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The Two “Cows” UMM That Went Grazing in Dakar and Came Back With Full Bellies

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Four Portuguese, one representing the Mozambican flag, set out to tackle the Dakar in two UMMs over 30 years old and achieved their goal of finishing without having to combine ‘the black cow’ and ‘the white cow’ into a ‘spotted cow’. But it was a close call.

At the start of the first stage of a Dakar Rally, adrenaline dances through the body from the previous night until almost sunset on the opening day. This is especially true for the likes of Carlos Sainz, Loeb, and Peterhansel, who aim to win the mythical race now in its 46th edition. Starting in the top positions is crucial for those intent on winning, even to intimidate the competition. However, for the pairs João Costa/Luís Galvão and Paulo Oliveira/Arcélio Couto, the butterflies in their stomach started months earlier, and the adrenaline high only peaked not on the first, but on the last day of the competition.

Putting a car over 30 years old on the podium to receive a medal after 7,891 kilometers covered on asphalt, sand, and through rocks and potholes, is a near-miraculous feat. Navigator Luís Galvão was nervous. It was his first Dakar, and he couldn’t believe he was about to finish the world’s biggest automotive challenge, where more than 40% of participants usually give up, according to statistics. Pilot João Costa, with a Dakar experience two years prior, found Galvão spending too much time around the racing suit and asked him, “What are you doing?” “I’m cleaning the suit properly because tomorrow we’re going up on the podium, and I want to look impeccable.”

After 13 days of competition, the three suits they took to Saudi Arabia could almost stand on their own, hardened with layers of dust, oil, sweat, and other grime. João followed his usual routine, asked a mechanic to blow his suit with a compressed air gun while he was still wearing it, then took it off, turned it inside out, sprayed it with odor neutralizer, and left it to dry in the air. After these first steps, Galvão took out other tools and began brushing the suit carefully and diligently, dreaming of the next day’s glory and medal-bearing photos.

Before revealing how the last hours went and the story of the well-brushed racing suit continued – yes, there is a continuation – sit back for a small trailer.

The ‘black cow’ of João Costa and Luís Galvão, in the desert

João Costa, 53 years old, works for a multinational in the ceramics field and has been living in Spain for a year and a half after 15 years abroad in the United Arab Emirates, where he developed his entire sports career in motorsports. “My dream was always to do a Dakar,” he confesses. In 2022, the opportunity arose through participating in the Dakar Classic with the South Korean jeep SsangYong Musso, which Jérôme Rivière had taken to Dakar in 1997 but couldn’t finish the race. João Costa found it “rotting” in Dubai. “I bought it in 2019 and took the car to Portugal to be prepared to compete again.” He did some races with it, and in the summer of 2021, convinced by his friend Luís Galvão, whom he met in the Emirates and a UMM enthusiast, he bought a 1992 model for €10,000. “We had the UMM in Portugal and were preparing it, not even sure for what.”

In the 1970s, a manufacturer of 4×4 utility and military vehicles was founded in Portugal under the name UMM (União Metalo-Mecânica). Equipped with Peugeot 504 engines, the UMM Alter 4×4 model went into production in 1977. The most famous “UMMista” (as fans of this all-terrain vehicle are known) turned out to be José Megre when he decided to put three UMM Troféu cars in the Paris-Dakar Rally of 1982 under the motto “3 cars at the start, 3 cars at the finish.” With the inscription MADE IN PORTUGAL in uppercase on the sides, all cars reached Lac Rose. In the following Dakar edition, only two UMMs went, one black driven by the mechanic “Tucha” (Carlos Barbosa) and the other white driven by José Megre. In a burst of creativity and sharp observation, the legendary mechanic, who still works only with the Portuguese brand, named the cars ‘white cow’ and ‘black cow.’ Both also reached the finish line.

Heart Surgery

After finishing 80th with the SsangYong Musso among 134 light vehicles and 18 trucks in the grid of the 1st edition of the Dakar Classic in 2021/22, João Costa’s friends started to tease him – “you should do a Dakar with a UMM, which is a Portuguese car.” The idea occasionally gnawed at him until one day, during a dinner with friends, Luís Galvão said to him: “I was thinking of taking the UMM to the city of Dakar within the caravan that does the Coruche-Dakar tour.” João’s impulsive reply was: “You’re not going to do that. You’re going to do the Dakar Classic with me.” He talked to a long-time friend and sponsor, Alves Bandeira, and they began to set up the project. In September 2022, João received an offer to return to Europe and work at the company’s headquarters in Spain. He didn’t hesitate, but the life change for his family from the Emirates to Spain forced him to postpone the Dakar dream by a year. These two years of waiting turned out to be fundamental for improving a car whose production ended in 2006 due to a lack of orders. “There are still companies that make some parts for these UMMs, especially in the suspension, but it’s not easy to find parts for the engine, for example,” explains João. He benefited from the network of fans of this national-origin classic, starting with the UMM Club and the intervention of “Dr. Tucha,” the pilot-mechanic considered the brand’s scholar, who performed a “real heart surgery” on the ‘black cow’s engine before passing it into the hands of Silvério Monteiro, the person who always prepared João’s competition cars. “The car had to be completely stripped down, disassembled, separate the chassis, bodywork, remove rust, everything was overhauled – axles, transmissions, electrical system, brakes, tanks, everything. It was a jeweler’s job with a lot of labor and cost us more than double what we paid for it,” he summarizes.

