Camel Trophy: Ode to an automobile adventure

Tuesday, january 29, 2019

If automobile has become so prominent in the minds of people, besides from being practical, it has always symbolized freedom, dream and adventure, like no other commercial product across the globe. Of course, the performance and speed have a lot to do with the automobile passion through auto sports, but adventure quickly turns into an important promotional tool: Citroen with the Black Croisiere then Yellow Croisiere, Renault with the Gradis missions. After which, Paris-Dakar made the rally raid popular and one year later the Camel trophy, which is of interest to us today.

Contrary to Paris-Dakar, the Camel Trophy is nothing but a mass race: in 1979, 170 teams were headed towards Africa, under the leadership of Thierry Sabine, while in 1980 for the first edition of the Camel Trophy, only 3 Jeeps went after the Amazonian jungle. This key difference is certainly due to the origin of the race, itself. Indeed, the idea of Camel Trophy at the beginning wasn’t to create a long-lasting event but occasionally plan out a communication operation, in order to promote the cigarette brand, namely Camel (belonging to the RJ Reynolds group). Initially, the operation was led by the publicity agency, BBDO Team group in Dusseldorf. It’s a pretty well-thought idea, in terms of a marketing product.

From Jeep CJ to Land Rover

Originally: a journey for 3 teams in the Jeep CJ, at the roots to discover  Amazonia, the green hell via Transamazonica from Belem to Benjamin Constant, a little Amazonian town which bears the name of a famous martial and Brazilian political man (itself bearing the name of the French novelist and political man under the Revolution). A struggle which lasted 4 920 km, an unparalleled adventure and it made RJR, the sleeping partner come up with an idea, soon to be a new important sponsor: Land Rover.

1980 onward, the consequences are quite major for a “little raid” of 3 teams as the advertising strike force of the Reynolds group, favored maximum visibility, arousing media curiosity. With the Camel Trophy, it didn’t matter which team really won the race: the interest was elsewhere. The adventure, struggle, the mindset, discovering landscapes or people got the upper hand on the hard-core sporty competition (in fact, 1986 onward, the “Team Spirit Awards” was created, which was almost as important as the victory itself in the eyes of the competitors). 

To such a point that just taking part in the Camel Trophy turned out to be a small victory: as the years went by, the applications kept increasing and forced major selection. In 1986, for the first participation of a French team, nearly 60 000 applications were received and the only ones combining physical condition, all-terrain driving abilities, but mostly mental resistance could hope for a potential selection.

Cigarette finances the adventure

Those days, one could still reconcile adventure with nature, automobile and cigarettes…The advertising budget for cigarette companies (but also alcohol companies) supported affluence in the automobile press for example (the Evin law fragilized the press economy, generally speaking and the one of automobile in particular). Nobody was surprised that an adventure out in the nature, which was extraordinary and rich in terms of human relations, could be supported by a cigarette manufacturer and a major 4×4 brand.

With Land Rover’s arrival in 1981( with Range Rover),the deal was going to take a whole new dimension: if the race still remained modest (with 5 teams), the fame was going to increase a little more. For RJR, its Camel brand changed the scope, well beyond expectations, mostly seducing young addicts both in terms of cigarette and this race, which became legendary. For Land Rover, this was the opportunity to highlight its products and mainly their extraordinary capacity to overcome things.

Land Rover III Series instead of Freelander

In 1982, the Land Rover III Series 88 replaced the Range, which wasn’t unworthy. In 84, one made room for Land 110 before moving to 90 in 1985 and 1986 (a victory year for a French team for its first participation). In 1987, the Range was back in its TD version, then again the 110 in 1988 and 1989. It was 1990 onward, that Land Rover decided to highlight true novelty: Discovery 200 Tdi then 300 Tdi (1995 onward). In 1998, the English brand put its youngest one, Freelander in the limelight.

All the vehicles which took part in the Camel Trophy came from Land Rover. They received specific participation (mainly a higher ground clearance to receive the biggest wheels and everything in terms of all-terrain elements, snorkel type) and equipment which was often put together, for adventure. As time went by, RJR got a glimpse of this almost unique race, in its own way and created a subsidiary for this, World Brands Inc who was made to handle the Camel Trophy brand, both for rally organization but also broadcasting “adventure” type derivative products: watches, clothes etc. With time, the brand became popular and gained some independence versus the self-titled cigarette brand.

End of a myth

On one hand, time were changing: the struggle against cigarette was turning into a priority in some Western countries, to such an extent that WBI, headed by the Dauntless Iain Chapmann, was sued for promoting cigarette through derivative products. As for Land Rover, the transition from the Rover group to the BMW group then to Ford modified its way of thinking, despite the built-in exceeding qualities of its models, the trend was no longer about glorifying 4×4 but SUV. Suffice to say that the “fighting” communication mattered much less.

As a result, in 1998, the two partners decided to part ways after a last “classic” test (some said that Camel Trophy had already mellowed down for quite a few years). WBI tried to relaunch the business through another form (mainly with boats in 2000) but Camel Trophy had outlived its usefulness. However, when it came to several children, teenagers or young men of the 80’s and 90’s, it remained the ultimate reference in terms of Automobile adventure with two capital A’s.

Today, a certain number of Lands who have survived the Camel Trophy, are collected around the world, to such an extent, that a Camel Trophy Owners Club saw the light of the day, about 10 years ago. To enter this very protected circle of genuine Land “Camel Trophy” owners, you’ll need to equip yourself with patience and have a well-replenished bank account, not to mention the difficulty for finding some specific elements, established for the test. But for the 4×4 fans and old-fashioned adventure, finding the rare gem will definitely be an interesting challenge.

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