May 26 (Bloomberg) -- Click-click-clack! Click-click-clack! This is the sound of destruction, the noise of the rolling treads of a 54-ton military tank. My tank.
I’m at the wheel -- well, levers -- of a mean, green machine called an FV 4201 Chieftain. The 12-foot wide vehicle is peeling forward in a mix of dust and diesel smoke, heading for a parked Pontiac Grand Prix sedan.
My plan is to hit the car head-on, happy in the knowledge that only one of us will survive this encounter. Click-click-clack, click-click-clack, crunch!
The chance to drive a tank has brought me to Kasota, Minnesota, a rural area 70 miles southwest of Minneapolis. For $499, the appropriately named Drive a Tank gives clients a turn piloting decommissioned British military vehicles.
I’m accompanied by my friend Jason Henrichs and we’re staying with his family outside of St. Paul. “What time are you boys going to play army?” Jason’s mom had asked. I’d opened my mouth to protest, but, no, that actually was an apt description.
We arrived at the warehouse and massive garage to find owner Tony Borglum loading a machine gun. Tony, 24, said he’d started importing military vehicles from the U.K. several years ago, though his first attempt to open the business was thwarted by nervous neighbors.
“Tony came by it natural,” said his mother, Marie, when asked about the operation. “He’s third-generation crazy.”
This facility includes tank trails threading through the woods and an indoor firing range. A variety of exotic weapons like an FN P90 submachine gun and .50 caliber sniper rifle hang on the walls. Clients can shoot them as part of the $499 price. (Jason would get his turn with a fully-automatic mini-Uzi.)
Tony took us to the garage to see the Chieftain and smaller FV433 Abbot tanks. On the day we attended, the schedule was loosely organized, which might irritate A-type personalities. But it does allow plenty of time to crawl around the vehicles.
The Chieftain is the big boy: A British machine of war built in the 1960s that had the heaviest armor and most powerful main gun of its day, firing 120-mm high-explosive rounds. (All the tanks’ big guns have been rendered inoperable.)
The Chieftain is so large -- it weighs as much as 39 Toyota Prius cars -- one might expect it to be roomy inside. It fits only four, including the commander and gunner in the rear, and a driver crammed in a front cockpit, with only his head sticking out.
The soldier responsible for reloading the big gun has the least enviable position: His tight space inside the turret is filled with live, explosive shells. I soon scramble out, a whisper of claustrophobia urging me along.
Other clients arrive and we pile into the back of an armored transport vehicle, also windowless, for the ride to the forested trails. “Look, Tony, your mom is following us,” someone calls out. Marie is just behind, piloting the Abbot tank, blonde hair bobbing.
Next is a tutorial in tank driving. There’s no steering wheel. Rather, you operate two levers which run between your legs. You pull back on the right lever to turn right; the left to turn left; both to stop. There’s also an oversized accelerator pedal. Top speed, Tony says, is about 18 mph.
I jam my body inside, sitting on a thin seat cushion, and start down a muddy road, taking care to keep the long gun barrel from glancing into trees.
The trails are tight and it’s best to turn early, anticipating the vehicle’s size and weight. On uneven ground it bounces violently side to side and picks up surprising speed on downhill descents. You wouldn’t want a runaway tank, I muse.
Up ahead is a mud hole filled with three feet of water. I charge in, then haul on the left lever. The tank swings hard and water sloshes into the cockpit, mud patterning my face. I make another pass and then another -- when’s the next time I’ll do doughnuts in a tank?
Then, the main event: The car crush, which costs an extra $499. We return to the garage and an old white Pontiac sedan is placed in the dirt parking lot. The Chieftain is pulled out. It makes the Abbot look puny.
The Chieftain has a foot brake. “You have to stop exactly on top of the car or you’ll rip off the tank’s rear fenders,” Tony warns. He’s perched on top of the tank next to me.
I pop into second gear and launch off. The Chieftain is fast and we’re quickly upon the car. The right side of the tank lifts as the tread runs up the hood and onto the roof. I slam onto the brake and hear the shatter of glass and metal.
Um, wow. I clamber out and look down. The tank sits directly atop the car. The Pontiac is split asunder, about as crushed as you can get. This is the best time I’ve ever had playing army.
Drive A Tank, 550 West Cherry Street, Kasota, Minnesota. Tel: +1-507-461-0628; http://www.driveatank.com.
(Jason H. Harper writes about autos for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
To contact the writer of this column: Jason H. Harper at Jason@JasonHharper.com or follow on Twitter @JasonHarperSpin.
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