João Costa (left) and Luís Galvão at Dakar 2024

Meanwhile, in April of the previous year, João received a call from another continent. It was Paulo Oliveira, a Portuguese-Mozambican with whom he had crossed paths in Dakar 2022. Born in Seia 50 years ago but living in Mozambique since 2012, Paulo Oliveira had already participated in the rally on a motorcycle and in SSV with the Mozambican flag and felt the itch in his thoughts. “What are you doing this year?” he asked João. “I’m doing the Dakar in a UMM.” “If I can find one, I’ll go with you.” The race against time began well, and soon Paulo had purchased his own ‘white cow,’ also a 1992 model, for €19,500, and invited Arcélio Couto, whom he met years ago in a Pan African event, to be his co-pilot. Without wasting time, the Portuguese-Mozambican businessman contacted Sérgio Cruz, a passionate UMM enthusiast and specialist with a small family workshop in S. Vicente do Paul. “He first called me crazy, but I managed to convince him to stop his entire life to dedicate himself to my project so I could test the car in the Baja de Portalegre. We created a WhatsApp group where we kept each other updated and where he told us when he had difficulties finding parts so we all could search,” he reveals.

The teams of the two UMMs decided to join forces and share support, embarking for Dakar with a single common goal in mind: to finish the race.

Get out of the way, camel!

Besides wanting to complete the competition, Paulo and Arcélio carried the ambition of “winning a stage.” In the first week, when they realized they could stay in the top 10, their expectations grew. Unfortunately, it was short-lived because mechanical problems started to appear. At the end of the 5th stage, after a 450 km special in the desert, while on the asphalt making a 200 km connection to the closed park [bivuac], “the car started to shake, and suddenly the rear wheel had jumped out, and the rear axle was broken.” There they were, without assistance. “Until at a certain point, a Saudi tow truck passed by. We had to discuss a price, and he took us almost to the entrance of the closed park where we were towed by a car from our team because only team cars can enter the park.”

The ‘white cow’ of Paulo Oliveira and Arcélio Couto at Dakar

This setback would end up deciding the course of the race. The team waited for a new axle to arrive from Portugal to continue. “It came that night, but we lost the 6th stage and fell many places from 10th to 54th due to penalties.” At that point, they decided to take their foot off the accelerator and made “a very rational decision that was very hard because the main goal had to prevail, which was to reach the podium on the last day.” Despite many adventures and spending 12 hours inside the car with his co-pilot Arcélio, they never argued. “Most of the time, the one in which we are in a special, only Arcélio speaks because he is the one giving the coordinates, the speed, the direction. The pilot without the co-pilot is blind, so I trusted him 100%,” admits Paulo.

However, there are always dangers not in the roadbook or marked on the track that require quick and sometimes hasty decisions, like what happened to them right in the 2nd stage when they were surprised by a group of camels on a very fast straight where Arcélio was shouting “gas, gas, gas,” which means “full throttle,” which in a car like this is a maximum of 115 to 125 km/h. To not stop and lose time or hit any of the mammals, Paulo decided to go around the dromedaries. “I tried my luck and continued to accelerate. When suddenly I tried to re-enter the track, I caught a step about 1 m high and, of course, a car with almost 2000 tons when it fell, bent the front wheel, but fortunately, we managed to finish the stage, although much slower than we would have liked.”

The scares did not end there in that stage. Perhaps the one that pulled the human engines of this team the most happened when the Portuguese-Mozambican driver gave “full throttle” in a sand zone, and the accelerator pedal got stuck. “Then I wanted to decelerate, and I couldn’t because it was accelerated to the maximum. It happened to us twice. I disengaged the car, gave a few kicks to the pedal, and it finally released.” At night when they arrived at the “bivuac,” the mechanic had extra work but realized that sand was entering near the pump and the accelerator cable. “He protected the cable better, lubricated well,” and the journey continued.

