How a career path hanging in the balance was saved by gray pants hanging on a rack.
I usually do the 250-mile drive to Detroit, Mich., from Toronto, Canada, in one shot; four hours on cruise control preparing ideas I’m about to lay on an automotive executive in the Motor City. On a recent trip, I realized the ritual had been going on for 20 years.
My ride on that first trip offered few of the amenities found aboard the Cadillac I was piloting today. Yes, the propane-powered 1982 taxicab I had purchased from the Checker Motor Company in Kalamazoo, Mich., to enter in the Peking-Paris Motoring Challenge, epitomized the term “basic.” Not even a radio.
The British-based Peking Paris promoter never got the event off the ground so I was drumming up sponsorship for an attempt at the speed record for the fastest drive from the South Cape of Africa to the North Cape of Europe above the Arctic Circle. I had been hopelessly flogging the idea for months and, with a banker threatening to force us into bankruptcy, the dream was on the line.
In a final move of desperation, I scored a 15-minute audience with John Rock, then General Manager of GMC Truck Division in Pontiac, Mich., then convinced the bank manager to hold off until after the meeting. While packing, I was anticipating Mr. Rock’s probable questions. Then I realized my only business suit was missing.
A frenzied search of my closet turned up a double-breasted navy blazer, appropriate white shirt and a maroon tie that Guinness had bestowed upon me after setting the around-the-world driving record that had created the financial mess from which I was hoping the suit would extricate me.
I borrowed $150 from Paul Solomons, a crony who had that much faith in my ability to pull a GMC Suburban out of the hat for our second world driving record attempt. Paul’s loan would fuel the trip. A night’s lodging and a few sandwiches would leave about $35 to purchase some gray flannel pants that would nicely complement the blazer/Guinness tie combo.
Honestly, the pressure to perform outweighed the panic for pants. If John Rock didn’t like me or the Africa-Arctic idea,it would be the end of the fascinating tangent my life had taken when I decided to drive a car around the world five years earlier.
Upon arrival in Detroit, I kept an eye out for stores that would obviously be flooded with “gray flannels” for under $38, which was precisely what I had in the pocket of my faded blue jeans.
Over the next three hours I rummaged through a dozen stores, many with the perfect pant in the $70-$100 range. But with no credit cards, the panic was switching to wardrobe. By noon I had worked way into Pontiac and could see the Phoenix Center home of GMC Truck where Mr. Rock would take one look at my blue blazer/faded jean ensemble and splatter the Africa-Arctic dream like one of the flies in the grille of the Checker.
By 12:30, I spotted a “Jeans ’n Things” store in a strip mall a few blocks from the Phoenix Center. I wiped the sweat from my forehead and went in.
“‘I like that car.”
The lone sales clerk looked like he meant it.
“It’s the last one off the assembly line. I bought to drive in a race across China that never happened,” volunteered. “But what about a pair of gray flannels?”
“Nothing like that here.”
He was still checking out the Checker.
I went on about world driving records, my proposal to Mr. Big at the GMC palace down the street, the banker in Toronto with a dripping pen about to shut me down and the $38 in my pocket.
“You must have something that would resemble gray flannels from a distance?” I figured I’d talk a lot and keep Mr. Rock from dwelling too much on my pantwear.
The clerk went to the back of the store reappearing with gray polyester slacks.
“They’re $59.95. But for you, today, half price. And my mother can be here in five minutes to hem them.” He looked as excited as I was. His mother hemmed them right around my bony ankles and I fled for the meeting.
I found my way to Mr. Rock’s office without a spare second to hatch any pre-presentation jitters. As I sat down across his massive desk, the knife-edge crease those miracle-fiber flannels glistened in my peripheral vision.
The 15-minute meeting stretched into a two-hour session. I liked his easy-going manner and he appreci ated the Africa-Arctic idea as well as another dozen or so driving adventures we subsequently dreamed up before his retirement on Jan. 1, 1997.
And I often wonder, if that guy in the “Jeans ’ Things” store hadn’t been who he was or if I hadn’t been so distracted by pant panic, whether that first meeting with John Rock might have resulted in apolite 15-minute brush off.
Garry Sowerby,author of Sowerby’s Road, Adventures of a Driven Mind, a four-time Guinness World Record holder for long-distance driving. His exploits good, bad and just plain harrowing, are the subject of World Odyssey, produced in conjunction with Wheelbase Communications. Wheelbase is a worldwide provider of automotive news and features stories.