It started with a phone call. “Hey, wanna crush a car with a tank?” “Duh, yes!” I replied, not even knowing who was at the other end of the phone. The PR guy had me at “crush.” So we set a date, and I took a road trip from Detroit to Kasota, Minnesota, to climb into some of the most destructive vehicles in the history of mankind. I would be at the helm of more than 121,000 pounds of steel and drive over a car as if it were an ever-shrinking speed bump. Then I would get to act like a tornado at a trailer park and flatten a mobile home without so much as breaking a sweat.
Drive A Tank is a small company based about 70 miles south of Minneapolis. The owner, Tony Borglum, 28, is an energetic entrepreneur who wheels and deals with more American spirit than the Sherman E8 tank he recently purchased. That was the big wheel I was there to pilot.
Driving most tanks is not complicated. Start it, put it in gear, hit the gas, and then steer. It’s like riding a 60-ton bicycle in slow motion, though this bike comes fully loaded with machine guns, a howitzer, and concrete-crushing tracks. Modern tanks include more advanced suspensions, though they were never installed for the comfort of the driver. They simply provide a better platform from which to fire high-explosive rounds a couple of miles with the accuracy of a scoped Ruger 10/22 at 20 yards.
There are two levers to steer a tank, a set number of forward gears, and reverse. Some tanks will include an automatic transmission, but the driver might still have to manually shift gears. Pull the left lever if you want to move the nose of the tank to the left, pull the right one if you want it to go to the right. Pull them both back if you want to stop, and leave them alone if you want to go straight. The heavier the tank, the harder it becomes to pull the levers. For example, the FV433 British Abbot, a self-propelled gun, is relatively light at 32,000 pounds. It’s quick and turns on a dime—OK, a 6-foot-wide dime. Borglum owns three of them and typically puts people in one of them first to help them understand tank basics.
The Sherman E8, however, weighs almost three times as much at 42 tons, so often even an easy turn required me to use both hands on a single lever to get it to move where I want it to go.
All of the tanks offer two driving positions, one where your head sticks out of the hull like a Whac-A-Mole and one where you’re completely enclosed in steel. The al fresco driving provides fresh air. The entombed position allows you to avoid having your head shot off. The accelerator pedal is placed so you can easily reach it comfortably in both positions. The open-air driving position allows you a full view in front. The other requires you to drive by a periscope that lacks depth perception and limits your view.
One note on the accelerator: Tanks seem most comfortable when the accelerator is mashed to the floor. There’s an old expression that you should drive diesel engines like you’re angry. That certainly applies when you’re trying to toss 80,000 pounds of steel around a corner. It didn’t matter which vehicle I drove. Stomp on the pedal, and the engine (or engines) responded happily. The drive gears determine the speed more than the accelerator.
After trying out the Abbot, I hop into the Sherman. A legendary medium tank used during World War II and known for its versatility, the Sherman E8 is a rare find because of its dual diesel engines. (Borglum explains that most Shermans used gas engines, but a select few slotted for Marines in the Pacific theater had Detroit Diesels.)
The five-speed manual transmission requires the driver to get the tank moving, push in the heavy clutch, pop the tank out of gear, let out the clutch as the gears slow down, push the clutch back in, and then pop it into the next gear. Be careful, though, when reaching for the gear shifter because you could also grab the .45-caliber grease gun—that’s an M3 submachine gun—mounted right next to it.
I get the Sherman into third gear and finally feel like I’m cruising, probably around 15 mph. Like all the other tanks, the Sherman’s suspension was not devised for a comfortable ride. My body jerks back and forth, which is disconcerting at moments when my head pushes forward and my face stops just a few inches in front of steel edge of the hole.
That hole is no laughing matter, either. Twenty-year-old men can scamper over steel and slide through tiny openings with ease. By the end of the day, I had bumps and bruises from trying to squeeze through those openings. The fist-sized lump on my head arrived later when the hatch of an armored personnel carrier fell on me as I closed it. Steel does not give. My head does. From then on, I strained my neck hard to the side to keep my noggin clear.
