The birth of the world’s toughest rally
If there is any single event that fired the imagination of Kenyans and became the most talked, most liked and enjoyed event then Safari Rally has no equal.
Even today 17 years after the best rally drivers in the best machines closed shop never to return, the name Safari or in Sheng Safo refers to any rally car or event.
It is a brand that defines what Kenya could produce and sell worldwide. It is older than athletics or even football at international platforms only surpassed by cricket which was introduced in 1896 in Mombasa by a group of British soldiers.
Sometime in January 1952, so the story goes on, the founder of the Safari Rally Eric Cecil, his cousin Neil Vincent and a friend Eric Tromp were sharing a drink in a bar at Limuru when an interesting motorsport topic cropped up.
There were odd hill climbs including the “Rolund the Mountain Trial “ and a racing track at Langa Langa in Nakuru. At some point, Cecil told this writer 17 years ago that they asked Vincent why he never competed at Langa Langa.
‘I can’t be bothered running around in circles. But if you could organise an event where we get into our cars, slam the doors and go halfway across Africa and back and the first car was the winner, then I will enter,” said Vincent.
“ He wanted something challenging, better than the October 1936 Nairobi-Johannesburg 4,800km road race which was won by C.L. “Fairly” Engelbrecht.”
Cecil recalled that this was the ultimate test for man and machine because he was the winner in 1946 in a Skoda. As a committed adventurer, he was the man to actualise Vincent’s challenge in his capacity as the Chairman of the Competition Committee of the East African Automobile Association (EAAA).
Cecil was hooked and several challenging events were suggested, dissected and either trashed or shelved including a trip around the 68,000km Lake Victoria. Drivers would choose any direction with only two control points near Bukoba.
Vincent rejected the idea to avoid cheating, especially at the ferry crossing area. They needed a rally that would test the stamina of man and technical potency of a car. It would be exciting to rally and Cecil finally settled for rallying.
But when Cecil told the EAAA about his idea, the bosses firmly told him that they were there to serve the general motoring fraternity and not some “crazy ideas of cowboys.”
“They told me that they were not interested,” Cecil told this writer in an interview at the exclusive Muthaiga Country Club in 2002 when he came to Kenya as a guest of the Safari Rally which lost the WRC status that year.
“But God presented me with a gift,” he said.
Not one to give up easily, he returned to the EAAA in February 1952 days after Queen Elizabeth of England received the news of his father’s death King George VI while lodging at the Treetops in Nyeri and ascended to the throne.
“Please do allow the motoring public in Kenya commemorates the Coronation of the Queen through a long-distance event,” Cecil pleaded with the EAAA.
Kenya was a British colony and EAAA, knowing the national importance of this request for the Crown relented.
However, he had to find money and personnel. He managed to secure commercial sponsorship from the East African Standard newspaper and Shell Oil who gave 500 pounds each, a lot of money then. This gave birth to the Safari Rally, named Coronation Safari Rally.
There were 15 finishers in the first 1953 Safari Rally which he was the winner. The next hurdle to clear was a suitable date of which they settled for the long Easter weekend.
Though never an economics student, Cecil settled on the “toughness slogan as a marketing tool, though the “Toughest Rally in the World”.
With more and more drivers competing and less and less finishing, word got around the world that there existed a very tough rally through relatives, coverage in local media which later reached the European motoring magazines.
The first Safari was 3,200 miles (5,160km) long in a hostile country as Kenya was under the state of emergency because of the Mau Mau uprising agitated by Africans who wanted their grabbed land back.
European and later drivers from Asia started coming and for 19 years returned home empty-handed until 1972 when Hannu Mikola and Gunnar Palm in a Ford Escort RS1600 returned the Safari coveted trophy to Europe.
The following year FIA, then FISA included the Safari in the World Rally Championship (WRC). Mikola became an overnight sensation. Manufacturer teams’ beehived into Kenya. They were to be denied the following year by young Shekha Mehta who gave Datsun/Nissan their third victory after Edgar Hermann and Hans Schuller in 1970/71 in a Datsun 1600SSS.
Previously the Safari was dominated by European makes with VW Beetle in the 50s before Ford, Mercedes and Peugeot ruled the roost in the 60s.
There was one notable driver of Asian descent, Joginder Sing, winner in 1965 in Volvo PV544 navigated by his brother Jaswant Singh. He became a national hero and household name, aka Simba ya Kenya.
Mehta won in 1973 in a Datsun 240Z, the year the Safari skipped Uganda because of political turmoil following a successful military coup by dictator Id Amin Dada, who, however, rubbished Kenya’s “misplaced sense of Mehta’s ownership”.
“As far as am concerned Mehta is a Ugandan,” he said. FIA President Jean Todt navigated Timo Makinen to the third position in a Peugeot 504.
The Safari was renamed Kenya Safari Rally in 1974 after Tanzania whose political relationship with Kenya was beginning to wane opted out. Joginder won that year and in 1976 in a Colt Lancer.
Knowing they had to conquer Africa comprehensively, European resorted to using local drivers to develop their cars and give them one-off complete support. The first such person was Vic Preston Junior, whose father Vic Preston Senior dominated in the 60s.
Junior finished third in 1972 in a works Ford Escort RS1600 and repeated similar feats in 1978 and 1981. He always out-paced the best before something happened.
He was always on pole position and sampled drives from Lancia, Nissan, Porsche, and Mercedes factory team. Others were Joginder, Mehta, Mike Kirkland, Ian Duncan, and Patrick Njiru.
Factory and European drivers continued producing mixed results winning in 1975, ’77 and 78 before Mehta produced four back to back victories (1979-82). For the next 12 years, Kenyan drivers played second fiddle until Duncan’s 1994 victory in a works Toyota Celica.
This was the last victory by a Kenyan and maybe forever as works teams’ domination became absolute. So big was the gap that it was only Duncan who could take on the best, finishing third in 1993, ’96 and’97 in works Celicas.
There was one exceptional case though: Rauno Aaltonen of Finland who tried to win the Safari for 23 years without success. “Maybe it was a curse, a thahu of a medicine man, a Mundu Mugo,” wrote John Davenport in the glossy Safari Rally book of 2003.
As a final epithet for the Safari, no Kenyan finished it in the 2002 Safari, the last WRC in Kenya.