The Dakar-Winning VW Iltis Is The Most Influential Rally Machine You’ve Never Heard Of
Photography by Robb Pritchard
Under a dust cover at the bottom of Jorg Sand’s garden somewhere in rural Germany are two Dakar-winning rally replicas: Jacky Ickx’s 1983 G-Wagen looks stunning, but behind it, under a much smaller tarp, is the Volkswagen Iltis that won the grueling event three years earlier, in the 1980 edition.
More recently, VW built a fleet of insanely advanced Touaregs to take on the latter-day Dakar with famous drivers Carlos Sainz and Nasser al Attiyah taking a win each, but the Iltis was the second car that VW won the legendarily tough event with. Back in the Dakar’s infancy, just the second time it was ever run, VW entered four Iltis’ in an effort to prove to the French military that they needed a fleet of those rather than G-Wagens. The 10,000km, three-week-long marathon through the heart of the Sahara desert to Dakar, the capital of Senegal, was the perfect proving ground. Winning the event with Freddy Kottulinsky ahead of Patrick Zaniroli in a 1-2 finish was obviously a great PR exercise. The two others finished 4th and 9th.
Back in those pioneering days, the Dakar was a much different event. Back then the cars were much closer to standard, and what played into the Iltis teams’ advantage was that there were no fleet of service barges with mechanics stripping and rebuilding the cars every night like they do now. Back then crews who were lucky enough to make it to the bivouac at night worked on their own cars doing just a basic and routine service, before taking on another 500km-long stage as soon as the sun came up the next day. The VWs weren’t exactly the fastest cars in the event—although their rivals were in Renault 4s, Lada Nivas and Range Rovers—but they were extraordinarily reliable.
As a 15-year-old boy in 1985, Jorg stood with his father in a bleak snow-covered quarry outside of Paris that served as the spectator-friendly prologue that was used to sort out the running order in the first stage in the desert. That experience sparked a lifelong love of all things Dakar, which was quite fitting for someone with Sand as a surname.
For several years Jorg worked as press for German off-roading magazines, and one night, somewhere in the dunes of the Sahara under a starry sky and by a big campfire (beer was also apparently involved), he got chatting to a VW executive. The conversation ended up being about the fact that VW couldn’t use the original Iltis for any press activities because it had sat in the Munich museum untouched since it was shipped back from Senegal all those years ago. What they needed was a perfect replica… and Jorg was just the man for the job!
Backing up a bit first, what was the Iltis? The utilitarian vehicle began life in the 1970s when VW decided to develop a vehicle for the military; light, maneuverable, and reliable were the design briefs. The main competition was Mercedes and their G-Wagen. History tells us how that worked out, and while the G-Wagen is now an enduring motoring icon on the same level as the Porsche 911, the Iltis is regarded (if at all) as odd and irrelevant to automotive history.
That’s not quite true though, for it actually has a massive claim to fame in my opinion. In the drifts of snow and on the frozen lakes of Sweden, a group of mechanics from the newly-formed Audi company were developing the 4×4 system for it. They came away really impressed with how it performed in the harsh conditions, and when they were back in their warm offices in Ingolstadt they started making some more designs… which led directly to the Audi Quattro. Which led to… you know the rest. So don’t dismiss this odd looking peculiarity, as the family tree of all WRC cars since the mid-80s in a sense owe their existence to the humble Iltis.
It was initially intended as a military vehicle, but like the G-Wagen it too was offered to the public to increase sales. And even though it had virtually no creature comforts and handled like a runaway pram at anything over 50mph, the retail price was set even higher than the G-Wagen! Unsurprisingly only 453 were sold to the public, against a production run of 8,800 that were provided for the military.
As rare as they are now, Jorg found one for sale in Austria with the correct color canvas roof and so he flew out to have a look. It was in good condition, but before the old man took the money he wanted to show Jorg what it could do, so in the mud and snow he drove up into the mountains. “It was the most extreme offloading I’ve ever done!” he exclaims. “We went in these huge mud holes, bounced over logs and rocks and crashed through the trees. But it did everything and didn’t break, so I gave him the €6,500 and began the 1000km drive home.”
The differences between it and the G-Wagen are readily apparent though. In the middle of winter on the motorway for instance, any sane person would want to be behind the wheel of a Mercedes instead. All the Iltis’ heater can do is almost keep the front screen clear. “With all the gaps between the roof canvassing it was freezing, and I had to stop every 100km to go to a fuel station to warm up!” But other than almost giving him pneumonia, it made it home with no problems.
Because the Dakar cars before Porsche and then Peugeot entered the fray weren’t far removed from their road-going counterparts, there weren’t many modifications needed to make Jorg’s Iltis into an correct replica of the Dakar machine. It was impossible to get the right shock absorbers as they had been out of production for many years, so a set of Bilstiens were fitted. The Italvolanti steering wheel was found in a scrapped Golf GTI, and the old Tripmaster, the device co-drivers need for accurate distance reading, is still made for classic rallies, so he bought a new one. Uniroyal unsurprisingly don’t make the same type of tire as they did in 1980, and the closest match Jorg could find was a military spec one. You’d have to look hard to notice the difference though. The front bumper was a bespoke piece, and to get it exactly right he had to go to the VW museum to take measurements off the original—the local fabricator he took the designs to replicated it perfectly.
The Dakar cars also had 1.7-liter engines with a specially designed head that gave them 100bhp, up from the original 75. Jorg didn’t have any way to do that level of engineering, so the solution that VW suggested was to just put a 2-liter Audi 80 engine in it; it’s the same physical size so it was an easy way to get the same performance.
Once finished the replica was sent to VW who took it to many shows and exhibitions with the informal agreement that Jorg would buy it back off them in a few years. However there was a bit of a misunderstanding and they sold it to a private collector instead. A few more years later, Jorg heard that it was about to go on sale again, so he saved the seller the bother of making an advert. It’s been inseparable from the Mercedes replica he also made ever since.
Of course, no auto journalist would ever turn down the opportunity to drive a Dakar-winning car, even if it is just a replica of one. Once we got to a quarry criss-crossed with rough tracks that apparently more than a few local Dakar hopefuls have practiced on, he let me take the wheel.
My first impression was that there was something seriously wrong with it. Jorg laughed. Apparently that is the usual reaction. The four-wheel drive system might have been cutting edge for the ’70s but the front suspension certainly wasn’t. It consists of a single leaf spring mounted transversely across the front chassis and is great for inducing Dukes of Hazzard-style leaps over the most insignificant looking bumps. How they did 10,000km through Africa with them I have no idea. “They had to drive in convoy because they kept rolling all the time,” Jorg says. “But they were so robust that they just had to put them on their wheels again and off they went.”
I got out to take some photos while Jorg found an incongruous little bump. I wasn’t really convinced I could get a good shot because it was just a few inches high, but then Jorg took a run up and sure enough the little Iltis took off, about two feet in the air visible between the wheels and the dirt below. Then about a foot high on the bounce, then a few inches as he bounced down the track like a skipping stone. “Yeah… Maybe not so fast next time,” Jorg mused.
The modern Dakar is currently raging in South America, with the top teams running cars that are the absolute pinnacle of modern technology. The Iltis is a demonstration of just how far engineering has come in the last forty years…