Feature: Frankenstein Monster of Dakar

The incredible story of the quattro Paris-Dakar and its illustrious builder Franco de Paoli

words: George Achorn, photos: Franco de Paoli

Editor’s Note: This article originally ran in the Q3_2019 issue of quattro Magazine. The 2024 Dakar Rally begins tomorrow, while the car you see in this story also hits the auction market this week elsewhere in these pages. In as much, it seemed the perfect opportunity to re-tell this story.

If there is a race that may be the greatest test of endurance ever… maybe even more so than Le Mans… then it must be Paris-Dakar. This iconic rally raid from Europe and through the most grueling and remote areas of Saharan Africa has made and broken both men and machine since 1979. In 1986, the “Black Year” of the Paris-Dakar, a Milanese garage owner hand built this monstrous quattro Paris-Dakar and then set out to beat the likes of Jacky Ickx and his factory-backed Porsche 959. While the history books will tell you it was a Porsche that won that race, they won’t tell you this story… at least not yet.

The tale really begins in 1978, far from anywhere really and deep within the Sahara Desert. An Italian tie factory owner and budding car enthusiast, Franco de Paoli, was traveling through the area when he came across a “crazy group” piloting cars and motorcycles, led by an adventurer on motorcycle by the name of Thierry Sabine. The Frenchman needed an air compressor to inflate the tire of his bike, and Franco always seemed to have a compressor in his car. While readying a fix, the two struck up a conversation.

Sabine loved the desert, he loved adventure, and he loved to race. He shared his dream with Franco – a great African race where cars, motorcycles, and trucks could compete equally. As Franco tells it, he was immediately hooked on the idea. He’d later meet with Thierry Sabine in Paris. A year later, the French adventurer had achieved his goal and de Paoli would sign on to be his Italian ambassador.

The inaugural running of the Paris-Dakar Rally in 1979 boasted a 10,000 km route through several French colonies chosen both for their intense landscape and also ease of organization. The race departed the Place du Concorde on Boxing Day and finished on the coast in Dakar three weeks later.

Those first few races were known as the “innocent years”, because they were mainly events held for Thierry Sabine and his personal friends like Franco de Paoli. Cars were closer to stock, without fleets of mechanics stripping them down at the end of each day. A Range Rover was the winning car that first year and it proved to be a popular platform for privateers like Franco.

If modern day lifestyle rallies like the Gumball 3000 or Bullrun come to mind, think again. Paris-Dakar, specifically those so-called “innocent years”, was something that could have only really happened in the 1970s. Beyond the geopolitical factors of relative peace and French control of the region, 1978 marked a simpler time for liability laws in particular. There was a willingness for danger without a net that may not exist in today’s world.

Like today’s lifestyle rallies, Paris-Dakar marked an adventure but of a decidedly different and more dangerous ilk that really and truly tested the most extreme grit of both human and machine. Whereas today’s exotic car rallies mark stages with hotel parties and indulgence, Paris-Dakar contestants indulged in extreme temperatures and sand storms. Instead of hotel suites, those in Paris-Dakar didn’t have to phone down to the front desk for a late check out of their canvas bivouac.

A parallel to those modern lifestyle rallies was the way Paris-Dakar attracted bigger-than-life personalities. In today’s landscape of social media fame, it’s not hard to imagine just how internet famous those self-made adventurers would be. However, it’s doubtful they’d have had time to stop and shoot a selfie. Paris-Dakar was all-too consuming.

As the race grew in notoriety, it began to catch the attention of car, truck, and motorcycle manufacturers. By 1980, the first manufacturer had arrived. Technically it was Volkswagen fielding a 4×4 creation that the company’s then new Ingolstadt facility had designed and created to replace the DKW Munga. That the Volkswagen Iltis featured a unique all-wheel drive system and was piloted by one Freddy Kottulinsky under contract to the just created Audi Sport division may spark your interest… but that’s a story for another day. In short, Kottulinsky in his factory-backed Volkswagen won, which only served to invite more manufacturer attention.

By 1981, power would shift back to the privateers. In 1982, Claude and Bernard Marreau would fight off the Mercedes-Benz factory who’d shown up with their new G-Wagen military vehicle. The G-Wagen would later become legend, but not before being bested by the brothers Marreau in their turbocharged Renault. Mercedes returned in 1983 and they weren’t messing around. They packed a collection of factory-backed G-Wagens and star driver Jacky Ickx. Not surprisingly, Ickx took the win. He’d return a year later in a works Porsche for that brand’s inaugural Paris-Dakar run.

