Willys Hotchkiss Jeeps
Willys Hotchkiss JeepsWillys Hotchkiss Jeeps

Driving across the Sahara in a Willys jeep

To the Sahara and back..


The challenge and preparations


Ever since being young I had dreamt of following in the footsteps of my comic hero Tin Tin and wanted to drive a jeep across a desert – as portrayed in the 1937 adventure ‘Land of the Black Gold’.


To make it more of a challenge (as if I needed to) I decided to locate a ‘barn find’ jeep, fully rebuild it and use this to travel the thousands of miles – rather than use my coveted and mothballed  Hotchkiss M201 I was storing for a ‘rainy day’.


I found a 1962 Hotchkiss M201 in Brittany with the help of my partners extended French family.  I purchased the vehicle without seeing it, making my descision based just on the description given by the owner and two distance shots from an old camera! – I distinctly remember words of ‘good body’, ‘excellent mechanics’, ‘good oil pressure’, and more excitedly: ‘all the accessories’ were used.


I arrived with a trailer two weeks later, to be ushered into a barn full of animals, feed, hay and in the middle sat a sad looking Hotchkiss jeep.. the owner had been somewhat a little over enthusiastic in his description.  The body was badly rotten in a few areas especially in the rear lockers, the running gear was partially seized, it was leaking fluids, the underneath had enough soil attached to it to pant a crop of potatoes (!) and the ‘accessories’ were actually a water bottle, an American helmet and three german rounds of ammunition! The owner was very proud!


I didn’t make a fuss as I could see he was struggling with a large young family.  He asked me inside and showed me his collection of German artifacts his father had ‘liberated’ at the end of the war – including a fully operational Mauser rifle! A few glasses of French cider and the deal was done.


Upon return to the UK a fully stripped the jeep and set about letting in all new metal panels, renewing all the top hat sections and replacing the wings, bonnet and grille. The running gear was removed and everything that moved was replaced with new – whether it needed it or not, as I couldn’t risk breaking down in the desert.   A full new braking system was installed, new suspension and the engine was given new ancillaries and cleaned/ inspected.  The engine was one of the sweetest I had ever heard.  No familiar ‘hotchkiss pop’ and no tappet noise even at cold – rebuilt in ’92 it was a beauty. This work took about five months in total, of mostly weekend work, and cost me approximately £1500 in paint and parts.


I decided the jeep needed to be red as to fit more closely with the Tin Tin story, and I was advised by my newly appointed Sahara guides that a military vehicle could excite the Algerian army somewhat and a more ‘civilianised’ finish would be preferable. Therefore I finished it in signal red.


Once the vehicle had been fully re assembled and statically tested there followed somewhat of a media frenzy and the story went local, national, on the radio, and even a TV documentary company approached me.


I realized (with assistance from some ‘old hands’ at driving in the desert) that the vehicle had to have some upgrading to make it more safer and reliable.  I sourced and fitted a modern 24v alternator, powerful batteries and renewed the wiring loom where necessary. I also added a French army roll cage, new seat belts and changed the tyres for Klebers to help with driving in the sand.  I added extra jerry can and spare wheel carrier in the same fashion as the French army added these extras for the 106mm canon M201. A CB radio, bustle rack and a storage chest to the rear finished off the vehicle


It was at this point my original co driver pulled out due to family commitments and I had only a couple of weeks to find a new co-driver.  I mentioned this to a chap I was buying spare driveshafts from in France and he volunteered himself!    I agreed and within a few days a pallet arrived with all the spare parts I could want for a year long trip, and all his kit.


Slight delays meant that road tests were now only one week before the leaving date.  It was at this point that the layshaft bearings in the transfer/gearbox decided to start screaming….  I had a frantic phone around and found a reconditioned unit at R&R, and had it sent to me. By the time the unit had arrived it left me three days of fitting and testing left!

At midnight 48 hrs before leaving I decided the risk was too great to take the jeep.  With a sad heart I admitted defeat and organized to use a Land Rover Discovery instead…


Supported by my partner Harriet’s efforts to rearrange the ferries and my route through Spain, – she managed to free up an extra four days and I would still be able to make the redevous in Morocco with the Berber guides!!


This gave me four days (and nights) to prepare another vehicle. At this point I decided to re commission my mothballed Hotchkiss I had been storing for years. I had bought the vehicle directly from Domaines ten years previously and with delivery mileage on it was trying to keep it as original and unused as possible!


I transferred the ‘extras’ across to the new vehicle – roll bar, seat belt etc. these are easy to see in the pictures as they are mostly in red! I decided not to drill the body to fit the spare tyre and fuel can to the passenger side, but opted for a double mounting configuration at the rear.  All surrounded and supported by the bustle rack. Unfortunately with all the kit added and these extra items hanging off the back , this put undue strain on the old rear springs and the shocks (as I was to find out later!!).  With a full service and the charging circuit converted to an alternator I made my ‘window’ and left for Spain after 4 days of burning the midnight oil. Thanks to all those people who helped me out over those frantic days.


The journey – Europe


The nerves were palatable at my departure port of Plymouth as the vehicle was totally untested, apart from a cheeky run I had made to Cornwall in it three years ago!


