THE MISSION: LEARNING TO DRIVE A TANK

Tanks - Will Smith-28.JPG

Men are hardwired to love tanks. Will Smith decides to step up his manhood and mount a few ...

 From INTELLIGENT LIFE Magazine, Autumn 2009

I don’t know what it is with men and tanks, but I suspect it’s similar to women and spa treatments: an all-eclipsing love, hardwired into the genes. So I head to Tanks-A-Lot: a Northamptonshire farm that basically doubles as a stag weekenders’ “Top Gear” theme park. Here you can drive fast and crash into things, without having to put up with any bad haircuts or mid-life-crisis banter.

I expected Tanks-A-Lot to be run by furious ex-military types, all refusing to acknowledge the authority of the government and preparing for some post-apocalyptic showdown. Instead, the office manager, Susie, greets me with the sort of well-spoken ebullience I associate with people who run opera festivals in their gardens. And the owner, Nick, talks about tanks with the same warmth and love of detail other men reserve for real ales or golf clubs. He’s like the boy at school who puts a load of fireworks in a bin, lights them all at once, and then laughs about getting his eyebrows burnt off.

When I ask Nick how many tanks he has, he ans­wers: “More than Belarus.” I’m not sure it’s a good idea for an individual to own more armoured divisions than a country. But I found looking out at a field full of tanks less unsettling than looking out at, say, a garden full of gnomes. A guy has a load of tanks, you know what you’re dealing with. A guy has a load of gnomes, there’s other stuff going on, probably involving secret basements.

Nick is quite vague as to how he acquired more than a hundred tanks. “It just built up over the years” might explain why your mantelpiece is crammed with toy bears in national dresses, but tanks raise other questions. Where do you buy them, for a start? Crumbling ex-Soviet states, it seems. How much does a tank cost? Surprisingly little: around £3,000-5,000. Like classic cars, it’s the parts that cost. Unlike classic cars, tanks are exempt from road tax and the congestion charge. Although this is probably an oversight, as opposed to a government incentive.

I start small, with a 15-tonne, British FV432 armoured personnel-carrier. I wasn’t expecting heated, reclining leather seats and a walnut-veneer dashboard, but the interior is very basic—just metal, wires and clunky switches. The pedal system is standard, but the steering is fairly primitive—two levers that you pull towards yourself to disengage the track on each side. So the left lever stops the track on the left, leaving the right track to pivot the tank round. It’s surprisingly physical; my thighs and biceps get a great workout. It’s like sitting inside a motorised mobile gym.

We transfer to the Russian Gvozdika TS2. (Gvoz­dika means “carnation”. Those wacky Russians name their tanks after flowers.) It’s considerably bigger than the FV432, but made of thinner steel. Upside: it floats across rivers. Downside: it’s easier to pierce the hull. But when it came to the Soviet army’s list of priorities, “troop safety” lay somewhere bet­ween “free counselling” and “dress-down Fridays”. Unlike the FV432, the TS2 has a massive gun turret. I can’t resist straddling the barrel, but look less like Patton and more like Cher in the video for “If I Could Turn Back Time”.

My masculinity is challenged further by the clutch; engaging it is like trying to push a brick through a concrete floor. Embarrassingly, I have to ask Nick to loosen it up for me. I have a history of emasculating conversations with men in garages, but “Excuse me, can you help me with my tank pedals?” marks a new low. In the army, such an incident would have earned me the nickname “Ladyfoot”.

For all the strenuousness of the controls, it’s a surprisingly smooth ride as I pitch up and down over car-sized potholes. But then a tank doesn’t need suspension—everything underneath it just gives way. This is made clear with the last vehicle, the 56-tonne Big Daddy of the British army, the Chieftain.

Nick has a car destined for scrap he wants me to crush. It seems churlish to decline his request. The Chieftain’s driving seat is right at the front, so I feel like a giant armoured tortoise as I lurch over a 1987 Mini Metro. The tank barely rises as it concertinas the car down to half its original size. It’s like Hagrid stepping on a grape.

It’s also awesome fun. Enough to make me consider divorcing my wife—then we can get engaged again, and I can come back here for my stag weekend.

 

Picture credit: David Yeo

(Will Smith is a comic, writer and actor. He has four lines in "In the Loop", so he can legitimately say he has made a film with James Gandolfini. Previous missions include falconry, ice-sculpting and learning to be a statue.)