By now, the factories were all-in, and particularly the Germans. Porsche had their sportscars, BMW dominated amongst the motorcycles, and Mercedes now fielded their Unimog. Paris-Dakar was becoming one of the most watched sporting events in Europe. There was TV coverage and daily headlines in newspapers. Princess Caroline of Monaco took part, as did UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s son, Mark. The Paris-Dakar was changing.

Franco de Paoli was also changing. He’d sold his tie factory and self-funded those first few races. He made his best Paris-Dakar result in 1981 with an 18th overall finish. Other victories, like 2nd place in the Rally dei Feroni, helped him begin to capture the attention of sponsors. Brand names, such as Maxell, Saratoga, and Rothmans, would eventually come aboard, helping fund his radical and sometimes outlandish ideas. 

As de Paoli’s success grew, he founded the Milan-based garage, Personal Car Center. Here, Franco created a workshop preparing cars and concentrating specifically on the development of off-road vehicles. During that same time period, Group B rallying had reached its zenith and very quickly came to a grinding halt.

Flush with more resources, de Paoli had the idea to mate a car body with his favorite Range Rover platform. He acquired a Rover 3500 SD1 body for better aerodynamics and paired it with the Range Rover for the 1985 race. When he showed up with his creation in Paris, the factory Porsche team also showed up with their own car-based entry in the form of the now-stillborn Porsche 959 that had been developed for Group B. Nobody ever told Franco that Paris-Dakar would be easy.

As if the challenge from Porsche wasn’t bad enough, 1985 marked one of de Paoli’s worst accidents. Somewhere in Mali, between Timbuktu and Gao, Franco lost control of the Rover while overtaking at about 180 km/h and destroyed the SD1. In the process, he cracked two vertebrae and some ribs. While his co-driver stayed behind with what remained of the car, Franco’s old pal Thierry Sabine piloted him back to base camp in a chopper. There, he fell asleep behind some shipping cartons and was somehow missed by doctors, eventually having to make his way back to Italy over the next 16 days.

Franco de Paoli was injured but he wasn’t about to miss a race. 1986 would mark the seventh running of the Paris-Dakar and the seventh for the Italian builder/driver. Some in the press characterized Franco as being like a volcano, always in movement and with a constant flow of ideas in various states of execution.

The former Group B cars resonated in de Paoli’s head. Though it hadn’t won in 1985, Porsche’s 959 had logged an incredibly successful maiden run. During this time, Franco de Paoli had also acquired his own Audi Sport quattro. Like the 959, his Sport quattro had been developed in order to homologate Audi’s own Group B entry… and it left an indelible mark. It was an inspiration; a seed that would grow into an idea on which he’d accept the challenge thrown down by Porsche.

While Franco was in love with the Sport quattro, he didn’t think it would be suitable for taking on the Paris-Dakar Rally. It was a splendid piece of machinery for road use, but he didn’t have access to factory developed racing parts like the Porsche team did… even if Audi Sport had stockpiles of freshly retired WRC-spec motorsport parts back in Ingolstadt and was still conquering courses like Pike’s Peak in the USA.

While de Paoli couldn’t rely on factory backing, he could rely on his own two hands. He had his shop, he had his ideas, and he even had his knowledge of the robust Range Rover platform. It’s at about this point in the quattro Paris-Dakar story that things go a bit Frankenstein.

When work began in earnest on the 1986 entry, Franco again began with a Range Rover, but the look at the end is almost entirely Audi quattro. As with the Rover from his previous year, he planned to mate a fabricated quattro bodywork with the familiar chassis of the Range Rover.

Visually, the car you see here looks more Audi quattro than anything else, perhaps with a dash of monster truck. The bodywork was entirely de Paoli’s creation, crafted to capture the look of his Sport quattro and Audi’s factory quattro rally cars of the time, but with substantive differences that would make it ultimately more functional for Paris-Dakar. For instance, no other Audi quattro rally car ever featured a large clamshell hinged door at the rear for access to much-needed spare parts. The car also featured Lexan glass for the windows and covers to protect the headlights.  Two red spotlights were positioned on the roof as per race rules, as was a cylinder under the antenna for the car’s electronic compass. Finally, two intakes on the roof also helped ventilate the cabin.

