There is only one sporting event in the world where a French playboy could take a friend’s 1970s Rolls Royce Corniche Coupe, jack it up on off-roading tires and suspension, outfit it with the drivetrain of a Toyota Land Cruiser, the 350 smallblock V8 engine of a Chevy Corvette, and the sponsorship branding of a Christian Dior perfume, and then go hurtling across the Sahara Desert on a 10,000 kilometer stage race from Paris to Dakar, racing each day against people like Formula 1 driver Jacky Ickx, and stopping each night to drink champagne in ancient cities like Timbuktu.

Dakar Rally Rolls Royce
1970s Rolls Royce Corniche Coupe.

The origins of the Dakar Rally go back to the 1970s, specifically a moment in 1977 when French motorcyclist Thierry Sabine got lost in a remote section of the Libyan Sahara while competing in the Abdijan-Nice Rally. While in the midst of a near-death experience, Sabine had an epiphany that the desert’s vast and unforgiving landscape was the ideal place to stage a long rally. After his rescue and return to France, he began planning the first edition of a rally from Europe to West Africa. A year later, on December 28, 1978, the first group of cars and motorcycles set off from the Place du Trocadero in Paris en route to Dakar.

Thierry Sabine Dakar Rally
Thierry Sabine (left) at the 1985 Dakar Race.

By the time the Dior-sponsored Corniche driven by Thierry de Montcorge began the 1981 race, the Dakar Rally had become an international sensation. Although officially a race, with winners recognized for each category, the atmosphere of the rally was less about competition and more about a romantic spirit of adventure. The route itself, beginning amidst the glamour of Paris, traversing a desert still roamed by Tuareg nomads and traditional salt caravans, and ending on the picturesque beaches of Dakar, epitomized that spirit. The desire for people to be a part of the adventure, attracted fans who lined the route even in the most remote Mauritanian villages, and drew competitors ranging from wealthy amateurs like de Montcorge to genuine racing drivers like Jacky Ickx, a champion of multiple Formula 1 Grand Prix and 24 Hours of Le Mans, whose ‘81 Dakar Rally ended only when the engine of his Citroen CX exploded somewhere in the Malian desert.

Dakar Rally Crowds
Iveco Team during the 1984 rally.

While the Dakar Rally is still run each year (although it is now held in different locations due to security concerns in North Africa), the 1980s represented the golden age of the rally’s swashbuckling adventurism, when whoever could pay the entrance fee was more than welcome to jack up a Rolls Royce on sand tires, load it up with a spare tire and a few bottles of champagne, and drive off into some of the most brutal environments on Earth just to see if they could get to the beach at the end.