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What was the GMC Cannonball?

GMC Cannonball
1960 GMC DFRW 860 “Cannonball”

I’m not really into old commercial trucks. Not because old trucks aren’t cool, it’s just that the whole car thing fills my time pretty completely. I get the truck thing though, and certainly appreciate a vintage big rig whenever I come across one.

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And I came across one recently—well, a reference to one, actually–that piqued my interest. Buried in the lyrics of a Mark Knopfler song is a reference to the GMC “Cannonball.” The song, I Used to Could, appears on Knopfler’s 2012 album Privateering.

The lyrics:

I Used to Could

Mark Knopfler

Well, all down the 40 I never used to lift
Thirteen gears, double clutch shift
All those horses underneath the hood
I don’t do it no more but I used to could

GMC Cannonball going like a train
All down the 40 in the driving rain
All those horses underneath the hood
I don’t do it no more but I used to could

Well I don’t hang around ’cause it ain’t no good
Like the big bad wolf in the neighborhood
Chasin’ after Little Red Riding Hood
I don’t do it no more but I used to could

Never having heard of the GMC Cannonball, I did a quick Google image search. Sure enough, the GMC cab-over-engine (COE) was real, and being stout, short, and rounded at the corners, it did indeed look something like a cannonball—or a bowling ball, or, well, something round.

Turns out, however, that the heavy-duty GMC, which was introduced late in 1949, was not named—or more correctly, nicknamed—for its beefy, round profile. Instead, it picked up its casual moniker for having appeared in a short-lived Canadian TV show.

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The show–Cannonball–debuted in Canada in 1958, and featured Paul Birch as burly truck driver “Cannonball” Mike Malone. Malone and co-driver Jerry Austin (played by William Campbell), employees of the Toronto-based C&A Transport Co. Ltd., spent most of their work days in the cab of a 1954 GMC 950 COE. To keep the show interesting, Malone and Austin frequently volunteered to deliver rare, precious, and/or dangerous cargo, including radioactive material. Sadly, the show lasted for just one season, and those 39 episodes do not appear to be available on VHS, DVD, or Blu-ray.

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As things go, it seems as if the Cannonball nickname has outlived most memories of the TV show, which is something of a shame. The show’s directors seemed to have gone to great lengths to feature the truck in as many scenes as possible, which is cool–the GMC Cannonball is a great-looking truck.

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As for Knopfler’s musical reference to the Cannonball, you have to appreciate the cross-cultural forces at work. In short, a British rocker wrote a song about an American truck which appeared briefly in a forgotten Canadian TV show. Pretty cool.

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