First Drive: Piloting The New Porsche 911 Dakar Through The North African Desert
We drove the special-edition supercar over dunes, lumps and bumps in an unforgettable African test drive.
A private jet, bespoke bedouin camp, and one of the very first examples of the brand new 911 Dakar to play with in the greatest sandpit on Earth. This seemed to be an adventure I shouldn’t pass up. I threw my raw white-linen two-piece, two-tone herringbone tweed and the obligatory mohair tuxedo into my DQ luggage and headed for Europe to catch the PJ to Morocco. North Africa.
The land of derring-do and adventure, and the Sahara Desert. Mourad “Momo” Mazouz’s Arabesque album from the epic Kemia Bar in London playing in my ears as I considered some time swanning around a Riad or two, inhaling strong martinis while pondering bedazzled belly buttons. A trip of Lawrence of Arabia and the War Magician proportions was afoot.
In the late 1970s a crazy Frenchman was enticing an ever-increasing media and motoring circus to life in the form of his madcap race from the Place de la Concorde in Paris to Dakar in Senegal. Eight thousand miles of rallying over and through some of the most challenging terrain on Earth. Entered by adventurers, scallywags, and adrenaline seekers. First with their own privateer machines in a truly amateur fashion.
And then, as the legend and attention grew, with increasing support and wizardry from manufacturers keen to show that their kit was the best. Into this breach stepped Mercedes-Benz and a racing driver with the pedigree of a Triple-Crown winner: Jacky Ickx. Ickx and his co-pilot, French actor Claude Brasseur won the fifth Paris-Dakar in 1983 in a modified G-Wagen.
Ickx then parlayed his 1983 win into what may have seemed to most at the time a decidedly stupid idea. That Porsche should take an already legendary sports car, the 911, and drop it onto the starting grid of the 1984 rally alongside G-Wagens, Land Rovers, and other things actually designed and built to go off road. As Ickx put it somewhat later on, “Engaging a 911 against four-wheel drive, classic off-road vehicles in the Ténéré desert and the [high plateau of] Assekrem in Algeria looked absolutely crazy to people. Nobody would have bet a penny on it.”
But Roland Kussmaul and his team in Stuttgart did. By building the 1984 Porsche 911 Carrera 4×4 (953). Three cars would enter with Kussmaul a driver of one, and perhaps his career on the line. Kussmaul took a standard 911 G series shell, threw all the body panels and most of the glass in the garbage and replaced them with polycarbonate to save weight, reinforced the chassis and cabin with a welded roll-cage, and added fuel tanks to rival a dromedary at full capacity.
The pièce-de-resistance was, of course, his all new 4×4 system pushing 69% of the power to the rear and 31% to the front. Power came from a standard 3.2L flat six producing around 225 hp. All driven through a manual 5-speed G50 transmission handling the lumps, bumps, and jumps thanks to an all-new double wishbone front suspension with twin shock absorbers and reinforced transaxle in the rear, with extra coil springs making room for grippy, oversized, low pressure, off-road tires, raising the ride height and giving almost a foot of travel from top to bottom.
Sadly, Ickx blew two tires on the second day, and suffered an almost terminal electrical fire on the third, leaving him little chance of success. He gallantly made it from 139th to 6th by the finish, but was pipped to the post by a handful of Range Rovers, Mitsubishis—and René Metge and Dominique Lemoyne in one of the other factory 911 Carrera 4x4s. Porsche had done the unimaginable and won the toughest off-road rally in the world in a modified supercar.
As we hurtled over the Atlas Mountains in the private plane I stared into space, certain adventure awaited me as soon as we hit tarmac. And pondered first that 911s have engines in the wrong place, and second that I am no stranger to extreme off-road rallying. Rallying demanding long travel suspension, sump and differential guards, winches to go up and down slopes too steep to climb or descend, air intake snorkels above rooflines to ford rivers, and roll cages with sixpoint harnesses in case of any real circus acts.
This, of course, made me the perfect man for the job at hand: sniffing out the whiff of Chelsea Chariot in a car marketed as the real McCoy with Paris-Dakar DNA in its braided steel veins.
Without question, the spec of the new Porsche 911 Dakar, created to honor the original, is impressive. A 473 hp twin-turbo six-cylinder boxer motor, spooling out 420 lb-ft of torque through an eight speed, dual clutch, flappy-paddle gearbox attached to an active all-wheel drive system—with more wizardry than Gandalf at its disposal to keep you careening in the right direction no matter what.
The suspension also primed with more magic than Maskelyne and able to waft you over terrain built to make a billygoat puke, with an extra three inches of lift over a stock 911 and special Pirelli Scorpion tires. But this is all by-the-by and expected by the entitled masses today. The real question is what is the beast like to drive?
I shall never forget being stuck at the top of a dune, just shy of an almost vertical drop, bogged down in soft, parched sand as my copilot tried to dig us out. Marooned in the desert. With nothing but a beautiful car and a beautiful co-pilot. Perhaps I was a little overzealous with the application of throttle, speed, jumps, drifts, and all manner of jollies that had me smiling like a whirling dervish at 7,500 rpm sideways into the abyss. It had been a while since I’d caught air in a supercar in the desert after all. But my co-pilot had insisted I slow down as the next drop was a rather severe one.
And as I had no idea of the terrain and was trusting her implicitly in the way a deranged Welsh Rallycross Champion would, I applied the six-pot calipers with some verve and drifted to a halt.
The real lesson of this was not that being stuck in the desert with the daughter of the guy who set the course is a good thing; but rather that the Porsche 911 Dakar is so fantastic that until that point driving it on soft sand in dunes, over gravel, lumps, bumps, and all manner of terrain no supercar has business indulging in had convinced me that nothing special was going on. When in fact it was. Something very special indeed. Here I was in a supercar tearing it up off road. In the land where Land Rovers roam. And loving it.
We were rescued. And survived. I even dodged an almighty bollocking from the Porsche training instructor I was supposed to have followed instead of recruiting the Bond Girl as my navigator. But life is short. And not a dress rehearsal. Which is why I also suggest you get yourself one of these things if you have the vision, means, and connections to get Porsche to allocate you one. You will probably never, ever, drive the Nürburgring in the 911 GT3 RS you have otherwise been considering. But you may well tear it up hill and down dale until kingdom come in this absolute blast of a car.
Mine will be towing my Defender 90 overland across Africa for the next Elephant Charge rally in Zambia. Maybe we’ll enter it for a laugh just to see what it can really do.