Military

Driving tanks and crushing cars in the woods of Minnesota

Driving tanks and crushing car...
Our tank driving adventure started out small, relatively speaking, with this Abbot FV433 SPG
Our tank driving adventure started out small, relatively speaking, with this Abbot FV433 SPG
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The author looking smug atop a Chieftain FV4201
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The author looking smug atop a Chieftain FV4201
The Abbot FV433 is a self-propelled gun (SPG) with light armor and a smooth cruise
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The Abbot FV433 is a self-propelled gun (SPG) with light armor and a smooth cruise
The Abbot is the "midsize sedans" of tanks
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The Abbot is the "midsize sedans" of tanks
Infantry and support crew alongside the tank would have a view similar to this, as would the support vehicle carrying extra ammunition
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Infantry and support crew alongside the tank would have a view similar to this, as would the support vehicle carrying extra ammunition
The business end of the Abbot FV433 is daunting. In the driver's seat is the author, above in the commander's position is fellow journalist Tim Esterdahl and astride the engine compartment is a Drive a Tank employee
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The business end of the Abbot FV433 is daunting. In the driver's seat is the author, above in the commander's position is fellow journalist Tim Esterdahl and astride the engine compartment is a Drive a Tank employee
The driver's position for the Abbot FV433 is a small boxed opening with a chair and driving controls
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The driver's position for the Abbot FV433 is a small boxed opening with a chair and driving controls
Ahead of the driver are two sticks for controlling the brakes on the Abbot FV433 and a throttle on the floor
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Ahead of the driver are two sticks for controlling the brakes on the Abbot FV433 and a throttle on the floor
The commander's position on the FV433 contains a foot stand for standing out of the turret and a rack for signals and other items
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The commander's position on the FV433 contains a foot stand for standing out of the turret and a rack for signals and other items
Once inside the Abbot FV433, the loader and ammunition handler can feed the big gun and communicate with the other crew and other units through helmet-mounted comm gear
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Once inside the Abbot FV433, the loader and ammunition handler can feed the big gun and communicate with the other crew and other units through helmet-mounted comm gear
The two man crew inside the Abbot FV433 SPG enters through this rear portal
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The two man crew inside the Abbot FV433 SPG enters through this rear portal
The small FV432 armored personnel carrier (APC) is a staple of the British military
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The small FV432 armored personnel carrier (APC) is a staple of the British military
From the front, the APC has a driver's chair to the left and a commander's position just behind that
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From the front, the APC has a driver's chair to the left and a commander's position just behind that
Up to ten troops can enter the rear hatch and sit inside the FV432 APC
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Up to ten troops can enter the rear hatch and sit inside the FV432 APC
Doors atop the APC allow cargo to be loaded in when the machine is to be carrying gear rather than soldiers
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Doors atop the APC allow cargo to be loaded in when the machine is to be carrying gear rather than soldiers
The accommodations inside the FV432 APC are Spartan, to say the least
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The accommodations inside the FV432 APC are Spartan, to say the least
Once inside, the author realizes that his Scottish bulk is probably not particularly well-suited to the APC's controls
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Once inside, the author realizes that his Scottish bulk is probably not particularly well-suited to the APC's controls
The author worms his way into the driver's pit of the APC, muttering words like "ensconced" and "made for damn Romans"
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The author worms his way into the driver's pit of the APC, muttering words like "ensconced" and "made for damn Romans"
Standing atop the Chieftain FV4201 battle tank, the author surveys the machine's movement as journalist Tim Esterdahl pilots it over a hapless car
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Standing atop the Chieftain FV4201 battle tank, the author surveys the machine's movement as journalist Tim Esterdahl pilots it over a hapless car
The aftermath of the Chieftain's drive over the unlucky Oldsmobile before the author took over to find a Cadillac victim
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The aftermath of the Chieftain's drive over the unlucky Oldsmobile before the author took over to find a Cadillac victim
The engine powering the Abbot FV433 SPG varied, depending on variant, but was almost always diesel-burning
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The engine powering the Abbot FV433 SPG varied, depending on variant, but was almost always diesel-burning
Shuttling us around the Drive a Tank property and acting as a forward observer for photography was this stripped down Humvee
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Shuttling us around the Drive a Tank property and acting as a forward observer for photography was this stripped down Humvee
Here, the author sits in the gunner's position atop the M4's turret and journalist Tim Esterdahl drives as Tony Borglum instructs
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Here, the author sits in the gunner's position atop the M4's turret and journalist Tim Esterdahl drives as Tony Borglum instructs
The highlight of the day at Drive a Tank was this Sherman M4A2E8 with its smokey diesel engine
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The highlight of the day at Drive a Tank was this Sherman M4A2E8 with its smokey diesel engine
War movies and tank battle games abound with images of the Sherman, one of the most iconic machines of the Second World War
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War movies and tank battle games abound with images of the Sherman, one of the most iconic machines of the Second World War
From this view, the driver sits to the right and the commander to the left, beneath the 76mm turret of the Sherman
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From this view, the driver sits to the right and the commander to the left, beneath the 76mm turret of the Sherman
This partial lineup of the tanks at Drive A Tank is just a glimpse of what can be had
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This partial lineup of the tanks at Drive A Tank is just a glimpse of what can be had
Our tank driving adventure started out small, relatively speaking, with this Abbot FV433 SPG
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Our tank driving adventure started out small, relatively speaking, with this Abbot FV433 SPG
As journalist Tim Esterdahl brings the Abbot FV433 in to park, the author Aaron Turpen sits atop the SPG trying not to grin like a total idiot
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As journalist Tim Esterdahl brings the Abbot FV433 in to park, the author Aaron Turpen sits atop the SPG trying not to grin like a total idiot
Surveying the damage from above, the author approves of the crushing technique employed
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Surveying the damage from above, the author approves of the crushing technique employed

