by Chad Lares
Okay, guys. In August 2017, at the age of 47, I bought a tank. Men are required to go through a mid-life crisis starting at the age of 46 and ending at 55. The rules are: Buy some kind of exotic vehicle and / or get a really hot girlfriend on the side. Now, for you married guys out there, the “hot girlfriend” on the side may prove problematic to your current relationship status and seriously affect your personal economic situation when your wife is not supportive of your crisis.
For the rest, most men don’t know what to do. So, they buy a Corvette. Hey, Chevrolet has that car sewn tight. You can’t go wrong. But take a look around. They are everywhere! With production numbers in the tens of thousands, you are hardly being original in your crisis.
So now that I was in my own mid-life crisis, what could I do that’s different? I mean, I had to go through this crisis, so what would really blow the hair back on my balding head? Going back to my childhood dreams, the answer jumped out at me: A tank, the most awe-inspiring vehicle on the battlefield, and the vehicle that crushed my sister’s Barbie dolls when I was a kid.
Which tank to buy?
“I’ll get a Sherman!” Nope. Too poor. I love WWII tanks but “not gonna happen.”
After looking at tanks within my budget, my choices narrowed quickly to a British Chieftain or a Soviet T-55. The Chieftain is one, big monster tank. There’s a guy in my town who has one. His Chieftain is a 65-ton dinosaur but is an awesome tank. What it doesn’t have is any combat heritage.
On the other hand, the T-55 does has quite a history. The short version is that the T-55 was in battles all over the world since 1956 on to present day.
If you’re reading this magazine, then the odds are you’ve seen the iconic T-55 getting blown up on the “you-name-that-documentary.” I didn’t just see these tanks in a documentary, I saw them in battle. I wasn’t impressed.
When I served in the Army, I went to Desert Storm in 1991. The number of T-55As I saw with their turrets blown off along with the remains of their owners’ spread all over the battlefield was less than inspiring. Even the AM2 upgrades amounted to nothing more than lipstick on a pig against modern MBTs.
Where to buy one?
Most tank guys have heard of Jacques Littlefield. Before his passing, he had the largest privately-owned tank collection in the world.
Yeah, like a lot of people, I knew him. The guy was a bazillionaire but wasn’t at all stuck up about it. I could call him, and he would talk with me for an hour about tank stuff.
I visited his collection on several occasions and drove his M4A3E2 Sherman “Jumbo” and his Hetzer, but that’s another story. Long story short, I ended up buying his T-55AM2 when his collection was sold after he passed away.
It’s time I actually started writing about my tank. This T-55 was in service with the East German Army. This is obvious because of all the German written all over the inside of the tank on the various gauges, warning labels, etc.
My T-55 was Soviet-designed, Czech-built “Kladivo” (translates to “Hammer”) that was shipped to the East Germans for military service. It was upgraded to an AM2 around 1987. I have no idea when the original hull was produced for this one.
I found some logs that looks like the tank’s service ended in 1989. After that, it was bought by an American, with technical support from a Romanian tanker who was on T-55As. I really don’t know when Jacques bought it, but rumor has it was about 25-30 years ago.
As my buddy and fellow T-55 owner, Randy, would say, “The T-55 is a very hateful tank.” Why would he say that?
Let’s start with the turret. When changing from manual to powered operation in the turret, you must disengage the manual elevation and traverse. Once you disengage the manual elevation, the gun will drop to max depression. If you are inside the turret, this could crush whatever body part is in between the breech and the turret roof. Not cool.
If you are walking around on the outside. The dropping barrel can crush your head and kill you. Very rude.
Getting past the crushing death, let’s spin the turret. It is cool that there is a turret floor — an improvement over the T-34. But,there’s no turret basket to keep you from catching a foot or something on that pre-heater sitting on the floor by the gunner and tank commander! But hey, you’ll probably only get a broken foot out of that, not a big deal.
