26 July 2021
Lewis Onions bought this Range Rover for the tip run, but the tatty two-door Classic turned out to be the first British-driven vehicle to finish the gruelling Paris-Dakar Rally back in 1980, so he did the right thing and painstakingly restored it
PC: Tell us how and why you bought it . . .
Lewis Onions: My connection with Range Rovers began in 1987. My boss at the time had just purchased his wife a new Range Rover and he instructed me to tart up the old one and sell it. He was offering me ten per cent of what it sold for. That was in the days when they weren’t selling, so I got to drive it for a few weeks before it eventually went. That was the start of my love affair with Range Rovers and I’ve owned several since.
This one was advertised on eBay. I was looking for something to do my tip runs in. A friend of mine had an ex-military Defender and I wanted something similar,
but I saw this Range Rover Classic for sale amongst all the Defenders.
According to the eBay ad it came with two boxes of documents and loads of spare bits. The advert also sent bidders to Tony Howard’s online blog. He was the driver
of this Range Rover when it famously completed the Paris-Dakar rally.
I put in a very cheeky bid of £6000 and I ended up winning the auction by £121, which was crazy, I never thought I would get it.
What were your initial plans with it?
LO: It was down in Essex at a dealers so I asked my local garage to go and get it. They found it parked up in the back of a crappy yard, looking sorry for itself. The initial idea was just to get an MoT on it and drive it around and use it for the tip run. That never happened as the interest in it just grew and grew, so I agreed that they should take the body off to start work on it. Things just sort of escalated from there. After a while the garage called on engineer/restorer Kevin Robinson to get involved and finish the project. He has worked on loads of interesting cars and likes taking things apart and putting them back together again.
Kevin and Lewis have preserved an important piece of Land Rover history
What was your role in the project?
Kevin Robinson: When I arrived it was a rolling chassis with the engine, axles and gearbox in place. The main frame of the body (minus the panels) was also part of the rolling chassis. Strewn all over the floor were a myriad of parts. It was like someone had given me a big box of Meccano without the instructions. I took on the challenge, using the few photos that we had at the time, a magazine article and a Land Rover parts manual.
The seats might've been rebuilt but they still have the original ciggie burn holes!
This foot plate helped the navigator stabilise himself
All in all, I was involved with the project for three years. My remit was to put it all back together again. Remember it competed in the standard class at Dakar, so standard Land Rover bits would do, but this was a 1970s two-door Range Rover. Some would call it a mission impossible. I quickly realised that standard early Classic Range Rover bits are impossible to find now. For example, when looking for a door seal the only one I could find was in the USA and they wanted $225 for it! The seals were rusted to the door frames and I had to do something. When I could not find things I would then re-fettle what we had and that is what I did with the door seals. I have to add that they are not the best. I cleaned them with fine wire wool and white spirits.
I did this with lots of the parts. Finding bits was the toughest part of the project. These days it is probably more cost effective to just buy the parts.
The abundance of bits that came with the auction sale certainly helped the resto process
Was Tony Howard helpful?
LO: When it did the Paris-Dakar Rally it was owned by Land Rover but Tony had to find the sponsors and cover the expenses to run the rally, hence the Mr Cheese decals for the second race. All the preparatory work was done at Land Rover, by Land Rover. I have the original job sheets so you can see exactly what they did. It then went to Janspeed to be hotted up. In 1985 Tony bought it from Land Rover after they lost interest in the event and now I am the third owner.
Tony dreamt of doing the event again and started doing the work on it but that never happened and it was parked up for years. The blessing of this is that most of what you see today is original. When I took delivery of it there were two big wooden crates in the back with lots of spares including a full set of Bilstein dampers.
To be pulled only in the event of a fire
When did you decide to switch from tip-run Range Rover to full restoration?
LO: I very quickly realised that it is was of historical importance. This was confirmed after my chats with Tony. In one of his emails he told me that people don’t realise what an achievement it was to be the first British crew to complete the Paris-Dakar Rally. This alone warranted a proper restoration. I’ve owned it for a decade now and the restoration was only finished two years ago.
Did you have to source lots of bits for your project?
LO: I already mentioned the two crates of bits but there were also fan belts clipped to the struts on the inside of the roof, so that if they did have a belt failure during the race they had spares with them. It was a treasure chest, with loads of bits to discover everywhere.
Roof filler for fast refuels
Talk us through some of the project headaches…
KR: As mentioned, most of it is original. The front wings have had new angles welded into the top and bottom. So the fixing points are new metal while the wings are original, so too the main frame. By the time I joined the project all of the fabrication had already been done. Everything under the bonnet forward of the bulkhead is new as everything there was too far gone. It also has a new rear crossmember. The chassis and rear wings are original and we did put a new top skin on the original tailgate.
LO: Tony told me to expect the chassis to be bent; it definitely has a twist. When they broke down in 1983 and limped back to Paris, one of the engineers did a line of sight test and concluded that it was bent. It was then straightened out as best as possible. The chassis has had so many adaptions done to it so it was better to use the old one instead of replacing it. If you climb underneath it you will see a huge ding in middle of the chassis. It must have flown through the air and landed on something really hard. It would not have been the same car if we replaced the chassis. Everything that could be preserved was preserved. That was our attitude with this project.
