“If this thing fucks up, we’ll be driving pogo sticks.” ~ Jim Fitzhenry, the President of Volvo Canada, to his PR man, Ken Barrett
CHECK! When Jules Verne a French writer and traveler, was working on his most popular novel “Around the World in 80 Days”, he might not have expected the impact it would have on future generations. The plot of the book revolves around Phileas Fogg, an English gentleman who, when playing cards, bets that he can go around the world in 80 days. In the end, the Englishman wins, making his feat using all kinds of transport.
Could Verne then have foreseen that, more than 100 years later, two 27-year-olds driving a silver BMW 2002 through the streets of Quebec would say – Mr Verne, check! That night, Garry Sowerby and Ken Langley dreamed of dropping everything and driving around the World. Originally in less than 102 days as that time was the Guinness Record from 1976, but after a while they decided it was worth checking if Verne was right and it can be done in 80 days.
ODYSSEY 77. The first attempts began in 1977, but due to the lack of sufficient funds, the team had to postpone the start several times and go through a difficult path to gain sponsors and partners. It even got to the point where Garry and Ken drove taxis to earn extra money to pay the bills. In January 1979 Odyssey International Limited was founded, a company whose shares were sold to friends and family to raise funds for a trip around the world. They signed their first corporate papers at the Halifax City Club, not far away from where Verne wrote his novel. Garry was an ex-military who tested all-terrain vehicles during his service. Ken had a career as a lawyer ahead of him and he would go on the expedition shortly after graduating but also just before starting his professional work. During college years he became famous for organizing crazy Hawaiian pool parties… without a swimming pool. The Odyssey 77 project involved a drive around the World in 77 days.
VOLVO. They set out on the journey on September 6, 1980 from under the CN Tower in Toronto. The support team also included Sandy Huntley, who advanced Garry and Ken on the planes, and Al McPhail, who stayed in the Canadian expedition’s office. Sandy and Al were responsible for media coverage, logistics, and anything that couldn’t be dealt with from the car. You have to remember that it was the 80s and there were no cell phones and e-mails back then. The fifth crew member, the Volvo 245DL, was actually a serial car with minor modifications, such as stronger springs and shock absorbers, which were installed in cars produced for the African market. In addition, front lighting from Bosch, a 13 kg connectivity kit from Motorola and an 18-speakers Blaupunkt system. In order to reduce weight, the car was deprived of power steering and air conditioning. Four-cylinder unleaded Volvo with manual gearbox was chosen for three reasons.
Firstly, Volvo was well-known for its reliability, what is more Garry had some Swedish cars before. Secondly, Volvo Canada in agreement with other dealers offered service support around the world. At the end only Volvo in association with Shell Oil, Bulova watches, Canadian Tire and Champion Spark Plugs agreed to participate in such a crazy trip. Gerry McNeil, a Canadian journalist and co-author of the book “Odyssey 77 The Great Gold Toothpick Caper,” suggested to nickname the white and blue Volvo “Red Cloud”, which didn’t make much sense, but it was fun and it was named after a Lakota leader who fought bravely for his people in the 19th century.
LET’S GO! The first week of the trip, i.e., crossing Canada, turned out to be extremely easy. Garry already had experience on this road. The goal was to reach Los Angeles, from where the Volvo was to be shipped on board a Boeing 747 to Australia. In Sydney, a local dealer helped adapt the car to Australian conditions by installing a roof rack and a so-called roo bar, which was supposed to protect in the event of a collision with a kangaroo or other wild animals. After two days of preparations, the car was ready to set off from the famous Sydney Opera House on a further journey. Due to the very high temperature and the ubiquitous dust, the road was extremely tiring. Near the heart of the continent, 25 kilometers from Alice Springs, roo bar saved the expedition from disaster. Well, at night a kangaroo jumped on the road. Unfortunately, the animal died, but no one else was hurt.
After a few more days, they met with Sandy, who was waiting for them in Kargoola, preparing a series of interviews. The promotion events were crucial for the whole expedition, because thanks to them team managed to convince sponsors to spend $ 300,000 on the entire venture. Due to the fact that the state of Western Australia promoted itself with the slogan “State of Excitement” and there were many pubs there and, moreover, prostitution was legal … the next day Garry, Ken and Sandy woke up with a huge hangover and it was necessary to move to Perth, where the Boeing 747 was waiting to take Red Cloud to India for only $ 14,200.
