Skip to main content

So you want to buy a tank? Who doesn’t?

  • Author:
  • Publish date:

Even though most of us have dreamed of owning an olive drab machine, there really are a few points to consider before jumping into visiting your local used military vehicle dealer’s lot and kicking a few tires or tracks.

WC Fields once said, “Women are like elephants to me: I like to look at them, but I wouldn't want to own one.” Many might think the same is true about historic military vehicles.

The truth is, however, for most of us, since we were little boys and girls, we have all dreamed about owning our very own military vehicle. Whether climbing on monument vehicles in the park, building scale models or simply playing Army with plastic vehicles, the thought has always been, “Some day, if I win the lottery, I am going to buy my very own tank!”

When a person progresses past dreaming about owning a tank to actually investigating the reality of owning one, it usually becomes evident that he or she is not really able to afford a tank… let alone fill it up with gas to enjoy driving it!

Time for a reality check:

  • A WWII Sherman in “turnkey condition” is going to run about $400,000
  • A WWII Stuart light tank is going to be around $195,000
  • A WWII Panther tank, if you could find one, is going to be close to $1 million
  • A Korean War era M41 Walker bulldog is going to run about $125,000.

What’s a person to do? Most of us who have dreamed of tank ownership, eventually realize we can’t afford to make such a purchase—let alone filling the gas tank. As a result, we look a little further down the historic military vehicle ladder.

Who hasn’t driven down alleys or over country back roads, peering into blind spots or vacant buildings hoping to spot a forgotten treasure? When I was only 12 years old, I spent an entire autumn squirrel hunting a particular set of hills near my southeastern Minnesota home while actually searching for a rumored half-track that was abandoned by a farmer who had bought it through surplus after WWII. We all have the dream of finding that jeep, truck or other MV that seemed to be forgotten to time.

But it isn’t just as easy as finding the old derelict vehicle, buying it from the owner, hauling it home and, after a few weeks of work, it is up and running. Of course, that is how the dream goes, but in reality, these rescued relics tend to be more hassle than they are worth, especially for a first-timer.

Don’t despair, you aren’t the only one with these symptoms of olive drab (OD) surging through your veins. In fact, more than 20,000 Americans own and enjoy historic military vehicles and stay connected through a network that includes this magazine, clubs (both local and national) and Internet communities. As you become more involved, you will find that someone else has probably asked and received answers to the very same questions you have.


You may have decided that you are ready to “buy the elephant”… that is, find an HMV to take home and call your own. Before you buy, though, I would like to offer some advice.

You will find a resounding theme that those in the hobby will repeat: Buy the best vehicle you can afford. Unless restoring vehicles is your passion, buy something that you can drive rightaway. It will build your interest and you will have a better understanding of what must be restored and what can wait.

There are some basic factors to consider: Insurance, tools, what to do besides drive around the block and even what sort of accessories to consider acquiring. This is where joining a club is very useful.

On the national level, the Military Vehicle Preservation Association is the group to join ... they are dedicated to providing the information and venues for you to enjoy HMV ownership. The MVPA also has local affiliates. With luck, there is one near you where you can meet others who own and enjoy HMVs.

Study before you buy. Historic military vehicles, by their very nature, tend not to be unique. If there was one made and adopted by the military, there were hundreds, if not thousands. There is very little reason to “panic-buy.” If you happen to miss out on a particular jeep, M37 Dodge or M715 Kaiser, there will be more for sale. Historic military vehicles are more accessible today, more than any other time in history, thanks to the Internet.

For many, the “entry vehicle” to the military vehicle hobby is the good ol’ all American Jeep. With over 600,000 produced prior to 1946, it is the most plentiful WWII vehicle available. “Turnkey” examples can be found in the $14,000-$18,000 range.

Similarly, post WWII Jeeps, like the M38, M38A1 or even the Vietnam-era M151 MUTT and M422 Mighty Mites are affordable investments. Examples can be regularly found in driveable condition for under $15,000.

Folks who have the space and desire for a little bigger WWII vehicle often consider the 1/2-ton or 3/4-ton Dodge series of trucks. These came in a variety of configurations including weapons carrier, ambulance, command car, radio car and even pick-ups.

In fact, the second most popular vehicle in the hobby to own, restore and drive is the Korean and Vietnam War-era 3/4-ton Dodge M37 and its variants. The military version of the popular Power Wagon, the M37 is the 3/4-ton vehicle the army adopted that was a purposed-designed truck. Simple to work on and work-horse reliable, the M37 is a perfect entry level truck with turnkey examples selling for around $12,000-$15,000.

A bit larger, the WWII CCKW “Jimmy” 2-1/2-ton trucks are iconic in appearance. A restored CCKW will run about $15,000.

The best value in the hobby, though, is the M35 2-1/2-ton truck. First delivered to the Army during the late 1950s, they are just now being phased out of National Guard units. With more than 50 years of service, there are a lot of these trucks around, a lot of parts for them and a lot of people who know how to work on them. Turnkey examples run around $10,000-$12,000.

Having been introduced a few examples of vehicles available, you are probably thinking, “There has to be a cheaper way to own a military vehicle.” There might be, but let’s keep W.C. Field’s elephant in mind before we go too far. An MV, just like an elephant, has a whole lot of special needs. Before we talk about monetary alternatives, I need to address one myth that just won’t die.

The Jeep In the Crate

Some may remember the ads in the back of Popular Mechanics that promised to deliver a “jeep in a crate” for as little as $50. Nothing was further from the truth and nothing has really affected the public perception of our hobby more than these misleading ads.