A Broken “Heart” Hitching a Ride on a Truck

For this ‘white cow’ team that raced with No. 724, the major problems all occurred at the level of the chassis and components. However, the main problem for the ‘black cow’ of João Costa and Luís Galvão was the engine. Despite the surgery it underwent by Dr. Tucha, the engine did not cope well with the heat and the demands of the competition in Saudi lands, which required the UMMs to always run at very high revs. From the prologue, it showed a tendency to overheat, and even with all efforts to find a solution to cool it, the engine eventually died in the 3rd stage. “Generally, the car doesn’t behave too badly in the dune, the problem is the ‘dry rivers’ made of sand with a low grain density, thick grain that is always braking the car. The car tends to sink, and that’s the worst that can happen to us. The engine seized in a ‘dry river’ of 14km, which was done in 2nd [gear] at full throttle to manage to go at 50/60km/h. That demanded a lot from the mechanics of a car over 30 years old,” explains João.

The worst came later when they had to cling to a 1000 horsepower assistance truck that towed them for over 40 km to the nearest asphalt. “The truck doesn’t feel we’re behind, and we can’t see the truck because of the wall of dust it raises in front of us. If the truck brakes and we don’t realize it, we go straight into its rear. It was a tough day. We left at five in the morning and only returned at three the next day,” he recounts.

But hold on, even with the exhaustion, discouragement, and frustration, it was not time to look for the word “give up” in the dictionary.

The UMM of João Costa and Luis Galvão being inspected by the mechanic in the closed park

Once again, the UMM community showed what their camaraderie and love for the Portuguese brand are made of, and in two days, the Portuguese team was receiving the parts they needed to put No. 715 back on the track. Knowing that the engine of the UMM white was good and that in the black everything was great except the engine, João confesses they thought that “if the problems continued, we would make a mix of the two cars so that one of them could finish the Dakar.”

It was not necessary to resort to the ‘spotted cow,’ but still, the shocks kept coming until the last day for both pairs.

100km in 4th Without Being Able to Change Speed

In the last stage, because it was smaller and they felt safer, Paulo and Arcélio confess that they wanted “to do everything possible to win a stage. They were leading the race up to kilometer 30, but once again, a mechanical problem ruined their plans. “The gearbox was damaged, a stone broke a tie rod of the gearbox, and we did the end of the stage in 4th gear. It was about 100 km, 10 of them still in the middle of the track between sand and rocks, always in 4th gear, and to climb onto the final podium to receive the medal – because those who successfully finish the Dakar are awarded a medal – Arcélio had to get out and go under the car to engage 2nd gear so the car had enough power to climb onto the final podium,” he shares.

The UMM of Paulo Oliveira and Arcélio Couto in the dunes of Saudi Arabia

The 12th stage also left a strong mark on the memory of the duo that herded the ‘black cow’ through this 46th edition of Dakar. And the reason is not only the culmination of the story of cleaning the racing suits that we started this ‘film’ with.

At the start of the last day at five in the morning, João didn’t even go for breakfast, he just ate an apple and drank juice in his motorhome. Since he put on the suit early in the morning, he felt something was not right. “I found the suit uncomfortable as soon as I put it on, but I thought it was because I was nervous because it was the last day.” Until, already in the car with Luís Galvão by his side ready to start, he looked at his partner’s leg and saw his own name written sideways on the suit he was wearing. “In other words, Luís, when he went to get his little brush to clean the suit for the last time to be all ‘impeccable’ on the podium, got it wrong and instead of picking up his suit, he brushed mine that was also hanging up” [laughs]. The solution was to stop at the first service station they found to change suits, little knowing that this was the best of the setbacks awaiting them.

“It was a special of 45 km. At kilometer 16 on a rocky uphill trial, Luís gave me a left/right note that I didn’t follow and went straight ahead into the rocks. We bent the rear axle, the wheel was rubbing against the wheel arch. We ended up doing the remaining 30km with a prayer in our mouths to see if it didn’t dismantle. We punctured a tire, we saw right away that we had the shock absorbers burst. It was literally dying on the beach if we hadn’t managed to finish,” he concludes. After fluctuating between 25th and 38th place, João and Luís finished in 61st position, 20 places below Paulo and Arcélio due to penalties from the broken engine. For João, the great victory was overtaking the 2 horsepower cars two days from the end. “We were super competitive to overtake the two girls in the 2 horsepower, not because they were girls but because it was the 2 horsepower. The UMM cannot stay behind the 2 horsepower,” he emphasizes with a laugh.

The duo João Costa/Luis Galvão celebrating at the end of Dakar 2024

Paulo is already back in Mozambique, and Luís is in Spain. Their navigators also rest at home, and all are still digesting this enormous adventure they embarked on. Therefore, they prefer not to commit to a possible return to Dakar, at least at the wheel of a UMM. But none dare to say they would refuse to take a ‘cow’ off-road to graze in Saudi lands again.

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