Obituary : Julian Nowill 1960-2022

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

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’

Julian Nowill

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 Nowill

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

Julian Nowill

Keith Adams
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10 Comments

  1. He sounds like a wonderful friend, traveling companion, and person. The world needs more men like him, though I probably would have misunderstood and showed up to the start of the Plymouth-Dakar in an actual Plymouth…

  2. Julian sounds to have been a remarkable person and yes, the world needs more of his ilk. At the comparatively young age of 62, it’s far too soon, though he obviously enjoyed a full and varied life, as such eclectic taste tends towards.

  3. I had the pleasure of interviewing Julian in approximately 1996 about his Trabant for a feature I was writing for the regional newspaper I worked for. He was certainly canny where he parked either his Trabant or duck egg green Invalid car – in one of the few roads near Exeter city centre where there was still free parking! His enthusiasm for Eastern bloc vehicles and also Invalid cars was certainly infectious and I still remember the cheery wave he gave me as he pulled away in his chugging Trabant and drove off into the distance, its exhaust smoking away merrily. Not the sort of car you would expect a stockbroker to drive. A genuine pleasure to have met him and learn about his ‘left of centre’ interests, and also a shame we never met up again after that, as he did not live that far away from me, while I later found out he also shared my interest in the Maestro.

  4. So very sorry to read this news. We met in Istanbul in the late 70’s. It was my very first night in the city. I must have been 15 or 16 and Julian was a year older. He escorted my sisters and I to a panto presented by British Consulate staff. We were so impressed with his worldly knowledge and command of Turkish. A wonderful, quirky, adventurous, eccentric and kind-hearted individual. He will be terribly missed.

  5. 2005 was the start of a series of mad African drives for me, thanks to Julian…….. Thanks Julian!

  6. I’m really sad to hear this news about Julian, what a loss, he was a truly inspirational man, and a great example of how to live a life.
    I wish there were more people like him around.

    I have a real love of odd travel destinations and old soviet cars that I’d never have developed without first taking part in the Plymouth Banjul rally in 2008.
    Going to stay in one of his fields with other past participants was a great experience, Julian really built a wonderful community of people.

    He will be missed by an awful lot of people.

  7. Julian was one of my favourite people and we shared many an excursion down a hole and over fences. I did the Plymouth Dakar in 04 in a 3L Capri. That used a lot of fuel. In the latter days we did some brilliant trips into some incredible places. If we’d found somewhere epic, we’d give him a shout. He was always great company. I was due to pop in for a coffee and heard he’d gone.

    Having a great dad is a brilliant thing. His children were blessed to have him and we were all lucky to know him

    We were aiming to cut a hole in a shaft cap into an old weapons store. We got some good trips in towards the end of things.

    He kept his chin up to the end.

    He’s a big loss

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