VW Entered Its Iltis SUV In the Paris-Dakar Rally to Attract Orders From the French Military

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The Volkswagen Iltis may be one of the most influential rally cars you’ve never heard of, even though it wasn’t really modified all that much to go rallying. Volkswagen wanted to sell them to the French military, and it knew just the place to make that pitch: the Paris-Dakar Rally.
The Volkswagen Iltis was a beefy four-wheel-drive utility vehicle that went into production in 1978, and according to the company’s brief history of the vehicle, it was co-designed with Audi as a bit of a parts-bin king. The overall design was based based heavily on the existing DKW Munga that Audi had been building since the sixties, but Ferdinand Piëch’s design team also used parts from other Audis, the Mk1 Golf and the Volkswagen Beetle.


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Cutaway view, VW Iltis.
As Audi had built the Munga, they picked up production and development at their plant in Ingolstadt, even though it was branded as a VW.
Just over 9,000 Iltises were built in total, giving it a smaller production run than the Lamborghini Aventador, but hey, the Iltis was a pretty pricey, niche vehicle. While it was sold to both militaries and civilians alike, VW was heavy on the military sales for this one-so much so that it went to extraordinary lengths to catch the French military’s eyes (and pocketbook).


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Volkswagen Iltis
The Paris-Dakar Rally was new for 1979, and at the time, still actually ran from Paris, France, to Dakar, Senegal. It was the ultimate feat for an off-road vehicle to not only make that trek, but do well. So, in hopes of generating buzz with civilian and military buyers alike-especially those close to the rally’s starting line-Volkswagen entered the second-ever Paris-Dakar Rally in 1980 with four Audi-prepped Iltises.


Paris-Dakar Rally vehicles then were much closer to stock as opposed to the purpose-built racers we see today, making this the best showcase VW could have asked for. There were no support vehicles and mechanics at stops, either. Your vehicle made it, or it didn’t. According to Patrick Zaniroli, who drove one of the Iltises, the Iltis was even less modified than most 1980 entrants, with its only modifications being a larger carburetor and a different camshaft.


Like its VW-branded predecessor, the VW Thing, the Iltis wasn’t especially powerful, sporting a 1,741-cc engine that made 70 horsepower, or 75 hp if you used premium fuel. But it had a four-speed manual transmission with an extra low-gear, and that was paired with a mechanical four-wheel-drive system. The system allowed the Iltis to power only the rear wheels until all four were needed, at which point the driver could engage the four-wheel-drive system. Other competitors were faster, but the Iltis was tougher and more reliable.


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All four Iltises finished the 1980 Paris-Dakar Rally, with the one driven by Freddy Kottulinsky and Gerd Löffelmann coming in first place. The others didn’t do bad, either, finish…
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