Almost taking two of my mates with me – but I maintain it was their fault anyway!
Back in 1991, two years on from my very first car review (the one that got me arrested) I reviewed this actual GMC Jimmy S-15. And this time I nearly drowned in it, along with two of my best buddies, who will remain unnamed even though if we had met our watery demise it would have been on them – I was only the numpty behind the wheel after all!
I had by this time developed a good relationship with the General Motors Headquarters in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia where I had began my career reviewing cars for Saudi Gazette and then later Arab News. In fact they had started lending me cars regularly, and not just for a day or two, but sometimes a couple of weeks at a time.
Thomas J Keech, a senior service consultant, whose office I was sitting in, dropped the keys on his desk directly in front of me and lent back in his chair folding his arms up behind his head. ‘Back in America we call it the belly button car, you know why?’ I had no idea why and I tried very hard not to immediately stare at his protruding belly, just a flash of too-pale skin peeping through the shirt buttons gap.
At that time I was still learning about the strange customs and behaviours of Americans through the highly filtered pseudo-US culture of Saudi Arabia, and I momentarily wondered if it was something to do with perhaps a bizarre ritual of rubbing one’s tummy against the car or, even worst, the keys.
I glanced down at the keys slightly apprehensive and starting to consider whether it was in anyway hazardous to retrieve them off the table with my bare fingers, and if I was now required to partake in the same ritual, when Keech brought his hands back down over his torso to give his ample waistline a jovial slap on each side, and announced the punchline: ’cause everyone’s got one!’ Oh, how we chuckled, he in fun and me in relief.
But fortunately my relief also turned to fun not long after he’d waved me off in the underground car park and I got this truck sideways straight out of the exit without even trying. So first a bit of factual info for you. The GMC Jimmy S-15 was sister car to the Chevrolet Blazer S-10. It had selectable four-wheel drive but was in rear-drive mode by default. The 4.3-litre V6 engine only managed 160bhp and that too at 4000rpm, but it was pretty torquey – 230lb ft from 2800rpm. And with 8000km on the clock, this thing had clearly been put through its paces.
So during the course of the week the favourite pastime of my mates and myself was to head over to a particular petrol station near Saudia City at a certain time of day. Not because we needed refuelling, but because for some reason they would wash their inappropriately shiny-tiled floor surface and trying to negotiate in and out of the facility was always an absolute giggle in the Jimmy in two-wheel drive. Although in retrospect it probably wasn’t a very intelligent thing to be messing around with a slipping and sliding truck in such proximity to fuel. Hmm… wonder why Zoolander suddenly flashed into my head?
But if you thought that was rather foolhardy and unsafe, you clearly underestimate my sheer level of youthful stupidity when compounded by the egging-on of my equally unhinged car-mad friends. That weekend we headed up to the furthest part of the beach area we dared too, and found a deserted stretch of sand to drive along.
Chomping shawermas, swigging Bepsi (local enunciation of Pepsi) and boogieing to Michael Jackson pumping out through the four-speaker(!) cassette stereo player with, wait for it, Dolby Surround Sound, we were having a jolly old time. Which in every great disaster movie is usually a certain precursor to death and destruction.
We came upon a line of massive jagged rocks sectioning off our part of the beach from the next bit. However the road was further away on our side as we’d already come a fair distance, but we could clearly see a handy and easy exit on the other side. Nonetheless, I didn’t feel the Blazer would get over the rocks.
But then the friend next to me pointed at the five feet of sand beyond the rocks where the waves gently washed in and out licking the end of the divide. ‘It’s only a couple of inches deep, let’s just drive around it’. And to be fair, it appeared pretty benign. Enthusiastic encouragement echoed from the seat behind and my own misgivings were dismissed by my shoulders shrugging their betrayal and my hands already turning the car towards the sea.
And as we first rolled onto the water-logged sand it seemed that it would be a doddle. Then the sand slipped. Or was it the car? Or did part of the beach just break off with a laugh and start to drag us to our doom at sea.
We all freaked out at once and even amongst all the screaming the latent journalist within me was constructing tomorrows headline in the Arab News – ‘Three young men drown in beach-driving accident’. Yeah okay, it wasn’t an especially good headline – but give me a break I was under a bit of pressure here!
It didn’t help that the mate on my right kept shouting out that the water was lapping over the bonnet and the friend in the back was already perched up on the rear bench seat screaming: ‘it’s coming in, the sea is coming in!’
By this point I was so flustered that I nearly lifted off and brought the car to a halt as it appeared that forward momentum was being matched by a slightly less, but still proportionate, sideways motion in the wrong direction. We were on properly loose sand at this stage and the ground was simply melting away beneath our wheels.
