High Roller - 1981 Rolls Royce Corniche Coupé Paris-Dakar "Jules"

The Paris-Dakar Rally was the brain child of French racer Thierry Sabine. Sabine was a fanatic off road motorcycle endurance racer. In 1975 he conceived the famous Enduropale beach race at Le Touquet, France in a bid to introduce American-style enduro races to the European crowd.

In 1976 Sabine participated in the Abidjan-Nice rally in the deserts of Libya, and got horribly lost. The daunting experience inspired him to make the African desert the stage of a monstrous amateur rally across the continent. By 1979 his dream had been realized, and 182 trucks, cars and motorcycles lined up for the start in Paris. Only 74 of them would reach finish on the beaches of Dakar, Senegal.

Thierry Sabine (right), the benevolent father of the Paris-Dakar Rally.

Thierry Sabine (right), the benevolent father of the Paris-Dakar Rally.

The romantic image of Thierry Sabine’s beloved African desert attracted adventurous rich playboys from all over France. Unlike today, the sport wasn’t dominated by big corporations and huge sponsorship budgets. For the amateur racers and their relatively cheaply prepared vehicles, the one goal above all was simply to finish.

One such gentleman adventurer was Thierry de Montcorgé. Two years after the kick off of the Paris-Dakar, De Montcorgé jokingly bet his friends that he could take part in the grueling event with a Rolls Royce. His buddies accepted the odds, which meant he just had to follow through. To make good on his promise, he opted to take the opulent Rolls Royce Corniche Coupé as a starting point

Turning the stately Corniche into a savage desert warrior would not be easy.

Turning the stately Corniche into a savage desert warrior would not be easy.

De Montcorgé realized that the Rolls would be nearly impossible to modify into a proper desert racer. To get around the problem he decided to play a bit loose with the rules of his bet. He instructed Michel Mokrycki to construct a dedicated tube frame chassis, which would be much better suited to the rigors of heavy duty off road driving.

"Jules" under construction.

"Jules" under construction.

Mokrycki then added a four wheel drive system and 4-speed manual gearbox taken from a Toyota Land Cruiser. For power he turned to the always reliable Chevrolet 350 5.7L smallblock V8, which produced around 350 horsepower. A massive 330 liter (87 US gallon) fuel tank was installed behind the front seats to ensure the big lump of Detroit iron would never run dry.

When all was said and done a lightweight fibre-reinforced plastic replica Corniche body was draped over the chassis. The finished car weighed just 1400 kg (3085 lbs), a massive 785 kg (1730 lbs) lighter than the standard Corniche model.

The Rolls retained its lavish wood and leather dashboard.

The Rolls retained its lavish wood and leather dashboard.

Thierry de Montcorgé’s scheme was going along swimmingly, but he couldn’t do it alone. Help came in the form of world famous perfume company Christian Dior, which was trying to get its new Jules brand off the ground. Dior saw the bizarre Rolls Royce rally car as the perfect way to gain publicity, and agreed to be the team’s title sponsor.

Driving duties were taken up by de Montcorgé himself, with friend Jean-Christophe Pelletier handling the navigation side of things. The team secured a French registration for the marvelous machine, and entered into the 1981 edition of the Paris-Dakar.

The finished car presented to the public.

The finished car presented to the public.

The number of entries for the third annual Paris-Dakar had grown considerably since its inception in 1979. In the car category alone there were 170 starters, with the grand total at 287 competitors. The Rolls would face competition from true offroaders like the Range Rover, Jeep CJ6, Mercedes G-Class, Land Rover Defender, Lada Niva and the very Toyota Land Cruiser it was partially based on.

Along with the usual suspects, common family cars like the Citroén CX, Datsun 120A, Renault 30, Peugeot 504, Toyota Starlet, and oddballs like the Porsche 924/911 and Volkswagen 181 were also in the mix.

During the rally the car’s excellent preparation paid dividends. The Chevrolet engine was smooth, full of torque and reliable, and the Toyota drivetrain amazingly rugged and effective. The extraordinary car with its high and mighty body caused a sensation in the media and turned heads everywhere it went.

"Jules" did not mess around.

"Jules" did not mess around.

Thierry de Montcorgé’s decadent pet proved to perform so well that it regularly finished in the top 20. As the race progressed it steadily climbed up the order, finding itself 13th overall at half distance. Despite the incredible success enjoyed so far, there was still an intimidating 5000 kilometers (3106 miles) left to go.

Seriously, "Jules" did NOT mess around.

Seriously, "Jules" did NOT mess around.

Unfortunately disaster struck when one of the steering arms broke off. De Montcorgé and Pelletier frantically tried to fix the issue, but the task took up a heap of time. The repairs eventually took so long that the team was disqualified from the official results. Undeterred, they pressed on, determined to reach the finish.

"Jules" battered and bruised.

"Jules" battered and bruised.

After 10.000 kilometers (6212 miles) and 17 stages taking them through 6 gigantic desert countries, Thierry de Montcorgé and Jean-Christophe Pelletier finally reached the finish on the beautiful sandy beaches of Dakar. Even though they had finished outside of the official classification, they were still one of only 40 teams in the car category to complete the demanding event.

The Rolls Royce Corniche Coupé “Jules” was the result of a spectacular high stakes bet between friends. Despite being conceived on a whim, the mad aristocrat proved to be very capable at getting its expensive boots dirty. Despite incredibly pace and reliability, the desert took its toll and dragged it out of an officially classified finish.

Although its father interpreted the term “Rolls Royce” a bit loosely, it still managed to win the bet by being one of the few cars to actually reach the end of the road in Senegal. Today it lives on as a testament to the pioneering spirit of those swashbuckling early Dakar competitors.

Racing StoryDylan SmitComment