Debbie the Condor
That was off-road legend and Hall of Fame inductee Bill Stroppe's reaction when first approached by Condor Coach in September 1968. In fairness, you'd probably have thought the execs were joking, too. Running a luxury Ford motor home in the Baja 1000?
But Condor was serious. And they wanted to finish. So began the mission to transform an 11,000 pound recreational vehicle into one fully-fledged, coulee-conquering, dirt-slinging, 400-hp off-road racing machine. (Note: A coulee is a type of cactus.)
Condor corporate insisted the wood veneer, water heater, twin beds, stove, refrigerator, shower and toilet all stay intact. Even the A/C and carpeting were to be left untouched...because press photos.
The RV's chassis was eventually shortened to 20 feet, but given its elephantine curb weight, the stock Ford-sourced 390-cid V8 wasn't going to cut it. Serious firepower was in order. Stroppe's solution came in 460 cubic inches of balanced and blueprinted Lincoln cast iron, dyno-rated at 400 hp. That channeled power into the Art Carr-shifted C6 trans, Napco front diff, and two-speed Eaton rear axle, with a monstrous 16-inch wheel and tire combo. For crash protection, Stroppe erected a jungle gym from cabin to galley, anchored by nine separate bars, each 10 feet tall and 8 feet across. At last count, he'd used 250 feet of steel roll-cage tubing. Finally, the V8 powerplant was converted to run on propane with an experimental dry-gas setup, just in case a 6-ton race-prepped RV wasn't already bizarre enough.
Laden with 110 gallons of fuel, 80 gallons of drinking water, and two NASCAR harnesses locked into its main roll hoop, the Baja Condor was christened 'Debbie Special' and made for Mexico. Its maiden voyage was the 200 some-odd miles between Stroppe's California shop and the race's starting line in Ensenada.
Siren blaring, the boys barreled through Baja's paved section at 90 mph; when they hit dirt, the preposterous motor home—which had started 255th on a 265-vehicle grid—passed its first competitor. Swaying in the crosswinds, kicking up dirt, and scrambling out of gullies, Bass and Thomas forged ahead to Camalu, where the 10-foot-tall Condor couldn't clear Baja's first checkpoint and crashed through the NORRA scoring outpost, taking rope and flag with it.
But the pinnacle of absurdity came a few hours later when one of Debbie's tie rods, which had already been mended twice, finally quit. Bass and Thomas radioed into Condor Coach President Walt Kiefer, who promptly flew his twin-engined Beachcraft Baron airplane to their location, swooped up the damaged suspension, and brought it to nearby Santa Enez for repair.
Photo: Condor CEO Wes Thomas and driver Don Bass at the starting line of the 1969 Baja 1000. Yes, the least competitive vehicle on Baja's grid had 240-mph air support.
There aren't many records of the off-road Condor because NORRA required a sub-48-hour time for official classification. When the very dirty, very dented Debbie limped into Le Paz at 9:00 am Monday morning, more than 90 hours had lapsed since Baja '69 had commenced. First across the line was a radical Ford Bronco driven by Larry Minor and Rod Hall, prepared by—you guessed it—Bill Stroppe. Their time? 20 hours, 48 minutes, 10 seconds.
Condor continued touring Debbie Special around North America's off-road race circuit into the mid-1970s, appearing at Bajas '70 and '71, the Mint 400, and Pikes Peak. Journalists rode along, napping during long repairs periods, scribbling stories later read by well-to-do fly fishermen and weekend woodsmen, who then phoned Condor with down payments.
By nearly every conceivable measure—namely finishing Baja some 70 hours after the race winner and 42 hours outside of classification—Debbie was a miserable failure. Yet as an oddball marketing scheme, it was heroic. And while Bill Stroppe's four-wheel-drive Bronco may've won in Mexico, there's still some question as to whether or not it was the most impressive vehicle he built during 1969.
Like a rally-racing motor home, success is a strange beast, isn't it?
Photo and text credit: Road & Track. (The original Road & Track article, including more great photos of Debbie the Condor, is available online.)
Road & Track: Meet 'Debbie,' the off-road racing RV that conquered the Baja 1000, by Max Prince, May 12, 2014.