Buick Hellcat Tank

Don Sherman
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Buick Hellcat Tank

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.

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