Currently reading: How to buy a tank
A canny buy of a cheap tank has morphed into a thriving business serving thrill seekers and the film world. We go to find Private Ryan
John Evans
News
7 mins read
29 May 2020

We gotta come up with another plan. They got a tank.’ They certainly have and I’m driving it across the killing fields at Tanks-Alot, a tank driving experience and training centre.

It’s the Chieftain tank from the action flick Fast & Furious 6 that inspires the famous line as it burst from a container in a convoy that moments earlier had been brought to a crashing halt by a steel cable stretched across a highway.

Dramatic stuff, and now here it is in a muddy field near Brackley, Northamptonshire, being driven rather less dramatically by me, concerned for the safety of Max, Autocar’s photographer, out there knee deep in mud somewhere in my blind spot.

Make that ‘blind area’. Seated low at the nose of the tank beneath its 120mm gun barrel I can only see what’s ahead plus a little to either side. Anything beyond this small field of vision is the responsibility of my commander, if I had one. The fact that I don’t is why the aluminium ladder I used to get onto the tank has been lost for good under 70 tons of Chieftain Mk10.

No, I didn’t think a Chieftain was that heavy either. In standard form they weigh 56 tons but for this one’s role in the Fast & Furious film, the production crew welded on an additional 14 tons of steel at a cost rumoured to be around £240,000.

You remember Mr Bean’s Mini being crushed by a tank? What you didn’t see was its crew picking the car’s remains out of the tracks like food from your teeth. Had they allowed the jagged bits of metal to remain, as the tracks turned they’d have ripped away the tank’s side screens, bazooka plates and mudguards before setting about the tracks themselves.

Since, in Fast & Furious 6, the tank I’m driving would see quite a bit of car-crushing action, the producers calculated it would be cheaper to add some protection it rather than stop filming every couple of flattened cars or so to patch it up.

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In fact, this tank is still crushing cars – as I’m reminded when, churning through the thick mud, I see a line of around 40 flattened wrecks at the side of the field. For a second I wonder if I’ve taken a wrong turn through the car park…

Starting the Chieftain is a straightforward affair. You fire up the 2.0-litre diesel generator that supplies the electrical power and then flick the three switches that trigger the main fuel pumps, press the starter button and the 19-litre, opposed-piston two-stroke diesel engine roars into life.

It’s an interesting motor for having two opposing pistons per cylinder, each with its own crankshaft and, depending on its location, each in charge of an outlet or inlet port. It produces 950bhp and, being a multi-fuel engine, can run on whatever juice is to hand, from Shell V-Power to vodka. Down at your feet are an accelerator pedal and a brake pedal but you’ll look in vain for a clutch or even a gearstick. In fact, if you’re a biker you’ll like the Chieftain because you shift gear using a foot change like a motorcycle’s. Curiously, though, you have to change gear up the ’box but it changes for you going down. If all that leaves you seriously confused, the gear you’re in is displayed on a small gauge set in the instrument binnacle, just below the hatch. That’s doubly useful because the Chieftain has not one but two reverse gears.

Steering is achieved by pulling and pushing on levers either side of you. Pull the right lever to brake the right track and go right, and vice versa, although when going in reverse you operate the opposing lever, which is difficult to get your head around at first. You must pull the lever firmly and deliberately, since anything less risks burning out the huge discs and pads that brake the tracks.

I’m sitting in a conventional seat but were this a standard Chieftain, I’d be lying almost on my back with the hatch closed and looking out through a periscope – a chilling prospect if this muddy Northamptonshire field were a real battle ground.

With the engine running I select first gear – and nothing happens. The sheer weight of the tank prevents it from moving. So I feed in a bit more gas and 70 tons of Chieftain Mk10 creeps smoothly forward over the field as if it were a parade ground.

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With the revs building I glance down at the foot change and toe the ’box into second. The indicator needle flicks to the next number obligingly. I change up to third before trying a few changes of direction with the track brakes. The tank responds immediately and precisely.

My attempts to steer it around its own axis – called a neutral turn – are thwarted since the Chieftain requires maximum power and near-perfect conditions to contra-rotate its tracks. Still, it can out-turn most cars, which is necessary if it is to dodge enemy fire or, if I’d seen them, a set of aluminium ladders.

Despite the tank spending its days crawling around at walking speeds crushing cars, the engine has proved to be perfectly reliable. Nevertheless, Mead’s ears are permanently tuned to unfamiliar noises emanating from it. He’s particularly alive to the possibility of the supercharger seals failing, resulting in the engine ingesting 35 gallons of its own oil and, as a final flourish, ejecting its 12 pistons into the crew compartment.

