The Safari Rally
PREDICTIONS occasionally have some merit when they purport to foretell the results of sprint rallies, as events with many short, high-speed special stages are often called, for the form-book can occasionally apply to an event of a well-known type and character in which drivers and cars of well-known calibre and performance are taking part. But in the case of long endurance events over difficult, varied terrain which can change drastically at the drop of a sudden thunderstorm, forecasts of any kind can be quite meaningless.
In the middle sixties it was a well-known precept of the East African Safari, as it was then called, that wet weather would favour the wily local experts who can categorise mud from its colour and can spot a thorn bush two score yards away at a hundred miles per hour, and that dry weather would at least put the visiting professionals from overseas at something approaching even odds. In those years Peugeot 404 saloons, barely different from those for sale in Marshalls’ Nairobi showrooms, were beating cars of far greater agility and power and scooping up the sales figures simply because local residents waited for the Safari results before choosing their next cars.
Times have changed, and the modern rally car, purpose-built by skilled designers to serve both as a competition winner and as a sales catcher, can often be regarded as a thinly-disguised racing car without being far from the truth. Homologations of competition options have multiplied many times over and when the present-day professional rally driver gets into his tailored competition car he knows that he is being provided with the best piece of sophisticated machinery that his team can produce. It’s a far cry from the enthusiasts of old, using the same car for their weekend sport that they did to take the kids to see grandma.
In Kenya people refer to town vehicles and Safari vehicles, safari here being used in its original Swahili meaning, journey. The car which is ideal for family transport in and around Nairobi is not necessarily suitable for a long trek over suspension-hammering bush roads, but over the years the successes of Peugeot saloons in the Safari Rally have resulted in satisfying sales of these cars to people who want to use them both in the towns and out in the bush. Just as durability, strength and reliability are prerequisite qualities for any car which is to be used often on Kenya’s bumpy bush roads, so have they become the features which people look for in rally cars, power and speed potential being almost secondary requirements. It seemed almost incongruous that Lancia should take its Stratos and Renault its little Alpine to challenge much stronger-looking cars in that great African road race (for that is what it very nearly is) called the Safari Rally. Fellowing outstanding successes in the Monte Carlo Rally and the Swedish Rally, Lancia took two such cars to Kenya, one for Munari and Drows and the other for Waldegard and Thorszelius. A third car which had
been used for practice was rebuilt and given to local driver Vic Preston Jnr. who had been left without a car following Fiat’s sudden withdrawal from the World Championship and consequently from the Safari. Predictions were that these thoroughbred competition cars would not last the pace over the rocks, dust, mud and car-swallowing drifts of the bush roads, which brings us back in a way CO where we started. Those predictions were quite wrong, for the three Stratos finished second, third and eleventh. What is more, one of them very nearly won.
It would hardly have boosted Lancia’s sales in East Africa if a Stratos had emerged Winner of the Safari, for it is by no means a car which any ordinary motorist would want to buy for everyday transport and Kenyan car owners (like most others) are not likely to be endeared to one model of a particular make simply because of success in competition by a very different model of the same make. There were two Lancia Beta coupes in the Safari too, but neither finished. That, to the Kenyan public, is probably more significant than the good performance by the Stratos.
Even more significant is the fact that the winning car was a Peugeot 504 which managed to beat all its powerful rivals. That is a car which can be bought at showrooms not only in Kenya but all over Africa, and the man in the street can readily and easily identify with the Safari winner by just going out and buying one. Of course, the four 504s built, prepared and serviced by French factory mechanics were more potent by far than the cars which used to be prepared entirely in East Africa by Marshalls in Kenya and Tanganyika Motors in Dar es Salaam. What is more, they looked it. Marsballs used to go to great lengths to keep their competition cars looking as near standard as possible. Not even a simple sticker was put on unless it was absolutely essential. But the French are not quite as concerned about this aspect and when one looked at the Works 504 one was left in no doubt that they were prepared specially for the job. Four Works Peugeot 504s, three Works Mitsubishi Colt Lancers, three Works Lancia Stratos and two Beta coupes. two Works Renault 17 Gordinis and two Alpine Al 10s,
two Works Datsun Violets and one 260Z, a Works Opel Ascona and a Works-built Porsche Carrera made up the factory representation in the Safari. There were plenty of privateers in other makes, including Volvo, BMW, Toyota, Ford, Citroen, Mazda, Volkswagen and even a Moskvich for the first time imported privately from Britain. Japanese cars were by far the most prominent, ten Mitsubishis and no less than 38 Datsuns. Sadly, an event which owes its origins to a bunch of British expatriates devising a motorsporting method of celebrating the Coronation of our Queen had, in its 79-strong starters List, only two cars made in Britain, both of them Ford Escort derivatives.
