Once it's started it, you've got to actually move it. Unlike the brave kids who fought in Hellcats during the war, my Army training is limited to three-years of JROTC in high school. Luckily I've got Bill Gross helping me out in the driver's position, while I get to use the dual-controls in the co-driver's spot. As Bill shows me, driving the Hellcat is actually pretty simple, with the most complicated task being manually setting the idle RPM via a hand throttle in front of the driver's position. Next, as you'd do in any car or truck, you shift the automatic transmission into first gear, put your foot on the accelerator, and you're off. Only, there's no brake pedal. Or steering wheel, for that matter. Braking and steering is handled by two levers mounted in front of you, with each controlling the corresponding side's brakes. Pulling left brakes the left track turning the TD left, while pulling right has the opposite effect; pulling both levers towards you stops the Hellcat.
Driving a tank (excuse me, Tank Destroyer) is like nothing else I've ever experienced. Everything from the rumbling radial behind you, to the controls at your waist, to the view out ahead, with the big 76 mm gun point forwards just makes you feel like such a complete and total badass. Despite the complicated start up process, the Hellcat is actually pretty easy to drive. Any and everything seemed possible. After donning a period-correct tanker's helmet and watching Bill absolutely destroy a freshly mowed field from the co-driver's position, I was itching to give it a shot. I unlocked the co-driver's control levers and took over.
The first thing that shocked me is just how quick the Hellcat gets out of the hole. Slam the Torqmatic into first, and put your foot down on the accelerator and the M18 just hooks up and goes like a, well, cat out of hell. It's astonishing how quick this 69-year-old 18 ton TD is. Credit that to the 940 lb-ft of torque on tap. Somewhat counter-intuitively (but I'm sure to the delight of the kids that drove Hellcats during the War), the faster you go, the easier the TD drives. For example, by the time I took the controls of the Hellcat, the field we were driving on had become what'd be a challenging off-road course for wheeled vehicles, with deep, soft dirt washouts, massive whoops, and plenty of odd-angled ruts and dips. The best way to handle them in the Hellcat, Bill assured me, was to go faster. And boy was he right. The Hellcat is so quick that there are rumors of servicemen in M18s facing off against Willys Jeeps in drag races, with the Hellcat destroying the Jeep off the line.
Keep the throttle pinned and the Hellcat just plows through piles of dirt, and powers over large ruts, plowed fields, and pretty much anything else in its path. The crazy part is that the Hellcat just doesn't even seem to notice obstacles -- it just floats right over them. The ride is seriously cushy, and not at all punishing. Hate to say it, but this almost 70-year-old tank rides better than many, many vehicles I've driven. The closest street-legal comparison would be to the Ford F-150 SVT Raptor, which also has a remarkable ability to go fast in places where you just shouldn't be able to.
Another counter-intuitive trait belonging to the Hellcat is that the faster you go, the better it turns. With most fast off-roaders, you want to slow down before you make a sharp turn or maneuver; otherwise physics introduces your roof to terra firma. With the M18, when you yank the left or right lever (and I mean yank, those things require some effort), the tank leans, the track digs in, and it hooks up and goes. Do it right and you not only maintain your speed through the turn, but you get a very satisfying little drift and a bunch of dirt in your face. There is nothing, and I mean nothing quite like drifting an armored vehicle.
The only real hitch with the Hellcat is remembering to keep your foot on the throttle to keep the revs up, so the radial engine out back doesn't bog down. The only other draw-back with the M18 is that its cockpit is super small. At six-feet tall, I'd probably have been too tall for TD duty during the War but at least sitting in a driver's position I'd have had a roof over my head. The commander, loader, and gunner sat in the open turret, making them vulnerable to shrapnel, snipers, grenades -- you name it.
Thankfully, I was just in an empty field in Michigan, and none of that really mattered. To the brave soldiers crewing Hellcats back during World War II in a strange foreign land, all of that was a very real concern that each crew took into battle. Despite its thin armor and exposed turret, Hellcat crews would claim 526 enemy armored vehicles destroyed, with just 217 Hellcats lost in action. Its exemplary service record is just as much a testament to Buick's engineering the Hellcat to be the fastest tank destroyer ever, as it is to the young men who bravely took them into battle.
Though ultimately just a blip in Buick's long history, the M18 Hellcat represents a time when Buick and the rest of America stepped up to change the world forever, and that's something always worth remembering.
|1944 Buick M18 Hellcat |
|Base price || $55,230 (1944)|
|VEHICLE LAYOUT || Rear-engine, front-drive, 5-pass,2-door tank destroyer|
|ENGINE|| 16.0L/400-hp/940-lb-ft air-cooled supercharged radial-9 |
|TRANSMISSION|| 3-speed automatic|
|CURB WEIGHT || 36,510 lbs.|
|LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT ||262 x 113 x 101 in|
|GROUND CLEARANCE || 14.25 in |
|APPROACH ANGLE ||28 degrees |
|DEPARTURE ANGLE || 26.5 degrees |
|FORDING DEPTH ||48 in|
|MAXIMUM GRADE ||60 Percent|
|MAXIMUM VERTICAL WALL ||36 in|
|RECCOMENED FUEL ||80 octane gas |
|FUEL CAPACITY ||75 gal (left tank); 90 gal (right tank); 165 gal total|
|RANGE ||100 miles (on-road) |
|TOP SPEED || 60 mph |
|ARMOR ||Steel, 0.19- to 1.0-inches thick|
|ARMANMENT || M1A12 76 mm gun (primary); M2 .50 cal. machine gun (secondary)|
|AMUNITION STORAGE|| 45 76 mm rounds; 800 .50 cal. rounds|