By Jason Heaton
on 7.8.13
Photo by Gishani

The mud pit looked impossibly deep, twin ruts at least two feet high and half full of a murky stew from the rainy spring. I hesitated a few yards shy of it and a tailwind blew a plume of diesel fumes across my face. “Does this thing ever get stuck?” I asked.

My driving instructor, Brendan, an Airborne infantryman a few weeks shy of entering Green Beret selection, smiled and said, “Nope, just keep her straight so we can keep some trees upright.”

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I stomped my boot down on the massive gas pedal and the behemoth I was riding sprang to life. We roared through the mud pit, but where I expected a bronco ride with whining gears, it was smooth passage, the only evidence of the obstacle being a tsunami of brown water off the bow and a sudden cold wet sensation in my crotch. No, I hadn’t peed from fright. The cockpit floor of the Abbot FV433 Self-Propelled Gun had drainage holes in it, and now my trousers were the worse for wear. It suddenly made sense that I had been advised to bring a change of clothes.

120 clicks southeast of Minneapolis lies the sleepy burg of Kasota. The town gets its name from the Dakota word for “cleared place”, but it still seemed pretty wooded as we drove to the outskirts of town to the headquarters of Drive A Tank, one of the few places in the world where you can pilot a bona fide fighting vehicle without enlisting. We expected to find an eccentric mom-and-pop operation with a rickety vehicle or two to drive around a gravel parking lot. What we discovered was a massive hangar housing no less than a dozen military vehicles, ranging from an M1A1 Abrams, two Abbots, a couple of decked-out Humvees and the crown jewel, a Russian T-55 tank. But that wasn’t it. Outside, several more vehicles were parked in various states of assembly: personnel carriers, trucks and earth-moving equipment. Down a dirt track behind the hangar was the “battlefield”, 20 acres of muddy trails and bug-infested forest, and that’s where the fun started.

Abbot FV433 Self-Propelled Gun

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Manufacturer: Vickers (British)
Gross weight: 34,000 pounds
Engine: Rolls-Royce K60 diesel engine 240 hp (replaced by Cummins diesel)
Max speed: 29 MPH
Primary weapon: 105mm gun
Firing rate: 6-8 rounds/minute
Armor: 10-12mm steel
Max. crew: 4

Driving a tank is brutally easy to learn but difficult to master. The cockpit consists of a small capsule down into which you shimmy from the top deck. Amenities are sparse — no cupholders or USB ports here — and the space is cramped. There is only one pedal, the gas, sized for chunky military boots, and two joysticks, one for each of the tank’s linked tracks. Pull the left one back and it slows the left track, turning the vehicle to the left. As you might expect, pulling the right lever back does the opposite, turning you to the right. Pulling both back slows both tracks until the sheer weight of the tank overwhelms the engine’s idle speed, bringing it to a halt. A crude shifter goes from neutral to drive and off you go. Mash the pedal and try to keep things centered. Easier said than done, especially in a vehicle that is 10 feet wide — and you’re driving on the right (it is British after all).

The Abbot FV433 technically is a Self-Propelled Gun and not a tank, according to Drive A Tank owner Troy Borglum. It was deployed by the British military from 1965 to the mid-90s as a defensive vehicle that could travel short distances, hunker down in a ditch and lob shells hundreds of yard at the enemy. With fuel consumption decidedly below the gas guzzler limits, they were not like the tanks of old that would steam miles ahead of marching troops to clear trenches and push back the enemy. The Rolls Royce engine in my Abbot has been replaced by a more modern Cummins diesel, which is more reliable and easier to service, without the proprietary, rare and finicky components of the vehicle’s original power source.

On more than one occasion, my usually quiet driving instructor would start to shout at me from his perch beside me on the deck, “Go left! Go left! Go left!”

Driving the tank (we’re gonna call it that) was actually fairly anticlimactic. I expected a harsh, noisy ride and a surge of thrust. But once underway, with my head jauntily sticking out of the cockpit, it was a surprisingly smooth ride. I guess 34,000 pounds of steel will do that to a vehicle. While the Abbot has plenty of grunt off the line, top speed is less than 30 miles per hour, but feels faster, perhaps due to the trees flying by and the whine of the diesel. The massive gas pedal was hard to modulate. You either mashed it or were coasting; no feathering it to apply drift in the corners.

Speaking of corners, turning the monster proved most challenging. The trick is to take them wide, much wider than you think, to swing the massive rear end around without taking out trees, buildings, other tanks or the like. On more than one occasion, the usually quiet Brendan would start to shout at me from his perch beside me on the deck, “Go left! Go left! Go left!” But damn if I didn’t get that baby cornering like a Miata by the end of my one-mile lap. Or at least that’s what I’m telling people. Suffice it to say, no trees were harmed during my time behind the wheel.

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Though I didn’t get to drive the T-55 (that’s reserved for the Five-Star General package), Troy was kind enough to fire it up for us. This symbol of the Cold War — think Prague, 1968 or Afghanistan, 1980 — emanated intimidation even standing still. Four feet wider than the Abbot and with much thicker armor, it is an imposing sight. As its 34-liter diesel coughed to life (yes, that’s 34 liters, without a decimal point), a cloud of black smoke billowed from the side-mounted exhaust port and unburned fuel dripped from the same orifice. If this monster didn’t kill you with its gun, it would pollute you to death. Troy took off around the dirt track, disappearing from view but always audible.

When the T-55 came around the last corner, preceded by plumes of exhaust, it was an awesome sight, branches crashing and the engine roaring. I felt like Jeff Bridges awaiting King Kong’s emergence from the forest. It churned past, its treads with distinctive widely spaced idler wheels spitting up mud, and came to a begrudging halt next to its one-time rival, the Abbot. Troy shut down the motor and climbed down. To the victors go the spoils.

While I would have loved another lap in any of the tanks, my day was done. A large group of new drivers was waiting back at the headquarters for their turn behind the wheel, er… control levers. Some who paid more would even get to crush cars in a testosterone-fueled frenzy. I bade my faithful steed farewell and climbed into a waiting desert khaki Humvee and left the battlefield for the drive back. Oh, and to answer the question everyone asks: no, I didn’t get to shoot the gun.

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