Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Top Five Coolest Dakar Race Cars

THE FIVER To celebrate the 34th running of this most epic of motorsport events, here are five of the coolest cars from the early days of the race.

Renault  4 … 1979
The Marreau brothers were considered crazy. Even by French standards. Their weapon of choice for the 1982 race was the Renault 4 – a 20bhp, front-wheel-drive tin can with a suspension best described as “bouncy", that came stone last in the 1962 Monte Carlo Rally. Granted, Claude and Bernard did have a special four-wheel-drive version with added power… but still. Incredibly, their mobile sauna not only finished, but came 2nd, beaten only by a Range Rover. 

VW Type 183 … 1980
Most think VW first won the Dakar with the mighty Race Touareg that dominated the race from 2009-11. Not so. It was in fact the little Iltis (German for ‘polecat’) – a VW military vehicle and something of an ancestor to Audi’s legendary Quattro rally car. VW had just bought Auto Union and they were keen to use some of the newly acquired tech. Using an Audi-prepared Iltis with its 1.7-litre, four-cylinder engine, and all-wheel-drive, Freddy Kottulinsky and Gerd Löffelmann entered – and won – the 1980 race.

Rolls Royce Corniche … 1981
Back in the early days of the Dakar, you had to be a bit mental to enter. Back-up and logistics were mere after thoughts. Given the requisite state of mind, most entrants were naturally French. And none more crazed than Thierry de MontcorgĂ© who – thanks to a bet with his friends – entered a Rolls Royce. With a special lightweight body, a Land Cruiser 4x4 system and a 5.7-litre Chevrolet V8 fitted to his Roller, Thierry finished the race.

Porsche 959 … 1986
This road-going supercar, originally designed for the Group B racing formula, was easily the most technologically advanced car of its day. A sophisticated four-wheel drive system and twin-turbo 2.8-litre flat six engine made it an interesting, if somewhat left-field choice, for the Dakar. Racing legend Jacky Ickx, however, reckoned was right on the money. With Ickx at the helm, they entered three cars in the 1986 race, coming 1st, 2nd and 5th.

Peugeot 405 Turbo 16 R … 1989
The Peugeot 405 was a nondescript, boxy, four-door sedan. The 405 Turbo 16 R was anything but that. Losing two doors and sprouting the tallest rear spoiler ever seen, this was a 400bhp mid-engined, four-wheel-drive prototype rocket that borrowed the important bits from Peugeot’s all-conquering 205 T16 rally car. In the hands of world rally champ Ari Vatanen, the 405 simply obliterated the field in 1989 and 90.

(as published in the Kulula in-flight magazine)

Made In Japan. Not

On test... Toyota 86

The Japanese are weird. Not as weird as the Koreans obviously, and certainly nothing like the Belgians, but as unfathomable cultures go, the Japanese rank up right there. There are no half measures with the Japanese. They are either the embodiment of less-is-more frugality with homes made of bamboo, rice paper and a few dabs of Pritt; or they huddle in cities with the kind of traffic congestion and retina-searing neon signage that would intimidate a hardened New Yorker.

Their approach to sports cars reflects these fault lines too. On the one hand you’ve got your Mazda Miatas, your Toyota MR2s and most recently your Honda CRZs. All are small, cute and between the three of them could probably muster up enough watts to power a food blender. Then there’s your Toyota Supras, Nissan GT-Rs, and any number of Mitsubishi Lancer Evos. These are not cars, they are Godzillas. They’re brutally quick and will bite your head off if they even sniff you’re not skilled enough in the saddle.

There’s no in-between with Japanese sportscars. They’re either undercooked or insane. Which is why it’s very hard to believe they made the Toyota 86. Apparently it’s a collab between Toyota and Subaru with latter contributing the engine and Toyota pretty much everything else. Rubbish. The 86 was made in Hethel, Norfolk.

 You see the 86 is simply too perfectly poised, too focused, to be made in Japan. Clearly someone with a Lotus badge embroidered on his white lab coat was the genius behind the 86. Like that other car made in Hethel – the Lotus Elise – the 86 is an exercise in perfectly measured automotive engineering. It’s the distilled essence of a sportscar with a lightweight chassis and just the right amount power under your right ankle to have a total blast. It’s fun power… not intimidating carry-a-spare-pair-of-undies-in-the-glove-compartment power.

With the revvy 147kw 2.0-litre boxer engine up front transmitting its horses to the rear wheels via a wonderful short-throw manual gearbox, and your bottom skimming along a few inches above the ground ensconced in torso-hugging bucket seats, the 86 is beautifully balanced. In fact it feels exactly like a Lotus Elise... except, of course, sans the whiff of warm glue and bits of body trim falling off.

Lotis Elise... with bits still on

And the answer to the crucially important question on the lips of every youngster with a freshly-minted drivers license… “Yes it can drift.” With the traction control banished to the Naughty Corner, the 86’s rear end will step out in an easy-to-handle progressive fashion that will allow even those greenhorns to get it sideways without a tow truck on standby.

Which is good to know, because given the genuinely amazing price Lotu… sorry… Toyota are selling these cars for, there will be a fair amount of young men wanting them.

The Toyota 86 starts at R298 500

(as appeared in the Feb 2013 issue of Kulula's in-flight mag)