As an automotive journalist, I have the opportunity to drive a variety of exotic machinery, a perk that's resulted in a personal list of novel first drives. That said, nothing I've ever driven compares with the uniquely geeky thrill of donning an olive-drab helmet and rumbling through the gently rolling countryside north of Dallas in a 55-ton Chieftain main battle tank.
Tactical Tanks uses these recently retired British bad boys to create simulated four-hour military missions for a wide variety of individuals and corporate clients. Whether owner Dave Estes and his staff are hosting a handful of bachelor-party buddies out for a good time or four-dozen coworkers on a highly structured staff-development outing, the result is ultimately the same--a motoring experience that won't soon be forgotten.
The Chieftain I drove is one of the 35 military vehicles that make up the Sherman, Texas-based businessman's private military-industrial complex.
Housed in a 10,000-square-foot building surrounded by an eight-foot razor-wire-topped fence, the predominantly British Tactical Tanks fleet includes six Chieftains, eight Abbott 105-millimeter self-propelled guns, and seven FV432 armored personnel carriers. Vintage artillery pieces, U.S. Army-issue Jeeps, trucks, and a World War II half-track round out the collection.
Estes's clients have 265 acres in which to play with this extreme toy collection. A staff of eight, including four full-time mechanics, keep the tracks turning smoothly.
Master and Commander
When I first meet Estes, he's sitting in his olive-drab corner office surrounded by knickknacks that include a World War II steel infantry helmet and artillery shells, each the size of a small child. Clad in his work clothes--black parachute pants, T-shirt, and combat boots--this mild-mannered entrepreneur readily admits he's living out his boyhood dreams.
"When I was young, I used to sneak into the local National Guard armory and let myself into the unit's M60 tanks," he recalls. "I'd spend hours playing inside and imagining what it would really be like to take the controls in the heat of battle."
As luck would have it, a high Viet Nam-era draft number kept him from ever finding out. After a short stint at the local junior college and a number of blue-collar jobs, Estes went on to start his own electrical contracting firm.
Having reached a level of success that afforded him the opportunity to drive any vehicle he chose, Estes bought a 1975 British Fox armored reconnaissance vehicle from a well-known dealer of vintage military vehicles in Houston. Little did he know that this new toy would mark the beginning of an entirely new career.
Built Like a Tank
After selling his company in August 2001 and seeing how endlessly fascinated others were with his four-wheeled Fox, Estes came to believe he wasn't the only one who'd enjoy taking the helm of such big, powerful machines. Sensing a business opportunity, he began adding to his collection in earnest.
Estes says he's paid as little as $16,000 and as much as $40,000 for his vehicles. Most are in running order when he buys them, but many need a facelift by the time they arrive at his shop.
"It's funny to think that cosmetics are an issue with something like a tank, but there are things like grenade launchers, radio antennas, and tool packs that really dress up its appearance," Estes explains. "So we try to have all those details correct, to make it look like these units might've just come off the battlefield."
For all their years of harsh use, Estes says his tanks and armored personnel carriers have been remarkably trouble-free. It's a good thing, too, as there's no such thing as running down to the local auto-parts store when a crucial component goes south.
"We can get original parts out of England, but it takes several months," says Estes. "We try to use crossover parts from other vehicles when we can, but sometimes we have no other choice than to have the parts we need custom-machined."
When it came time to learn how to put his armored acquisitions through their paces, Estes admits he had an edge.
"I've used a lot of heavy equipment over the years, and the operating principles are pretty much the same," he says. "A written driver-familiarization course from the Fort Knox Museum of Armor and the manuals we get with most of the units also help a lot."
As I lower myself down into the Chieftain's driver's hatch, I realize I have none of those advantages. Settling into the seat, I find myself surrounded by controls that look only vaguely familiar.
Beneath the dashboard, Estes points out the accelerator and brake pedals, along with the sequential transmission's toe-operated shift lever. Flanking the driver's seat are two long tiller levers that take the place of a steering wheel.
After clicking the transmission down into first (no clutch is required), I discover just getting 55 tons of steel rolling requires a healthy application of throttle.
With the 650-horsepower supercharged 19.0-liter diesel engine bellowing in my ear, the big machine slowly rolls into motion. As we gain some speed, I click up through the five forward gears, topping out at about 20 mph. It's an admittedly modest speed, but the unfamiliar controls, lurching ride, and ponderous handling make even this snail's pace a little unnerving at first.
As we approach the steepest grade on the property, I discover the second major difference between tanks and wheeled vehicles: Tanks stop on a proverbial dime. After nearly catapulting Estes off his perch on the outside of the hull with what seemed like a modest stab at the brake pedal, I learn I can bring this behemoth to a surprisingly quick halt by lifting my foot from the accelerator.
In the end, while Estes walks me through the mechanics of driving the Chieftain in about 15 minutes, it's clear that mastering this machine will require much more time behind the levers.
Wham, Bam, Tank You, Ma'am
As I park the Chieftain safely inside the Tactical Tanks compound, I find myself regretting my decision not to take the full insurance coverage for my rental car. "Accidentally" flattening a car with a 55-ton tank would have made two firsts in one day. When I divulge this fantasy to Estes, he gives me a look that tells me it's not exactly an original thought.
"We've had a number of people who wanted to come up here and do just that," says Estes. "But we're trying to build a reputation as an outfit that can deliver serious results to our business clients, so we don't go for those kinds of sensational things."
Point taken, David. But, still, a guy can dream, can't he?