On July 18, 1976, when 14-year-old Romanian athlete Nadia Comaneci was making history at the Montreal Olympics as the first gymnast to ever score a perfect 10, she surely had no idea General Motors of Canada was building her a special truck.
OK, maybe they didn’t exactly build the truck just for her, but all these years later Winnipeg car buff Norbert Collette reached out to Nadia’s husband, fellow Olympic gold medalist Bart Conner, and suggested perhaps in celebration of the 45th anniversary of her spectacular achievements Nadia would appreciate the gift of a stunning 1976 GMC Sierra Grande Olympic Edition — one of only 630 of these special commemorative trucks ever built.
Nadia defected from Romania in 1989, a few weeks before the Romanian Revolution, and married Conner in 1996. The couple lives in Norman, Okla., and have a 15-year-old son, Dylan. Together they operate Bart Conner Gymnastics Academy and are also involved in the Special Olympics.
"This is really a sweet and sentimental story," says Conner, "one day out of the blue I get this email on our website from Norbert and he wrote me a bit about the story of the truck and how his father-in-law had bought it new, and how they’d decided to sell it and he thought maybe Nadia and I would be interested and I immediatly thought wow, this is a really genuinely nice man, so I responded and said I was interested in hearing more and within a day or so we were on the phone and I quickly realized we needed to have that truck."
The truck, once owned by Norbert’s father-in-law Yvon Arpin, who lived in St. Malo, was purchased new at Marcel Dorge Motors in Morris and is as mint as they come, with a white paint job, red stripes, rally wheels, and a hood ornament with the five-rings Olympics logo. It has only 64,000 original miles on the odometer. After Yvon passed away in 2000, Norbert had the truck restored and used it primarily to cruise to local car shows, but it wasn’t getting much use anymore so he decided to sell it.
Once the deal was struck to sell the truck to Bart and Nadia, the original plan was for Norbert and his wife, Gisele, to drive it the roughly 1,800 kilometres to Oklahoma and hand the keys to Nadia in person, but the border is closed, so instead the truck was shipped there and arrived just in time for the July 18 anniversary.
"Bart is a car guy, so when he made the connection between my history in Montreal and the history of the truck, he wanted to surprise me for my 45th anniversay," says Nadia, "I wouldn’t have thought that somebody would keep something like that in such great shape for so long and as soon as I saw it I was amazed and told Bart I had to have it."
Throughout the deal Norbert was sentimental about finally parting with the truck, but he never got cold feet. "I had sent Bart a photo of the truck with our grandkids in the bed before we shipped it and jokingly told him he was getting a full load, and he asked if I was sure I wanted to part with this beautiful family heirloom? He was ready to call off the deal, but I said it was fitting that Nadia would have it and he really thanked me."
Since the truck has arrived in Oklahoma, Bart has sent Norbert periodic messages and the Collettes do indeed plan to travel to Oklahoma and have dinner with Bart and Nadia when they can. "They are both such nice people and very down to earth," says Norbert, "we are really looking forward to meeting them in person."
For now, Nadia and Bart plan to do some fairweather cruising in the truck, but they have to hurry, their son, Dylan, will start driving soon and already has his eyes on the rare GMC.
"He will get to drive it eventually," says Nadia, "but he’s going to have to be very careful, it is really nice and a collectors edition and the story of the truck and how it had always been in Norbert’s family is really beautiful, so we are very thankful to them for this, it means a lot to us."
Paul “Willy” Williamson joined the Free Press editorial team in 2007, turning his back on a career as a corrections officer. His motor has been running non-stop ever since.