Not the showroom floor version
What about the engine? Is the engine you see now the one that did Dakar?
LO: During their final Dakar attempt they broke down and had problems with the piston ring and oil seal. Then when Tony bought it in went a similar engine for his next Dakar attempt that sadly never came to fruition. It was a copy with modifications and is probably more powerful than the original. That is all that Tony changed.
Lewis has big future plans for Cheese and Onions
What are your post-lockdown plans with it?
LO: I would love to take it back to North Africa but that is a bit risky at the moment and it is a valuable car. Instead I will take it back to Paris as the people there absolutely adore the Dakar Rally, more so than the English. I will have to get helmets for the Paris trip though.
I just want to enjoy it for now and take it abroad when the time is right. It has become a bit of a minor celebrity in the area with everyone waving as I go past, which puts a big smile on my face. It is such fun to drive. [PC: I took it for a 10-mile drive . . . and I concur!].
The only time I dry store it is when they put salt on the roads, but as soon as spring comes, then out it comes.
I recently went to my local Land Rover dealer to collect my mild-hybrid Range Rover from a service and went in the Dakar Range Rover; all the guys from the workshop came out to have a look at it. It certainly attracts attention and it has become a part of the family now.
Tell LRM readers where we got the title for this story from . . .
LO: Well it was always known as Mr Cheese due to the sponsor’s decals on the door and then I, Mr Onions, purchased it. So we call it Cheese and Onions.
Did Tony Howard’s ciggie make that hole in the seat?
LO: Yes. The seats were left exactly as they were. I did not want to re-cover them. I think the reason they went for beige brown Recaros was so the desert dust and dirt wouldn’t show up on them. Not long after I started driving it the seats started to collapse. Remember they had taken a pounding during the rally. A coach trimmer mate of mine said he would sort the seats out for me. He took the seats apart and rebuilt the split and broken frames and put new insides in them, we retained the original coverings complete with ciggie holes.
Lewis used a local signwriter to get the decals just right
How did you recreate the original decals?
It was not that easy. Tony only had low-res images of them. Some of the decals like the Mr Cheese ones were originally signwritten. They had a £750 budget for signwriting back then. I went online and saw that you can buy a set for a scale model and so I just scaled them up. Simple as that. A mate in printing then reproduced it for me. Then I got a local 80-year-old signwriter to do his bit. I am very happy with the end result.
Has it been to any events yet?
Its first outing was the NEC Classic Car Show in November and then the recent Goodwood Range Rover gathering. Hopefully it will have a more sociable 2021!
Range Rovers in the Paris-Dakar Rally By Gary Pusey
Tony Howard at the wheel of the Range Rover in the 1980s
The first Paris-Dakar started on Boxing Day 1978 and finished on January 14, 1979, at Dakar after 10,000 km of tough driving through Algeria, Niger, Mali, Upper Volta, and Senegal. The first car home was the Range Rover of Alain Génestier, Joseph Terbiaut and Jean Lemordant.
Five more Range Rovers were also among the finishers, together with two Land Rover-based teams. All were French entrants, but the Paris-Dakar had captured the attention of the world’s media, and suddenly the Range Rover was a rally-winning superstar.
The level of interest in the UK was more muted than in France, but this changed for a while during the 1982 event when competitor Mark Thatcher, son of the UK’s Prime Minister, got lost in the Sahara for six days, but the Paris-Dakar never quite caught the imagination of the British public, nor Land Rover’s senior management.
The second Paris-Dakar in 1980 was an even bigger event and saw the appearance of factory-supported teams for the first time, including British Leyland France, who entered a Range Rover driven by two British journalists, including Tony Howard, news editor of Autocar magazine. It was one of the 20 Range Rovers and six Land Rovers among the 116 cars that set off from Paris.
The UK team did not finish, following a steering failure, but having tasted his first Paris-Dakar, Tony Howard was keen to do another. For the third rally in 1981, Tony teamed with John Miles. David Boole, BL Car’s director of product and international affairs, put together a package that included TRW 425R, a Range Rover that had begun life in 1977 as a factory-owned development vehicle. The vehicle was delivered to Janspeed Engineering in Salisbury, where SU carbs were fitted together with camshaft and porting improvements, plus other alterations. After a tough three weeks Tony and John became the first all-British team to finish the Paris-Dakar, coming home in 27th place.
Tony Howard entered for the third time in 1983 and was able to secure support once again directly from Land Rover, with new axles and transmission being fitted to TRW 425R at Solihull, while the venerable veteran was resprayed white and fitted with a black fibreglass bonnet. Sponsorship was found from Dairy Crest who were at the time pursuing a campaign to promote English cheese in France, which is why Tony’s Range Rover was bedecked with the ‘Mr Cheese’ character and the ‘Fromages Anglais’ logo. Tony enlisted French TV journalist Yves Géniès as his co-pilot, but their plans came to an early end in southern Algeria when an oil ring started to break up, and they limped back to Paris.
The Paris-Dakar continued to grow and by the mid-1980s there was massive investment by the major manufacturers in vehicle preparation, teams and support infrastructure, with companies like Porsche, Peugeot and Mitsubishi entering the fray. Nevertheless, the privateer Range Rover entries continued to do well, achieving third and fourth places in 1983, second place in 1984, and sixth in 1985.
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