We closed the hatch to protect me from a house falling on my head when we drove the APC through a trailer home. Known in Kasota as El Tornado because of its infamous attraction to trailers, the British FV432 is still in use today around the world. It cut through the aluminum trailer like a bulldozer through sand, again and again. The trailer collapsed after its roof got caught on the APC during the second pass. A third pass completely obliterated the remains.
Of course, the 121,000-pound Chieftain MK10 tank showed even less mercy on the Pontiac. The left side of the Chieftain rose slightly, and the grinding sounds of metal against metal were almost as loud as the engine, but other than that, it was difficult to tell that a car was underneath. It was just gone, its back window exploding with a pop.
The bigger trick is getting the tank off the car. The tank’s weight can cause giant pieces of the car to get caught in the track. Borglum describes it as the same way a soda can—pop can in Minnesota—gets caught on your shoe after you step on it. The tank gently rolled off the car. (Credit goes to Pontiac engineers, as the rear passenger door still opened in case any remains needed to be removed).
Of course, tanks have already lost much of their usefulness in war. Today, airpower reigns supreme, and tanks might never again be used in the same volume or manner they once were. But they can still tilt a battlefield to one side’s advantage with purpose and incredible destructive power.
Driving a tank is a visceral experience that vibrates through your entire body in slow motion. Your chest puffs out. Your eyes widen with wonder. Your head spins with thoughts of big guns firing. That is something no one gets to do here, but Borglum is toying with ideas of adding paintball cannons. To control a vehicle that can crush anything in its path—then actually get to crush it—feeds that primal being in all of us with newfound power.
Fueled by dust and diesel fumes, that power grows even stronger. Next time, I want to shoot something, too.
MUST SEE TANK MOVIES
Tanks have played important roles on screen. Here are seven must-see tank films if you love these machines and the people who fight in them.
Stars: George C. Scott, Karl Malden
Summary: The film depicts the controversial life of Gen. George S. Patton during World War II. The battle scenes are nearly as epic as Patton himself. This movie won eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and was selected by the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry for preservation because of its cultural and historical significance. Best line: “Now I want you to remember that no bastard ever won a war dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country.”
“Kelly’s Heroes” (1970)
Stars: Clint Eastwood, Telly Savalas, Don Rickles, Carroll O’Connr, Donald Sutherland. Summary: A World War II Army officer decides to skip the war and search for $16 million worth of gold in Germany, taking his tank crew far beyond enemy lines. Best line: “To a New Yorker like you, a hero is some type of weird sandwich, not some nut who takes on three Tigers.”
“White Tiger” (2012)
Stars: Gerasim Arkhipov,
Aleksandr Bakhov Summary: In this Russian movie, a World War II soldier who is horribly burned goes after a mysterious German Tiger tank that has single-handedly decimated the Russian Army and that the soldier believes is possessed. Best Line: “What do you mean it’s not there? Fire.”
“Battle of the Bulge” (1965)
Stars: Henry Fonda, Robert Shaw, Robert Ryan
Summary: The last great battle in Europe during World War II showcases Germany’s powerful Tiger tanks and America’s tenacity to fight until the last gasp. Best Line: “Nuts.”
Stars: Brad Pitt, Shia LaBeouf, Logan Lerman, Jon Bernthal
Summary: A single Sherman tank takes on a battalion of German soldiers during the waning days of World War II.
Best Line: “See that? That’s a whole city on fire. I bet that’s where those bombers were heading. The dying’s not done. The killing’s not done.”
“The Beast of War” (1988)
Stars: George Dzundza, Jason Patric
Summary: A Russian tank crew in 1981 Afghanistan finds itself isolated in the mountains fighting the mujahedeen.
Best Line: “You’re a good soldier, Anton. You can be counted on when they ask you to shoot your mother.”
Stars: Yoav Donat, Itay Tiran
Summary: A tank crew is dispatched to a small town in Lebanon where it is engulfed in a violent battle in a gripping antiwar movie.
Best Line: “This thing is war. War is usually dangerous.”