It’s not a pleasant prospect to contemplate and, discretion being the better part of valour, I decide to return the Chieftain to its parking spot and have a play in Mead’s offroad Bentley GT instead.

It’s parked among an array of tanks, Abbott self-propelled guns, armoured personnel carriers and even a mighty Ural-4320 6x6 diesel, currently for sale and with a camper conversion in the back. Another of the vehicles, an Alvis Stormer purchased from Northern Ireland, still has elements of its Starstreak missile system attached to it.

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Mead began collecting tanks 30 years ago when he bought a couple costing £3600 apiece. He was a butcher at the time but the fact that you could buy a barely used tank, which cost millions of pounds new, for just a few thousand intrigued him. He could only see their prices going one way and sure enough they have, as private collectors from all over the world pile in.

“I’ve another Chieftain here that’s worth £40,000 today but next year it’ll be £45,000 and the year after that, £50,000,” says Mead.

He has 180 tanks, mostly British, on his 100-acre site. Four of them are Chieftains, for sale at prices ranging from £18,000 to £50,000. Buying a tank is straightforward enough but Mead has to be careful who he sells to. “I can go to prison if I sell to the wrong country,” he says.

It’s not only collectors who value Mead’s tanks. He’s just back from providing some of them to the British Army for its annual demonstration of firepower. They included some of his Russian tanks and a Mitsubishi L200 pick-up he’s converted into a rebel mobile rocket launcher.

“They like to have alien vehicles to target so they can practise vehicle recognition and tell friend from foe on the battlefield,” he says.

What would the army make of Mead’s Bentley GT W12? The ‘Dakarinspired off-roader’ was created by TV’s Supercar Megabuild team, who fitted it with raised and stiffened suspension, extended wheelarches, crash bars and a rear screen-mounted spare wheel, before painting it a drab shade of green. It was sold at auction in 2017 and now resides at Tanks-Alot, sporting an undignified advertising hoarding on its roof.

Bizarrely, given its outrageous exterior, its pure GT inside, right down to its magnolia hide. It fires up and settles to a hushed tickover but requires a hefty prod of the accelerator to coax it around the yard. It has lost a lot of its original tightness and warning lights blaze from the instrument binnacle but its value as a promotional tool rather, than a rival to the Bentayga, is obvious.

With my wellies heavy with mud, it’s time to stop playing soldiers. In any case, Mead has a T54 and an Alvis Saladin with deactivated 76mm gun to sell. As I leave, the air explodes with a cackle of curses from some of the 34 parrots I’ve only just noticed. “They’re from broken homes,” says Mead, as one of them tells me not to darken the front step again. It wants to be careful I don’t come back in my Chieftain.

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Hidden treasure

In 2017, when restoring an Iraqi tank captured by the British Army during the first Gulf war and bought for £30,000, Nick Mead and Todd Chamberlain, Tanks-Alot’s chief mechanic, found five gold bars, each weighing 5kg, hidden in the fuel tank.

“We couldn’t understand why, having drained it of fuel, we still couldn’t lift it,” says Mead. “Turns out it was the sheer weight of the gold bars, which we discovered when we levered the tank upright and noticed a hole had been hacked into its underside.”

The gold was estimated to be worth around £2.5 million but Mead knew there was only one thing to do: declare his find to the police. He’s still waiting for his reward.

Chieftain Mk10 Tank

Price: £18,000-£50,000

Engine: Rolls-Royce 13 Alpha 12-cylinder, 19-litre, opposed-piston, two-stroke diesel

Power: 950bhp

Torque: 1460lb ft

Gearbox: Triple differential semiautomatic

Weight: 55 tons (70 tons in Fast & Furious configuration)

Top speed: 30mph (road), 9mph (crosscountry)

Range: 310 miles

Rivals: T54, T64 and T69, M60 Patton, Porsche Leopard 1

This article was originally published on 5 January 2020. We're revisiting some of Autocar's most popular features to provide engaging content in these challenging times.

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4
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Just Saying 29 May 2020

Tough Choice

BMW X7 or one of these...
Hmm.
Peter Cavellini 6 January 2020

Nice article....

 Must be nice to have your own little Army of Tanks etc.

Pietro Cavolonero 5 January 2020

If Bowler made Bentleys.....

Love the Conti!!

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