France and Spain was un eventful – thankfully -  as I settled into the role of driving the jeep. I had decided to take the side screen and doors (a very good decision as it turns out!) and apart from being very hot and incredibly noisy the vehicle was faultless. My ear plugs turned out to be worth their weight in gold.


I motored down through Spain at 70KPH and crossed the country in only 17 hours!  I was completely shattered when I arrived and collapsed into the hotel room – but I had still managed to gulp down a couple of ‘cerveza’s’ first!




 Morocco and the Atlas.


I met up with my co –driver in Gibraltar where he had flew in.  The ex pats were excited to see a jeep touring the ‘rock’ and after a close encounter with a filthy monkey – we made our way to the port and caught the ferry across to Ceuta. We met up with a couple of other 4x4’s and their crews mostly from the UK and Ireland, and then our guides as we were ‘escorted’ through the Spanish Moroccan border. The border guards became a little over excited as my replacement nato green Hotchkiss named ‘Milou’ and our utility outfits made us look somewhat like a military unit.  We learnt a valuable lesson that day … the ‘Diram’ (local currency) goes a long way to help in difficult situations!


The first thing that hit me about Morocco, apart from their obsession with driving badly in overloaded old Mercedes cars, was how poor they all were, many people had no shoes and rags for clothes – it really is as poor as the third world in places.


We ascended into the pre Atlas mountains.  The roads were tarmac but they were perilous none-the-less with hairpin bends and subsiding/ rock strewn carriage ways.  It soon became frustrating being stuck behind some older 60’s Bedford lorries spewing out sooty diesel fumes, as it resulted in long tortuous climbs for hours.  Overtaking was nearly impossible especially on steep  gradients and with the amount of weight we were carrying in ‘Milou’ (we named the jeep after Tin Tins small white dog!).


Eventually we pulled off the roads into the mountains and progressed up to 7.5 thousand feet entering massive cedar forests, inhabited by a few farmers, logging companies and more aggressive packs of monkeys!! Here the tracks disappeared and we tried our best to stop from slipping down dramatic mountain sides.  Soon the guides realized the value of the jeep as they couldn’t believe how it tackled these mountain trails.  It was at this point Milou was dubbed the ‘little mountain goat’ by our ‘caravan’…


Other diesel powered vehicles had great problems here as they were gasping for air, and I actually experienced altitude sickness!! The Jeep had no problem and kept pulling like a trooper. Then our first technical problem.. My co driver wasn’t that experienced a driver and had been using the footbrakes on descents rather than the engine to help braking.  This had then resulted in one of the front drum brakes locked on and started to over heat.  Emergency stop, lifting the vehicle with a high-lift jack, drums off, a clean up and re-grease of brake shoe pivots and we were off again.


The mountains then changed from lush forests to open vistas of unfertile wasteland (reminiscent of a bleak Dartmoor).  This lasted about two days and we had our first encounter with scores of begging children who ran to the vehicles asking for clothes and food.  It was hard to ignore them and drive on, but we were getting mobbed.  We actually distributed pens to many thankful school children by throwing biros to them as we drove along.


We spent half a day more descending and we had hit the desolate pre desert plains, initially keeping to designated tarmac roads.


After climbing again for a couple of days we dropped back into the pre Sahara plains.  Here the temperature starting rising and the jeep roof and doors came off and the screen was dropped. We left the road and continued through the rocky plains for days.  Unfortunately my co driver drove into two wadis one after another with too much vigor and the hard exit bank compressed the rear springs and popped both rear shock absorbers. Problem number two. We had another three days off road before we hit a town with no dampners on the rear of the jeep! This meant a very rough ride over the now rocky plains!!


The Sahara


Eventually we crossed the increasingly dusty plains where my Arabian scarf called a Shemagh came into its own filtering out the sand and dust as we hurtled along at over 70kph. The dust was so great that eventually I had two Shemaghs soaked in water and US army desert storm goggles – and I still had to cough up the residue each night! – lovely!

It was at this point that I added an oil filter (paper element) to the front of the oil bath to act as a pre-filter.  This worked extremely well and no dust ever got into the carb (I examined it when we got back).


The desert than started to change from rock and gravel to soft sand.  Down went the tyres to about 1 bar and the fun started.  Driving in sand at speed is rather like driving in snow and ice, sometimes you have to let the vehicle go and not fight with it, but try to keep any sliding to a minimum and keep in a straight line avoiding hard braking!


We reached Erg Chebbi, the largest sand dunes in the Sahara and we had an excellent day of trying to keep to ridges and out the soft sand! Once again the jeep performed faultlessly and even extracted itself in low ratio from some very sticky situations where other larger more powerful vehicles bogged themselves down quickly.


