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  • Writer's pictureTheWristorian

Watch Spotting: Digital Seiko Delivers in 1980’s Dakar Rally

Buckle in, shift into 4-Lo, and come along for the ride!

1981 - Claude Brasseur and the Citroen CX (appears he wore a Rolex diver this year)

As watch enthusiasts, we are (at least the majority of us) enamored with the idea of using these timepieces as tools in the most grueling and unapologetically challenging conditions. We consider the piece that we would rely on if we were jettisoned into space, or traversing the rufous crags of Mars. What watch would we bring solo-kayaking the Amazon River or summiting K2. The theoretical scenarios are endless. This practice is generally far more of a mental exercise than any sort of concrete plan for practical application. That being said, there are a number of fascinating historical achievements that now go hand-in-hand with the watch on-hand, at least within the horological microcosm.

Some watches, like the Omega Speedmaster and Seiko “Pogue” have ventured into zero-g territory, while the Rolex Submariner and the Doxa SUB300 handled benthic business in the ocean depths. Heuers and Daytonas dominated racetracks. Explorer IIs went spelunking past stalactites and the humble Smiths conquered Everest. Each of these timepieces is now eternally tied to the history-making event in which it participated, and rightfully so. So now that we find ourselves in the right mindset, let’s try out a watch-centric thought exercise.

Mitsubishi Pajero taking care of business in the 5th Dakar Rally

It is the mid-1980s. Denim-wear runs rampant and “New Coke” is being peddled to public dismay. The radio blasts “Road to Nowhere” by the Talking Heads as you contemplate your upcoming adventure - the Dakar Rally. Originally held during the holiday season of 1978, the Paris to Dakar Rally was conjured up by the late Thierry Sabine after he became lost in the Tenere Desert the year prior. Making legendary lemonade from the bitter lemons of remote Saharan isolation, Sabine devised a peregrination that would see motorbikes and automobiles compete to reach the final destination of Dakar some 6,000+ miles from their start in Paris, France.

So, let’s presume that you have your team and the majority of your equipment already packed. Your 1985 Suzuki Samurai (tin-top, naturally) sits patiently outside waiting to tackle the forces of nature in foreign lands. Your last bit of kit to choose is your wristwatch. Bear in mind, danger lurks around each and every turn, and you’ll likely be navigating through blinding sandstorms and blistering heat. What watch do you turn to? It is an enjoyable exercise in imagination, to be sure, but here are two examples of mid-1980’s Dakar Rally participants and what they wore when they put it all on the line.

Claude Brasseur, Jacky Ickx, and their Seiko Pulsemeters

All three versions of the Seiko Pulsemeter shown on a vintage Japanese advert

Over the course of the past four decades, a number of high-profile competitors have taken part in the Dakar Rally. One of these participants was none other than French actor and all-around adventure icon, Claude Brasseur. Originally taking part in the 1981 Paris-Dakar rally, Brassuer teamed up as a co-driver aside prolific racer Jacky Ickx. Though their initial foray into the harsh reality of Dakar did not result in a win, their Citroen CX sedan proved capable of tackling the challenges, as did the team. If anything, this defeat among the arid expanse only served to bolster their determination to claim victory in the future.

Ickx and Brasseur clad in black and red Seiko Pulsemeters, respectively. Also, peep that winning Mercedes 280GE

In 1983, Dakar competitors found themselves thrust headfirst into a brutal sandstorm that caused a significant number of teams to become hopelessly lost among the sand and sun of the Tenere Desert. Putting their mettle to the test yet again, Claude Brasseur and Jacky Ickx continued their partnership, this time driving a Texaco-sponsored Mercedes 280 GE. On-wrist, it appears that the duo opted to utilize the Seiko Pulsemeter as their watch of choice.

Originally debuting in 1982, the Pulsemeter came in three color variations – red, black/yellow, and OD green. A tidbit for some of you 1980’s film enthusiasts; the Seiko Pulsemeter was the watch of choice for the colonial space marines in the Ridley Scott sci-fi classic, Aliens. While fiction is fun, and presumably the Brassuer/Ickx team never encountered any Dakar-dwelling Xenomorphs, they did seem to utilize all three references of this digital gem.

Prince Albert of Monaco and his Giugiaro-Designed Seiko SBA018

SBA018 can be seen on the bottom-right of this 1985 catalog scan

Another significant competitor in the Paris-Dakar rally was literal royalty. Prince Albert of Monaco joined the fray in 1985. Driving a Mitsubishi Pajero, he was able to manage two weeks of rigorous racing before he was forced to withdraw due to irreparable engine failure. Making it a family affair, Albert’s sister, Princess Caroline, also joined the ’85 Dakar as a contender but was forced to leave the race early due to an unfortunate crash.

While the adventurous Prince was unable to complete the Paris-Dakar Rally, he has an undeniably light-hearted sense of style throughout his time tackling the course. From his “I heart Monaco” t-shirt straight to the timepiece on his wrist, he clearly set out to be a serious contender while still maintaining an air of levity throughout the race. Though it is accurate to say that Prince Albert opted to wear a Speedmaster for this excursion, moonwatch fans may shake with rage upon learning that he went with a Seiko Speedmaster, specifically reference SBA018. It’s a bold move Prince Albert, you have my respect.

So, from a utility standpoint, this Seiko is every bit as legit for race application as the previously discussed Pulsemeter. While it may be incapable of calculating cardiac data, it is a digital chronograph with a tachymetre bezel and unusual “seatbelt-esque” styling. In fact, this funky field watch may actually be the coolest choice he could have made from the 1985 Seiko lineup. The SBA018 is uncommon, at best, and is a vastly underappreciated model designed by none other than famed Italian automotive designer Giorgetto Giugiaro himself. While a few of his other Seiko designs have gained some popularity, such as the “Ripley” featured in Aliens or the digital model worn by racing legend Ayrton Senna, this peculiar piece remains deep within the nebulous realm of obscurity. Despite Price Albert’s early exit from the Paris-Dakar Rally, he lends credibility to this hidden gem of the Seiko backlog. Bonus points to the Prince for the customization seen above the top portion of the Speedmaster. After all, beauty is in the details.

Far be it from me to encroach on your thought exercise, and I am sure you made an incredible choice for the watch you bring along for a mid-1980’s rally run, but history has clearly made a case for the humble Seiko. This is, of course, the type of scenario where Seiko shines. From the frigid frost of Antarctica to the sweltering Saharan heat of Dakar, these were affordable and ruggedly-built timepieces that developed a reputation for getting the job done. To overlook their place in the pantheon of tool watches would be a travesty.

As always, thanks for taking the time to read. I hope you enjoyed the read! Maybe you are beginning to contemplate your next adventure, or perhaps you have spotted some interesting watches of your own in old archives. Either way, leave a comment or send a message my way!

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