Phone and radio calls to bush establishments, consultations with meteorological experts, scrutiny of radar screens, inspections of bunions and even the casting of bones; all were done in an effort to discover what sort of weather was likely. Apart from the obvious effect on tyre choice, the coming of the rains would very likely cause a few route changes, for by no means all of the 1975 route was on all-weather roads. This would cause changes to service schedules, to aircraft movements and even to the lists of spares carried in rally cars. Flight plans would also have to be altered, for some bush airstrips become waterlogged during the rains and, after all, no fool wants to fly a light aircraft through an equatorial thunderstorm. Nairobi was ringed by thunderstorms a week before the start and there were reports of heavy rain in many outlying regions, but all this simply faded away and when the rally eventually started from the courtyard of Nairobi’s imposing Kenyatta Conference Centre, just across the road from the old traditional start at the foot of the City Hall steps, the sky was clear and the sun shining as hot as ever. It transpired that the rally took place in conditions which were as hot, dry and dusty as they had ever been in the past. Bush tracks were hard on suspensions, the heat caused fuel to evaporate and the clinging, choking, penetrating dust clogged up air filters, eroded cylinder walls and transformed the sharp instructions of codrivers into feeble, almost painful croaks. Fatigue and heat exhaustion affected nearly everyone, and at some time-controls where
short rests were possible competitors seemed to have just enough energy to gulp down cooling drinks before collapsing into oblivion. Endurance rallying demands not only sharp reactions but tip-top physical condition if one wants to last the pace, for tenacity tends to fade away as tiredness sets in, and the temptation is to accept even the smallest setback as a reason for chopping those several hundred hot, dusty miles which lay ahead and making directly for the nearest establishment which can offer a good meal, a cold drink, a refreshing shower and a comfortable bed. Happily, Safari drivers are made of sterner stuff and most of them will work wonders with string, wire and adhesive tape in order to fettle their cars all the way to the finish. Creature comforts at the end are 8o. much more rewarding than any accepted prematurely before the whole distance has been covered. The Safari route was divided into two legs, the first southwards to Mombasa and the second generally to the north with a short stop at Nakura and a longer one at the Mount Kenya Safari Club. The southern leg was considered to be far less demanding than the second, but the retirement rate was nevertheless high as competitors found the fast pace of the leaders too strenuous for their cars or for themselves. Even the front runners were finding it too much; Milstrom retired his 16-valve Datsun Violet (on which carburetters had replaced the fuel-injection after the latter had failed to cope with altitude changes) when its camshaft-drive-chain broke; Miikinen’s Peugeot 504 dropped out
when a con-rod nut fell into the sump and Therier’s Alpine-Renault when its engine seized. The other Alpine had been given to a local driver, Robert CoHinge, after JeanPierre Nicolas had injured his neck in a practice accident and had been sent home to France. It was the first time that he had driven the Alpine and it wasn’t long before he was out with a broken clutch.
The Stratos had a variety of suspension and electrical problems, and even the rear body sections of the cars were breaking up under the strain, particularly when additional spare wheels were bolted on behind for the second leg. At one time Munari was running with his engine and transmission completely exposed after the rear body section had been removed. Mehta’s Beta never went well after early overheating after the radiator cap was left oft, and needed constant pushing to start the engine after its vital compression had been lost.
The Mitsubishis suffered valve failure when the revolving spring wore away their concave caps. This was discovered when Joginder Singh, twice a Safari Winner, retired when a valve dropped completely, but at least it enabled the other two cars to be stopped to have the %MOM parts replaced. Andrew Cowan, driving one of the Lancers in his first Safari, went on to take a most cOmmendable fourth place, even though a spate of stone throwing had given him a bruised head, a broken windscreen and a demolished rear window. The lead was successively taken by Munari (Stratos), Waldegard (Stratos), Joginder
(Mitsubishi Lancer) and Andersson (Peugeot 540). Towards the end, when Joginder had retired whilst leading the rally, it looked as though Wakiegard would win, but a broken sump, throttle spring and fan belt caused such a time loss that he dropped back to third behind Munari, allowing Anderson to move into the lead and stay there.
Of all the world’s rallies, those with elements of endurance and adventure capture imaginations most readily, even though events such as the RAC Rally are probably more fiercely competitive. Among the endurance rallies, the Safari, with its simple but utterly demanding style, stands on a pedestal. Without a doubt, it richly deserves that position.