One particular night I went for a wander to watch a meteor shower from some high dunes in the distance (an amazing experience, you felt you could reach out and catch them). After the sun went down and the stars came out (in a matter of minutes!) I decided eventually to head back to our camping area. It was at this point I got lost.  I tried to follow my tracks but the wind had covered them up. I than heard the dunes ‘sing’ for the first time which spooked me somewhat!  I continued to stride out for many hours in the dunes in what I thought was a straight line toward the vehicle.  Eventually I was luckily found by some Toureg men and they returned me to my jeep in the back of their battered Toyota!  My Berber guide was extremely angry but realising how shaken I was from the experience, backed down and gave me a GPS to carry at all times with only a mild warning; ‘I hope you learnt from that!’  Next morning in the daylight you could roughly see some of my tracks on the dunes and I had walked in a massive 5 km circle and not in the straight line as I had thought!!  This was definitely like a scene from the Land of the Black Gold!


We followed the Algerian border now for a few days bumping into practice teams for the Paris to Dakkar rally.  These chaps did not stop for anything and travel at nearly 100 mph!! They in fact kill many people and livestock every year and aren’t welcomed by the inhabitants along the route.


Whilst on the Paris Dakar route we saw one of the many dried out lakes actually filled with water (which is a very rare sight), more evidence of global climate change I’m afraid. This water under the sand creates the interesting phenomenon of ‘quick sand’, which unfortunately on a ‘toilet break’ I found and became somewhat stuck in.  After being pulled out by my co driver hearing my shouts for help– I learnt another valuable lesson (don’t get out the car in waterlogged wadis!) in all - another frightening experience!


It was at this point we decided the roof had to go back on the jeep as the heat was unbearable.  It felt as if we were sat in a fan assisted oven and I was starting to suffer from extreme heat exhaustion.  The jeep was coping well and the expansion tank I had added before leaving helped save the day when many other vehicles were overheating, it’s a shame its owner started to let it down.


We entered the oasis town of Zagora (thank goodness) where the Hotchkiss went to a garage to hopefully fix the rear shocks.  They worked overnight on the vehicle and I went back to pick it up the next morning.  The over enthusiastic mechanics had not just replaced the shocks but felt the rear springs were sagging and so replaced the entire rear suspension with something out of a lorry!!  The little jeep now looked like a dragster! There was at least one foot between the top of the tyre and the body work!  This, as well as a full oil change, chassis grease and clean cost a princely £300 which of course I bartered down with the garage owner!  (helps when you speak the lingo!)


With new suspension and renewed vigor after a days rest in a hotel, we set about climbing up to the high atlas across the most formidable off road and roughest mountain passes I have ever encountered.  The road took chunks out the klebers and shook the fuel bowl off!!  I had wondered why we suddenly lost power and looked under the bonnet to find petrol spewing out everywhere.


A final couple of days driving on corrugations and eventually both headlamps snapped off as well, even with my constant attention to the whole jeep with my set of spanners every morning!


The Atlantic Coast


We arrived at the Atlantic coast after an enjoyable evening of driving around Taroudant (similar to Marrakech 15 years ago). In the warm evening with the top down many locals became excited by the jeep and I had a guided tour of shops, and garages containing old WW2 vehicles – mostly ‘enhanced’ Dodges and GMC’s all in extremely poor states of repair.  I was even offered a bantam trailer for about £20, but it wouldn’t have made the journey back.


At last we reached the coast and it was at this point we nearly lost one of our ‘caravan’ as he drove along the water line on a open beach. The Landrover bogged down and started sinking rapidly as the tide rushed in.  I ran out to assist with my French army shovel, but nature was winning the battle.  We eventually managed to winch the vehicle out, but the Landrover was very nearly lost!


The drive back up the coast was hard work as severe floods had swept many villages and roads away, the destruction and visible misery was great.  After a hard two days driving through further familiar named cities, Essaouira, Casablanca and Rabat we reached the border and our minds turned to Spain and the drive back. We celebrated the fact we had all returned in one piece and we waved goodbye to our guides at the Border – the police didn’t bother us on the way out – probably because the jeep and its contents looked fatigued and skint!!.


Spain and the journey back


We crossed the Gibraltar straights, picked up the road to Malaga and then turned into mainland Spain climbing the steep mountains. The temperature in central Spain dropped rapidly.  Inside the jeep it was extremely cold and at one point we had to light a gas burner in the cab to stop ice forming on the inside of the windscreen!  Camping those nights were especially cold and we ran the stationary jeep engine to heat the bonnet to help warm us and our food!!


I finally sailed from Bilbao to the UK in a storm and returned to the UK in gales, rain and the customary impatient drivers.


In conclusion


I returned five weeks after leaving home, and I must say I was in awe of the Hotchkiss jeep.  It had handled long runs, sand, dust storms, deep water, Moroccan mechanics, great altitude and even the atlantic beaches without missing a beat and only getting bogged down once.  Infact I was asked to sell the vehicle to the Berber guide when I left as he saw how robust these jeeps were.  Everywhere we went people shouted out, waved and were generally excited to see us and ‘Milou’ (especially the Algerian border guards).


The total mileage was roughly over 7 thousand miles and I returned shaken (by the vibrations) but not stirred.  Would I do this again? Yes please! But I may add coil springs and a more comfortable seat!!


If you are interested in preparation guidance for a Willys/ Hotchkiss, or are thinking of attempting an expedition in a jeep like this, feel free to mail me.


Next stop Central Africa in a command car…. I have already pulled this out of another barn in France!


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