Are we out of the woods yet? Nope, not even close. The next hazard really tops the others. The fire suppression system is filled withEthylene Bromide — something poisonous that sucks the oxygen out of the air. There’s some vague reference to it in the crappy Russian manuals about how the crew should immediately exit the tank when the system is activated. An American manual would have flashing warning signs, buzzers and everything else about this extremely murderous hazard. Russians just write a line or two in the same font as everything else. But hey, at least a crewman wouldn’t burn to death. Instead, they would simply choke to death.
I suppose you could add in cramped crew positions where you are constantly banging every body part on something unforgiving, as well. The bottom line is: This tank is just one mean, hateful, spiteful B****.
I could bore you with T-55AM2statistics, but any monkey can get that info from the internet, so I’ll save us both the time. Instead, let’s explore what it was like when I bought it and what I’ve done since.
The biggest problem when I bought this tank was that the MZN-2 priming pump (or “pre-oiler”) was down for the count. You want this pump working so you don’t eventually destroy your engine. But that was minor.
Way more important was that horrible faded eastern block green that just had to go! Sorry, I really don’t like that hideous green color the Russians and their groupies sprayed on their tanks. Besides, I live in Chandler, Arizona (southeast Phoenix area), so it had to be tan! I’m happy with the way it turned out. Now that it looks presentable
I could go on to trivial concerns like new fluids, that oil pump I mentioned earlier, and other irritating things that, if left un-answered, would have my engine go the way of the dinosaurs.
About fluids for a tank — they take a lot. I mean, an insane amount. In addition to the tyrannosaurus rex-sized appetite for diesel (measured in gallons per mile), it has a built-in oil consumption rate of 1.5-3 liters per hour of operation. All the other T-55 guys out there will tell you the same thing.
For oil, I’m running 15w-40 which comes in at about 18 gallons. Yes, I know it’s usually a 50. What I’m running in it will be fine for Arizona conditions. For coolant, I just do a standard 50/50 split with anti-freeze and distilled water. That’s about 22 gallons of coolant.
Let’s go for a drive!
This is not your Honda Civic. No “gas and go” with this beast.Like all tanks, there is a start-up procedure along with an engine warm-up period.
Prior to the T-55, my driving resume included: M2A2 Bradley, M1 Abrams, Sherman, Hellcat, and a Hetzer. I’ve driven a number of other half-tracks and armored cars but sorry, they don’t count for tank driving experience.
I’ve driven all kinds of heavy construction equipment. I’ve driven a Case blah-blah-blah. But, sorry, they don’t count. Different vision, controls, and pivot points from tanks, so no college credit for me on this one!
Probably the most difficult of all for me to drive was the German Hetzer and here’s why: There is no sticking your head out of the hatch — there isn’t one! Instead, there are two small, pathetic little periscopes with an extremely limited field of view. How does that compare to the T-55AM2? I’ll get to that later.
Russians designed their tanks for crew members no taller than 5’8”. That’s right. If you are 6’2” (like me), you are a no-go at this station. On the plus side, however, after I’ve squeezed into the drivers hatch, my long legs and arms help for shifting gears. Yes, you’ll be double-clutching on this one too!
I usually drive with the hatch open. In this regard, there’s really not much difference from the other tanks that I’ve drive. You can stick your melon out of the hatch and look around. When I’ve buttoned up completely and driven it, I was reminded of driving the Hetzer. There are two periscopes set at slightly different angles but that’s it. They are marginally bigger than the Hetzer’s with a couple of more degrees added to my field of view.
While it appears I have painted a bad picture of the T-55, that’s not the case at all. I absolutely enjoy working on my tank and learning all the systems on it. On top of that, I’ll be training my son to drive it so I can sit up in the turret and yell out orders to him. Also, I don’t have to worry about it when he takes his girlfriend to the prom in the tank and some other kid runs into him with his daddy’s Corvette.
This is, by far, the most fun I’ve had with a military vehicle. Tanks rock!