She was known as the Iron Lady. All the more reason why Britain was shocked when Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher showed up at a London hotel in tears. It was January 13, 1982. Thatcher was scheduled to give a speech to the National Federation of Self-Employed and Small Businesses. In the hotel lobby, visibly shaken, she told reporters, “I am very concerned. My husband will arrive there this afternoon.” She regained her composure momentarily, then leaned against a bodyguard for support. A woman standing next to her remembered: “She looked at me and said, ‘I’ll be alright in a minute.’ She was clearly very, very upset and trying to put a brave face on it. I felt for her as a mother.”
This story originally appeared in Volume 6 of Road & Track.
The Iron Lady’s son, Mark Thatcher, had gone missing five days earlier while racing a Peugeot 504 through the Sahara in the Paris-Dakar Rally. His car was last spotted by fellow racers with a busted axle outside Timiaouine, near the border of Algeria and Mali. And then: nothing. He was lost in the desert with his co-driver, the French endurance-racing ace Anne-Charlotte Verney, and their mechanic, Jacky Garnier.
There was reason for fear. The 1982 Dakar rally was only two-thirds over, and already three people had been killed: a Dutch motorcycle racer, a French journalist, and a Malian spectator. In the Sahara, a search mission was on. According to one newspaper report, published the day of the prime minister’s tearful public appearance, “Army columns carrying food and medical supplies fanned out from bases in southern Algeria while three French long-range military aircraft joined Algerian air force planes over the desolate plateaus spanning the frontier.”
The prime minister heard personally from Queen Elizabeth of England, from French Prime Minister François Mitterrand, and from President Ronald Reagan. “I was calling to tell you that Nancy and I feel so deeply,” the president said. “You are in our thoughts and prayers.”
When Mrs. Thatcher faced reporters hunting for any leads, she told them point-blank: “I am sorry there is no news.”
Twelve days earlier, on New Year’s Day, sprawling crowds turned out in Paris’s Place de la Concorde to witness the start of the most brutal rally race on earth: the Dakar. There were 233 cars, 129 motorcycles, and 23 trucks, each with drivers, co-drivers, and teams of mechanics. This was an ominous place to kick off a race, the site where King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were beheaded nearly 200 years earlier.
Jacky Ickx, the Belgian Le Mans champion, was there, competing in the Dakar for the first time. Also present was Thierry Sabine, the “Megalomaniac of the Sands,” the Dakar’s founder and driving force. Sabine was inspired to create the massive race when he got lost in Africa while competing in a smaller event. In 1979, he launched the Dakar rally—the most challenging event in the world of motorsports, held on the planet’s most hostile terrain. “A dashing figure in his white jump suit and long blond hair,” as one writer described him, “Sabine appeared to relish his reputation as a romantic adventurer leading a mighty caravan into the desert, an image that led some of his fans to call him Jesus.”
But the man who drew the most attention was Mark Thatcher. He stood surrounded by an entourage, wearing a white racing suit with his name stitched in red. Tall, thin, 28 years old, he was Hollywood handsome, a ringer for Peter Fonda. Reporters pushed microphones in his face as he leaned up against his Peugeot race car.
The story of how he decided to enter Dakar was surprising. “It all began when I took part in Le Mans in 1980,” he explained. “One of the sponsors happened to mention that they were running three Peugeots in the Paris-Dakar, and would I like to do it? I said yes and forgot all about it. And then the guy rings up a year and a half later and says, ‘Can you come over to Paris a week on Tuesday for the press launch of the Paris-Dakar?’ I thought, oh God, I’d forgotten about that! But then I thought about it. I realized that not many people get the opportunity to try to cross the Sahara desert.”
Was he ready?
“I did absolutely no preparation. Nothing.” In another interview, he said, “Now that I’ve raced in Le Mans and other things, this rally is no problem.”
Then in its fourth year, the Dakar had never seen a racer who drew as much attention as Thatcher. He was an international playboy, the apple of the prime minister’s eye. He liked “good wine, girls, Rolex watches, and Chinese prints,” he once said.
