My first crush: driving a FV4201 Chieftain tank

  • The author, at Drive A Tank in Kasota, Minnesota, where you can get behind the wheel of various military vehicles and finish the day by crushing a sedan with an FV4201 Chieftain.
  • A peep inside the driver’s hatch of the Chieftain – the grand-finale experience at Drive A Tank.
Date:3 May 2013 Tags:, ,

PM’s man at tank camp finds heavy-metal love in a 54-ton beast. Then things get messy. By JEFF WISE

The author, above, at Drive A Tank in Kasota, Minnesota, where you can get behind the wheel of various military vehicles and finish the day by crushing a sedan with an FV4201 Chieftain.

It’s a frosty, bright November morning in rural Minnesota, and the 54-ton battle tank is rumbling heartily, like a big metal cat ready for the hunt. My head is poking out of the driver’s hatch, beneath the 6,7 m-long cannon barrel. This beast, an ’80s British Chieftain, was designed to tear up the toughest, most advanced armour the Soviet Union could throw into battle. Opposing me, 10 m away, sits a 15-year-old Ford Focus.

I toggle the gearshift with my left foot, push the release-button atop a pair of levers used for steering, and press the accelerator pedal. The behemoth eases forward like a land-bound battleship, the treads clanking with a near-musical chime. Five metres to go. Three. One. A part of my brain, conditioned by years of careful driving, starts screaming: Warning! Collision imminent! And then I’m lurching upwards to the sound of crunching and shattering. As I settle back towards level again, I set the brakes, climb out of the hatch and clamber down to assess the damage.

This moment of mechanical omnipotence has come courtesy of Drive A Tank, an internal-combustion fantasy camp founded five years ago by a heavy-equipment contractor named Tony Borglum. I arrived yesterday in the small town of Kasota and met the 26-year-old at his garage, a hangar-like space crammed with military vehicles: two enormous tanks, a couple of self-propelled guns, an assortment of armoured personnel carriers and a vintage Jeep mounted with a .50- calibre machine gun. Some countries may be less heavily armed.

Borglum’s father has a concrete recycling business, and the family is used to running large equipment and machining parts. This expertise came in handy when, in 2006, Borglum and his father decided it would be fun to start collecting British army vehicles. There’s a small community of collectors in the United States, so the men didn’t have a hard time tracking down machines from around the globe, each one costing somewhere between R275 000 and R900 000. “I’m used to running excavators that can grab an 18 000 kg rock and drag it out of a hole,” Borglum says. “So driving a tank is light work. It’s just an armoured box on tracks – no different from a dozer.”

It’s not the size and power of military vehicles that appeals to Borglum as much as their sheer orneriness. “With a Caterpillar or a John Deere, they try to build things in a way that makes sense,” he says. “With the military stuff, it’s like if they can stick something on somewhere and it fits, that’s where they stick it on. It’s like they go out of their way to make it a pain in the ass.”

Drive A Tank’s daylong sessions – with price starting at R3 600 – begin with a classroom discussion on vehicle operations. After class, the 20 to 30 students in attendance start out in machines such as a 15 000 kg vehicle called the FV433 Abbot. It’s tank-like, with 13 mm-thick armour and a 4,27 m-long cannon barrel, but Borglum explains almost apologetically that it’s technically not a tank but a self-propelled artillery piece. (However, I bet if you drove it up the White House driveway, your obituary would refer to the vehicle as a tank.)

I climb into the driver’s hatch of the FV433, and Borglum sits atop the armour just behind me. Instead of a steering wheel, you hold two levers. Pulling on one side slows the tread, so that the vehicle skews in that direction. Tenderly, I nurse the accelerator pedal and creep forward, acutely aware of the vast bulk I’m now directing. I make a few turns and carefully accelerate to walking speed. This doesn’t feel like rumbling along in a car – it’s more like grinding through a thick plank with a circular saw.

We head out to play on the Borglums’ 10 ha of woodland. The principles of driving the tank couldn’t be simpler, but getting a feel for it takes a while. Visibility is severely limited. Where exactly the sides of the vehicle are is a matter of pure speculation. From the condition of the bark on most of the trees, I can tell I’m not the first one to encounter this issue.

I trundle along a maze of dirt roads, gaining confidence and speed until I’m approaching this vehicle’s maximum speed of 29 km/h. Launching up a small hill, I come over the crest and find myself heading on to an iced-over pond. After decades of driving in the Northeast US, I know how this is going to play out: the skid, the spin, the sideways crash. But now the tank comes down, smashes through the ice, water goes flying, and we go rolling along, right on course. There’s a life lesson in this: when you’re in a tank, things don’t happen to you. You happen to them.

In combat, real tank drivers wouldn’t be rolling around with their heads sticking out. They’d be buttoned up behind thick metal hatches. To give me a sense of this, Borglum introduces me to the FV432 armoured personnel carrier. He lets me drive it around a bit with the front hatch open to get a feel for the steering, then closes the hatch.

Now I’m peering at the world through a narrow opening, similar to the mail slot in a door. I find it incredibly hard to gauge where the edges of the vehicle are, but fortunately, Borglum has a second set of controls. He’s watching from the rear hatch and takes over from time to time to save his trees. It takes a lot of muscle power to haul back on the brake levers as I make tight turns on the winding, hilly track, and the exhaust-perfumed air and enclosed space soon make me queasy.

After hours of practice, I’ve earned the main course: my moment of glory in the Chieftain. This is undeniably a real tank, a mountain of metal whose scale is hard to get your head around. Based on the initial cost and the amount of fuel it guzzles, Borglum says it costs him R9 000 an hour to run. Worse, if it suffers a major breakdown, he may never be able to get it back into working operation. So he’s as cautious with the tank as a teenager coddling his first car. All he’ll ever let a customer do with the Chieftain is drive it a few dozen metres, which wouldn’t be very interesting unless you were doing something novel, like flattening a car.

After my own head-to-head with the Focus, I climb down and find the old Ford is now about 30 cm high and lodged under the tank’s right-rear tread. Carefully, so as not to catch debris under the tank’s mudguard, Borglum backs the Chieftain off the car and returns it to the garage. An employee drives up in a forklift to haul the carcass away. Nothing remains but an oil stain, a scattering of glass and plastic, and the surge of raw power still tingling in my hands.

Watch the author drive the tank over a car.

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