Raid Orion

Paris to Isfahan: 6000km in 14 days

1972: France was jaded after the shock of 1968.

The president at the time, George Pompidou, provided little or no inspiration in a country where incredibly the age of majority was still set at 21.

As for the motorcycle fraternity, there was a sense that the imposition of stricter speed limits by the authorities were getting ever closer, although in an obtuse contrast this time also marked the decline and eventual fall of dictatorships like those of Spain, Portugal and Greece.

Young people thirsted for adventure and needed an escape!

Albert Sarallier

Albert Sarallier

During 1971, a two wheeled globetrotter named Albert Sarallier inspired us with his stories of adventure in a special issue of the magazine 'Moto Revue'. His account of the eventful 27,000km trip recalled his exploits on the long journey from Paris to Bombay astride his BMW R75/5 solo.

Upon his return this great traveller who had ridden all over the world felt the desire to share his stories with as many people through the medium of print, recounting his passion for travel, most especially that undertaken in the East.

Pages of the special issue dedicated to his 27,000 km trip from Paris to Bombay. Click for next page.

His idea was to organise a raid that would be open to anyone who wanted to join him on one of his new adventures and to this end he sought help from the 'Guilde Europeenne du Raid' in the mammoth task of organising such an event.

Albert Sarallier, photographed here on his machine, during the Raid Orion 1972 of which he was the creator

La Guilde Europeenne du Raid

Many of you will of course be unfamiliar with this French organisation created in 1967. In brief Guilde Europeenne du Raid is a recognised public utility NGO supporting Adventure and Solidarity in around fifty countries.

This organisation counts among its members such personalities as Paul-Emile Victor, Henry de Monfreid, Philippe de Dieuleveult, Bertrand Piccard, and Hubert de Chevigny.

Subsequently, interaction with populations in difficulty led La Guilde to participate in the emergence of what is now called international solidarity.

Heading for Iran

The Guild was immediately won over by the idea of Sarallier's project and decided to invest in it. The Automobile Club d´Ile de France, the magazine Moto-Revue, the petrol company Total and BMW France all joined forces to support the event.

Albert Sarallier's initial idea was a journey from Paris to Bamiyan around 200km from Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan. However, a few months prior to the actual event, the organisers had to alter and curtail this route to ensure as many bikers as possible could sign up without the need to exceed their annual four weeks of paid vacation.

It was therefore decided that the final goal of Raid Orion 72 would be Isfahan, Iran.

A rare document from the period: the welcome card given to each finalist of the raid on their arrival in Isfahan

This though didn't stop those who wished, and had the means and free time, to continue the onward journey from Iran on the stony desert tracks through Afghanistan.

We know that some riders, with no time constraints, even ventured further after reaching Kabul, improvising adventurous itineraries as they went on, visiting other countries, before finally deciding to wend their way back to French soil.

Two means of transport in the desert landscape crossed during Orion 72

Another plausible reason for preferring Iran over Afghanistan was perhaps due to the fact that Citroen had organised a car rally two years earlier called 'Paris-Kabul'.

The name Orion was chosen for this Paris-Isfahan motorcycle raid; being the star constellation used by caravanners of antiquity to find their way at night, travelling East, on the legendary Silk Road.

Michel Mauve (left) and Michel Degaine (right), one of the two crews representing the MC Creusois de Gueret on the 1972 Raid Orion

All the riders were free to choose their own route to reach Isfahan with their only constraints being to visit the mandatory checkpoints. These waypoints were in Belgrade, Istanbul and Erzurum before reaching the destination point in Isfahan. Along the way the riders would cross Italy, Yugoslavia, Greece, Bulgaria, Turkey and Iran; a journey totalling around 6000 km.

Before departure, briefings were held in Paris.

Before heading East, the 110 participants first paraded on the Champs Elysees and gathered in front of the Maison de l'Iran

Technical assistance was provided by means of dedicated mechanics travelling along the route in vans throughout the expedition.

It was perhaps an adventure with a small 'a', but this 1972 event, with no precedent in the motorcycle world of French touring, was nevertheless a great first.

Mechanical and bone breaks

Let's start with a little negativity. The only Harley Davidson in the rally broke down whilst still in Paris. Rally over for her!

Then a Moto Guzzi rider stopping at the entrance of Lyon, put his helmet on the ground and accidentally stepped on it; losing his balance in the process and fell, breaking his arm. Rally over for him too!

Two rather serious accidents were also reported. Tanneux and Georgette Thoually of Paris ended their adventure at the hospital in Aosta, Italy and Mr and Madame Ruchaud from the Bordeaux region were hospitalised near the Yugoslav border. All of them suffering broken bones.

Anne-France Dautheville, photographed here on her V7 during Orion 72

Anne-France Dautheville, the only female rider in the event, fell but fortunately without serious injury during the descent of Mont-Cenis and bent the forks of her Moto Guzzi 750. She wasn't able to immediately restart, but after some repairs, succeeded in continuing her journey.

