Q&A

‘I JUST BECAME THIS CAR NUT’

A record-setting long-distance driver talks about his life on the road

GARRY SOWERBY July 19 2004
Q&A

‘I JUST BECAME THIS CAR NUT’

A record-setting long-distance driver talks about his life on the road

GARRY SOWERBY July 19 2004

‘I JUST BECAME THIS CAR NUT’

Q&A

A record-setting long-distance driver talks about his life on the road

GARRY SOWERBY

Summer: the perfect time to jump behind the wheel, point the car towards a stretch of open road and drive. Canadas King of the Road knows a thing or two about the lure of the blacktop. Halifax resident Garry Sowerby, 53, has held four Guinness Book of World Records bests for long-distance driving, the first two with his college friend Kenny Langley. Along the way, Sowerby’s been shot at by African bandits, helped puta carón top of the CN tower and smuggled children’s books into Russia. He has managed to stay on the road for 25 years, much of it mounting wild autorelated stunts to publicize new car launches. He recounts his unusual career in the recently published Sowerby’s Road: Adventures of a Driven Mind. While in Halifax figuring out what his next adventure will be, bespoke with Maclean’s contributing editor John DeMont

What’s your first car memory?

My grandfather’s car was a ’52 Chevrolet. We’d go to the beach from Moncton out to Shediac. It’s about 20 km. I remember that was one of the longest drives in my life. My grandfather wanted to save gas. When he would come to every hill he would shut the car off and let it coast to the bottom, wait until it was almost stopped, then jump-start it off the clutch and away we’d go.

Where did your car passion come from?

It was always there. When I was growing up in the ’50s in Moncton, my father changed cars every year. It was a family event. In September you’d see the new models at the dealership. I can still remember the excitement of going and smelling those new cars. When I was 13 and allowed to move the cars in the driveway, I would wax the whole car and wash it just so I could move it 10 feet. I just became this car nut. I got my first job washing cars at the local Lincoln Mercury dealer, for 25 cents a car, which I shared with my twin brother, Larry. From the time I was 13 until I was 18 we had that whole lot, about 120 cars. We’d wash them all a couple of times a week in the summertime just

so we could move them around in the lot. Now Larry is worse than me: I have 11 cars but it’s close to what I do for a living; he’s got six but he’s in real estate and has no excuse.

When did you become a travel nut too?

When I was 14 or 15, and Air Canada brought in the DC-9s. We lived in the north end of Moncton, which was probably five miles from the airport but right near one of the runways. The DC-9s would go over our house, and the TV would go all funny. At the same time dad did plate-glass installations on storefronts, and his beat was all of New Brunswick and P.E.I. Larry and I started going with him in the summer, and they were great memories.

You first put the pedal to the metal when?

I was about 14.1 was over in Prince Edward Island with my father, who was there for a job and he had the car with him—’64 Merc, fire-engine red, and I had waxed that thing until it was the cleanest car in the northern hemisphere. Dad said, “Here give it a shot.”

What possessed you to try to make your living behind the wheel of a car?

My dream from the time those jets started flying over my house was actually to be a pilot. I ended up doing the flying thing in the military, and then I quit because I was lonely up there. It’s taken me a long time to realize that a lot of this obsession with the road is an obsession with people.

How did the adventure-driving begin?

I was working in Ottawa as a mobility-test engineer for the military, doing acceptance trials for new products they were going to buy. Kenny Langley and I were doing an all-nighter back to the Maritimes and got talking and started wondering what the ultimate road trip would be. I was 27, single, probably 50 grand in the bank, no responsibilities. At that point I’d been across Canada something like 15 times.

Now we had never heard of anyone driving

around the world. It was just a matter of being fascinated with the idea and writing a letter to the editor of the Guinness Book of World Records. He said it had been done the year before in 102 days. Then it became, what are we going to do: quit our jobs and set up a company and raise the $300,000 we thought it would take, or just forget about it? That decision I made that night in 1977 changed my life.

Was the trip harder than you expected?

Everything went according to plan. The Iran-Iraq War broke out in the middle, but we had an alternative, a 747 to pick us up and fly us over the war. We were sick with dysentery, but there was no real feeling that things were going to spin completely out of control. It took 74 days, one hour and 11 minutes. We came back and it had cost $417,000; we had raised $300,000.

In 1984, we drove from the bottom of Africa to North Cape, Norway, to try to pay the debt off. It was like going to war: we got ambushed in northern Kenya; the Sudan went into total war and we had to change our route and take a boat across the Red Sea. When we got back, Firestone Tires in the States ran a huge ad using the truck. That saved us. We got five per cent of the US$2.6 million they spent on media, and paid off our debt. I left that truck [a 1984 GMC Suburban] the way it was; it’s in my bunker downtown. I had it out last week for a Hot Wheels show and kids were sticking their fingers in those bullet holes.

What then?

Now it’s seven years after the first drive. Ken’s a lawyer—he’s 36 and wants to get on with his career. I was married with one daughter and a second one on the way. By then I’m wondering if it’s time to do something else. Then John Rock, the guy who ran GM trucks in the U.S., calls and says “Garry, what are you doing in ’87?” This was ’85. Well, he’s coming up with a new Sierra pickup truck and he’s saying, “I know one record you

don’t have belongs to a German prince in a Range Rover. I wouldn’t mind getting that Range Rover out of there. I don’t imagine you’d mind bumping off a German prince.”

So there’s the carrot. Tim Cahill had just finished a book on John Gacy and was tired of thinking like a serial killer. He wanted to do something moronic. So we went and did that trip, from the bottom of South America up to Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, and it helped GM launch that whole series of trucks they introduced in the mid-’80s.

For the next 10 years in the Guinness Book of World Records those three records had my name attached to them. Cahill’s book Road Fever helped me. I started getting calls

from everyone, from the retired head of the Israeli air force to a director from Oscar Mayer Wieners to put together events.

Any idea how many miles you’ve logged?

I’ve probably averaged, say, 75,000 a year. I’ve been driving since 16, so three million.

Any favourite stretches of road?

From Plaster Rock to Renous up through the centre of New Brunswick, where there’s nothing other than that little service station partway through—on that road you can feel like you’re away from it all. The Grand Trunk Road from Amritsar to New Delhi is crazy350 km, but it took 17 hours to do it. Chaos.

It makes driving in Italy look like driving in Prince Edward Island. On the Alaska Highway you do get a feeling of adventure. I’ve driven it half a dozen times, and if I knew I was going to be driving it tomorrow I’d get those same butterflies I got driving around with dad in that Buick.

Favourite car?

In a way they’re all favourites. That’s why I have 11.1 get attached to them. I suppose it’s like kids with dolls. I blame it on my mother: if I ever go to a shrink it’s gonna all come out that I have this fleet of cars that I can’t get rid of because she gave my fleet of dinky toys away. I?il