Difficult as it might be to imagine now that the sport of rallying is both polished and ultra professional, there was a time when certain events were all but impossible to predict. The rallies in question tended to be long haul jaunts, the kind which pitted competitors against one another and the elements, and the most prestigious of the lot was the East African Safari. The Safari was easily the most spectacular event on the WRC calendar and was never truly tamed, not even in its final years in the early noughties. It remained a wonderfully anachronistic endeavour, and a direct link to rallying’s earlier, more innocent incarnation.
Why are we kicking off this project page by discussing the Safari Rally? Because the car you see here, 160J, will be forever linked to the event, one the humble Datsun won an amazing four times on the bounce between 1979 and 1982. More pertinently still, the very car you see here has contested the equally gruelling classic Safari since it left Retropower some years ago, in the process demonstrating both the innate ‘toughness’ of Datsuns from this era and the quality of our own fabrication work.
Not that any of this was on the cards in the summer of 2013 when owner and long time Datsun fan, Scott Armstrong, brought the car to Retropower. He’d been obsessed with Datsuns and their East African exploits since he saw the event for himself in 1982, one of the last years of Datsun dominance and an era when the Safari was still a raw, uncompromising slog through the African bush. It clearly made an impression, so much so that Scott came to us with a clear brief; he wanted us to build him a Safari-ready 160J of his own, a car he could use to contest the East African Safari Classic.
This was easier said than done, primarily as actually finding a Datsun 160J in the UK, in fact any Datsun, is a massive challenge. The task was made that bit easier through Scott’s own connections and the fact that he’s been a fully paid up Violet fiend for the best part of his life, hence why he had 4 different cars when we agreed to take the project on. We were able to select the most suitable of the quartet, then have it dropped at Retropower whereupon the fabrication process could begin in earnest.
The fact that the finished car would be used to contest one of the most demanding of all motorsport undertakings had an impact on the build of the Violet from the very beginning. Let’s face it, the years might’ve ticked by but the East African Safari Classic represents just as much of a challenge to rally cars in 2018 as it did in 1978. We therefore began an intensive strengthening process, adding steel reinforcement sections to key areas of the Datsun’s chassis, including both front and rear suspension points, transmission and engine mounts, as well as fabricating a custom, FIA-compliant roll cage.
It’s worth noting that carrying out the task of actually preparing the 160J for the task at hand was rendered that bit more complex for it being a Datsun as opposed to something like a Mk2 Escort and Porsche 911, as there’s almost nothing available ‘off the peg.’ Everything had to be either fabricated back into shape or re-made from scratch, and seeing as Japanese cars of this era weren’t exactly known for their anti-corrosion properties, there was plenty of both.
The need to fabricate the car in readiness for a life in the African savannah became something of a race against time, the need to complete the metalwork, send it off to a specialist for an engine installation, then have it dropped back at Retropower for completion and re-wiring all a test for everyone working on the Datsun.
The good news was that the work was completed in time, just. The bad news was that, with the time taken to ship the 160J to Mombassa taken into consideration Scott was facing the prospect of taking on this most daunting of classic rallies with little to no testing under his belt.
Still, both Scott and ‘Pali’ Harpal Sudle (his co-driver) could at least count upon the Datsun’s famed strength to get them through – or at least they assumed. Scott was on a flyer from the moment he set off on the opening day of the seven day slog, but not for long; he sheered a wheel bare a KM into the first stage and learned a valuable lesson in the process – a slow Safari stage can often mean a successfully completed Safari stage.
It was with this mindset that the pair tackled the rest of the event, reasoning that discretion really was the better part of valour, at least when it comes to covering thousands of kilometres of African scrub. The subsequent days saw the Datsun crew battle ruts, ambiguous pace notes, rock beds, sickly gearboxes, broken tie-rods, bent steering arms, and on the final day, mud – and lots of it. The pair picked their way to the finish with a mix of care and, when required, pace, finishing the event in an amazing 15th overall and winners of The Meritorious Award, a special commendation for overcoming adversity and competing within the spirit of the event.