Preparing for Africa Rally-Ed’s perspective

Classic safariOn April 26, we begin our trip to Cape Town for the Classic Safari Challenge organized by Endurance Rally Association ( in England. We will drive approximately 5,000 miles (on the British side of the road) through South Africa, Swaziland, Zimbabwe, Botswana and Namibia. We shipped Stewball, our 67 Beetle, from Port Wentworth, Georgia on Feb. 28. It’s been more than a month but we haven’t heard that it has yet arrived in Cape Town. The rally doesn’t start until May 1, but it takes us two days to fly to Cape Town and then we attempt to get over our jet lag and pick up the cars from the dock on April 30. We are often asked what do you do to prepare for a rally? So, here is my perspective.

All rallies have somewhat different rules, but to enter in the classic category in this event, the car had to 1967 to 1947. Cars earlier than 1947 enter the vintageant category. There is a 1925 Hupmobile and a 1926 Bentley. We had already driven our 1967 VW Beetle in three other rallies, the Great Race in 2007, the World Race in 2011,( from NY west to Paris-14,000 miles) and the Trans-American Rally (NY to Alaska) in 2012. This car has proven to be a reliable and inexpensive car to service and drive. (As long as you don’t add in the cost of shipping to South Africa, which costs more than our two round-trip flights.)Africa rally-2014 006

The Beetle with its rear engine and rear-wheel drive seemed like a good choice for the road and weather conditions we might face. In truth, we don’t know what we will face. It is the beginning of winter in the southern hemisphere and we know we will cross several mountain passes and the Kalahari desert in Botswana. The ‘67 has a 12 volt electrical system and we have a 1600 cc engine. I have owned three Type 1 VWs and two Karmann Ghias. During the competition, I have to do most repairs and service myself. There is a support crew along, but each team is expected to take care of normal maintenance. For me, that most likely means at least one oil change and valve adjustment. A fast car is not the goal, a reliable one is. This is a rally, an endurance time and distance precision event, with surprise check points, not a race. But the Beetle is too slow to win anything.

From previous rallies I knew that preparation is the key to endurance driving. I had every system gone over by my VW guru, Bob Hicks of Hick’s VEd and BobW Service in Durham, North Carolina who only services and repairs air-cooled VWs.

I  made several modifications which were allowed. Previously I had replaced the engine with a 2005 new 1600 cc South American engine and added the required fire extinguisher, tow rope, warning triangle, first aid kit, medical kit (okay, so this isn’t the standard one) and mat to catch any drips from the car when parked. I took out the back seat, made boards to cover the floor and batteries and with Bob’s input assembled the spare parts I thought I might need. In the U.S. these parts are available new (which is one reason the Beetle is inexpensive to drive. No need to fabricate parts). I felt this was good money spent. My list includes; carburetor, fuel pump, distributor, generator, plugs, fan belt, control cables, jacks, and two tires. Each car had to carry a driver and navigator and everything we need for the trip.

I made four other modifications. Great Race Inc. required a super accurate (expensive) NY to Alaska 001rally speedometer.  Fortunately it fit exactly in the space where my standard VW speedometer fit. I have maintained it for all events since then. The preferred place for the magnetic pick-up is on the drive shaft but since the Beetle doesn’t have a drive shaft, I cemented it on one of the rear wheel rims. We are required to have two spare tires so I mounted a second pick-up on one of the spare rims so that if I had to change this tire, I will still have working speedometer. (Worth noting: I never have had to change a tire on any of our events so far. Cross your fingers that my luck holds.)

Endurorally requires all cars to have a rally computer. I bought and installed a Terratrip NY to Alaska 008computer that is calibrated for time, and total and interval distance. The instrument is mounted on the dashboard. I didn’t have a lot of choice for the location since my dashboard is small. I placed it as much as possible in the line of sight for the navigator. The probe senses from the left rear wheel and it was complicated trying to figure out how to mount it. I finally chose to attach it with JB Wells glue but it came loose on the Trans-American Rally and the mechanics had to reattach it in a more permanent way.

photo 3Mud flaps for all four wheels are required. I chose to install these myself. This turned out to be a much bigger job than I anticipated. The mud flaps were designed only for the back wheels so I had to fabricate a bracket to hold them on the front wheels. I only later discovered the mud flaps on the back make it much harder to adjust the engine valves. World Race 2011 988

Endurorally also requires harnesses for driver and navigator. photo 4How to attach them also presented a challenge. There is just so much room in a Beetle. I’m not convinced how much safer these make us as we do not intend to drive at speeds or in a style that make them necessary. But we meet the requirements.

