Heavy metal - could a road-legal tank be the perfect vehicle for the 'age of austerity'

Covered mag, presented by Gocompare.com
  • | by Kristian Dando

It costs a few-thousand pounds to buy, doesn’t need an MOT, and might not even need to be taxed, either.

The mechanics are quite literally bullet proof, garages will sometimes give fuel to you for no cost, and it's exempt from the London congestion charge. You may think that this sounds like the latest twee Far Eastern electric micro car. But think again: these are all qualities exhibited by ex-military armoured vehicles, designed for front-line combat but perfectly legal to drive on the public highway. While they might not be the most compact of methods of getting from ‘A’ to ‘B’, you certainly wouldn’t have much problem with people giving way to you at roundabouts.

To learn more, Covered mag travelled to Northamptonshire to meet Nick Mead, the owner of ex-military vehicle specialist Tanks-A-Lot. Inside the company’s office, Winston Churchill and assorted British war heroes look down from the walls, and in the corner, there’s a large, mounted boar’s head. Outside, a foul-mouthed tropical bird squawks loudly. Nick bounds in and greets us, exuding a bright manner and the sort of quiet confidence that comes with having a field full of 100 or so military vehicles. Dressed in muddied army surplus gear, he gives me a look up and down and remarks: “You’re clean, aren’t you?”

Mead, a former butcher who could pass for someone younger than his 49 years, bought his first tanks 19 years ago. “I saw them advertised for sale. I was always into mechanics and messing around so I thought, yeah, why not?” After trading in a Jaguar E-Type for two tanks, he’s never looked back. Mead’s business takes in everything from selling tanks to letting paying members of the public crush scrap cars. He also conducts training for the ‘H’ category license test which is required to drive one of the vehicles on the highway without learner plates.

“I reckon that a seven year old could drive out of here after 15 minutes of instruction and be fine on the roads," claims Nick. "An adult might take a bit longer because they’ll be used to driving cars, though. Women tend to make better drivers than men. I’m not sure why, maybe they’re just better at listening.”

But what about the typical tank driver? “You get a real range – from younger people to retired servicemen. But there are a lot of men in their 40s too,” he says, hinting at a marketplace for mid-lifers who want something a bit more leftfield than a fast German convertible.

For virgin military vehicle owners, the choice can be overwhelming. “The Abbot (a compact, 17 ton gun tank) and the AV 432 (a tracked, armoured personnel carrier) are definitely the ones I’d recommend to first-time owners,” he says. “They’re agile enough to use on the road. Anything bigger and you might have a few problems.”

When trying to identify a suitable tank, appearances can sometimes be deceptive. “I usually like to see a tank that’s done a few thousand miles,” says Nick. “In lots of cases its 1960s technology or older: back then you’d really have to ‘run-in’ a new car, and it’s the same with these. A lot of the time the ones which look a bit rough are the best goers, it’s the ones which look a bit fresher that will frequently cause you more problems.”

Naturally, your choices for services and repairs will be a bit more limited than with a standard car. “There are parts out there, and sometimes you can get them working by just hitting them with a hammer,” says Nick. “But bear in mind that the components are big, heavy things. In some ways, I envy people who just have tanks as a hobby, because they normally have people volunteering to help them!”

As they’re such heavy vehicles, tanks and tracked vehicles are inherently thirsty. But although most are diesel-powered, Nick runs many of his on a petrol-diesel mix given to him by garages, produced by absent-minded motorists filling up with the wrong type of fuel. “They’ll often pay me to take it off their hands,” he says.

To let us decide for ourselves if his assertion that military vehicles were child's play to drive, Nick lets us take control of one of his 432 armoured personnel carriers for a spin around his land.

The vehicle rumbles into life after flicking a few ignition switches. The noise is quite incredible: a raw, throaty chug which would lead other motorists to hear you before they see you. There’s an automatic gearbox, a huge, metal accelerator pedal, and instead of a wheel, two levers which are pulled left and right accordingly to steer; a concession says Nick, to the cavalry regiments that tanks superseded. Pressing down on the pedal, the 432 slowly moves off. It makes light work of the mud, as one would hope, and is surprisingly rapid. In dry conditions and on the roads, Nick claims it will be even quicker.

It’s easy to drive, although a little loud and bumpy to contemplate using as a daily runabout. The steering is responsive enough, and there’s nothing to suggest that taking it out on the road would be an overly daunting experience, though one might struggle when it comes to tight parallel parking manoeuvres. It’s certainly not for everyone, but it’s definitely a way to make an entrance…and nobody would dare think of making you a victim of road rage.

Everything you wanted to know about buying and running a road legal tank…but were afraid to ask

Buying

Tanks can be picked up from specialist dealers, but you can also bid for surplus vehicles through the Disposal Services Authority. Make sure that you’ve got a tank that you are comfortable driving, and think carefully about imports from Russia. “They’re a blast to drive, but a bit crazy and harder to find parts for” says Nick. 

Ready for the road

Road-ready rubber tracks need to be fitted, and if the tank has a gun, it’ll need to be deactivated: you’re only allowed to fire a tank gun for leisure at a dedicated firing range.

Legal stuff

If the tank is over 25 years old, it won’t need an MOT. Road tax is a contentious issue: some claim that tanks are road tax exempt, but the DVLA claims that it depends on the size, weight and intended usage of the vehicle. To drive a tank on the road without a learner plate, you’ll need to pass the category ‘H’ license examination. To register the tank, go to your local DVLA office. You’ll need a V55/4 form if the tank is new, and a V455/5 if it is second hand. You’ll also need the logbook, dating evidence, and a customs & excise duty certificate if it has been imported. You’ll also need proof of insurance policy, which can be quite cheap: expect to pay between £100-200 a year with a specialist classic military vehicle insurer. Registration will cost £55. Camoflauge overalls and helmets are at the owners’ discretion.