Tanks for the Memories: Tony Borglum’s “Drive a Tank”

There are several common indicators that your car is fully depreciated. Perhaps you get in a fender bender and don’t bother fixing it. Maybe you find yourself earnestly weighing the cost of a brake job versus the price per ton of scrap metal. Or maybe your car has a date with Larry.

Larry is a tank. And I don’t mean that figuratively, in the sense of a rotund gentleman: Larry is an actual, 120,000-pound British Chieftain main battle tank. And right now, I’m at the controls, peering out at a sad, late-’90s Chevy Malibu. The Malibu’s role in this exercise confirms that its trade-in value is nearing rock bottom. And whatever value remains in the Chevy’s carcass, it has some room for a final nosedive, because I’m ready to take Larry for a spin, and the battered white sedan seems to be in my way. Here at Drive a Tank, this Malibu is about to become fully depreciated.

Drive a Tank is the brainchild of Tony Borglum, an entrepreneurial Minnesotan with an appreciation for the finer things in weaponry. At his facility in Kasota, about seventy miles southwest of Minneapolis, Borglum maintains a motor pool that features an array of British tracked vehicles. Elsewhere in the building is a firing range where you might try a full-auto Uzi or a .50-caliber sniper rifle. Finally, there’s a green stretch HUMMER H2 parked outside, the centerpiece of Borglum’s limo business. Drive a Tank is your one-stop destination for horsepower, firepower, and four-wheel-drive prom transportation.

Drive a Tank is headquartered in a vast industrial park, down a dirt road adjacent to some train tracks. This is the business’s second venue; the original one was less cosmopolitan but nonetheless ran into interference from neighbors who got persnickety about a bunch of guys shooting machine guns and tooling around in heavy armor. “Not in my backyard!” is something you probably hear a lot when you own a tank.

Borglum’s path into tank ownership began, as you might expect, with hot rods and garden tractors. “I built a hot rod,” Borglum says. “Then I got into garden-tractor pulls. My dad built one with a 1000-horsepower big-block.” A 1000-
horsepower lawn mower? “Yeah. Then I bought a deuce-and-a-half [a two-and-a-half-ton Army truck] from a guy near here, an ex-pro wrestler named Convict Nails.” It’s a pretty common trajectory, really — one day you’re building big-block Cub Cadets, the next you’re buying military cargo trucks from Convict Nails.

“Then I realized that you can buy tanks. So I bought a Ferret,” Borglum says. A Ferret has armor, but it uses tires and is legal to drive on public roads. It’s a gateway tank, if you will. “Ferrets hold their value. They’re street-legal. Everybody likes them. They’re twenty grand, and they fit in your garage.”
But if you want a real tank experience, you need tracks, not wheels. And that brings us to the FV433 Abbot, a British Cold War-era vehicle that I’ll soon have the privilege of commanding. Military-equipment snobs will point out that the Abbot is technically not a tank but is actually a self-propelled Howitzer — a 105-millimeter gun that happens to be able to drag itself around. But that’s kind of like describing Donald Trump as a comb-over with legs — most people won’t understand the distinction, nor will they care. When you’re at the controls, your head poking through the forward hatch, you’re driving a tank, baby.

The Abbot was originally powered by a 6.6-liter, six-cylinder Rolls-Royce multifuel engine that put out 240 hp. Borglum’s Abbot now uses a Cummins 5.9-liter turbo-diesel, a powerplant that he prizes for its ubiquity, reliability, and power. On any smaller military vehicle that you want to drive on a regular basis, the Cummins is the go-to swap. You can pluck one out of an old school bus, jack up the boost, and have a piece of equipment that’ll easily outperform its historically correct NATO peers.

The Convict Nails deuce-and-a-half was the first of Borglum’s vehicles to get the Cummins treatment. “I took out the Hercules motor,” he says. “It’s 135 horsepower, and it’ll run on anything but never very well. So I put in a Cummins. It’s about 300 horsepower. Now it’ll do 80 or 85 mph on the interstate.” And thank goodness. We all know the frustration of getting stuck behind a stock deuce-and-a-half on the freeway.

