Keith Adams recalls his friend Julian Nowill, adventurer, car collector, saviour of many a hopeless automotive case and self-confessed ‘crap car Svengali’.
His passion for adventuring and East European cars has inspired a generation of petrolheads.
Julian Nowill: Commie car saviour
Julian Nowill, creator of the Plymouth-Dakar Challenge, and undoubtedly the inventor of the banger rally, has died, aged 62. He will forever be remembered for undertaking unfeasible adventures, encouraging others to do so, along with his warm sense of humour and eclectic – and frankly amazing – car collection.
Born in Istanbul on 27 January 1960, Julian was always destined for an unconventional life. Julian recently recalled, ‘in August 1957, my mother took up a new post with MI6 at Beirut, under station chief and communist spy Kim Philby. She met my father Sidney in Istanbul, and six months later, they were married and jetted off to the USA on a Boeing 707 for their honeymoon.’
Julian would end up returning to the UK for his education, and ended up being a high flyer, and qualified as a Stockbroker. But his professional career was merely a device to enable him to combine his love of travelling to unconventional locations, often behind the wheel of the most hopeless heap money couldn’t buy.
The ‘crap car Svengali’
These passions gelled beautifully in 2002 when Julian launched the Plymouth-Dakar adventure in 2002 – a rally designed to mimic the Paris-Dakar, but limited to cars that cost less than £100. Julian knew that flinging cars across inhospitable deserts needn’t be costly – and this was the result. The rules were simple: take three weeks to drive a ‘£100 vehicle’ from Plymouth to Banjul via France, Spain, Morocco, Western Sahara, Mauritania and Senegal.
The first event attracted 52 cars, and little did they know it then, it would kickstart the banger rally movement, broadening the horizons of many drivers. Remarkably, 48 vehicles made it to the end, and all were auctioned off for charity. As his friend Karl says, ‘selling them for charity was a typical Julian touch.’
A modest business was built up around it, adventures were enjoyed, friendships forged. By the second year, three departures were organised as word had spread about this absurd jaunt. It now enjoyed the tagline, ‘no money,no sense, no worries’ – and, as a result, 88 cars took part. Typically, behind the scenes, Julian put a lot of effort in to make Plymouth-Dakar a success.
At its height over 200 vehicles set off for the Gambia and, despite the impact of the worsening security situation, the Dakar Challenge survived, and is being taken forward by a veteran of the second run.
A well-travelled man
Julian’s love of travel took him to places many people feared to tread. Stamps on his passport included Gambia, Sierra Leone, Iraq, Armenia, Belarus, Afghanistan, most of Central Asia, Chernobyl and other interesting parts of Ukraine. Throw in Murmansk, Antarctica, the ship breakers yards in Chittagong, North Korean and here was a man who’d seen it all.
There was even more to Julian, though – he was certainly not a single interest person. He was equally fascinated with British cars (hence his love of AROnline), Communist-era motors (with a book published on the subject), dictators, concrete, elderly airliners and dodgy airlines, and exploring.
He was also enthusiastic about any ‘penetration’, whether it was a mine in Cornwall, a 19th century fort, a disused quarry, as near to the Trident submarine control centre as he could manage, The Maginot Line or East German bunkers.
Cars owned include an Oka, UAZ, Volga, 2005 Paykan (registered as a 1970 Hillman, and bought by Julian in Iran), Trabants, a pair of Ladas, a Dacia, as well as a couple of Zaporozhets, a Singer Vogue, a CityRover, Metro, Maestros, Montegos, and an Invacar (registered as an AC sports car). But he was always keen to share his experiences and was free and patient with his advice with fellow travellers.
‘I’d never have gained access to Chernobyl in 2006 without Julian’s invaluable help and, thanks to this, an enduring friendship between us was sparked,’ said AROnline Editor, Keith Adams. ‘I have many memories of Julian over the years, including a memorable handover of a ZAZ 968, and his obvious joy at buying my old Rover Metro diesel, but his mid-air proposal to Hilary, topped them all, and brought tears to my eyes.’
Julian is survived by his brother Edward, second wife Hilary, and his children Alastair, Mia and Celia.
With special thanks to Karl Parsons