How two Maritimers (and one Volvo) became the fastest men around the world
40 years ago, Ken Langley and Garry Sowerby set an unbeatable Guinness record in just 74 days
On a dull day in October 1872, a rich, fictitious, British character named Phileas Fogg read a newspaper article about a new railway opening in India. Now, the newspaper claimed, it was possible to travel around the entire world in just 80 days.
Fogg decided to wager half his fortune that he could become the fastest person to travel around the world. He left London on Oct. 2 and promised to return by Dec. 21 to claim his winnings.
His epic adventure, created by French author Jules Verne in the novel Around the World in 80 Days, saw him traverse the globe by railway, steamer, elephant and wind-powered sledge. He made it to London with moments to spare.
A century later, two Maritimers named Garry Sowerby and Ken Langley got to thinking about the legendary challenge on a bleary-eyed road trip from Ottawa to Halifax in 1977.
"There was nothing to entertain yourself with in the car except an eight-track tape and yourself, so we got talking about road trips," Sowerby says. "And by the time we got halfway through New Brunswick, in the middle of the night, I remember Ken saying, 'What's the greatest road trip there ever could be?'"
Navigating a world without internet or GPS
After kicking around a few ideas, they realized there was only one: they would race to be the fastest men around the world.
They set out in the fall of 1980. CBC met up recently with the adventurers, on the 40th anniversary of their epic attempt.
Both men were university students. Langley would go on to become a lawyer in his native Cape Breton, while Halifax-based Sowerby, who had grown up in New Brunswick, had recently left the Canadian military and later made a career out of organizing international driving adventures.
They named their expedition Odyssey 77. But first they had to plan to navigate the globe in an era with no internet or GPS.
"We want to figure out, OK, how long's it going to take to get from Bombay to Calcutta?" Sowerby says. "So we write the bus company in India — write them a letter, mail it. It takes two months to figure out how long it takes a bus to go from Bombay to Calcutta. That's how we put our timing together."
They drove taxis to raise money and landed a few major corporate sponsors who bet big that the boys could set a new Guinness world record. Volvo supplied them with a brand-new station wagon, which they watched come off the assembly line at the old Halifax plant.
The goal was simple and nearly impossible: start in Toronto, drive west to the Pacific Ocean, fly themselves and the Volvo to Australia, drive across it, fly again to India, drive right through the Middle East and across Europe, grab one last plane to the U.S. and then drive all the way back to the starting line in Toronto.
The Guinness record stood at 102 days and required one driver and one navigator to drive the same vehicle 26,738 miles (the circumference of the Earth), travelling in both the northern and southern hemispheres. Time spent flying between roads would count, but they wouldn't get credit for those air miles.
From the CN Tower to the CN Tower
As they reached the start line near the CN Tower in Toronto on Sept. 6, 1980, it hit them that there was a lot of money on the line. And some people expected them to fail.
"Just when we were leaving, I heard the president of Volvo Canada say to his PR man, 'If this thing f--ks up, we'll be driving pogo sticks.'" Sowerby says with a laugh.
The boys sported matching racing suits. With a huge media contingent watching, Sowerby shifted into first and Langley guided them west.
The drive to the Pacific was straightforward and they paid an excess baggage fee to fly Red Cloud, as the Volvo became known, to Australia. Australia was hard driving, especially hot, dusty and deserted Alice Springs. The car had no air conditioning, so the windows were always down, and no power steering or cruise control, so Sowerby's arms and legs were always working.
Occasionally they were shaken by a passing "road train," a tractor-trailer hauling three or four full-sized trailers. One horse wandered a little too close.
"They just roared through," Langley says. "They wouldn't stop. They just hit these guys. The horse looked like it had been turned inside out. I'll never forget that."
Unfortunately, the duo put their "'roo bar" to good use as one kangaroo bounced in front of them before they could stop.
"If we hadn't put that on, that car probably wouldn't be here. We were going about 80 miles an hour. That kangaroo would have come right through the grill. That would have been the end of the trip," Langley says.
After Australia, they boarded a plane bound for Bombay, as Mumbai was then known.
Sowerby felt India reaching up for him as the plane entered its air space in the middle of the night. A scent, and waves of heat, rose through the aircraft. It was unlike anything he'd experienced.
After getting their car off the plane and onto the road, the shock increased. From dawn, rickshaws and snake charmers jostled with taxis and trucks in the hot, dusty heat. The road signs were foot-high stones with the road name handwritten on it. "If you miss one of those, the whole trip takes a big hit in the time. Time was our enemy," Langley says.
"When you're driving here, there might be once a year where you require immediate evasive action to avoid an accident," Sowerby says. "But in India, that would happen 25 times a day."
