Driving a tank every now and then can be therapeutic. If you can do so without enduring basic training or shipping off to some hostile hole, there’s no more enlightening way to see what the government does with our tax money. Unlike the cars and trucks we test drive at Automobile, tanks–even obsolete ones–are exotic machinery built with no concern for cost.
Twenty years ago, I drove the namesake model–an M-4 General Sherman tank–in downtown Las Vegas of all places. I’m proud to report that that machine was a major WWII hero. The Sherman was America’s first modern tank with a fully welded hull and 360 degrees of turret rotation; 48,000 were produced by Chrysler, Ford, GM, and six other manufacturers. They were fast (29 mph), agile, light (35 tons), and well armored for their day (1942). Unfortunately, the battlefield tables turned abruptly when German Panther and Tiger tanks arrived with higher velocity and/or higher caliber armament. The new Panzers walked slowly but carried huge sticks: high-velocity 75- and 88-mm guns which trumped the Sherman’s firepower with significantly longer range and superior armor-piercing punch.
What America needed was a tank destroyer capable of spanking the Germans. In wartime, you get what you need as demonstrated by the M-18 Motor Carriage, also known as the Hellcat. Designed by General Motors and manufactured by the Buick Motor Division in Flint, Michigan, the Hellcat was just the medicine the Wehrmacht deserved.
It was fast (top speed well over 50 mph), light on its feet at 19.5 tons ready to rumble, and armed with a potent stinger: a 76-mm gun capable of firing armor-piercing and high-explosive rounds at high velocity to a maximum range of 10 miles. Buick built 2507 Hellcats during 1943 and recently conducted the ultimate recall campaign. When things cooled down in Yugoslavia in 2002, 20 M-18s were found abandoned after decades of faithful military service. Mindful of its heritage, GM spent over $50,000 bringing its son home and fixing its war wounds. A hearty gang of ten volunteers–most of whom are GM employees or retirees–donated hundreds of hours over eight months refurbishing the Hellcat so that it can enjoy a well earned retirement at the Buick Gallery and Research Center in the Sloan Museum, located in Flint, Michigan.
I was invited to Bill Gross’s farm near Davison, Michigan, to enjoy a few hot laps before the Hellcat was turned over to museum care. I’m initially disappointed to discover that the Oldsmobile-manufactured gun is semi-permanently disabled by a missing breech block and two holes installed in its tube by government decree so we won’t be lobbing incendiaries into Flint. Instead we’ll focus on the fine points of tank handling during a 40-acre reconnaissance run.
Power is supplied by a 9-cylinder Continental R-975 engine rated at 400 horsepower from 972 cubic inches (15.9 liters). It’s a little reluctant to start but eventually fires to life with a cloud of blue smoke and a locomotive’s growl. The rear-mounted engine spins a long driveshaft which turns what we now call a transaxle: a combination automatic transmission and final-drive unit. The Torqumatic automatic consists of a fluid coupling and three forward gears. Mounted to the integral differential are two huge external-contracting drum brakes. A shaft out each side of the differential spins a giant sprocket wheel at each front corner to move the tracks.
The purpose of the drum brakes is quite clear when I settle into my steel foxhole at the right-front corner of the Hellcat. My 12-year-old son Carter, wearing a khaki shirt I actually fit into during my illustrious Viet Nam-era military career, is in the turret, watching for insurgents. Bill Gross, in the opposite cockpit handles throttle and shifter controls. All I have to do is man–make that man handle–two long white levers. Fortunately they’re equipped with rubber grips; the kitchen-chair seating position lets you put your back into the levers for tight turns.
Gross selects second gear–worth 12-34mph according to a label adjacent to the shifter–and sets the hand throttle in go mode. There’s a rush of heat and thrashing noise as this solo military parade makes tracks, literally.
The Hellcat must be where Buick got inspiration for its famous floaty ride. We waltz over hill and swale at 30mph or so without a bump thanks to ten independently sprung wheels wrapped in two clattering steel roadways. The motions are as gentle as a mother’s embrace and they soon lull you into a false sense of invulnerability. It’s clear why tank thieves feel the need to mow down vegetation, crush cars, and bluster their way through suburbs. Once all this metal gets moving, it feels like it can’t be stopped.
Yanking a lever to sweep through a 90-degree bend takes some muscle. The noise, the heat, the strain take their toll. A few laps around the alfalfa field are fun but driving old tanks is not what I’d characterize as an aspirational career. Of course, in a shooting war, these minor discomforts fade to insignificance compared to the perils of hostile fire, land mines, mechanical breakdown, and running short of fuel.
I’m reminded of the courage expected of GIs then and now. In keeping with the Hellcat’s dedicated offensive role, there’s not that much protection inside this steel coffin. The front wall of the turret is an inch thick and angled 23-degrees from vertical to ricochet incoming rounds. But the floor of the tank is a only 3/16-inch think. You could just about pierce that with a sharp spear. And the turret is as topless as a Las Vegas dance revue. The commander, gunner, and loader who ride up there are vulnerable to grenades, shrapnel, kamikaze attack, and the heartbreak of sun burn.
The open turret inspires this hypothetical recruiting poster: Travel Europe at Government Expense! Fire BIG Guns! Cruise Around In a $100,000 Buick Convertible! Join the Army!
Joking aside, I enjoyed my tank ride and can’t wait for another one. Carter got a taste of the gritty side of military life. And I received a deeper appreciation of one Buick that bravely saved the day when Shermans faltered in the line of duty.