Alone in the Sahara. 90 years on from an intrepid drive
Aged twenty seven, Jiří Hanuš set off on the 8,050 km journey from Czechoslovakia to the Senegalese capital of Dakar alone. Škoda hoped the solo expedition would boost exports and the brand’s prestige.
At the time, Škoda was actively responding to the global economic crisis by introducing efficient production lines and developing new models. The company was working hard on an affordable car, the future Popular, and had launched a well-designed mid-range model for 1933. The 1.8 litre Škoda 633, the predecessor of the company’s flagship Superb model, had six cylinders and delivered 33 hp (hence “633”), or 24.3 kW.
The 1.8 litre Škoda 633
With its tried-and-tested design of a ribbed chassis frame, stiff axles and cable brakes, the robust car was built to cope with poor-quality European roads. But would it be up to crossing the fearsome Sahara? Success would boost the brand at home and in North Africa, which had been an export destination for Škoda cars even before WWI.
Weapons? A starter handle and a tyre iron!
The hero of our story is Jiří Hanuš, the son of the former managing director of the Škoda engineering and armaments concern. On a freezing Friday, 17 February 1933, he set off for Africa from the small village of Radlík near Jílové, about 25 km south of the centre of Prague. He had to contend with snow practically all the way to the southern French port of Marseille, where he arrived after covering 1,454 km in five daily stages.
One of the few surviving photographs of Hanuš’s Škoda 633 taken on his African adventure - the car is being loaded onto Anfa.
The dark-green Škoda 633 first touched African soil on February 24 in Algeria. It was a production car, and what’s more the cheapest version with a closed two-door “Tudor” body, which cost 45,500 Czechoslovak crowns. For comparison, the average monthly wage in Czechoslovakia at the time was less than eight hundred crowns, which is what an ordinary men’s wool suit would cost. Instead of special wide, low-pressure tyres suitable for the desert, Hanuš stuck with the standard Kudrnáč Everit tyres made in Náchod. The locals shook their heads at the closed body with limited ventilation and the absence of any weapons other than a starting handle and tyre iron.
Hanuš embarked on the challenging 6,546-kilometre journey through the French colonies from the Algerian capital Algiers to Dakar with the necessary approval of the Trans-Saharan Company. His written agreement with the company guaranteed him the dispatch of a search and rescue vehicle – but not until five days after he was due to arrive at the stage finish.
Follow the telegraph poles
The Škoda 633 set off from Algiers on a chilly morning. The decent tarmac only lasted 442 km to Laghouat. Then the 18-inch tyres bit into a dust track. Getting lost wasn’t a worry, as Hanuš simply had to follow the telegraph poles for 211 km to Ghardaia. Hanuš did not even regret losing his compass – having his combination pliers stolen on board the ship was much worse. The 33 horsepower engine under the bonnet took him through a swarm of locusts, and the car’s progress was only halted by a nail in front of a hotel in Ghardaia, the first of only two punctures on the whole route. So he patched up the inner tube, got some sleep and telegraphed the destination of the next leg to tell them he was on his way.
Advertisement for the elegant mid-range car
The uneven terrain made the car jolt and shudder, but Hanuš found that putting his foot down made for much easier going over the ridges with their prickly thorn bushes. Petrol and water in cans soldered shut could be replenished in the southern Algerian oasis of El Golea. Then came what Hanuš called “elastic terrain”, which slipped and slid under the wheels: the speedometer showed 70 km/h when the car was barely doing 50, struggling along as if it had the handbrake on. Hanuš reached the stage finish in Reggan through a monotonous landscape with no landmarks.
Antifreeze fluid and hallucinations
It was only here that the real Sahara began. The next stretch was a daunting 1,100 kilometres, with a single supply station halfway to Tabankort. Many travellers perished in the desert, having drunk the last drop of water from their car radiator in desperation. It was a good thing that Hanuš was given two planks from an old barrel to place under his wheels when he got stuck. This way he didn’t have to deflate the tyres to increase their surface area on the ground – and then inflate them again with a manual pump in the roasting heat.