While the Abbot’s engine is an upgrade, its gun is neutered. The gun had a range of seventeen kilometers before it was “de-milled,” the process of disabling its projectile-firing capabilities. I’d assumed that it’s illegal to own a tank with a functioning cannon, but I’m wrong — it’s legal, but there’s a $200 tax for the permit. Actually, it’s legal to own all sorts of major weapons, so long as you’ve got a clean record and have filed all the paperwork. Borglum mentions that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives will register Molotov cocktails, and they’ve got a catchall category called “any other weapon.” “So if we come up with laser light sabers, they’d call it that,” he explains. If we come up with laser light sabers? Ye of little faith.

Even if the gun weren’t corked, the Abbot’s electronically controlled turret is disabled anyway. And for good reason, since it has a reputation for developing a mind of its own. Anyone familiar with vintage British electrics can probably understand why Borglum disabled the turret. Directly in front of the driver is a large red light emblazoned with the word Lucas, a name that might conjure charming idiosyncrasy in the context of an old MG but implies rather more drastic problems when attached to major artillery. Whatever the number of adversaries that Abbots dispatched on the battlefield, their electrical demons wreaked a fair amount of havoc on their own crews. “The turret would sometimes start spinning on its own, so if a guy had his arm in the breech, it would get ripped off,” Borglum says. More distressing, the Abbot’s gun can actually point down about five degrees for short-range targets, which means that if the turret decided to start spinning and your noggin was poking out of the forward hatch, you’d get your head removed by your own gun.

As I climb down the hatch into the driver’s seat, Borglum assures me that the turret on this particular Abbot is locked in place. We’re in a clearing in the woods down behind the tank garage, and I’m about to get my first tracked-vehicle driving lesson.

The Abbot’s controls are simple: a gas pedal and two brake tillers. Pull back on either of the tillers to brake the track on that side and initiate a turn; pull them both to stop. The Cummins is hooked to an automatic transmission, so you don’t have to worry about shifting. Nor do you have to worry about navigating through the trees at 29 mph, the Abbot’s original top speed — thanks to the automatic’s short gearing, top speed is now about 18 mph. That, I soon learn, is probably fast enough.

The terrain in the woods is muddy and pocked with flooded areas, which I initially approach with caution. But once I’m accustomed to the Abbot’s handling, such as it is, I’m bombing into the water at full speed like I’m in hot pursuit of some Reds who made an incursion into West German territory. Yank hard on one tiller or the other at speed and the Abbot pivots with remarkable agility. I can see Borglum getting nervous as my mud runs become increasingly enthusiastic. The Abbot’s drive sprockets are at the front of the tracks, so suddenly braking one side can create slack in the tread, causing it to jump off the sprocket and strand the vehicle. If that happened in two feet of cold, muddy water, we’d have a long day on our hands. As it turns out, my exuberance is curbed naturally. I discover that the Abbot’s floorboards are not watertight when a particularly incautious splashdown causes a spray of mud to surge up into the cockpit and soak my pants. (Later, my wife will see these jeans in my suitcase, eye the brown stains all over them, and cringingly ask, “Uh, what happened to your pants?”) This is my cue to take a break.

he Abbot is good fun, but its compact size and Dodge Ram soundtrack mean that it feels accessible — carlike, even, if that word can apply to a tracked vehicle equipped with a giant gun. But the FV4201 Chieftain main battle tank is definitely not carlike. “There’s this line between smaller tanks and huge ones,” Borglum says. “And the Chieftain is over that line.”

Drive a Tank’s basic $499 program gets you seat time in the Abbot and a troop carrier that uses the same chassis. I highly recommend spending an additional $499 to add Larry and his car-crushing antics to the schedule.

Chieftains go for about $70,000, shipping definitely not included. And that’s if you can get one, since the British have cooled to Borglum’s appetite for armor. (“The Irish still sell to me, because they don’t like the British,” he says.) Although seventy grand might seem like a lot of dough for a novelty, I’d argue that on a per-pound basis a Chieftain is a bargain — 58 cents per pound. A Nissan Versa, by comparison, costs more than $4 per pound and carries very little armor. It certainly doesn’t have a 120-mm main gun.