The Range Rover’s naturally aspirated V8 had the ideal torque delivery that suited the rally. It was simple to manage and highly reliable. In the case of the quattro Paris-Dakar, Franco chose a 3500 cc V8 engine and transmission from Rover’s police and military department. It was capable of 230 hp at 5400 rpm. When paired with fuel injection, this would be enough to propel the car to 200 km/h, more than enough power to float over sand or keep a high average speed across the flats.

de Paoli also set to work on the Range Rover’s chassis, strengthening it and reworking the welds, adding additional sheet metal reinforcement at key stress points. Plenty of shielding was added to protect the engine, gearbox, brake discs, and differentials. The longitudinally mounted engine was repositioned, optimized to counter balance rear-mounted accessories like two spare wheels and a large 240-liter fuel tank… which was helpful as the quattro Paris-Dakar consumed 20-30 liters per 100 km.

One key development for the 1986 entry was the introduction of a pneumatic suspension, supported by two shock absorbers at each corner of the car. Utilizing a cockpit-mounted compressor that he’d also planned to use for filter cleaning and tire pressure adjustment, Franco intended to adjust the suspension pneumatically at each axle. Solenoid valve monitors at each corner were there to catch a failure and close the circuit, if need be. On the run, de Paoli wanted to be able to change the attitude of the car to adapt to the ground, raise it on the uneven stretches, then lower it on smoother roads for better handling and improved aerodynamics.

What’s commonplace today in cars, like Range Rovers and some Audi models like the allroad, was completely novel at the time. Recognizing his suspension’s potential, de Paoli went so far as to patent the design. He’d later sell the idea to Pirelli and Dunlop.

The quattro Paris-Dakar rolled on BWA alloy wheels, perhaps chosen for their 5-spoke similarity to Audi Sport’s own Fuchs rally wheels seen in the WRC. In this case, the wheels were fitted with large BF Goodrich all-terrain tires that gave it an appearance not altogether different than an 80s Stompers toy car. Combined with permanent four-wheel drive, the net result was sure-footed on pavement and a clawing monster off-road.

Not surprisingly, the seating position of the car was changed and lower than that of the Range Rover. Even still, it was high enough to see obstacles in front of the squared-off Audi hood. Those who’ve driven it say it was a handful in the curves, but built for fast driving and able to float on soft sand, and yet remain solid at high speeds.

In the end, the quattro Paris-Dakar had a roughly 50:50 weight distribution, better than the Range Rover on which it had been based or even the quattro from which it had been inspired. There’s no doubt its Audi bodywork, that so resembled the popular factory WRC cars, also helped gain good will from spectators and attention from the press, which was probably just fine with the sponsors who funded its development.

January 1, 1986 came quickly for Franco de Paoli. It had been a busy year building the quattro Paris-Dakar, but on this snowy morning at the Place d’Armes near the Eiffel Tower, he and his navigator, Peter Van Djik, stood beside the car and were ready for battle. 100,000 fans had turned out to watch the start on that cold morning to maybe catch a glimpse of Le Mans legend, Jacky Ickx, with his Porsche factory teammates found near their three Rothmans sponsored 959 rally cars.

Beyond Porsche, Mitsubishi had also arrived with a factory team in the car class. Independents like the Marreau brothers had shown, sans Renault, for the first time. Dutchman, Jan De Rooy, aimed to do battle with factory-backed truck teams with his own monster; a DAF truck featuring two turbocharged 500 hp engines and two gearboxes, one each per axle.

No less than 486 competitors, including 282 cars, 131 motorcycles and 73 trucks, had turned out for this seventh running of the rally. That year, the course had grown to span 15,000 kilometers across France, Algeria, Niger, Mali, Upper Volta, and finally Senegal. It would pass through areas so remote that roads would evaporate into tire tracks and then simply sand dunes. Google some of these same check point towns today and you’ll have a hard time plotting a route to anywhere. Even in 2019, there are simply no roads in this place.

Before the start, it’s said there was a quiet moment amongst the assembled teams as they considered the challenge they were about to face. Perhaps they considered the dangers as they adjusted their harnesses or glanced at their navigator as they cruised past the assembled spectators. And like that, it had begun.

