Sowerby tackles 2,000 miles on a single tank

The taxi driver had a diamond stud in his ear.

I was frantic.

“What’s the quickest way to get to the BBC studios?” I asked.

He eyed the rumbling truck I had jumped out of while trying to explain to me the zigzag route across Glasgow, Scotland.

“Wha’ doon’t ye jes’ folla me?”

“I have no British money, I’m late and running out of fuel,” I said. I was starting to panic.

A bad case of navi-nightmare and a temporary disorientation usually associated with too much seat-of-the-pants navigation had prompted me to force over a confused-looking taxi driver. He couldn’t understand how a foreigner, driving a late-model American pickup truck plastered with maps of South America, wouldn’t have money to pay for guidance through the streets of Glasgow.

“Yer on yer own, mate,” he croaked, looking at me as if I could be dangerous. The diamond stud glinted in the faint February sunlight as he maneuvered back into the traffic.

I had missed a turn while checking the auxiliary fuel-level gauge mounted in the glove compartment. More than half the fuel was already gone after only 934 miles. I had less than half of the fuel left to cover the final 1,166 of the 2,000 miles that I was trying to drive without refueling.

The plan was to drive from London to Land’s End on England’s pristine southern coast, up to John O’Groats on the windblown northern tip of Scotland, and back to London, all without stopping for fuel. After reading a tip claiming most motor vehicles burn about 23 percent less fuel at 60 mph than at 70, I had considered the role speed played in the three long-distance driving records I broke in the 1980s.

The success of those adventures was more the result of good planning, the right vehicles and a positive attitude than high speed. It seemed these were all ingredients of good fuel economy, so I developed a challenge to demonstrate this.

I already had a vehicle capable of such a job, which was the 1988 GMC Sierra pickup truck that my partner Tim Cahill and I drove from Tierra del Fuego, Argentina, to Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, in 24 days. The Sierra had been set up with an auxiliary fuel tank so we could hightail it through South American bandito country with minimal stops.

Considering its overall fuel capacity of about 90 gallons, I figured the 8,000-pound rig would be able to complete the 2,000-mile loop of Great Britain without needing any more gas than what I left with. I figured the 6.2-liter diesel engine and its four-speed manual transmission would deliver the required 22.2 mpg.

In London, a few days before the exchange with the Glaswegian cabbie, a scrutineer from the Royal Automobile Club sealed the fuel system by applying a special paint to certain joints, valves, hoses, pump mounts and fuel filter brackets.

I planned a direct escape route from London on a beautiful, clear day with the luxury of a slight tail wind and no puddles or slushy roads to increase the rolling resistance.

That night at the First and Last Inn in Land’s End, I celebrated over a few pints, convinced that getting up to John O’Groats and back to London without refueling, a mere 1,700 miles further, would be a piece of cake.

By noon the following day, the dash-mounted compass was pinned on north. Frisky spring lambs frolicked about fluorescent green meadows while apple blossoms swayed in delicate breezes.

I was contemplating British road signs when I first noticed the truck being pushed to the right by the wind. I also noticed the flags in front of roadside service centers were starting to look more like sheets of painted plywood bolted to flagpoles as the wind from the north picked up.

Dark clouds filled the sky. Sheets of blowing rain pelted the windscreen. With Birmingham just ahead, an incredible paranoia set in.

“Isn’t driving 60 mph into a 50 mph head wind really like driving 110? How much momentum are these raindrops robbing me of? And what about the impetus lost when a mosquito or a fly, or a bumble bee splatters against the front bumper?”

Vague recollections of college physics, fatigue and fuel-flow fascination wrestled my brain cells as I pulled into Preston for the night.

In the morning, calm winds prevailed but by noon another gale raged from the north and I again couldn’t help but think about how much fuel “economy” I was losing.

As I headed for the BBC for an en route interview, I took a wrong ’round-a-bout on the outskirts of Glasgow and found myself face-to-face with the diamond-eared cabbie, all the while knowing that every second I spent lost was weighing against me. Would I find the BBC? Would I learn to understand Glaswegians? And would I make the trip without needing fuel? Find out next time in Part Two of this two-part series.

Garry Sowerby, author of “Sowerby’s Road: Adventures of a Driven Mind,” is 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.

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