TAJ MAHAL. On the 22nd day of the expedition, on September 27, 1980, the team landed at the Mumbai international airport and a wave of problems began immediately. At first, the flight handling could not cope with getting the car out of the cargo compartment. It only worked after the intervention of Garry, Ken and the pilot, who threatened that if Volvo did not leave the plane immediately, he would take it on a further journey to England. Due to the fact that it was Sunday, and customs clearance could only be done on Monday morning, the team got a day off. They checked in at the Taj Mahal Intercontinental Hotel. It was then that Ken began to struggle with stomach problems, which were probably in part the aftermath of the “goodbye Australia” party.
In India it was very stuffy and hot, customs procedures delayed the trip, until suddenly there appeared a really big problem. War had broken out between Iraq and Iran, and the original route was right through the heart of this conflict. In order to avoid casualties, a new plan had to be devised. Thinking about the solution, the Odyssey team moved on. Indian roads turned out to be total madness. Rivers of people, motorcycles, trucks, cars, horns, screams, total chaos everywhere. After visiting the Taj Mahal temple and reaching New Delhi, it was decided to make a stop at the Delhi Sheraton. To the delight of Ken, who noticed that the British Airlines flight attendant, whom he had met the day before in Jaipur, lived in the same hotel. Garry, despite being a companion of travel misery and a close friend of Ken, never learned the details of this relationship…
WAR. The problem with eliminating the war wasn’t just avoiding people with rifles and grenades. Any airway that could bypass Iran would deprive the team of precious miles of wheeled travel. It was then that the idea arose to extend the route by the Kullu Valley to make up for driving miles lost by flying over the war. Ultimately, Lufthansa agreed to help transport Red Cloud “anywhere but beyond Iran.” The carpet-filled plane flying from Bangladesh to Frankfurt made a stopover in Karachi, Pakistan, and this was their chance! It was enough to get there.
Even though it was a cargo plane, for $ 18,000, the German airlines added two passengers’ seats for Garry and Ken, who began struggling with stomach problems again. Garry found a place in the cockpit from which he had a perfect view. The flight continued along the pipes in the desert, and soon flew over the refineries that had been bombed a few days earlier. During the flight, Garry had to incapacitate Ken by tying him to the chair with a rope… all because he was delirious, he was shivering and began to mumble that he liked the emergency exit door, which the pilot had taught them to use before the flight. The sweat-soaked forehead added to the gravity of the situation.
EUROPE. After landing in Athens, Sandy was waiting for them at the airport. There the Volvo was checked by a local dealer, and the guys went to the Canadian embassy for a meeting. Later they went to Bulgaria. Meanwhile, Ken’s health began to deteriorate, and together they made a decision that if he didn’t improve by the time they got to Sweden, he would have to be hospitalized. In Belgrade, the entire team, along with Ambassador Chuck Svoboda and his wife, went to dinner. Upon exiting the Writers’ Club, they noticed there was a dent on the front door exactly where the Canadian flag was located. This is how Canadians were greeted behind the Iron Curtain. Hungary and Czechoslovakia went without a problem. The attraction during this episode was Radka – a hitchhiker taken from Prague towards DDR. Ken spent the entire afternoon finding out why Radka, who speaks only Czech, has a tractor license. As Garry recalls, DDR turned out to be the saddest country they visited on their trip. Gray walls of buildings, armed police patrols with dogs, propaganda billboards everywhere and sad, overwhelmed people. Even in extremely poor countries like Pakistan or India, the people were very indigent, but full of kindness and joy, but not there.
ICE AND SNOW. Finally, on day 43, the Odyssey reached Gothenburg. After the service, they moved towards the Arctic Circle, which was initially not planned, but due to the avoidance of the war, it was necessary to make up some kilometers. Ken was still not feeling well, so it was agreed that he would rest for another 12 hours in the back of the car and if things did not improve, they would go to the hospital. Garry recalls that despite the beautiful road where he could just ride freely and enjoy the surroundings for the first time in a long time, he was still worried about the health of his co-driver. If he was hospitalized, it could potentially end the journey. Sweden and Finland have proved to be a challenge in terms of falling snow and icy roads. After 6 weeks and 26,000 km, Garry began to feel his right knee and gas pedal leg were getting sore. According to the rules of the Guinness Record, only he could drive. Ken, on the other hand, experienced a miraculous recovery during this time, possibly as a result of the fantastic people they met in Scandinavia. There was a funny incident in one of the pubs in Finland.