The universe came to our rescue though and two thoughts popped into my head, the first was remembering a conversation I had had with a Land Rover employee who was telling me about wading through water and saying something about bow-waves and keeping going because stopping would flood the engine. And the second was the realisation that the car itself was not freaking it out. It was still running strong.
Screw it, I thought, and floored it, the GMC squirmed and wriggled about in the sand, the forward motion continued and even gathered speed, the water was now streaming right up to the base of the windscreen and rushing past the wing mirrors. But the car kept chugging on.
Going into a sort of car-whispering mode I pleaded with the Jimmy to keep going and the loyal little thing did my bidding, pulling us out the other side and back up onto the dry side of the beach. We all jumped out and fell thankfully onto the sand as water streamed out the open doors.
After a big bout of accusatory screaming and shouting and then just cracking up in laughter at the sheer relief of not having drowned this day, we turned back to the Jimmy in some trepidation and inspected it for damage.
Here’s the thing, there wasn’t any. It started up. It ran. The A/C was blowing strong. The lights still switched on and off and most importantly of all, we could still listen to Michael Jackson’s Thriller loud and clear.
But you know what was really cool about the car? There was seaweed hanging out of the wheels and from the top of the grill with a watermark all the way along the side of the car. My greatest regret is that I didn’t take a picture of it in this state. In fact I still had it for another week. It remained problem-free and I continued to drive it around without even taking the seaweed out of the grill because it just rocked man – c’mon wouldn’t you?
Although as an aside, please note that if you do soak your car in seawater somehow, make sure you wash it thoroughly, or you could have the salt eating away at your paint and rotting the underside of your car.
Anyway, back to the story and of course I soon remembered that I had to get some shots of the car for the article. So, and how utterly cheeky is this you’re gonna think, I took it to one of the GM dealerships, because I had a friend there and I knew they had a jet wash around the back, so I wouldn’t have to pay to get it washed myself!
However it is customary to partake in conversation about politics, girls and football (none of which I actually knew anything about at the time if I’m being totally honest, but I was good at bluffing – still am!) and at least three small glass cups of sweet Saudi tea before you can get to any kind point.
So having put down my third empty cup and humbly enquired if they’d be kind enough to clean the by-now utterly filthy Jimmy parked at the front of the showroom, and the branch manager having obviously graciously obliged with a grand open-armed gesture of ‘c’mon habibi of course!’ and already having called up the service department to send over a driver to take the car around the back… deep breath… it was at this exact moment that Thomas P Sorensen walked into the exec’s office.
So who was this tall, rugged-faced, athletically-built American? He was only THE Managing Director from GM’s Jeddah HQ. As soon as he clocked me in the room, he put his hands on his hips and frowned exclaiming ‘Oh I should’ve guessed. Of course we gave the Jimmy to you didn’t we?’
Dramatic pause. Yours truly caught completely off guard and totally flummoxed. ‘What the HELL have you been doing to it? It looks like CRAP!’ he continued.
Oh shit. Oh damn. Oh bugger. And whilst my mind was racing, my mouth was still silent. A tirade of thoughts were avalanching through my mind, but no coherent words were emanating from my lips. In fact, I’m not sure any breath was blowing either in or out of my lips either.
Another pause – dude this industry executive was somehow a master of dramatic timing! – and Sorensen spoke again, but not before a massive grin spread over his thus-far contorted features, and he was barely able to hold back the laughter. He flung a dismissive finger in my direction and bellowed out: ‘You go ahead and do your worst, you ain’t gonna break that car, believe me we’ve tried!’
And then we all laughed heartily. They in fun and me in relief. I believe I was experiencing a form of déjà vu.
Anyway since we did all have such a hearty communal chuckle about Saudi Jimmy, the seaweed adorned indestructatruck, I decided to relate the whole episode within the story I wrote for Arab News much to the delight of the Features Editor (you can actually find the full article in the portfolio section of this blogsite).
A few weeks later I was back in the GM head office sipping another Finjan of sweet syrupy tea with Keech. ‘Hey man I gotta show you something!’ he suddenly blurted out and reached into his drawer and pulled out a piece of torn thermal paper. Remember those? They used to be employed by some fax machines.
He handed it to me and smiling broadly I retrieved it and started looking at. My smile soon faded as I realised I was looking at a missive directly from the PR department in Detroit. It basically said something like ‘Read the review. Who is this guy? Never lend him any cars ever again! End of message’.
I looked back up at Keech somewhat mortified. But he was caressing his ample girth again and somehow still chuckling. Then he handed me another piece of torn thermal paper. ‘Here’s the rest of the message.’
It read: ‘PS – Just joking!’
We both laughed. He in fun and me in… I think you know the routine by now.