Shekhar Mehta – Peugeot 204 & Lancia Fulvia Coupe
Shekhar Mehta, five times winner of the East African Safari Rally pours his heart out to John Davenport about a couple of mutts
After a long and successful career in motor sport, it is often hard to choose just one car to feel really had about, so we allowed Shekhar Mehta to deliver his spleen in a double-whammy.
Shekhar started his rally career when living in Uganda in the mid-’60s. Among many business interests, his family imported BMWs and so it was that he did his first events in a BMW 1800. He drove it for a full year in 1966 and followed it up with a year in a Renault 16. Today he recalls “the BMW was one of the quickest cars around but there was no local experience on preparing it for the rallies that we did in Africa. And its speed was no help for its reliability. I decided that I needed a slower car that I would have to drive flat out if I was to learn.”
The Renault was a step in the right direction, but again there was little local experience with it. The choice then fell on a Peugeot. These, you will remember, were the great Peugeot years in East Africa when the likes of Bert Shankland and Nick Nowicki reigned supreme in their 404s. Peugeot and their importers were keen to promote their new front wheel drive car, the 204. It had been launched in 1965 to acclaim in Europe but had not achieved the same respect in Africa. The factory prepared some ‘special’ cars at the works and offered them at equally special prices through their dealers.
The little 204 with its 1100cc engine seemed to fit the bill as far as young Shekhar was concerned. “It suited the rallies in Uganda where there weren’t any big hills and sharp bends so I was quite pleased with it. Then we did the 1968 Safari, which was quite wet. We had to use chains to get up the first section at Mau Narok. We had done about 25 per cent of the route and then got stuck coming up out of the Kerio Valley at Tambach. A friend in a Saab stopped to see if he could help. I told him he would have to back down and rush at the hill again but he just took first gear and drove off. I had learned one thing: if it rained I was in trouble with the 204.”
The 1969 Safari promised to be dry and so it was. A brand new Peugeot 204 was ordered and, accompanied by Rob Combes, Shekhar was sure that a good result was in the offing.
“The major problem was that we had 27 punctures during the rally. It wasn’t a tyre problem but a wheel problem. The wheels were made of papier-mâché or something similar. You only had to look at a rock and the rim bent back letting all the air out. It became a nightmare of wheel changing and finding sufficient rims to continue.
“But the worst thing was that the car was so painfully slow. It was the first year that Derek Gates had run the rally. He had put in 100-mph average speeds down the main Nairobi to Mombasa road. In fact every time we hit a tarmac road he had set the average at 100 mph or more. Going on one long liaison section towards Mombasa, we lost forty minutes and without stopping for anything. We had no trouble, went flat out the whole way and dropped forty minutes. The car would only do 82 mph.
“The problem with losing so much time was we got no rest since the time lost had to be made up at the halts. At a four-hour halt, the leaders would get three and three-quarter hours between the sheets. We’d arrive and be told ‘You’re off in ten minutes’. With the heat in the car, we were so dehydrated that I couldn’t eat solids for a week after finishing.
“Mechanically the Peugeot was sound but its destiny was as a shopping car. All I can say is it taught you patience, which was evidently something I didn’t have at that time because when we got to the end of the rally, I wanted to give up rallying.”
Shekhar’s time with the 204 had come to a close but he had not given up the sport. He discovered Datsun and in 1971 finished second overall on the Safari with a 240Z and won with a similar car two years later. What then to drive for the 1974 event? There were several offers on the table.
“I got a call from Cesare Fiorio asking me to drive one of his works Lancia Fulvias. I went to see him and said that I would let him know. Then I rang Tony Fall who had driven Lancias and asked what he thought. He said that it would be no problem, that when you drive a Lancia you drive the best car. The only thing was that the money was not very good and you had to be careful about how you get paid. After I drove the Lancia on the Safari, I called Tony and said that it was the worst car that I’d ever driven, but that I got paid more than I expected!
“The problem with the Fulvia was that it was a serious rally car for Europe but it just did not have enough suspension movement for Africa where it also had to carry more fuel and two spare wheels. It was quick and strong, but it was terribly difficult to drive on the rough without handing out unbelievable amounts of punishment to the poor thing. It was hard work all the time. You were fighting the feedback through the steering wheel while at the same time trying to miss the big rocks. Fortunately, most of the 1974 rally was wet and a lot of sections had to be cancelled so that the Fulvia lasted and we came home eleventh.
“But there were other problems too. The Fulvia lost its clutch and the starter packed up. There was nothing for it but to drive round in circles at the controls. Getting the co-driver back in the car was only achieved with some difficulty.
“I did drive a Fulvia again in Africa on the London-Munich World Cup Rally. A front spring broke in Morocco and as the Fulvia only has a single transverse leaf spring, this was rather serious. At the service at the border Lancia’s mechanic Gino Fraboni took one look under the bonnet and burst into team at which point we realised that the problem was probably worse than we had thought. They had no replacement and the next service was 72 hours away in Nigeria, the other side of something called the Sahara Desert. So we drove on with no suspension. Not an experience I ever wish to repeat.”