There's only one way to get a vehicle up a stairwell: piece by piece and then put it together at the top.
The turbulence ended. I was looking out the window as the descending Boeing 747 finally broke through the overcast cloud layer. It was 2:45 a.m.
I thought we were at about 5,000 feet. It felt like it could be anywhere.
From that height, all I could see were clusters of dull, flickering yellow lights looking more like sprawling army camps than the outskirts of a major world trading center. My partner, Ken Langley, was pulling out of a cramped, troubled sleep.
It was September 1989 and I was talking to Rob Hutchison about his new job as Canada’s Central Region Special Events Manager for General Motors.
“We get a stack of requests to sponsor events every week. Some are pretty far out.”
He went into detail about one such request to put a car into the observation deck near the top of Toronto’s CN Tower, the tallest freestanding manmade structure in the world at the time. A year earlier, you see, two men had carried a fridge and stove up the tower’s narrow 1,760-step inner stairwell to draw attention to the pending United Way Stair Climb charity event. The proposal asked if GM could drive a car up the stairs of the landmark as a hype-builder for that year’s Stair Climb.
That night I couldn’t stop thinking about the CN Tower. I had driven from one side of it to the other nine years earlier when we used it as the start/finish point of an around-the-world drive. Before drifting off to sleep, I was convinced that, with three weeks of open calendar, I could figure out how to plan, finance and pull the necessary resources together to get a car up there.
The concept would be to set a tongue-in-cheek speed record from “the bottom to the top of Toronto.” The attempt would be called The Great Ascent.
As for vehicles, it down to two contenders: a Suzuki Samurai or an MG Midget. In both vehicles, the windshield posts on either side were removable, which was a critical component to the plan’s success.
The final decision went to the Samurai. I presented the idea to Suzuki and they climbed aboard. Excitement was building.
Over the next two weeks, sponsors were secured and a crew of volunteers recruited. The start location was surveyed and my navigator, a very capablelooking Pinkerton security guard, was briefed.
At the start, a briefcase, containing a $6,000-donation to the United Way, was handcuffed to the navigator’s left wrist. At the base of the tower, we were welcomed by a crew of nine technicians and a platoon of 44 people, mostly athletes, from moving companies, fitness centers and cycling clubs.
Tools flew as the technicians stripped down the Samurai and handed the parts to the waiting platoon which, in turn, lugged them up the zig-zag stairway to the top. I carried the steering wheel, a cellular phone and a walkie-talkie through the traffic jam of people, car parts and sweat.
En route, I was passed by the exhaust system, the transmission and the rear differential before running into gridlock behind the hood and the bulky rear body sections about 200 stairs from the top.
The fastest part to the top was a tire-and-wheel assembly that made it in 20 minutes at a rate of 1.47 stairs per second. The engine was another story for eight people who tortured themselves for one hour, 32 minutes, while a stockpile of parts grew on the observation deck. Since the first parts disassembled were generally the last parts to be assembled, nothing could be done until the frame, which was near the end of the line, arrived.
When everything was at the top, technicians reassembled the Samurai in just 59 minutes. I slipped behind the wheel, started the engine and drove a few feet across the finish line near the entrance of Sparkles Discotheque.
We had done it. From the bottom to the top of Toronto in five hours, 38 minutes at an average speed of 0.0026596 mph. The technicians, sponsors and carriers cheered as astonished tourists looked on in disbelief. My navigator and I proudly presented the $6,000 to the United Way officials.
On the national TV news that night, a story about The Great Ascent wrapped up the newscast. With Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumblebee playing in the background, the disassembly, ascent and re-assembly of the Samurai were replayed at high speed. The news anchors chuckled through the signoff.
A lot had gone on in the three weeks since the idea had been hatched. All those people. The parts. The stairs. Then I realized that, sometime in the next few months, someone would be getting another proposal. It would be time to get the car off the top of the CN Tower.
Join Garry Sowerby, a four- time Guinness World Record holder for long-distance driving, on his tales of motoring mania.Follow his accounts of 30 years of global road adventures: out-driving the clock on a race around the world; narrowly escaping bandits’bullets in Kenya;and smuggling books behind the Iron Curtain. The master road tripper hasn’t slowed down yet.