It's hard to describe the unadulterated joy of driving a 16.56-ton (33,120 pounds) Vickers FV433 Abbot Self Propelled Gun, otherwise known as a modest-sized British tank. But so thrilling did the reptilian part of my brain find the experience that it would be positively beastly not to attempt a description.
During a full day at Kasota, Minn.'s "Drive a Tank," I got to experience exactly what it feels like to plow an armored vehicle that weighs roughly the same as three female elephants through a giant mud puddle while whooping barbarically and then driving amok through the woods like the proto-human hooligan that I now know -- deep down -- that I am.
The Abbott, made by British firm Vickers between 1965 and 1995, is driven by a 240-horsepower Rolls-Royce K60 piston engine and has a top speed of 29 mph. That's not very fast, so it's zero to 60 time is, well, infinite. But so what?
The Abbott is dirty and cramped. Getting into the driver's seat at the front requires squeezing yourself down into a tiny hatch and jamming your knees in between the levers and the metal walls. To ride in the commander's seat at the back, you have to crawl in through a hatch in the back, and banging up your knees and shins is virtually inevitable.
To drive the Abbott, which will cost you $500, you flip the ignition switch, which brings the machine literally roaring to life. The rumble of a Ferrari or Lamborghini has nothing on the shrieking howl of the Abbott's engine as it revs up. Once the tank is started, you push the shifter forward to the desired setting. There's no clutch, so it really is just a matter of putting the shifter where you want it. Then you disengage the brakes by pulling back on the two levers until the buttons on top disengage. Once the brakes are disengaged, push both levers all the way forward, depress the accelerator pedal, and the Abbott will leap down the track.
The Abbott is so heavy that getting started can feel like a chore, but the momentum eventually kicks in and carries it. The Abbott never feels sluggish once it gets moving, even up hill. It's not a drag racer by any means, but its sheer weight means it will continue moving forward unless the driver tells it to stop.
Directing where the Abbott goes and how quickly it gets there is incredibly easy, which in retrospect should not have been surprising. Despite the common misconception that tanks are enormous, complicated, lumbering machines (and they are mechanically very complicated), the actual process of driving them is incredibly simple. There are only five controls of consequence for the Abbott's driver (gunnery operators and tank commanders who have to coordinate guns, loading, formations and communications have a lot more to deal with). There is a toggle switch underneath a flip-cover that turns on the engine, a gas pedal, two brake levers that are used to stop the tank and to steer, and a simple shifter.
The Abbott, like all tanks, is steered by braking. To turn right, you pull the right brake lever back until it catches. This causes the right-side track to run slower than the left, causing the tank to pivot to the right. Repeat the same process with the left lever to turn left. The strangest part about driving the Abbott is getting used to the way it turns. Whereas in a car you can turn while also moving forward, in a tank like the Abbott you are either moving forward, or you are pivoting.
"Drive a Tank" has a track set up in the woods. You start out in a dirt circle surrounded on two sides by concrete barriers large enough to stop an errant tank in its tracks and forest on the other two sides. A track has been cut through the trees, and it is deeply rutted and rough -- the better for tank driving. The track, really a gravel and dirt path between trees and shrubbery, twists and turns, running up and down several hills, before reaching the final stretch back to the dirt circle. This final stretch is the best part -- the first two thirds of the track teach you how to handle the Abbott under speed -- so to speak -- and the last third really allows you to use it. Forward visibility is surprisingly good, but given that there are no mirrors and the commander's seat and gun rise up behind the driver, you cannot see behind it at all.
Tanks were originally created to ride up over earthworks and ditches during combat, and the heritage is apparent in the way the Abbott handles itself on the track. The final stretch of track begins with a hill that then drops off steeply at its peak into a giant mud puddle with several slaloms in it. The Abbott gallops over these obstacles, sending mud and water shooting into the air and covering driver and passengers head to foot in mud. Once out of the mud and water, the Abbott pivots around several turns while following an S-curve up a hill before laying flat-out back into the dirt circle.
The Abbott, which "Drive a Tank" imported from the UK, costs around $25,000, a price that probably qualifies it as one of Consumer Reports' Best Buy designations. A used Abbott costs just $1,562 per ton, significantly less than most cars on a price-to-weight ratio, and when you consider that the Abbott is indestructible except by anti-tank weapons, can crush most things in its path, has an enormous carrying and towing capacity and can travel at speeds of up to 3 knots over water, it's the best all-purpose work vehicle money can buy. To be fair, between the engine and the jangling and clanking of the tracks and gears it is nearly deafening, and it is not particularly fast, making it a poor choice for long distance road trips.
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