Yes, tanks. As in war machines with huge cannons, diesel engines, and heavyweight power. From a British main battle tank to a historic American Sherman, we beat down the Minnesota woods with heavy machines on tracked wheels. When cars got in the way, we ran them over. Because that's how we roll.

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.

The author looking smug atop a Chieftain FV4201
The author looking smug atop a Chieftain FV4201

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 Abbot FV433 is a self-propelled gun (SPG) with light armor and a smooth cruise
The Abbot FV433 is a self-propelled gun (SPG) with light armor and a smooth cruise

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 small FV432 armored personnel carrier (APC) is a staple of the British military
The small FV432 armored personnel carrier (APC) is a staple of the British military

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.

Once inside, the author realizes that his Scottish bulk is probably not particularly well-suited to the APC's controls
Once inside, the author realizes that his Scottish bulk is probably not particularly well-suited to the APC's controls

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.

Standing atop the Chieftain FV4201 battle tank, the author surveys the machine's movement as journalist Tim Esterdahl pilots it over a hapless car
Standing atop the Chieftain FV4201 battle tank, the author surveys the machine's movement as journalist Tim Esterdahl pilots it over a hapless car

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.

War movies and tank battle games abound with images of the Sherman, one of the most iconic machines of the Second World War
War movies and tank battle games abound with images of the Sherman, one of the most iconic machines of the Second World War

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.

Here, the author sits in the gunner's position atop the M4's turret and journalist Tim Esterdahl drives as Tony Borglum instructs
Here, the author sits in the gunner's position atop the M4's turret and journalist Tim Esterdahl drives as Tony Borglum instructs

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.

This partial lineup of the tanks at Drive A Tank is just a glimpse of what can be had
This partial lineup of the tanks at Drive A Tank is just a glimpse of what can be had

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.

Drive A Tank packages start at US$449.

5 comments
Milton
Very cool. How did Tony come to acquire all of these tanks? And what did they cost?
Aaron Turpen
Milton, most of these are surplus items sold by governments at auction. Some are private acquisitions. Costs range and Tony was careful not to be specific about what had been spent. The aftermarket costs for a collectible like the Sherman can be very high, though; in the US$500k and higher range. He did say that the up-front purchase price is just a portion of the overall cost once you factor in maintenance and parts. The small APCs can be had for a price closer to your average family sedan, depending on condition. Many are purchased and converted to other use, like bulldozers or farm machines. Interestingly, European and Russian military surplus items are generally much easier to come by than are American or Canadian. This means shipping is also a cost consideration.
KaiserPingo
Have to try :-D The German counterpart of the Sherman was mostly the PzKpfw IV (Panzer 4). Wiki: "Against earlier-model Panzer IVs, it could hold its own, but with its 75 mm M3 gun, struggled against the late-model Panzer IV (and was unable to penetrate the frontal armor of Panther and Tiger tanks at virtually any range).[101] The late-model Panzer IV's 80 mm (3.15 in) frontal hull armor could easily withstand hits from the 75 mm (2.95 in) weapon on the Sherman at normal combat ranges,[102] though the turret remained vulnerable." Would love to try an upgraded Panzer IV and a Panther...
Tony Loro
I wonder if any are from the collection I saw in Woodside 5 years ago. I know that was sold off after the death of the collector. That was a very fun day. I ate lunch sitting on a propellor from the RMS Lusitania. Ballard gave it to the guy returning a favor.
bwana4swahili
Too bad they don't have a Panzer. The Sherman tank was simply a tin can compared to the later Panzer tanks and a sure way to end your tank career!