It was an unassuming Wednesday morning. We'd driven out to the small town of Kasota, Minnesota to a place barely registered on our Nissan's navigation system. A large, plain building had a tank-shaped mailbox attached to a big bomb sitting out front and a stone carved with the silhouette of a tank and the words "Drive A Tank." We parked and were greeted by a man who led us to a steel door.
Inside was a sort of conference room with a large pull-down projection screen and walls lined with armaments – things ranging from bazookas to modern LAW (Light Anti-armour Weapon) rockets to various mortars and shell casings. I spotted what looked a lot like a Sidewinder missile before being led into the next room, which was more like your typical firing range front desk and lobby than anything else. More machine guns and weapons lined the walls, but a cash register and the sound of light weapons fire from behind a wall signaled that this was, indeed, a gun range.
A man with a big smile and an "I work for a living" stance greeted us. His name is Tony Borglum and he owns Drive A Tank, the facility at which we had found ourselves. Tony is an all-purpose history nut, big machine lover, and weapons fanatic. Behind those glasses and that rough exterior lies a wealth of practical and historical knowledge. Part gearhead, part businessman, and all kinds of "This'll be cool," he was the man who would lead us through a day of adventure on tracked vehicles.
We started out small. Relatively speaking.
The Abbot FV433
In terms of tankery, the Abbott is sort of the midsize sedan of things. It's technically a "self-propelled gun" (SPG) and not really a tank, per se. Seeing as it sports a huge 105-mm cannon, some armor plating, big tracked wheels, and weighs in the neighborhood of 16 tons, though, we're going to call it a tank anyway.
The FV433 entered service with the British military in 1965 and had 30 years of use. A crew of four manned the machine with an additional ammunition-carrying vehicle following along. Probably at a safe distance. The driver sits up front of the machine to one side. The commander is up top of the turret and the other two are ensconced inside.
The Abbot has a pace of up to 29 mph (47 km/h) on open terrain. Since there is no speedometer or windage speed indicator, we could only guess as to how fast we were going. I'll hazard it was about 50 mph, at least up until we hit the mud puddle. Then probably in the 100 mph range. It felt like that. In reality, maybe more like 10 mph (16 km/h).
The FV433 is driven with a throttle controlling the huge diesel engine mounted behind the turret. Two handles control steering. Pulling the right handle applies brakes to that side, turning the vehicle in that direction, and a similar pull on the left produces the same result in the other direction. Pulling both stops the vehicle altogether. Rather abruptly, I might add. I have bruises to prove that.
The Abbot FV433 was a great introduction to the world of tank driving. Next up, we'd get a little sportier with something more suitable for family outings.
The FV432 APC
For the British armed forces, the FV432 is the workhorse of armored personnel carriers. These entered production in 1962 and continue to be used today. Fold-down benches on either side of the interior allow up to 10 people to ride inside the APC. When folded up, the machine can be used to haul cargo, which can be loaded through the small rear door or set down into the FV through the rooftop concertina hatch. Forward hatches allow the driver and (directly behind) vehicle commander to enter and exit separately.
For those living outside of the US, the FV432 is a fairly common vehicle sold as surplus by the British military.
We climbed into the driver's "pit" of the APC and noted, rather immediately, that this is a vehicle designed for small people. Romans, maybe. Definitely not large Scotsmen like your humble(ish) author. I wiggled a bit, crouched my head down, and the hatch was closed. Stationed in place, I noted that there is no seatbelt in the FV432. We die like men.
Driving the APC is very much like driving the Abbott, but with faster response and quicker handling. The FV432's top speed is about 32 mph (52 km/h) with the throttle jammed and an open, flat plain ahead. We had dirt, mud, trees, and huge puddles instead. So our top speed was probably more like half that. The APC doesn't have niceties like speedometers and gauges in it. You guess your speed by how hard you're hitting things or how easy it is to suddenly lurch into a turn. The latter being generally preferable for those riding along with you in the wobbly rear seating, where water sloshing up from the floorboards is the only other indication of what's happening outside.
Although an FV432 might do some serious damage to a car, it's probably not going to crush it without a lot of goading or run-up to impact. Not so with a main battle tank.
