Nioro in Mali. The finish was in the iconic city of Dakar, in Senegal.
A Range Rover, piloted by Frenchmen Alain Génestier, Joseph Terbiaut, and Jean Lemordant was the fourth vehicle across the line, and the first car. It was a basic vehicle, still running on the standard Rostyle alloy wheels that came with a factory example. The entire clamshell bonnet was painted flat black, to dull the reflections of the African sun, but otherwise it was painted in a simple white and covered in sponsor decals.
Génestier had been working in the Ivory Coast for many years, and drove 100,000 km a year across West Africa for his work with a power company. His Range Rover was purchased second-hand in France and was intended for the 5x5 Americas rally in 1979, which was cancelled. It ran a regular 3.5 liter Rover V8, had three seats for the three team members, was fitted with an extra fuel tank, and had a winch that was never used. The only thing that was reinforced on the vehicle was the steering damper.
In the qualifying stage in France, they ranked a pitiful 80th in the field, but rose like a rocket on arrival in Africa. At one point in the rally, they were in first place, ahead of even the motorcycles. (The 1979 year did not break out results by vehicle type.) But on the way to Agadez, they got stuck, and the disarray of negotiating to buy a shovel from locals cost them valuable time. Nonetheless, they were always in the top three cars at each stage, in first place during three stages.
The 1979 rally was a rousing success, and the event grew in leaps and bounds. In 1980, Frenchmen Christophe Neveu and Rémy Bourgoin came in fifth in a topless Range Rover. They were followed by Claude Bourgoignie, Jean-Pierre Tasiaux, and Maurice Gierst in an example with no windows or doors, and Christine Beckers' example with fabric doors replacing the heavy metal examples of a 2-door Rangie. In all of these years, a variety of Series IIIs and Defenders would also be entered, most of them V8 powered 109s or 110s, but none of them achieved the success of the Range Rovers.
In 1981, the Range Rover would again prevail, piloted by René Metge and Bernard Giroux. With blanked-out rear windows, nets for front windows, blacked out Rostyles, and more refined sponsorship livery, Dakar had come of age as a proper racing rally.
The event would change heavily over the coming years, and today there's no chance of coming anywhere near the podium in a totally stock vehicle. In the 1986 event, Thierry Sabine was killed when his helicopter crashed in a dust storm in Mali. The same year, the race was won by a factory-prepared Porsche 959. The race ran across North Africa from 1979 to 2007, usually starting or ending in Dakar. The 2008 event was cancelled a day before the start, though, due to terrorist threats from an Al-Qaeda affiliate in Mauritania. From 2009 to 2019, the event was held in South America, usually in some combination of Argentina, Chile, Peru, Bolivia, and Paraguay. Various issues between Dakar and the South American countries have led to the event being held in Saudi Arabia in 2020, with a five-year contract keeping the event there through at least 2024.
There's still a Land Rover in this year's rally, though Range Rovers have not run the event since the days of the Classics. Team 100% Sud Ouest, featuring French competitors Gerard Tramoni and Dominique Totain, have entered a Bowler Wildcat. It's a far cry from 1979, but so is quite a lot else.
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