By the time the teams had made the crossing of the Mediterranean and made landfall in Algeria, Mitsubishi threw down the gauntlet with a strong start. Luck shifted to the Germans though by the time the train of racers closed out the 7th stage in Agadez, and the three Porsches were each in the top four spots.

During so many of these stages, the very fine red sand seemed to permeate everything. Known as “fesh-fesh”, it was even said to contaminate sealed bottles of mineral water. It soiled garments in minutes, though seemingly immune to that was Jacky Ickx. The French pro driver would present himself at every stage in a clean white shirt. For that, the Porsche factory driver could thank his Porsche 959 with its sealed and pressurized cockpit similar to the cabin of a jet airplane. Contrastingly, motorcyclists were left breathing it all in and then coughing it up.

Rising to the challenge of the car manufacturers, Franco de Paoli also planned for a more professional presence. 1986 marked the first year he made provisions for a chase truck filled with spare parts and tires. Alas, this pace truck had a hard time keeping pace, resulting in Franco’s onboard parts supply dwindling more quickly than expected. By the time the race arrived in Niger, he’d exhausted everything that could be used – air filters, shock absorbers, inner tubes. It was all gone.

On that stage of the race in Niger, Franco faced a critical chain of dunes. He made the decision to save the car and retire. What happened next as he disconnected from the race’s moving support system and ventured homeward to Italy could fill a book, one that Franco is currently writing. Suffice it to say, the return was even wilder than the race itself. Franco and his co-driver were alone through the Tenerèe… “The desert of deserts. No one goes down those paths for years, and if by chance you have a failure and can’t go on… then you’re dead!”

By the time the remaining racers arrived in Garma-Rahous, de Paoli and his “Frankenquattro” were already out of the race. He’d turned his car toward home, and the race continued on without them. Days later, founder and longtime friend, Thierry Sabine, had boarded a helicopter along with French singer, Daniel Balovoine, Parisian newspaper correspondent, Nathalie Odent, and the chopper’s two-man crew. A few kilometers out of Gourma-Rahous, the chopper went down in heavy winds, killing everyone aboard.

Thierry Sabine’s words before the start, describing the race he’d created, now took on a more haunting poetic tone. “I wanted to develop a car rally that would be a true adventure. I have always wanted to go beyond my limits and to take other people beyond theirs.”

News of the crash struck the remaining competitors hard. They were dismayed when they were informed that evening on arrival to the next stage, but death itself wasn’t new to Paris-Dakar. The five who’d just perished brought the total death count of the rally to sixteen in just seven years. Perhaps fittingly, the race continued on.

In the end, it would be the factories that won the day. Porsche would cross the finish line in Dakar running first, second and sixth. De Rooy and his twin engine DAF retired on Stage 15 from Kayes to Kiffa when the truck succumbed to a broken front axle.

Franco de Paoli returned to his shop in Milan, and the quattro Paris-Dakar would survive to enjoy further successes at the Rally Atlas Morocco, Rally de Tunisie and more. The car would inspire customers to have Franco build a few more examples of the quattro Paris-Dakar – two to France, one to Switzerland, one to Holland, and one to a sheik in Qatar.

Back in 1986, Franco shared that the price to build the quattro Paris-Dakar was about 200 million Lire, just shy of $120,000 USD, had you converted your dollars to lire back in January 1986 as he was preparing to depart Paris.

That race marked the only year de Paoli would contest Paris-Dakar with the Audi bodied Rover. As further ideas and funds came to him, Franco prepped and raced other oddities, like a Mitsubishi Pajero with 240 hp turbocharged engine from a Starion, then later the “F40 of the Desert” when he fitted a homemade Ferrari body to Mitsuibishi Pajero mechanicals. The latter car burned to the ground in some far flung locale on its maiden run to Dakar.

In 2004, Franco retired from racing and closed his Milan garage. Over his career, Franco contested over 50 international competitions in Tunisia, Morocco, Senegal, Egypt, the Arab Emirates and a host of others. He ran 24 Paris-Dakar rallies, 13 Pharoahs Rallies, and a Mint 400 in Nevada. At each he gained critical experience both in the moon-like desert landscapes and also with the local populations of these remote locations.

After 65 years of living in Milan, Franco relocated to a 1600s era farmhouse in Pavia where he set to work restoring the home. He’s currently working on that autobiography about his storied life and can be found restoring cars in a small private workshop in Casteggio.

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