Thatcher’s racing career started in the late Seventies after he took a driving class at Brands Hatch. At the time—as always—Britain was mad for motor racing. James Hunt had won the Formula 1 world championship in 1976. The nation’s foremost sports heroes were mostly drivers: Stirling Moss, Jackie Stewart, Graham Hill, John Surtees. So the press was all over the story of the prime minister’s race-car-driving son. He called racing “a personal pleasure which I do very seriously.” He was chastised by the press when he agreed to promote a nudie magazine in exchange for racing sponsorship (he pulled out of the deal). He debuted at Le Mans in 1980 driving a BMW, and returned in 1981 in a Porsche. DNFs both times.
Once, in 1981, he tomahawked a Formula Super Vee at Hockenheim, emerging with another car’s tire marks on his helmet. Less than a week later, the prime minister herself took a drive in a Lotus Esprit Turbo with company founder Colin Chapman by her side. “My son drives one like this and I would just like to see what it feels like,” Mrs. Thatcher said. When asked if his last name helped him in his sport, Mark Thatcher answered, “At Le Mans, at almost 200 mph . . . Mum can’t fix it if the brakes fail.”
He’d met his Dakar co-driver, Anne-Charlotte Verney, while competing at Le Mans, her hometown. She had entered Le Mans nine times—more than any other woman—and was a force in the cockpit, finishing second in class at the race in 1981.
Dakar was grueling: two qualifying sessions in France, followed by ship transport across the Mediterranean to Algiers, then 14 stages of time trials through Africa—all on a course barely defined by markings. The fourth running drew twice as many entries as the inaugural race. Competitors built production vehicles into Mad Max–like racers. Teams of mechanics gave chase, working on the machinery at night while the drivers rested in sleeping bags on the dirt. In 1982, the competitors were almost all French. Few in America had yet heard of the rally. Racers were bowed by the challenge. “Sabine made the race too difficult,” Claude Brasseur, Jackie Ickx’s co-driver in 1982, said four years later, after Sabine died in a helicopter crash at Dakar while hunting for stranded competitors. “Not just for the others, but for himself as well.”
On day one, Thatcher and Verney took off into the desert in their modified 504, a mid-size, rear-wheel-drive Peugeot station wagon built in factories all over the world. Thatcher was unhappy with his car right away. The wheelbase was too long for his liking. The driving was physically brutalizing: soft sand dunes, jagged rocks, stretches of poorly paved roads. One competitor said, “I achieved one of my life’s dreams when I climbed Everest, but the Dakar is much tougher.” Another put the 20-day race in context: “Baja is tough. When I finished there I had scabs on my backside, my leg was bruised all over and I felt like my rib cage had been torn apart. But at least I didn’t have to get back in the car the next day.”
Temperatures seethed during daylight, then dropped to freezing at night. Thatcher described his vantage point on day three: “We are in the desert on long, long stages, spending hours aiming at something very small on the horizon.” He thought, “This could all go very badly.”
And then it did.
“Our only objective was to finish the race,” Thatcher later recalled. “We didn’t want to be driving like idiots. On the section between Tamanrasset and Timiaouine we were running in convoy. It was flat and fast and we were running on a track so you wouldn’t expect anything to go wrong. Except . . . we must have hit something.”
The Peugeot’s rear axle failed. Thatcher stopped the car. They were in the middle of the desert in Algeria, with not a single sign of civilization in any direction except the occasional competitor and the remains of an old salt mine. Some drivers stopped to take note of where Thatcher and his co-driver were, so they could alert rescue if needed. “But the silly bastards,” Thatcher recalled, “instead of telling everyone we were 25 miles east when they finished the section, they told them we were 25 miles west.”
Rule number one, according to Thatcher: “Stay with your vehicle. Never, ever leave the car.” They had five liters of water and a little bit of dried food, which he found “useless.” There was also the car’s radiator water. Unable to fix the Peugeot, they waited for help. “When they didn’t come back for us in the first day I remember planning to be out there for five days, then for a week,” he later wrote. “After the first night I planned for two weeks.”
The desert was eerily quiet. And yet, across the globe, news rang out of Thatcher’s disappearance. Amid international headlines—U.S. Secretary of State Alexander Haig’s visit to Israel and Egypt, Pope John Paul II’s condemnation of Poland’s authoritarian government—newspapers had Mark Thatcher’s face on the front page. Thanks to Thatcher’s playboy reputation, his disappearance also made the gossip sheets, appearing in the same columns as Bo Derek and Barbara Mandrell. The British tabloids were in a frenzy.
