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ROAD LESS TRAVELLED: Around the world without refuelling

The proposed CAT powered GMC Top Kick’s tank configuration would enable the truck to circle the globe without stopping for fuel. The trailer would be shipped back from Western Australia so Asia could be tackled without it.
The proposed CAT powered GMC Top Kick’s tank configuration would enable the truck to circle the globe without stopping for fuel. The trailer would be shipped back from Western Australia so Asia could be tackled without it. - Contributed

The Los Angeles Auto Show wrapped up last week and social media surfacing from the show reminded me of the only time I attended Tinseltown’s automotive showcase.

I drove there, a long haul that started by driving our then-new 1988 GMC Sierra 3500 diesel to New York and airfreighting it to Buenos Aires, Argentina. From there, Montana writer, Tim Cahill, and I drove south 3,000 kilometres to Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego, at the bottom of South America. Then we turned around and horsed the big Sierra 24,000 kilometres north to Prudhoe Bay, Alaska.

We didn’t stop much and knocked a month off the existing Pan-American driving record. It gave Tim fodder for his book, Road Fever, and provided GMC a unique launch testament for their all-new 1988 Sierra truck line.

From Prudhoe Bay, we drove back south to Fairbanks where Tim caught flights home to Montana. I continued to Anchorage and shipped the truck to Seattle, Washington then drove it to Los Angeles in time for media day at the 1988 Los Angeles Auto Show.

It was an opportunity to show the world the truck that had just clipped a month off the existing record for the fastest drive on the world’s longest road, from tip to tip of the Americas.

After the press activities, John Rock, general manager of GMC Truck Division of General Motors in Michigan, cornered me at one of the show’s bars.

“Ok, you made me proud with that one, Garry, but now I need to come up with something to help launch our new Top Kick medium duty truck,” he grinned slightly. “It has a state-of-the-art fuel sippin’ 250-horse CAT diesel.”

Quick thinking was in order because Mr. Rock was obviously a busy man, and although we had a solid business relationship, I had to come up with a concept before we hit the bottom of the gin and tonics on the bar in front of us.

With the exception of a few days, I had been on the road two months and was a tad dull. But I started thinking about the limitless configurations that could be bolted to the chassis of a medium duty trucks.

I saw an opportunity.

A Top Kick could have dual or tandem rear wheels and could be upfitted to be a dump truck, freighter or waste disposal unit. It could be a tanker to carry water, or fuel. Hmmmm.

“Let’s drive one around the world without refuelling, John!” I offered.

I drew an aerial view of a concept on a napkin. On the chassis, we would mount a tank to carry enough fuel to propel the truck halfway around the world. An appropriately sized tanker trailer would carry enough fuel for the other half. The further it went the lighter it would become continuously improving fuel economy.

I’d haul the trailer across North America, Japan and Australia to Perth on its west coast, transfer all the fuel into the chassis mounted tank then ship the truck to Asia and the trailer back to Detroit. That way I wouldn’t have to deal with the trailer driving through congested China, across Russia and through Europe.

As I unloaded to Mr. Rock, he stared at me like I was a rock star, or was it a Vegas magician?

“We’ll use Canadian, American, Australian, Chinese, Russian and European technology in the design of the fuel storage, transfer and security systems. We need to design the paint scheme to make it likeable, loveable even. Is it art deco or the future? Beautiful in its simplicity.”

I was on a roll.

“The drive will be in 1990 to celebrate global co-operation as we begin the last decade of the twentieth century,” I concluded, bottoming out the gin and tonic.

Then the man with the authority and budget to make things happen said, “I like the way you think. We’ll give you the money to figure out how to do this and how much it will cost. You have four months.”

The next day I was alone back in the Sierra, starting the long drive back home to Canada’s East Coast. My head was swimming with fragments of a plan to drive a truck around the world without refuelling.

Over the following two months I took driver training on a tandem fish transporter with a 12-speed “screaming” Jimmy diesel.

You had to drive like it like you hated it to shift properly but I got my licence upgraded and an “air brake” endorsement.

John Rock sent me to Death Valley to check out a fleet of Top Kicks undergoing hot weather testing. Then I drove a tandem dump version from there to Detroit. I liaised with tank manufacturers, engaged the Soviet College of the Sciences and checked into trucking regulations along the proposed route. I crunched numbers on what was turning into a mega endeavour.

People and organizations were getting behind the idea but then the call came. It was John Rock to tell me there were so many orders for the new truck, they wouldn’t need a launch program

Another idea had skidded into the ditch of reality. I felt bad, of course, but when he asked for an invoice for work on the project to date, things brightened up.

Follow Garry on Instagram: @garrysowerby


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