What do you consider well-travelled? Jumping on a plane and heading to a different country? Maybe cracking off the Toronto – Montreal corridor multiple times a week? Or perhaps taking in the cross-country sights of this great nation.
How about driving from the bottom of South America in Tierra del Fuego to Prudhoe Bay at the top of Alaska? Or surreptitiously smuggling thousands of books to children behind the Iron Curtain? And then motoring 3,061.8 kilometres clear across the UK from London to Land’s End to John O’Groats and back again without refueling?
That’s the provenance behind this pickup truck, a diesel-powered 1988 GMC Sierra 3500 SLE equipped with an extended cab and four-wheel drive. Owned by Garry Sowerby, it’s a machine that has seen more of planet Earth than most humans – which is appropriate since Sowerby, holder of multiple Guinness World Records for long-distance driving – has driven more miles in reverse than many people have in forward.
Actually, this truck is the first
diesel-powered 1988 GMC Sierra 3500 SLE equipped with an extended cab and four-wheel drive. Readers with an affinity for Ovaltine and a bedtime of 9:00pm (raises hand) will remember that model year saw the introduction of brand-new GM half-tons and heavy duty machines after about 15 years of “squarebody” rule. In fact, assembly workers had to stop the production line twice since the combination of an extended cab and one-ton frame (not to mention a manual transmission) had yet to be hammered together on the factory floor.
The impetus for the rig was a follow-up to Sowerby’s adventure a few years prior in which he and a driving partner broke the world record for venturing from the bottom of Africa to the top of Scandinavia (which itself was a follow-up to his around-the-world feat in 1980 of circling the globe in 74 days). After conquering those challenges, belting from the southern tip of South America to the northern reaches of Alaska seemed like natural progression.
They called it the Pan-American Challenge, cracking off the feat in just 23 days, 22 hours, 43 minutes. For the task, Sowerby determined he and co-driver Tim Cahill needed a purpose-built pickup truck; they turned to GMC, a brand with which Sowerby enjoyed good relations thanks to previous successful record attempts. The new Sierra was a perfect choice, especially since the company was keen to prove its switch to an independent front suspension (unheard of on a truck in those days) was up to the task of handling harsh environments.
Also required? A truck that didn’t need refueling at every corner since they expected diesel quantity (and quality) to be unreliable in certain places. For ’88, the truck’s stock tank was good for 35 gallons or about 132 litres. Impressive, but the team installed a u-shaped fuel cell in the Sierra’s cargo box capable of handling an extra 110 gallons. That’s a total of nearly 550 litres
, ensuring they’d only have to stop a handful of times on the journey. In fact, the truck only required two fuel stops between Texas and Alaska. And, for your next trivia night, that much diesel weighs roughly 1,000 pounds. Good thing this truck has a stout payload rating.
But before hitting the environs of North America, Sowerby and Cahill had to navigate through Central and South America. “A big worry was security,” explained Sowerby. “There were problems in Peru at the time, and then the issue of Colombia. Several areas were simply not safe.” Given geopolitical climates of the day, Sowerby and Cahill were prime targets for kidnappers with ransom demands. Their solution? Run quickly and quietly through trouble spots, broadcasting neither their progress nor arrivals. In fact, their first large-scale press conference didn’t occur until they reached Texas. “We were all stickered up for the journey – but no one knew we were coming,” grinned Sowerby.
Still, they had a few tricks up their adventurous sleeves in case of emergency. A stock of Farmer’s milkshakes were squirreled away in the truck, with the lads making sure to be drinking one or two whilst being approached by federales, then giving some away as an ice breaking gesture of goodwill. The same went for a trove of special truck-shaped lapel pins worn prominently on their jackets. Often, they’d sigh to various gendarmes that these were their last two pins but would gladly give them up if it helped grease the wheels of border entry. A few miles after clearing the checkpoint, Sowerby and Cahill would simply reach into their stash of pins and affix new ones to their lapels.
Mavericks, I tell ya.
During the interview, at a turnaround spot, Sowerby tossed me the keys which is a move akin to Gordon Ramsey passing over the controls to his convection oven. Sitting behind the wheel was a familiar experience since this generation of truck was common whilst growing up in rural Newfoundland but the provenance of this thing seeps through with plenty of gravitas. Easing out the bear trap of a clutch is easy enough since the engine to which it is attached is less stressed than Willie Nelson after enjoying his favourite herb scent. The aftermarket tachometer climbs a couple thousand rpm and it’s time to find another gear.
Starting in first, a bull low cog, is almost a waste since its ratio is in the basement. Pulling onto the highway, we’re on through second to third nearly as quickly with only one more gear left in the chamber. Outrageously long shift throws are handled by a stick big enough to brain a moose – you could take a bus from first to second gears and still need a transfer – but the whole experience is one of low stress and deliberate motoring. Handled properly, it’s the yacht rock of powertrains.
Don’t get it twisted: an easy powertrain doesn’t mean it was an easy drive. “About one-third of the journey was on unpaved roads,” Sowerby said, “But in the Atacama Desert, for example, we found pavement in such shocking condition it was worse than dirt.” Plans were afoot for one person to sleep in the cargo area while the other drove, explaining the u-shaped auxiliary fuel tank and rudimentary mattress back there, but temperatures approaching those found on the sun forced the abandonment of that idea after just a couple of days. Fitful rest was taken in the cab area.
Shockingly, much of the truck’s mechanicals are stock – which, of course, was the point GMC wanted to make. Engine, transmission, and suspension were all factory items, as were the body panels and glass (nothing bulletproof here). Some of the SLE trim equipment was ditched in favour of custom gear, especially the electronics which were cutting edge at the time but rudimentary today. A built-in radar detector peeps through the grille, for example, if you can find it. Also custom? The cap covering the cargo bed needed to be split down the middle and the fibreglass redone – the truck was so new for ’88 that properly fitting bed caps simply didn’t exist.
Cruising up through America and Canada was relatively relaxed compared to the first legs of Pan-American journey, though fighting fatigue and road fever was a challenge. After smashing that record, Sowerby took the truck overseas for other events. This is a pickup which can lay claim to driving over 3,000 kilometres across Great Britain and back again without stopping for fuel. It can celebrate a similar feat in Scandinavia. And it can also bask in the importance of smuggling 5,000 children’s books to Moscow schools and libraries.
Well-traveled? That description doesn’t even cover the half of it.