Well, a beautiful girl came up to Garry, pointed her finger at the Champion logo sewn onto his jumpsuit and asked in a sexy voice, “Are you my Champion?” After that, “Champion” of course showed the mysterious stranger their Volvo, which was still covered with fresh ice from the Arctic Circle. The next stages of the journey led through West Germany, Italy and France. The pain in Garry’s leg grew so bad that he sometimes swapped his legs and pressed the gas pedal with the left one.
It was very risky, especially when driving on highways, where Red Cloud accelerated up to 150 km / h. A pleasant stop was Monaco, where Garry and Ken stayed at the famous Hotel de Paris. The filthy expedition Volvo stood right in front of the entrance alongside gleaming Rolls – Roycs, Lamborghinis and Ferraris. This is how the 8th week of the trip ended.
ACHE. Garry’s knees hurt more and more, but they both decided that if Ken was behind the wheel, no matter what, it would be unfair. Interestingly, during the whole trip Ken never touched the steering wheel. After circling Spain and reaching Paris, a police escort was waiting for the team and led the Red Cloud through the Champs-Elysées to the doors of the Continental Hotel, where the guys could experience exceptional luxury for at least a few hours.
Later they traveled to the UK, where from London Odyssey was shipped to the USA, Houston, Texas. Journalists’ phones rang in the United States, everyone wanted to see what Volvo looks like after nearly 3 months of traveling around the world. Garry and Ken started a triumphant last straight towards the finish line. Along the way, they made plans for what awaits them at the end, because Volvo’s PR man mentioned that he had two special gifts for them.
FINISH. On November 19, 1980, after the 74 days, 1 hour and 11 minutes, the clock stopped. The Odyssey 77 team returned home covering 43,030 km and visiting 23 countries on 4 continents. Smiles, questions from journalists and very joyful moments full of emotions began. After the press conference, Vice-President of Volvo Canada Jim Fitzhenry presented the record holders with sculptures made of Swedish crystal, then he and the managers… drove away with in shiny Volvo GT. When asked at a press conference how much the travelers made on the expedition, Ken showed his empty pockets. After numerous interviews, visits to breakfast programs and several parties, the two returned to their rented office at Queen and Sherbourne, Toronto.
Their journey inspired the official Volvo ad. Volvo UK has printed 500,000 coloring books for children with the adventures of Red Cloud. Canadian Tire and Shell promoted their products with the expedition, and Guinness placed the car on the cover of its book. Meanwhile, Red Cloud was proudly parked in front of the office building, and Ken and Garry… went back to the cab to pay the bills and arrears that had been created by their successful record attempt. In 1997, Garry Sowerby set a new Guinness World Record in a Vauxhall Frontera. He and his team covered 29,521 km in 21 days, 2 hours and 14 minutes. That’s enough from me, I invite you to meet Garry Sowerby!
Sławomir Poros: There are 5 arrows in your Odyssey Ltd. logo since the 1980s. Long time ago You figured that with each new project one of them would turn gold until you retire. The first changed color after circling the globe in Volvo, the second after the Africa-Arctic expedition, the third symbolizes the journey from the south of the USA to the north with Tim Cahill in GMC Sierra, the following is the next Guinness record from 1997… on the business card you gave me all five are golden. Does that mean you are retired today?
Garry Sowerby: Actually, the fifth gold arrow has never been earned so there is still one to go. I am 70 now and retirement is not in the cards for me for a while. I love my job too much, and of course I still need that 5th gold arrow.
S.P.: Garry, in 1997 when the Frontera World Challenge was held, you covered a lot less kilometers then, just 29,521, not over 43,000 as in the case of Volvo, and you set a new circumnavigation Guinness Record. How did this happen? Do you think the length of the “around the world” route should not be equal to or greater than the length of the equator?
