Mythic Mercedes: 6×6 Dakar Legend
A genius engineer, a Saudi millionaire and a two-time Le Mans winner. There’s a lot more than meets the eye for this stunning Dakar 6×6 Mercedes.
I’m always on the lookout for insane vehicles to investigate and make a story about and as soon as I came across this gorgeous lifted and stretched beast I had to know more. And as is often the case with insane vehicles like this there is often far more to the story than you’d first imagine.
A few more clicks around the internet and I found out that the conversions were made in France by Christian de Leotard, a man who since the early 80s had specialised in converting normal cars into sensational (and sometimes quite bizarre) six wheel drive creations. A website had some grainy shots of a stretched Renault 5, which was a twin engine, twin gearbox car, as well as a couple of stunning extended road versions of the 190. Sadly Christian passed away a couple of years ago but I managed to find his son, Camille and he shed some light on the story.
“The conversion involved two donor cars, the back part of an estate was grafted onto the front of a 190 but there was an extra meter or so that my father made himself with a lot of coach-building, which was basically hitting sheet metal with a hammer… and lots of welding. The new roof was also the same, it was all made by hand.” In the early-80s these were new cars he worked on so the end product wasn’t cheap, approximately €100,000 worth of 80’s French francs. For such a radical and untested product it was obviously a lot of money… so Christian needed to do something that would unquestionably prove it was a viable and durable system. Back then, just as it is today, the place to prove any automotive product was the Dakar. It wasn’t such a crazy idea as the event was the Paris-Dakar and it spent pretty much the whole two or three weeks in the Saharan dunes… Seeing as the main benefit of 6×6 over a normal drive is traction it was actually perfect high-publicity testing territory!
Also Christian had been a friend of the legendary Dakar founder Thierry Sabine and even had a hand in creating the event as he put Sabine in touch with an important sponsor, as well as the first organiser. Now, if that isn’t a claim to fame, I don’t know what is!
Apart from the spectacular scenery and brutality another thing that hasn’t changed in the 35 years since its inception is that it is a damn expensive event! To get his cars there he would need either a huge sponsor or a seriously rich investor. How the contact was made has been lost to the annals of history but Christian managed to persuade a rich Saudi to part with a massive 15 million francs to fund the project. For that price he made two 6×6 G-Wagons and the 190 CE, which he put an engine out of the current 500 series model in. To drive it he asked his friend, two-time Le Mans winner Jean-Pierre Jaussaud. The name might not be instantly recognisable but his car from 1978 should be. It’s none other than the white and yellow Elf sponsored Renault Alpine A442. This was no celebrity driver stunt though, Jean-Pierre had finished an amazing 3rd on the event in 1982, which would have been 2nd if he hadn’t pushed Jean-Claude Briavoine in his Lada through the final stage. For good measure his co-driver for 1985 was Jean-Pierre Fontany, who would go on to be a Paris-Dakar winner himself.
For Off-road the Planet I arranged an interview with the great man. “We had the money we needed from the Saudi guy so because we didn’t need to have sponsors logos on the car we painted them with the skin patterns of African animals… because, why not? My 190 was the leopard. The chassis was a modified G-Wagon one which I remember Christian telling me was quite simple to extend. To drive the extra axle it had a simple belt system from the inside of the wheel rims, a bit like the chain on a bike. It worked well, it was effective, but there wasn’t really enough testing for the project and on the muddy prologue outside of Paris one of the back wheels sheared off. It wasn’t an easy fix so we drove all the way through France and Spain on five wheels and repaired it before we went over to Algeria. Unfortunately it only lasted 20 km into the first stage and that put us out of the classification. We spent a couple of days with some Arab mechanics and they fixed the car so well that we carried on driving the route and got to Dakar to see the finish. Christian was really proud of that car and he got a lot of press together in Senegal to show them what it could do. He got me to drive up the Trans-Sahara road, which was a piece of tarmac in such bad condition the locals used to drive in the sand next to it. He told me to drive as fast as I could and I have to say the ride was absolutely incredible. I couldn’t have believed it performed so well and I really do think that if this car had some more development it could have been a Dakar winner.”
For the rest of the story I went back to Christian’s son. “My father and Thierry Sabine had one thing in common; they were both humanists who loved cars and Africa, and their dream was to help poor African children. In the beginning the Dakar was just a pretext to combine humanism with a big rally but when Sabine was killed in the helicopter crash in 1986 those who took over made the event really commercial so my father never went back. It was never his idea to race, he liked having ideas about mechanical things and then testing them so results on leaderboards never meant anything. For 1986 he developed a cardan system that was stronger than the belts but after that he never raced it again. The G-Wagons went to Saudi Arabia to be the sponsor’s toys, (the grandfathers of the Brabus G63 of Gumball 3000 fame) and the 190 my father kept.”
The car still exists but it’s not in the best of conditions as it has spent many of the intervening years parked up outside, exposed to the elements. It was immortalised by Mini Racing Models who brought out a 1:45 scale model but if anyone has any ideas about how to make a sympathetic restoration while Camille retains control, please contact us!