ROADKILL Pulverizes a Prius
In Episode 17 of ROADKILL, Freiburger and Finnegan scored one for gearheads by going hard with a 56-ton British Chieftain. “I DOMINATED that Prius,” Freiburger crowed, and Finnegan said the tank was one of the coolest things he’s ever driven.
BUY YOUR OWN TANK
All you need is a checkbook,” says David Uhrig, owner of Military Vehicle Sales and Appraisals in Chillicothe, Ohio.
Uhrig has been acting as a military vehicle sales broker for 40 years and has helped people buy and sell some extremely powerful machines.
“It’s no different than buying a used Mustang,” he says.
However, even some of the most beat-up, rusted-out tanks come with a price tag nearly as heavy as the actual machines. On Uhrig’s website, armyjeeps.net, prices range from $24,500 for a rebuilt 1964 Ferret Mk 1/2 Scout Car to $400,000 for a 1944 M7-B1 105 Howitzer Motor Gun Carriage. And that was just the first page.
“If someone wants a fully restored vehicle or something that looks like it would be heading into battle,” Uhrig says, “the price will definitely climb higher.”
It’s legal to own a tank and even drive it on the road—though you must use rubber cleats on the tracks. Private tanks are used all the time in parades and other functions. If the tank’s top speed is less than 45 mph, it does not qualify for most state license plates, because they cannot make minimum highway speeds. But they can still be driven on public roads under some circumstances.
Uhrig says state and federal highway departments make taking delivery of your tank difficult.
They require expensive permits to transport the vehicles and limit routes and times.
“I once had to ship a tank 400 miles to a museum,” Uhrig says. “We ended up driving 780 miles to get there.”
Of course, none of those tanks will have operating guns, but it is possible to buy a Sherman tank that can fire its 75mm main gun. That requires a whole other set of federal licenses from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
Drive A Tank has a complete arsenal of destruction in Minnesota available for people to rent and drive. Including:
T-55 Russian battle tank
Crew: 4 Engine: V-55 38.9L/500-800-hp diesel V-12
Main gun: 100mm rifled barrel Secondary weapons: 12.7mm coax machine gun, 12.7mm turret-mounted machine gun, 7.62mm machine guns
Weight: 40 tons
British main battle tank
Engine: 19.0L/750-hp supercharged two-stroke diesel opposed-piston I-6
Main Gun: L11A5 120mm
Secondary Weapons: Two L7 GPMG 7.62mm machine guns
Weight: 60 tons
Top Speed: 30 mph
Our Take: It’s massive. It’s powerful. It can crush almost anything. Our pick for battle.
Mark 5 Centurion Tank
British main battle tank
Service from 1945-1997
Crew: 4 Engine: Rolls-Royce Meteor 27L/650-hp V-12
Main gun: L7 105mm
Secondary weapons: 2 .30-cal machine guns Weight: 55 tons
U.S. medium battle tank
Engine: Two 7-71 Detroit Diesel 5.0L/536-hp/561-lb-ft twin turbodiesel DOCH 32-valve V8s
Main Gun: 76mm high velocity
Secondary Weapons: 2 .30-cal and 1.50-cal machine guns
Weight: 42 tons
At The Pump: Up to 150 miles on 175 gallons of gas
Our Take: What proved to be the best tank on the battlefield goes fast and is easy to repair. It won the biggest war the world has ever seen.
Abbot FV433 Field Artillery
British self-propelled gun
Engine: Rolls-Royce K60 6.6L/240-hp supercharged two-stroke diesel opposed-piston I-6 Main Gun: 155mm M109
Secondary Weapons: .303 Bren machine gun
Weight: 16 tons
At The Pump: 300-mile range
Our Take: Without heavy armor plating to slow it down, the Abbot can lob explosive charges safely from miles away and get everyone home by dinner.
British personnel carrier
Crew: 2 Engine: Rolls-Royce K60 6.6L/240-hp supercharged two-stroke diesel opposed-piston I-6
Weapons: .303 Bren machine gun Weight: 15 tons