G.S.: Yes, I think they should have stuck with the requirement of driving an equator length instead of 2/3rds of it. The rules of the second trip in 1997 made it much easier. We could use up to 3 drivers, the distance was shorter and the clock stopped during ocean crossings. It was much easier than the 1980 trip.
S.P .: I am a fan of Bulova watches, so I have to ask about it. The American producer was one of your sponsors, can you tell me more about this collaboration? If I understood correctly, they gave you $ 20,000 worth of watches to give away as gifts, right? Were there any special models related to the expedition?
G.S.: There were no special watches. Actually, I think they were watches that were replaced by newer models. But they were great as a hand out to special people who helped pull the program together and that we met along the way.
S.P .: What was the most difficult for you during this trip, and on the other hand, what was the most enjoyable? In both cases it was the sexy Finn?
G.S.: The most difficult part of the trip for me was from Paris to London and then getting over to Texas on the flight. At that point my leg was so sore I couldn’t sleep and after 100 hours awake, I thought I was losing my mind. But once we got going in North America for the last leg, I got some sleep and the pain in my leg almost went away. And by then we were fueled by adrenaline. Looking back the best part of the trip for me was India and Pakistan. It was full adventure. There were no highways there then. Just 2 lane roads clogged with traffic, people and animals. Of course, getting back to Canada and the 2,500 kms drive from Nova Scotia to Toronto was a victory lap I’ll never forget. And the strength of my friendship with Ken is something I have cherished for the 40 years since that trip.
S.P .: Volvo has never failed in a record attempt? Sand, dust, frost, ice are extreme conditions for both man and machine. You and Ken were struggling with a lot of ailments, but you were both 30 years old and the Volvo was a brand new car! What is happening with this car today?
G.S.: Over the years I have driven Red Cloud the distance of 8 more times around the world. It is still painted as it was back then and now sits in the Maritime Morotsport Hall of Fame in Petitcodiac, New Brunswick which is 300 kms from our home in Halifax.
S.P .: In one of our first conversations, we mentioned that some time ago Guinness had blocked the possibility of breaking any records on public roads. But do you see today the possibility of covering more than 40,000 km around the world faster than 74 days?
G.S.: Well, it is possible for sure. With the improved roads in countries like India and Pakistan it is possible to cover a lot of ground in places where we couldn’t. Of course, vehicles are more comfortable and faster too. But it would be a challenge no doubt. One would need a good plan, proper support and a lot of good luck though.
S.P .: More than 40 years have passed since Odyssey 77, looking at your experience and knowledge, what are the 3 tips you could give to contenders who would like to take the challenge and break your record? I am very interested in what modern car would you choose for such a journey? Would you still be betting on Volvo?
G.S.: Oh boy that is a big question,
#1 Make sure you REALLY want to do it. Unless you are wealthy getting the money is probably the hardest part. You must be prepared to spend some of your own money though because it cost money to get money. Going faster does not make it cheaper, and in fact could make it more expensive.
#2 Chose your team carefully and try to choose someone who is involved in pulling the plan together. You will be together for a long time and need to know how each other react to pressure and the stress of the mission.
#3 Remember Nothing is Free, Not Much is easy and you need to do what you say you will do. Speed a little bit and don’t stop for long. Remember if you get stopped for speeding in a strange country it could result in long delays.
What would I drive? Probably a diesel AWD something. So much to choose from but I would pick a simple vehicle and at this age might even get air conditioning.
S.P .: You skipped Poland during your trip, but as far as I know, you had the opportunity to visit my country later? What are your impressions of this visit?
G.S.: I went through Poland in 1990 and it was a quick trip since we were trying to drive to 7 former East Bloc capitals in 7 days. Things were in a rapid state of change then and it was exciting to see this in the early days. Friendly people I remember but was only there for a day and a half. I need to go back some day!
S.P .: In 1986 my compatriot Jerzy Adamuszek traveled alone both Americas from the North to the South, thus setting the Guinness Record. A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to talk to him about this trip and he also very warmly remembered your meeting. Do you remember that?
G.S.: Yes I remember meeting Jerzy. What a nice guy he was. A brave guy to do that alone and my hat is off to him!!
S.P.: Garry, thank you very much for the interview and I hope to meet you in your Canadian garage soon over a glass of brandy!
All photos by courtesy of Garry Sowerby.