For many, the 1960s and 1970s were the golden eras of rallying. Competitors from all walks of life could get behind the wheel of a modestly modified car and race across mountains, deserts and/or through endless miles of jungle. The cars were noticeably more basic than they are today and the events were a lot less publicized so rallying was accessible to a much wider group of enthusiasts and thrill-seekers.
One of the most difficult events of the era was the East African Safari Rally, which was called the Coronation Safari Rally from its launch in 1953 to 1959. The East African Safari Rally took competitors through thousands of miles of harsh and sometimes uncharted territory in Africa, taking a heavy toll on both man and machine. For reasons that remain a little vague today, French racing aficionado Jean-Claude Bertrand ambitiously started plotting a rally that was even harder than the East African Safari Rally in the second half of the 1960s. The resulting event was called the Bandama Rally, and the first edition of it was held in December of 1969.
On paper, the Bandama Rally was very similar to the East African Safari Rally: simply put, racers drove for thousands of miles across some of the planet’s most challenging and unforgiving terrain. To complicate the matter, the race was generally held during Ivory Coast’s rainy season, meaning that dirt roads could be instantly turned into long stretches of mud. The Bandama Rally attracted some of the sport’s most prodigious drivers and it quickly became a popular event with a reputation for being exceptionally arduous. However, the 1972 edition of the Bandama Rally earned a prominent spot in the history of rallying because no one managed to finish it.
About 45 cars lined up at the starting grid in Abidjan, the capital of Ivory Coast, on December 28th, 1972. The field included a Peugeot 304, two Peugeot 504 Coupes, a BMW 2002 tii, an Opel GT, a Porsche 911S and two Datsun 1600 SSS, just to name a few. The first couple of stages consisted of a 372-mile (600-kilometer) loop that started and ended in Abidjan. The competitors struggled to maintain an average pace of 62 mph (100 km/h) on bad roads with nearly no visibility due to dust, and only nine cars arrived on time at the first check point in Abengourou.
The second stage went from Abengourou to Aboisso, a small town near Ivory Coast’s border with Ghana. The roads gradually got narrower and the bulk of the race was held at night. As a result, a handful of racers had to bow out due to mechanical failures or accidents and no one managed to reach Aboisso on time.
No less than 18 teams had abandoned the race by the beginning of the third stage, which went from Abidjan to Bouaké. The roads were even worse and, unsurprisingly, the stage was marred by more accidents and break-downs. Engine failures were relatively rare but road-related problems such as broken engine mounts and suspension components were a dime a dozen. Only eleven teams showed up for the fourth stage, which went from Bouaké to Duékoué.
The conditions didn’t improve and the terrain continued to wreak havoc on cars. Notably, a Citroën DS almost had to abandon the race following a suspension leak but the driver and the co-pilot managed to quickly fix the issue on the side of the road and drive to the next check point with essentially no suspension. Others we not so lucky and many competitors either gave up or were disqualified because they arrived too late.
Just a handful of competitors were left at the beginning of the fifth stage, which went from Duékoué to Daloa, and most quickly threw in the towel. Shekhar Mehta was in first place until his Datsun 1600 SSS got stuck in the mud. Tony Fall stopped his Peugeot 504 Coupe to help get Mehta out of the mud and the two drove side-by-side for a number of miles in order to help each other out when needed. By that point, Mehta and Fall were the only two racers left in the 1972 Bandama Rally and they had each been driving non-stop for roughly 28 hours.
The proverbial nail in the coffin came when a big rain storm broke out, making it nearly impossible to move forward. Mehta decided to wait out the storm and take a quick nap but he woke up over two hours later and was consequently disqualified. Fall opted to keep going but he had gotten so far behind that there was no one left at the check point when he arrived, the organizers had gone home because they assumed he had either given up or gotten lost. He was also disqualified, meaning that there were no competitors left in the race with over 620 miles (1,000 kilometers) left to go until the finish line.
The organizers debated whether or not to declare Fall the winner but they eventually decided to cancel the event altogether. As a result, no one won the 1972 Rally Bandama and the prize money was saved for the following year’s race.
Note: Copyright-free images from the 1972 Bandama Rally are few and far between. The DS and the 240Z pictured in this article are similar to the ones that raced in the event but neither is the exact car.