First run in 2003, the legendary East African Safari Classic Rally is a nine-day rally covering up to 5,000 kilometres through Kenya and Tanzania. Safari Classic rekindles the spirit of the original Safari Rally, which put East Africa on the motorsport map and earned an unassailable reputation as the world’s toughest rally.
Open to two-wheel drive, normally aspirated, FIA rally cars built before 1986, Safari Classic replicates the incredible challenge of the original Safari and weaves a new adventure through the magical East African landscape, passing through world famous game parks and overnighting at many of the finest lodges in the cradle of Africa.
Safari Rally Origins
The origins of the East African Safari Rally may be traced back to the early 1950s, and a conversation between one Eric Cecil and his cousin, Neil Vincent. A dyed-in-the-wool motorsport thrill seeker, Vincent refused to compete at the newly built Langa Langa circuit near Nakuru, in Kenya’s Rift Valley. “I can imagine nothing more boring than driving round and round the same piece of track,” he allegedly declared. “But if you will organise an event where we get into our cars, slam the door, go halfway across Africa and back and the first car home is a winner, I’ll be in it.”
The marathon rally idea struck a chord, and came into focus when the coronation of a new Queen, Elizabeth II, was set for June 1, 1953. A proposal to organise a rally through East Africa to pay tribute to the new Queen was accepted and the Coronation Rally, starting from Nairobi around Lake Victoria through Uganda and Tanganyika and returning back into Kenya, was established.
Strict conditions governed the entry list. All vehicles were to be rallied in showroom condition, with no enhancements to standard performance. Entries were split into classes based on the retail price of the car. Each class would have a separate target time for the event and the overall finish would coincide with the moment of coronation at Westminster Abbey. The rally took place from May 27 to June 1 and no overall winner was declared: only class winners.
The 1953 Coronation Rally
The inaugural Coronation Rally was a huge success and was repeated annually, attracting increasing interest from competitors all over the world. In 1957, the FIA marked the Coronation Rally on its international motor sport calendar. In 1960, the event name was changed to the East African Safari Rally.
Following the independence of Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania, the rally continued to cross between borders, with event start and finish points regularly rotated. 1969 saw Tanzania close its borders and refuse to let its citizens compete: a huge blow to Tanzanian drivers including two-time winner, Bert Shankland. In 1971, the borders reopened and Tanzanian drivers returned. One year later, Hannu Mikkola and Gunnar Palm finally took the first Safari win by a European crew, in the famous Ford Escort RS1600.
Safari Classic Rally for 2wd cars
Step forward forty-five years, and the spirit of that era survives in the East African Safari Classic Rally. Open to FIA-homologated cars manufactured to December 1985, this event is for two wheel-drive, normally aspirated vehicles only. Four wheel-drive, turbochargers and superchargers are not permitted.
While Safari does feature later cars, the stipulation of normally aspirated two-wheel drive cars firmly roots the Classic in Safari’s golden years: the late 1960s into the 1970s. This was when manufacturer teams began to arrive to Safari in droves, and rally reports of the time hint at how much respect the exploit commanded. One 1968 edition of Motor Sport magazine described the Safari as “the most severe competitive test of a motor car yet devised by man”. The rest of the article gives great insight into how the legendary warmth of the East African people and the superbly social side of Safari played out.
Safari reportage from 1968
“To someone who is accustomed only to the style of European rallying, it is difficult to explain the niceties of the Safari and the whole atmosphere with which it is surrounded. It is a comparatively young event and has a format which cannot be copied anywhere else. It is looked upon locally as more of a reliability rally than one demanding sheer speed, and this is the reason for the impossibly tight averages – servicing and roadside rebuilding is cut to a minimum for there just isn’t time.
“The Safari has plenty of critics, most of them saying that it should become more like the European events in order to attract more professional teams. But this would be a great mistake. As it is, it stands alone as the sole international example of its kind. Any attempt to meddle with its makeup, other than to sort out a few minor details, would inevitably reduce its value as one of the toughest tests of motor cars in the world.”
Preserving the Safari Rally Spirit
The Safari Classic organisers are devoted to preserving its historic reputation. The 2015 event covered more than 2,000 miles, spread across nine days of rallying (day five was a rest day, allowing the cars to be thoroughly inspected and repaired as required). Twenty-four competitive sections totalled more than 1,250 miles, with the longest single stage being almost 100 miles alone. “One day on Safari is longer than an entire historic season anywhere else,” as one driver put it.
Every day on our marathon event brings once-in-a-lifetime moments, building to a truly unforgettable and life-changing experience. Explore our website and learn why this event is the most unique historic motorsport event anywhere on the planet. Contact us with any questions or to discuss your entry.