The FV4201 Chieftain
The FV4201 Chieftain was the main battle tank of the United Kingdom for over two decades, starting in the 1960s. At well over 50 tons, the huge FV4201 carries a crew of only four despite its gigantic size. The Chieftain measures 24 feet and 7 inches (7.5 meters) in length, not including the barrel, and 12 feet (3.66 meters) in width. It stands about 9 feet, six inches high (2.9 m) and sports armor plating that is up to 7.7 inches (195 mm) thick. The 120-mm gun and two machine guns are the business end of this tank.
As are its huge tracks. The FV4201 has less than two feet of ground clearance, but its tracks run end-to-end and despite its weight, the Chieftain has a top speed of about 30 mph (48 km/h) on the road and 19 mph (30 km/h) off it.
Its huge Leyland L60 diesel engine is capable of outputting 750 horsepower (560 kW) from its 19 liters of displacement. What that means is that when a much more humble Cadillac stood in front of the big Chieftain battle tank ... it didn't stand a chance. Running over the car, I barely noticed it was there, with a mere tilt of the big tank to show that I'd just hit something. Needless to say, the Caddy was toast. I called Rob, my insurance man, to see if I was covered. "Nope. lol" was his answer. Gee thanks, Rob. Luckily, Tony was cool with it and gave me the Caddy's keys as a keepsake.
At this point, it seemed a good time to turn back the clock and get all Donald Sutherland for a while.
The Sherman M4A2E8
Go ahead and say that three times fast: "M4A2E8." Just rolls off the tongue. Right? That's why everyone knows the Sherman by its more colloquial name. The M4 was the Sherman's designation for the US military, where it saw service throughout the Second World War. The A2 in its name designates its diesel power from a General Motors 6046 engine. The E8 bit designates the Sherman's fitting with wide track spring suspension and a 76-mm main gun.
The Sherman is probably the most iconic of tanks from World War II, having appeared in a multitude of films and photographs from the war. It was in service by most of the Allied militaries involved, including Great Britain and the United States. Surplus units after the war continued service in Israel and South America for decades afterwards. Kids of all ages today recognize it as one of the more popular tank options in the World of Tanks video game.
And there we were with a Sherman in our hot little hands, awaiting our command. More or less. Like most Americans, the Sherman will do what you ask of it, but you'll have to give up something in return and be nice to it in the process. "Nothing comes free in the land of the free," so they say. The price of driving the Sherman M4A2E8 that Wednesday afternoon was muscle power and a steady hand along with thorough testing of our rock concert-tuned eardrums. Plus some throttle. Lots of throttle.
The Sherman belches smoke continually and makes a lot of noise. If the sounds from WWII movies like Saving Private Ryan didn't convince you about the incessant noise levels of that war, being around an M4 will. The tracks squeak, the engine roars with little muffling, and the turret and brakes squeal at every command. It's the music of the 1940s war era and it's beautiful. Sitting in the driver's seat up front, one gains an appreciation for the kind of men who piloted machines like this under fire. They weren't as short as the Europeans crammed into the smaller tanks we'd seen thus far, though. That much I personally found appeasing.
The Sherman requires a good amount of muscle and forethought to drive well. This was the only machine driven that day that required gear shifting and the Sherman's gearing is, to say the least, thick. It's possible to start the tank in any of its three gears, depending on your plans going forward. First gear is a granny, second is more for lower-speed everyday driving, and third gear is kind of the highway mode for highest-speed runs. With practice, the gears can be "floated" from one to the next or back again, but most newcomers have to start out with full stops before a shift.
Outside of driving, the gunner's position on top of the Sherman is a blast. With a full field of view and the wind in your hair, there is a continual urge to make Patton-like gestures of "Haul ass in that direction!" Grinning from ear to ear is mandatory.
Everything about this Sherman M4A2E8 is awesome. From its battlefield of sounds to its smoke-spewing grunts of approval as you urge it to fly forward, this is a piece of history that lives happily in Minnesota.
You can find out more about Drive A Tank on its website. It's well worth a visit to Tony and his friends and the price paid is minuscule given the amount of awesome fun you'll have while you're there. Make sure to tour the sheds and see all of the great machinery they've got hanging around.