Jeeps did exist in crates…when they were shipped overseas. No warehouses exist today (or even after 1950) that still have crated Jeeps waiting to be discovered and sold for as little as $50. In fact, a wealthy collector offered a $100,000 reward to anyone who could produce evidence of a crated Jeep actually existing and having been sold for just $50. No one has claimed the reward.

Just like sightings of Sasquatch or the Loch Ness monster, it seems no one has actually SEEN a jeep in a crate, but they KNOW someone whose dad or grandfather bought one. When pushed for further information, it always turns out that they didn’t actually buy a jeep in a crate, but rather, bought a jeep at a surplus sale.

That is, in fact, the way most jeeps have entered the collector stream—through surplus sales. It is how vehicles continue to flow into hobby. But before you decide to go bidding at a government auction, let’s talk about buying a surplus vehicle.

*Do you want to restore a vehicle? This always takes more time and money than you ever thought

*Do you have the tools to work on a vehicle? Small vehicles require small tools. Big vehicles require MUCH bigger tools… usually bigger than most of us have in our tool boxes.

*Do you have the space to work on a vehicle? Buying a surplus vehicle today is still a bit like buying a pig in a poke. Today, all surplus vehicles are sold through a private contractor, Government Liquidation.

Bear in mind, when a vehicle appears on a Government Liquidation auction, it has already been rejected by other government agencies who have first dibs. The chances are, the trucks you see up for sale are there for very good reasons: They don’t run or are missing major components. If you buy one of these trucks, be prepared to haul it from the auction site. It is very, very unlikely you will be able to pay your bid and hop into the cab to drive it away.

Surplus purchase does provide some bargains, but know what you are getting into before you click that “PLACE BID” button.

So where else can you find old military vehicles?

People have been buying and restoring military vehicles for about 60 years. That means, there are a lot of vehicles out there that have been restored already. The single best place to look for a military vehicle, of course, is in the pages of Military Vehicles Magazine.

Before you call on an advertised vehicle though, here are some points to consider.

*Figure out your budget before you call. How much money do you have to spend on a vehicle? Don’t “panic buy” because you think the vehicle advertised is some sort of rarity. They are military vehicles. If one was built, thousands were built. If you miss this one, there WILL be another one.

*Pay NO attention to the paint job, especially in the engine compartment. Most people don’t lie, but many don’t answer questions that don’t get asked. It takes several days and dollars to rebuild an engine. It only takes about 15 minutes to paint one.

*Don’t buy the general appearance. Stars and insignia can be very distracting. More importantly, check for rust in body parts, especially under cargo beds or in the lower portions of the body, cab and doors.

*Pay no attention to the odometer. Low mileage means very little for a military vehicle… they are all low mileage compared to a civilian car or truck. Furthermore, MV speedometers are easily—and very often—replaceed. A more accurate evaluation of mileage is clutch condition, brake and accelerator pedals as well as wear on the driver’s side door latch mechanism.

Advice when shopping:

*When you have located a vehicle, take the time to inspect it or have it inspected. Never inspect a vehicle at night… even in a lit garage. Daylight is best for judging paint, body or other attributes.

*When you test drive it, let the seller drive first. Pay attention to how he treats the vehicle.

*Listen for loud howls or whines from the drivetrain. Vibrations that get louder the faster you go usually indicates loose universal joints or yokes or unsynchronized drive shafts. There should be no front end shimmy on braking. All the points you would consider when buying a family car apply when buying an MV. Don’t let the OD paint blind you!

*Don’t buy a vehicle without a title. Before you even drive to look at the vehicle, verify that the seller has a clear title and all the documents to legally transfer it, register and license it. If in doubt about this, DON’T BUY THE VEHICLE.

Remember, the expression “EASY RESTORATION” is just an opinion! What might be “easy” for one person might be totally FUBAR for another. Likewise, “RESTORABLE” all depends on what skills and tools you have at your disposal. A gun range tank hull is “restorable” for a very talented welder, but maybe not the guy who has trouble getting the oil filter off of his Passat.

Another term that is thrown around loosely is “Ran when Parked.” That means nothing other than just what it says. It ran when it was last parked. That might have been 15 years ago!

Twenty years ago, “Barn find” usually meant that the historic military vehicle was probably sitting in a barn or shed for the previous 30 or 40 years. These could be very exciting because there was a sense of opening up the time vault to something that hadn’t been recognized by a collector.

Today, however, that term has to be regarded with a bit more skepticism. A vehicle that was restored in the early 1970s might have been sitting in a barn since the mid-1980s. Thirty years of dirt and accumulation can make an old restoration appear to look like a never-restored vehicle. Make sure you really understand what your are looking at.

There are very, very few bargains to be had anymore. The Internet and television appraisal programs has taken the price guessing out of the game. Anyone with an Internet connection and 30 minutes can determine a price range for their vehicle.

Because of the Internet, most folks have a good idea of the value of that Jeep sitting in the barn or “Grandpa’s ol’ army truck.” This isn’t a garage sale hobby that you can get by with a couple hundred dollars

Just like an elephant, historic military vehicles require a commitment of time, energy and money. If you decide to purchase an HMV, you are making a pact with history to preserve and protect our military heritage. Those in the hobby do not take this commitment lightly and are honored to represent the memory of the soldiers who depended on these vehicles in times of war and peace.

Sure, there is an investment aspect as well as a pride in ownership; but, beneath all of the reasons, you will consistently find that HMVers tend to have the same answer to the question, “Why do you do it?”

It’s simple: to preserve the memory of our veterans.

– Keep ’em Rolling,

John Adams-Graf
Editor, Military Vehicles Magazine and Military Trader

Frontline Feature


Be Our Frontline Feature Sponsor

Get your company or auction front and center with our Frontline Feature. Click here to learn more.