To this day, the Dakar Rally – originally called the Paris-Dakar Rally – is considered as one of most notorious rallies in the world for motorbikes, cars and trucks. In 1985, it was a special converted Unimog 1300 L which managed to emerge the victory in the desert.
Flashback: in June 1985, there were two Unimog vehicles among the trucks scrambling their way through the sand and scree of the Sahara desert. The crew was led by Karl-Friedrich Capito from Neunkirchen near Siegen, together with his sons Jost and Volker Capito. On New Year's Day of 1985, they set off in two Unimog 1300 L vehicles. The first vehicle was occupied by the father, Karl-Friedrich Capito, together with his elder son Jost. Unimog number two was operated by Karl Wilhelm Ströhmann as well as co-pilot Volker Capito.
The Capitos, with their U 1300 L, had already taken part the previous year, only to miss the finish in Dakar due to a minor defect. Shortly before reaching the stage destination exotically named Ouagadougou, a radial shaft sealing ring in the steering gear broke. That was the end of their adventure: transmission oil had also leaked out and the power steering was lost. The Capitos had a large stack of spare parts with them, but hadn't thought to include a simple sealing ring.
Learning from mistakes
A year later, in 1985, the team wanted to be on the safe side. The U 1300 L was completely "overhauled", as it was then described, in the Gaggenau plant. A second Unimog was also completely reconstructed, with the help of the Daimler-Benz factory.
These racing Unimog vehicles no longer had much in common with the standard vehicle: engine specialists were able to get 180 hp (132 kW) out of the 5.6-liter six-cylinder turbodiesel engine, while the cab was strengthened and fitted with a roll bar. The trucks were also fitted with an air intake pipe as well as six additional Hella headlamps with overall power of 750 W for the night stages.
Adaptations were also made to the vehicle floor of the Unimog: work lamps under the vehicle provided sufficient illumination when needed. To increase the driving range, two additional fuel tanks of 160 liters each were installed, bringing the total tank volume up to 540 liters. The drinking water tank held 80 liters, and the permissible gross mass was 7.49 tons.
Inside the Unimog, two compasses were installed for better orientation – navigation devices as we know them nowadays were not around in 1985. Three Recaro bucket seats with harness belts ensured secure retention of the vehicle occupants. The reason for having three bucket seats was that a works mechanic was also along for the ride with the pilot and co-pilot in each of the Unimog trucks.
Something special about the Unimog
The Unimog had a maximum speed of 120 km/h and therefore, on the faster sections of the rally, wasn't able to keep up with the competitors' trucks which had larger engines and more power. However, its time would come on the final stretch of the route. The narrow passages to the south of the Sahara have lots of stones and deep ravines, making them ideal for the light and agile Unimog.
It was during this final stage of the race that the strengths of the Unimog concept came to the fore: the favorable ratio of sprung and unsprung mass, pendulum tube axles with draw springs as well as the low dead weight of the vehicle made it possible to drive at high speed over very uneven terrain, scree and boulders, without losing contact with the ground. In the jungle stage, the low-level design of the Unimog turned out to be a crucial advantage. While the taller trucks had problems getting through the jungle, and sometimes even had to stop and cut off branches that were in the way, the compact Unimog was able to get through this stage relatively quickly.
Perfect conditions, therefore, to reach the long awaited beach at Dakar quickly and return home to Neunkirchen near Siegen as the winning team. This time there was no other racer in the Paris-Dakar Rally able to stop the Unimog 1300 L. After the winning vehicle was destroyed in 1985 in an accident in Gaggenau, a true-to-the-original replica was created in 2011 to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Mercedes-Benz Unimog. A Unimog from the armed forces, also fitted with the six-cylinder turbo engine, was used for this replica. The vehicle was bought second-hand and then reconstructed true to the original by the Gesellschaft für Geländewagen company in Gotha on behalf of Sand Medien.
Tough conditions in the Paris-Dakar Rally
In the 1980s, rally sport was a really tough sport – and "fair play" did not play a role. This was particularly true of the Paris-Dakar Rally: competitors had wheel nuts loosened, and slower vehicles were simply rammed from behind and pushed aside. Accompanying vehicles often tricked others into following them down the wrong track which then ended in the middle of nowhere. Accidents with broken bones and other serious injuries were the order of the day, and only a small fraction of the starters actually made it to the finish. Despite this, the number of participants continued to grow: In 1979, at the first Paris-Dakar, there were 170 racers. By 1984, this number had risen to 350 and one year later as many as 550 participants started the event. And yet not even 90 participants managed to cross the finish line in Dakar. Confirmation that this is indeed the toughest rally in the world. A title that no other rally event has been able to prise away from the Dakar Rally to this day.