“Military and civilian air and ground search teams scoured thousands of square miles of the western Sahara on Wednesday,” the Los Angeles Times reported. “Three French long-range military planes, planes of the Algerian air force, three small private planes, two helicopters, three desert trucks and a Land Rover are reported to be involved in the search. In Paris, organizers . . . said that a Swiss pilot had reported seeing Thatcher’s white Peugeot 504 on Monday in a rocky desert area of southern Algeria. But ground search teams found only tire tracks.”
Thatcher’s disappearance had become an international incident. Across the globe, everyday people learned about the Dakar for the first time.
Five days in the desert. “I had stripped the tires off [the Peugeot] and was ready to burn them,” Thatcher recalled. Suddenly he heard a helicopter. He grabbed a flare gun and fired off a shot. “Within five minutes, two Land Rovers appeared.”
Algerian border guards rescued Thatcher, Verney, and the mechanic Garnier and took them to the village of Timiaouine. Algerian Premier Mohamed Ben Ahmed telephoned the prime minister to inform her that her son had been found. Upon rescue, the driver remarked, “All I need is a beer and a sandwich, a bath and a shave.” That night, he, his father, his co-driver, and his mechanic ran up a bill of 11,500 Algerian dinars at the Hotel Tahat in Tamanrasset, a third of it for drinks.
In the end, Thatcher’s disappearance and rescue was the publicity event of a lifetime for Thierry Sabine and his Dakar rally. At the following year’s rally, so many fans turned up that Sabine had to cancel one stage for fear of them being struck as the cars raced past. The New York Times reported “mob scenes” of some 50,000 people, all wanting to catch a glimpse of the now-infamous Dakar.
Mark Thatcher ultimately abandoned his racing career. His misadventure in the Sahara was later dramatized in the fourth season of the Netflix series The Crown, his character played by British actor Freddie Fox. The Dakar is still held annually, although it hasn’t taken place in Africa since 2007. Yet, as Mark Thatcher put it in 2012, “it’s still a dangerous event and I can’t remember a year when someone wasn’t killed.”
As for Prime Minister Thatcher, she was soon faced with the calamity of the Falklands War, which broke out three months after her son’s disappearance. Even then, Mark’s ordeal in the Sahara was still causing problems. In the House of Commons, government officials raged over rumors that British taxpayers had paid for the desert rescue. The truth was, the Algerian government covered most of it out of goodwill. There was the matter, however, of a leftover bar tab. When Margaret Thatcher learned of it, she sent a handwritten note to her private secretary, John Coles: “I must pay the 1,191 pounds. We can therefore say that no extra cost has fallen on the British taxpayer. To whom do I make out the checque? M.T.”
SIGN UP FOR THE TRACK CLUB BY R&T FOR MORE EXCLUSIVE STORIES
Climb inside the Renault 20 Dakar, the vehicle that conquered Africa—and the competition—in 1982.
In 1975, Renault revealed a humble family hatchback, the 20, at the Paris Salon. Sold in Europe, the French-made vehicle was much unloved. Rust problems, reliability issues—the Renault 20 had all the appeal of day-old escargot. All the more surprising that Renault gave a car to rally duo Claude and Bernard Marreau—nicknamed the “Desert Foxes” for their success racing in the Sahara. The Marreaus went to work, turning this staid runabout into an off-road juggernaut that destroyed the competition at the 1982 Paris- Dakar Rally and helped Renault earn the rally- racing reputation it maintains today. In 1975, Renault revealed a humble family hatchback, the 20, at the Paris Salon. Sold in Europe, the French-made vehicle was much unloved. Rust problems, reliability issues—the Renault 20 had all the appeal of day-old escargot. All the more surprising that Renault gave a car to rally duo Claude and Bernard Marreau—nicknamed the “Desert Foxes” for their success racing in the Sahara. The Marreaus went to work, turning this staid runabout into an off-road juggernaut that destroyed the competition at the 1982 Paris- Dakar Rally and helped Renault earn the rally- racing reputation it maintains today.
110-hp 1565-cc turbocharged inline-four;
five-speed manual transmission.
Rear bench seat removed to make way for a 200-liter fuel tank.
The exhaust pipe runs up the A-pillar and onto the roof to avoid getting smashed on rocks.
Custom four-wheel-drive system, naturally.
Front disc brakes, rear drums.
Total weight: 3166 pounds.
Max speed: 124 mph
You Might Also Like