Odyssey International: Masthead
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A Rock Solid Foundation

January 7th, 2008

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Last summer I decided to put the 1991 GMC Jimmy I’ve owned since new back into everyday use. Aside from a Ramsey winch tucked under the front bumper and big Bosche auxiliary driving lights, it’s quite an ordinary 4-door midsize SUV.

The Jimmy holds a special place in my heart though because in the early 1990s, it carried me through a series of road adventures like One Lap of Iceland, Seven East Bloc Capitals in Seven Days, a trans-Labrador adventure and a quest to gauge the levels of pride that Canadian held in their country. After these escapades, it was my daily driver for ten years until I put the venerable little Jimmy into long-term storage in 2001.

It didn’t take much to get it back on the road. It needed lower ball joints, a battery and time to pacify an electrical gremlin that was holing up in its aftermarket trailer brake-control unit. After a few days of waiting to see what other glitches might surface, the old Jimmy seems like it will run for another 17 years.

Why did I hang onto this vehicle for 17 years? After all, it’s certainly not a collectible or a specialty performance vehicle. But it was given to me to perform a variety of events in the early 1990s with the sole purpose of getting it into automotive trade magazines without its competition, then - new Ford Explorer, beside it.

Of course, driving the Jimmy brings me back to those days when my children were just kids and a business relationship with a high-ranking General Motors executive in Detroit was the pivot of my activities.

I first met John Rock in 1983 when Ken Langley and I were attempting to rectify the jittery financial situation driving a car around the world had put us in three years earlier. We had a concept: setting a new land speed driving record from Cape Agulhas, the southernmost tip of Africa to Northcape, as far north as you could drive, high in the Norwegian Arctic. We had tested the sponsorship waters of corporate Canada without much luck but as a last ditch effort before our bankers got nasty, I scored a 15-minute audience with John Rock, General Manager of GMC Truck Division of General Motors.

When I met Rock in his sprawling Detroit office, he immediately put me at ease. As the meeting stretched into more than two hours, I began to feel the straight-talking South Dakotan really was listening to this 33-year-old Atlantic Canadian with an idea, a dream. By the time I left John Rock’s office, I had a handshake on a deal. GMC Truck would provide a new Suburban, service support and $60,000 sponsorship for our attempt to establish a new land speed record from the bottom of Africa to the top of Europe. The Africa-Arctic Challenge had some fuel.

When I was preparing to leave, John smiled and said: “Two more things. Find other sponsors to match the money I’m giving you and you have to keep the truck when it’s all over. Who knows? Years from now it might end up in a museum somewhere.”

That meeting was the beginning of a 14-year business relationship that followed John Rock through his time at the helm at GMC Truck and then as head honcho at Oldsmobile Division. It would be a stretch to say John and I became close personal friends, but his door was always open for me and when we met it was usually just the two of us scheming about the car and truck business for hours on end.

He was easy to talk to, irreverent in a charming way and, from my perspective, tremendously loyal, a man whose word meant something. He was a portal into the upper levels of the automotive industry that I never imagined I’d ever find. We operated on mutual trust and never did his word waver.

He knew how to motivate me, too. Telling me he liked the way I thought when I was broke made me work harder when I got the deal. A remark that his middle management did not understand what he was trying to do with me made me strive to prove them wrong.

John eventually moved on from GMC Truck to take the helm at Oldsmobile. He called me and we created events to assist with the launch off the all-new Aurora in 1995 and 1996.

He was keen to change the name of Oldsmobile to Aurora but couldn’t get the backing internally. Instead of Intrigues and Aleros, would Rock’s vision of Aurora T4s and T5s have helped change the ‘father/grandfather’ perception of Oldsmobile and returned the division to its former viability? Well, Oldsmobile remained Oldsmobile until its demise but it’s interesting to note the Pontiac G5 and G6 models roaming the landscape.

Driving the GMC Jimmy John Rock had given me all those years ago provided a strong catalyst this fall to remember those days with the man I grew to respect as much as I trusted him.

I was thinking I should track him down in his retirement just to tell him how much our relationship and his trust in me back then has meant to me over the years, when I got the news he had passed away at his ranch in South Dakota where he retired ten years ago.

One of the best people I have ever known is gone now, but as I drive that GMC Jimmy he gave to me, John Rock’s memory will ride along with this Atlantic Canadian dreamer.

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