The next modification was for fuel. Because of the remoteness of some of the route, I need to pay attention to the possibility of water and other contaminants in the fuel. (On one stop, in far west China, on the World Race, 2011, the attendant had to start his generator to pump fuel. I visualized the sludge stirring up from the bottom.) I purchased a funnel that separates gas from water and particles. We need to carry a spare gas can since there may be as much as 300 mile intervals between fuel stops. I am not sure what octane we will find, but I know from previous events in rural China and Kazakhstan our car was very forgiving. We know that road conditions will vary and many are gravel. While it is recommended but not required, I did not add a skid pan or raise the car for additional road clearance. In past events, I regretted this only once when we encountered the worst road conditions imaginable in China. Along with the other cars, I negotiated this 140 miles slowly and with a great deal of anxiety.

TNY to Alaska 281he final major modification was to upgrade the cooling system. I installed a Doghouse type oil cooler that did not blow on #3 cylinder and a larger cooling fan. Everyone seems to have a different opinion on air-cooled VWs and overheating. But I have had problems with overheating in very hot weather or under conditions that stressed the engine-such as climbing to 10,000 feet. I found that opening the engine compartment each time we stopped helped a great deal.

No matter how well we prepare, problems occur for which I do not have repair or replacement parts. Here are a couple of examples from previous events that required inventive solutions. I had windshield wiper problems on two previous events and I had to stop and tighten the screws several times, usually during a downpour and finally on the Trans-American Challenge, 2012, the wiper shaft with the crank on the driver’s side broke. With some inventive help from our support crew we designed a temporary repair by hooking the two wipers blades together so that the wiper on the passenger side could drive the driver’s side. photo 6   I had parts shipped to our hotel in Memphis, Tennessee and spent the greater part of our day off replacing this. This time I have windshield wiper parts along.

The second problem was a broken headlight. This happened in Russia on The World Race in 2011. In Russia, by law every car must have two working headlights which you are required to burn day and night. With help from our Russian translator, we found a restoration shop outside of Kazan, and our gracious hosts took a headlight off another vehicle and replaced our broken one with one labeled “Made in the USSR”. World Race 2011 1227

Like all car buffs around the world, they would take no money for their effort and in fact served us tea and cookies while we waited.  Again, this time I have a replacement headlight. But of course neither of these problems will happen a second time, it will be something else.

The last things I had to do were to attach the rally plates front and back. Again, on the Beetle, the problem is space. I finally decided to attach the back one with industrial strength Velcro. Let’s hope it stays in place. The front one is attached to the front bumper as I have done previously.Africa rally-2014 016

Finally we were ready to tow the car to Port Wentworth just north of Savannah, Georgia. Africa rally towingThis went without incident and I actually drove the car into the 027container and supervised the tie down. I had requested this since when the car was shipped back from Alaska in 2012, someone had placed the tie down over the brake line and when it was off-loaded, I had no brakes. We will pick up the car from the port in Cape Town and I don’t want this to happen there.

Tomorrow, Jan will write her vision of preparing for a rally. It won’t have the personal details.


About ejhowle23

Authors and adventurers, participated in the World Race 2011, an automobile rally from New York to Paris, crossing three continents and 14,000 land miles. Following much the same route as the setting for our debut novel, The Long Road to Paris. This blog describes our own adventures and challenges. And now you can follow our Bahamas sailing adventure that provides the setting for our second novel, Night Watch. Our rally, the African Safari Challenge, crossed five countries in South Africa in May 2014 and in 2015 we participated in the second Trans-American rally this time from Nova Scotia to San Francisco. Spring of 2016 we travelled 28 days around Australia with friends from previous rallies and in the fall participated in our most exhausting rally through Argentina, Chili and Peru- the Rally of the Incas. We were awarded the Against All Odds award. We're still not sure if this was for us or our car. Stewball never broke down and we hardly did. We will soon take on Iceland as a self-drive tour and in the fall of 2017 we will participate in the Odyssey Italia and then back to Africa for a do-over (almost) of the Africa Safari Challenge.
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