He set off on the most challenging section after thoroughly checking the car, lubricating the chassis and adjusting the brakes, with a supply of 173 litres of petrol, 25 litres of ordinary water, 3 litres of mineral water and 15 litres of oil. He was carrying 52 litres less water than the safety regulations required, but he didn’t want to overload the car. He could not drink the water from the radiator, because he was using an antifreeze additive that did not evaporate so quickly.
The Škoda 633’s interior had the typical simplicity of its time but was perfectly functional.
The heat and fatigue soon led to hallucinations behind the wheel: a mirage of a forest, will-o-the-wisps flying through the air. Bakik, the mute African guide who accompanied Hanuš on this part of the journey, did not know how to drive. Finally Hanuš reached the Sudanese border. “The terrain there is dreadful. The deep sand is strewn with grassy humps, filled with sand up to 30 cm high, and the grass itself often reaches the radiator. The dried-up tops of the grass fly onto the windscreen and in the glare of the lights it gives a fantastic impression of exploding sparklers,” Hanuš recalled.
With its 1.8 litre engine and 180 mm clearance, the car often inched forwards in first gear, its battered chassis and bodywork threading a route between tree stumps. Hanuš’s silent guide Bakik drank only sparingly, for he was just sitting there and not working. Via Tabankort, the explorer arrived at the settlement of Gao in French West Africa, having covered the 1,300 km from Reggan in 48 hours instead of the usual three days.
Cover of the book Crossing the Sahara in a Škoda 633, which Hanuš wrote after his return from Africa.
Having dropped off the guide, the Škoda continued along the River Niger to Niamey. Hanuš had to avoid gazelles, warthogs and snakes and repeatedly had to dig the car out of the sand. The next day the young Czech engineer set off for Ouagadougou in Upper Volta, then on via Bobo-Dioulasso to Bamako in present-day Mali, then the capital of colonial French Sudan. He also passed through an area where a steppe fire was raging, driving with the windows closed in the heat and watching the sparks swirling through the air with trepidation because of the hundreds of litres of petrol on board. Exhausted and parched, he drank so much lemonade and water at the finish that he passed out three times on the way to his room.
Having had two days’ rest and lubricated the car, Hanuš was back on the road through Kayes to Dakar, a region plagued by yellow fever. “They say thirty Europeans out of a hundred regularly perish here, and people like Ferrari the hotelier, who has happily survived 10 bouts of this fever, are considered fakirs,” Hanuš said.
Advertising for the Škoda 633 highlighted its speed and elegance as well as its affordability.
After a harrowing drive, Hanuš finally smelt the salty air that heralded the approaching Atlantic. After covering 6,546 km across Africa in fifteen stages, with an impressive daily average of 436.6 km and a record of 727 km, the Škoda 633 reached the finish line. Four days later, the car and driver returned to Marseille via Gibraltar on the Anfa steamer. During unloading, careless dock workers broke the main leaf of the left front wheel suspension, but Jiří Hanuš postponed the repairs until he got home. He was back in Radlík on 17 March 1933, after a month-long voyage of 9,716 km, with an average fuel consumption of 13.75 litres of lighter petrol per 100 km.
Blazing a trail for others
During the remaining six years until WW2, a number of other expeditions with Škoda cars followed Hanuš’s example. On African soil, for example, there was the Škulin husband-and-wife team in a 1.4 litre Rapid (1936-1938: 52,000 km). Thanks partly to these intrepid explorers, Škoda established itself as the largest Czech car manufacturer and exporter in 1936, a position it has retained to this day. Half a century later, teams driving specially modified rally cars could see for themselves how tough the route covered by the Škoda 633 passenger car was, because in 1979-1994 the course of the world-famous Paris Dakar Rally roughly corresponded to the route taken by Jiří Hanuš.