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The year was 1980, Jimmy Carter was in the White House, the Piña Colada Song was on the radio, and a 4×4 Volkswagen model called the Iltis won one of the first Paris-Dakar off-road rallies. Forty years later, a Volkswagen Iltis–along with 26 other Radwood-era rigs–returned to rally at Dakar in the all-new Classic category of the famed off-roading race.

The Volkswagen Iltis is quite a ‘thing’

Soldier driving a military-spec Volkswagen type 183 Iltis on pavement, a wall of trees visible in the background.
Volkswagen Iltis | Arterra/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

The Volkswagen company built the off-road ready Type 181–also called “The Thing”–from 1968 through 1980. It was a rear-engine, RWD convertible designed for militaries and off-road enthusiasts. By 1980, Volkswagen phased out “The Thing” in favor of the new 4WD Type 183.

The 183 may have been slightly larger and more capable, but it was every bit as capable. It was a bit reminiscent of the G-Wagen of the era, but its approach angle was improved with a relatively high bumper and small grille.

The little VW proved very capable off-road. It was this model that won the 1980 Paris-Dakar off-road rally, a 4×4 race established in 1978 which crossed much of Africa and Europe.

How the Dakar Classic came to be

Mitsubishi Montero SUV racing through the desert on an early Paris-Dakar rally, the sun setting behind a ridge of mountains visible behind it.
Mitsubishi SUV in the 12th Paris-Dakar rally | Yves Forestier/Sygma via Getty Images

Ignacio “Livingston” Corcuera is a fan of the Volkswagen Iltis, even setting one up to rally off-road. He always dreamed of racing it in the Dakar rally.

The original Paris-Dakar Rally has simply become the Dakar rally; it consists of two weeks of rally courses in Africa. For the past several years, Russian-built KAMAZ trucks have swept the trucks category while Toyota HIluxes, Peugeots, and even a one-off Mini Cooper Dune Buggy have been favorites overall.

With contestants running all manner of customs and even motorcycles, it does not seem far-fetched that Corcuera could race a Volkswagen Iltis. But sadly, it was not meant to be: regular Dakar 4x4s must have a hardtop. Because the Iltus has a canvas roof, it was prohibited.

Corcuera’s solution was to lobby for a Classic category. He told Petrolicious that it took years to convince race organizers to allow a pre-2000 category. But when they greenlight Corcuera’s class, 26 other teams entered to race against his Iltis. See the 2021 race highlights in the video below:

Radwood-era classics ruled the Dakar Classic

The organizers of Dakar settled on a lower entry fee for the Classic category (though all racers pay the same for recovery if necessary). The Classic crews share a bivouac with the Dakar Speed contestants, but each day they run a parallel course better suited to their older vehicles. The Classic contestants are not timed. Instead, they attempt to finish the assigned course with as few deviations as possible.

Entrants to the Dakar Classic category must all be cars or trucks built before 2000. The 2021 winner was a Sunhill Buggy run by a French team. A Mitsubishi Montero entered by a Spanish team took second place, and a Renault truck run by a French team took third. In 2022 a Toyota Land Cruiser HDJ80, entered by a French team, took won the Classics category. Second place went to a Mercedes ML, also run by a French team. A Mercedes G-320, entered by a Spanish team, came in third.

Other picturesque Dakar Classic entrants include a rally-spec Porsche and a VW Bug dune buggy conversion. And, of course, there’s Corcuera’s Volkswagen Iltis–the car that started it all.

Check out the inaugural Dakar Classic class in the video below:


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