The Chieftain’s gun and armor were its primary assets, but its powertrain was considered a liability. Riddle: What has six cylinders and twelve pistons? Answer: The Chieftain’s 19.0-liter, 700-hp Leyland L60 multifuel engine. It’s a supercharged, opposed-piston two-stroke with crankshafts flanking both ends of the cylinders. It looks like a complicated nightmare of a motor, and it is. Borglum is obviously nervous as I take the controls, because relative to the Abbot, the Chieftain is far easier to break and far more expensive to fix. The rev limiter is one weak point — if it fails, then you can easily blow the engine, and it’s hard to find parts for Leyland L60s at Pep Boys.

In contrast to the simplicity of the Abbot, the Chieftain’s cockpit is filled with strange knobs and levers. There’s a T-handle within easy reach — it looks like the sort of thing that might release an emergency brake. “What does that do?” I ask. “That’s in case there’s a fire,” Borglum says. “It fills the tank with foam and carbon dioxide. Which puts out the fire, but we suffocate. Don’t pull that.” Duly noted.

The Chieftain was designed for a recumbent driving position, in order to lower its overall profile. But you need to be a seasoned tanker to lay back and navigate through a periscope, so I’m perched upright with my head poking out of the hatch. In front of me are a pair of tillers and a gas pedal, as in the Abbot, but the Chieftain also has a central brake pedal — and, bizarrely, a motorcycle-style foot-peg shifter. The transmission is a six-speed semiautomatic, so there’s no clutch, but other than that you execute an upshift in this massive battle tank the same way you would on a 250-cc Honda dirt bike. Unlike the bike, the Chieftain has two reverse gears.

Fire it up, and the Chieftain sounds unlike anything you’d encounter in civilian life. There’s a hard-edged menace to its two-stroke clatter, a sharp metallic bark that sends tremors through the ground — and that’s before the treads start moving.

We’re parked in the sprawling dirt lot adjacent to the main building, Larry lined up for his date with the Malibu. I imagine that I’ll flatten the car and then motor along on my merry way, but that’s probably not possible. That’s because a car, upon its destruction, wraps around the tank treads in a death embrace (“…like a bicycle rolling over a pop can,” Borglum says). If the tank keeps going, the car will ride the treads back up the other side, as if on a conveyor belt, where it will hit the rear fenders and begin creating all sorts of problems.

So, the proper car-crushing technique is to stop the tank atop the car. Then you engage reverse and hope the doomed vehicle relinquishes its grip on the tracks. Because of the need to stop within a defined distance, Borglum discourages shifting into the higher gears. Braking is not Larry’s strong suit. “The brake discs are only about the size of the ones on a full-size pickup truck,” Borglum says. And they’re tasked with slowing the equivalent of one-and-a-half fully loaded eighteen-wheelers. First gear it is.

I select first gear, hit the gas, and watch the Malibu disappear from my forward field of vision. A second later I feel the hull tilt left as the right tread runs up on top of the car. There’s the sound of popping glass and moaning metal, underscored by the angry chatter of the Leyland’s twelve pistons. But while the soundtrack is all chaos, the ride is serene. Did we just hit something? Based on feel alone, I really wouldn’t know when to hit the brakes. Borglum, behind me inside the tank, calls out when he feels we’re centered on top of the car. I set the parking brake and climb out to witness the carnage.

The Malibu is folded around Larry’s tread in a final act of defiance. Even after some subsequent back-and-forth maneuvering, the Chevy is stuck like a wad of gum on a giant’s shoe. It’ll take about an hour of work with a forklift, pry bars, and chains before Larry is free. For something that looks so invincible, tanks are actually surprisingly vulnerable. Fragile, even.

And yet, I can see the appeal of surplus military vehicles. You’re getting a lot of metal for your money, and when the zombie apocalypse hits, you’ve got the perfect ride. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Drive a Tank program ignited Borglum’s brand of vehicular enthusiasm in a customer or two. In which case, I’m sure he’d be happy to put you in touch with Convict Nails.

FV433 Abbot
5.9L turbo-diesel in-line six
Horsepower 180 hp
L x W x H 227 x 105 x 106
Laden weight 38,600 lb
Maximum road speed 18 mph
Main gun 105 mm

FV4201 Chieftain
19.0L supercharged opposed-piston in-line six
Horsepower 700 hp
L x W x H 384 x 136 x 113 in
Laden weight 120,000 lb
Maximum road speed 25 mph
Main gun 120 mm