Buick Hellcat Tank

Don Sherman

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.

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