Overall, thankfully, there were very few serious accidents. As for mechanical breakdowns; of the 97 motorcycles entered, more than 80 of them made it to Isfahan.

Repairing a puncture in the heat is well worth a sauna session to eliminate toxins through perspiration ...

The mechanics, on the other hand, had their work cut out due to poorly prepared and overloaded bikes. There were forks to repair, luggage racks to re-weld and of course numerous punctures.

The locals wondered what these 'extra-terrestrial aliens' are doing in the area on their devilish machines ...

It's interesting to note that of the vintage machines taking part, the three Cemec combos and the only 1000 Vincent all reached the end in great shape.

The atmosphere?

There was very little feedback on the rally atmosphere in the various niche articles reporting the event, perhaps due to the disparate individual routes chosen.

But despite the lack of reported coverage, the few articles actually published all mention the invariable kindness of the locals in every country on route. The only negative comment came from one disgruntled rider who referred to Istanbul as a huge, dirty and dangerous city.

Isfahan 1972 - Hotel Shah Abbas

In the layover towns, the arrival of the participants was celebrated with parties, parades and huge crowds of curious locals.

On arrival in Isfahan, one of the banners welcoming participants in French

Anne-France Dautheville

Perhaps by chance, the Orion Rally of 72, a great 'first', had a profound impact on the media of the time.

Without the participation of the glamorous and beautiful Anne-France Dautheville, the only woman rider to take part, the Orion Rally would probably have passed more or less unnoticed in the French press.

Apart from her apparent passion for motorcycles and travel, she possessed all the attributes the media desired for a good story.

In 1972, Dautheville worked as a designer and editor in a Paris advertising agency. Deciding on a complete change of life style, she decided to leave everything behind, and buy a 750 Guzzi motorcycle to follow a friend on the Orion Rally adventure to Iran. She was, unsurprisingly for the time, the only female in the line-up at the start.

For the record, her first request to take part in the event was rejected by the organising committee but against all the odds, she succeeds in persuading them to change their minds.

Orion Rally 72 - Anne-France Dautheville at the start of the adventure on the Champs Elysees

As a beautiful 27-year-old woman in the early 1970s, she attracted the curiosity of the media that only had eyes for her, and thus the spotlight fell upon the Orion.

On the other hand, one of the greatest French rallyists of all time, Jean Marie Debonneville, whose well-earned reputation was already well established, was totally ignored by the French press.

Debonneville (right) and his BMW combo in the Great Salt Desert in Iran

Incidentally, Debonneville was the first Frenchman to participate in such auspicious inaugural rallies, as the Dragon, the Shamrock, the Krystall and a host of others.

Yet he was nevertheless an integral part of the whole adventure, reluctantly having to sell one of his rare vintage motorcycles to finance the cost of the whole expedition. This 'venerable tall, bearded man', it's true, was not as sexy in the eyes of journalists as the alluring Anne France.

Jean-Marie Debonneville (left) and the late Kiki Blanchot (right); these two 'seigneurs' are undoubtedly two of the greatest figures in the world of French motorcycle touring of the 1960s and 1970s

On her triumphant return from the Orion 72 Rally, Anne-France Dautheville became the darling of the media. But a few months later, while writing articles for 'Champion' magazine and preparing a book recounting her experiences, a rumour began circulating that she had finished the journey in a truck. Worse still, there were additional rumours that she was a nymphomaniac, a lesbian and took drugs. This gossip and prejudice was typical of the old-fashioned, staid French attitudes of the time.

Anne-France Dautheville

All this publicity added greatly to the media coverage of the Orion Rally. So much so, that this event was repeated with a second adventure the following year, but this time the ethos and route were different.

Dautheville published her first book entitled 'Une demoiselle sur une moto' which proved to be quite successful, subsequently deciding to set off on her own for a round-the-world trip astride her little 90cc Kawasaki, if only to prove what an authentic and committed traveller she was.

She continued her adventures with a tour of Australia and a trip to South America, participating along the way in radio shows, as well as furthering her growing career as a novelist.

Uwe Ommer, Orion Rally 72 photographer

Uwe Ommer

Legendary German photographer, Uwe Ommer, moved to Paris in 1963 simply to learn French but in the end he never left. With a passion for motorcycling, several portraits of bikers are to be found in his works.

In 1972, he took part in the very first Orion Rally riding a BMW R75/5, creating a photographic reportage of the whole event. After reaching Isfahan, accompanied by about 10 rallyists, he continued his adventurous as far as Afghanistan.

In the video below, he relates to the journalist interviewing him, his anecdotes and experiences during the rally.

He displays some of the photos from Orion 72, together with exclusive artistic testimonies in glorious colour.

If you don't speak French, don't be put off, the photos alone are worth the effort to watch.

Text: Jean-Francois Helias & Gilles Gaudechoux
Images: JM Debonneville, JF Helias, G Gaudechoux
Translation: Jean-Francois Helias

Continues with Paris-Ghardaia 1973.