And when Advani tried to morph into Vajpayee, his undoing began, say analysts.
Poor health pushed Vajpayee into the political background and suddenly it was Advani who had to convince the voters that the leader they knew as the Iron Man had a soul of silk.
The Rath Yatri now had to appear Prime Ministerial, making room in his chariot for all types of voters.
Many saw his controversial comments on Jinnah during his trip to Pakistan in 2005 as an attempt to reinvent himself. His description of Jinnah as a great and secular cost him the post of Party President, but Advani always stood by them.
In May this year, Advani led the party through an election that he knew would be his last. For the first time, he revealed in an interview to NDTV that he had always thought of retiring from politics when he turned 80.
That general election ended in dismal defeat for the BJP. His friends say he wanted to quit immediately. Being persuaded to stay on may have hurt his legacy, many say, portraying him as a man unwilling to retire gracefully.
Others say his giving in to the party's request was only to be expected; the Iron Man prefix, they claim, was always a misnomer for a man his supporters describe as oversensitive, and prone to tears.
And when the younger rung of BJP leaders began speaking out against him, demanding a change at the top, the man who was the face of aggressive controversy retreated.
He chose not to break his silence as first Jaswant Singh, then other BJP men, declared that Advani had misrepresented his role in India's decision to swap three Pakistani terrorists for close to 160 passengers held hostage after their flight was hijacked to Kandahar.
Singh and others said contrary to what Advani had always claimed, he knew that Jaswant Singh was being sent to Kandahar to make the exchange.
Now, as he hands over the reins of the party to BJP's Gen Next, Advani promises he will not disappear quietly into the night. "The rath yatra," he promises, "will continue."