At the end of one long day, they stopped in a city of two million that they'd never heard of before. Most buildings stood one storey tall and were lit with kerosene or fires. Dark, strange, packed roads made it hard to navigate, so Langley hired a rickshaw driver to escort them to their accommodation: it turned out to be a millionaire's mansion. Gatekeepers let them in and they feasted that night.
Early the next morning, they rolled through the mist, speeding through remote villages, surprising people doing their morning toilet. Langley never once got them lost, nor forced them to backtrack. "We didn't have the time for it," he says.
They ended each 12-hour day looking like coal miners, painted with exhaust, dirt and soot. They reached Pakistan just as Iraq invaded Iran, wrecking their route to Europe. After some frantic work on the phones, they found a cargo 707 willing to take the guys and the car to Athens — for $18,000. So much for making any money on the trip.
Sowerby, a pilot himself, sat in the cockpit with the two pilots while Langley sat in the back and tried not to stare at the emergency door. The idea that he would fling it open and kill them all took over his exhausted brain.
"So I went up [to Garry] and I said, 'How are you doing?' He says, 'Not bad. How are you?' I said, 'Not so good. You might have to knock me out.'"
Sowerby says he'd never seen his friend afraid before. "What am I going to do? Tap the captain on the shoulder and say, 'Hey, have you got a monkey wrench? Ken wants me to club him so he doesn't open that door that you showed us how to work.' We couldn't do that," he says.
"We tied him to the seat and we're breaking out laughing about it. I covered him up with a blanket."
"Thank God I finally went to sleep," Langley says. "That was a long, hard night."
Grim Eastern Bloc
In Europe, Langley bounced back, and Sowerby had to be dragged back into the car. It started as they skirted the Eastern Bloc and passed through German Democratic Republic, better known as East Germany.
But the communist official who let them in gave them 12 hours to get out. They floored it across the country.
"Of everything I saw on that trip, East Germany was the saddest. No one was smiling. There was no colour, no paint everywhere. We'd drive that car down a street and people would glance and look away, afraid to look at it," Sowerby says.
Sowerby had been shifting gears for 65 days by the time they reached Paris and got an honour guard leading them down the Champs-Élysées. He could barely walk, let alone drive.
"My knee was throbbing and I couldn't sleep. Then we drove to London the next day and I stayed awake all that night. Then we flew to Houston, Texas, and I still hadn't been asleep. I'd been awake for maybe close to 100 hours and that's when I thought, maybe I'm going crazy. I thought, this is what happens when people lose their minds," he says.
He found a doctor who found a pill that helped him sleep. They forced themselves back into Red Cloud and drove through New Orleans, Georgia and Boston, caught the Yarmouth ferry to Nova Scotia, and hit the highway home to Halifax.
They'd been everywhere
And then, for the very first time on the trip, the unthinkable happened. The car started making funny noises and then spluttered to a stop.
"We ran out of fuel because I was so excited about being in Nova Scotia I forgot to check the fuel gauge," Sowerby says. "One of the wire services was there and they got the picture. The boys are back and here's me tipping a can of fuel into this thing."
After the homecoming, the boys got back on the road for the relatively short drive to Toronto.
After a few bumps in the road, they zoomed toward the finish line at the CN Tower.
"We rolled in on the Don Valley and they played I've Been Everywhere by Hank Snow," Langley says. The iconic road trip song, by the iconic Nova Scotian singer, was the perfect note on which to cross the finish line on Nov. 19, 1980.
They'd driven 26,738 miles — more than 43,000 kilometres — in just 74 days, zero hours and 11 minutes, smashing the old record. Guinness later changed the criteria for the category, allowing for multiple drivers and not counting transit time on planes or ships, meaning no one will ever break their record.
"Once we crossed that finish line we knew no one could take it from us. We did it. But it was sad to see it end because we created a world in that car that we were completely focused on. We didn't really know what was going on in the rest of the world and that was going to be over," Sowerby says.
"And that still happens to me sometimes. I'll drive from Toronto to Halifax and I almost hate to get home in a way. Because then you're back to your real life," Langley says.
"Before I head home, I'll take a loop around town just to decompress and make sure everything's still OK. It's a sickness."
The duo later set a world record for driving from the southern tip of Africa to the Arctic north.
During the 40th anniversary of their world-beating global race, they reunited at the Maritime Motorsports Hall of Fame in Petitcodiac, N.B., where Red Cloud lives these days. On the same day in 1980, they were driving through Eastern Europe.
At the reunion, they fired up the engine and took Red Cloud for a celebratory spin.
"You know it's got a few aches and pains, but the old thing is working well," Sowerby says.
Langley agrees. "So do we. We're doing OK, and so is Red Cloud."
With files from Dave Irish