Importing a car into the U.S. is hard enough. You have to worry about getting it here, getting it past U.S. safety and emissions regulations, and then you still have to worry about getting parts for something that maybe wasn’t ever sold here. But it’s entirely different—and in some ways surprisingly easier—to import a 15-ton armored vehicle built for war.
It turns out importing an armored vehicle is not so hard, and the U.S. government is actually pretty relaxed about it. It’s basically the same as importing farm equipment, except, you know, most farm equipment laying around wasn’t optimized for invading another nation.
I learned all about importing armored vehicles last month. While my colleague Kristen Lee was busy driving an armored vehicle and crushing cars, I stood to the side with Nat Mundy, executive Vice President of Monticello Motor Club who facilitated the import of the vehicle Kristen got to drive, to talk about how someone like you or me might approach importing a military vehicle from across the Atlantic into the U.S. without breaking any laws. Or starting any wars.
The Club imported not one, but two military vehicles from the UK for its new “tank” experience, where you can pay to not only drive one of these war beasts, but also to strap yourself into a seat on top of one to ride along as it crushes a car, the lesser metal beast of the mechanical beast kingdom. It’s brutal to witness:
Tank Versus Armored Vehicle
The military vehicles Monticello Motor Club imported may look like tanks, but they are not tanks. They do not have big guns nor turrets (at least, any more). They are armored vehicles.
The Club’s larger vehicle, the one with the seats on top for the car-crushing experience, is a modified British Chieftain tank, with the turret and gun removed, and the smaller is a FV432 armored personnel carrier, with room for 10 passengers and two operators.
The Chieftain has appeared in some of your favorite recent horrible global conflicts, fighting for the Iranian military against Iraq in the 1980s, and then against Iraq again in the Kuwaiti military in the 1991 Gulf War. The Club’s version of the Chieftain is known as the “Fascine.”
“They basically took 11 tanks and cut the turrets off and converted them into bridge-laying armored vehicles,” Mundy said.
“Our Chieftain was converted to a bridge-layer from a regular tank at some point in the 1990s, as per the seller, and there’s very few of these,” he said. “The nice part about it is you’ve removed about 15 tons of weight, so the engine and transmission kind of have a lighter go, even though you still have about 30 or 35 tons of weight sitting in that vehicle.”
In theory, because of the saved weight it could travel faster and pass the convoy it was building bridges for, go lay a bridge, let the convoy pass over, pick up the bridge and then speed past again.
As for the APC, that weighs “around 15,000 pounds,” according to Mundy, “but from what I understand from other Ministry of Defence sites, anywhere from 10,000 to 15,000 pounds depending on the setup. So if it had generators on board, if it was a troop carrier, if it had a crane—there’s a lot of uses for that particular unit.”
The Club uses its APC for its driving experience for customers, where they can take it along an off-road course on the Club grounds.
Where To Find An Armored Vehicle
So you want to crush some cars with a big heavy vehicle on tracks, and you’ve finally convinced somebody with money to let you do it. Now what?
You start on the internet and go from there, according to Mundy.
“I went over to a place called “Tanks A Lot” in the UK. I found them on the web,” he explained. Tanks A Lot had over 100 tanks sitting outside in various conditions. Of those, “ I’d say about two percent of all of their equipment is running and functioning at a time, so you’re picking from a yard sale full of tanks.”
Mundy told me that Tanks A Lot, and other places like it, mostly acquire their vehicles through surplus sales from the government. The Club’s armored vehicles were initially acquired by Tanks A Lot from the UK’s Ministry of Defence (which is also where a lot of those Land Rovers the U.S. government crushes all the time come from).
Governments sell this stuff off because they simply no longer have a use for it. In the case of military equipment, most often it’s being sold because it’s aging and has been replaced by more advanced equipment, and the government can make a little money back on it by auctioning it off to other agencies and the public. You can read more about the U.S. process of unloading federal assets here and here.
Buyers shouldn’t have to worry about the U.S. government seizing their armored vehicles as long as they follow the application process.
“Our vehicles are never going to be for street use,” Mundy said. “It’s very clear that I’m not trying to put a plate on these things and drive my kids to soccer practice with them.”
Naturally, the Club only went to the UK to source its small platoon because, surprisingly, it was cheaper than sourcing armored vehicles in the U.S.
“We looked around the U.S. and the prices were just astronomical,” Mundy said. “Once they’re already here they’re worth quite a bit more than what they are when they’re not here. Just like anything that’s being imported and there’s a limited quantity of them.
So if someone wants to go through the painstaking process of importing them, you do it.”
The Application Process
The import process for the Club’s vehicles started about a year ago, dealing with the U.S. government’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, also known as the ATF.
“One of the things we had to do was get a permit from the ATF for an armored personnel carrier or armored vehicle,” Mundy said. “That took a couple of weeks to get, [thanks to] background checks, things along those lines. They want to make sure the good guys are getting them and these aren’t going to be repurposed for something insane.”
The vehicles were imported as collectors items or museum pieces—one of the only legal ways to bring them over, but the club had to clarify that they intended to use them for “some sort of experience to do with tanks.”
It seems alarmingly vague, but apparently that was enough to get the federal OK.
“It’s an application, which you do through a broker, and you also have to get permission from the Ministry Of Defence in the UK to export the vehicle. You do it at the same time, and you use a specialist for that. You get a professional to do it for you. Just imagine like really sophisticated DMV paperwork,” Mundy told me.
Once everything gets approved, the vehicles are licensed with the U.S. government, which tracks the address of ownership. Other than that, as far as taxes and registration is concerned, there’s only a one-time import sales tax.
“There’s no road tax, there’s no EPA tax, there’s no use tax, I guess. It’s like having a piece of construction equipment. The DMV doesn’t care about these, they’re purely just machines.” Just, you know, designed for war.
I asked Mundy if there was anything in the paperwork or application process specifically designed for event experiences like Monticello Motor Club now offers.
“For crushing cars? No. There’s no option for ‘I want to crush cars with this.’”
Seems like an oversight.
Sometimes Modifications Are Needed
Though it may not seem so obvious given the Second Amendment, you are not actually allowed to import a vehicle with any sort of live, military-grade ordinance hardware capable of any bad booms you might expect from this sort of vehicle. So changes have to be made.
“I knew I wanted the Chieftain to drive over cars with, and I wanted this particular model, the bridge-layer version, so there’s no turret. Because there’s no turret, and there’s no guns on either of our vehicles, there’s no disarmament having to happen. So I didn’t have to remove any parts that would make it a live gun that would be dangerous in any way,” Mundy said, referring to the standard Chieftain’s 120mm rifled turret canon.
“In the UK, they still had their smoke dischargers on them. That was the only thing that was a ‘live’ element, and those were removed. You had to have photographic and written proof that those had been removed before they could go to the port.”
Once the armored vehicles are no longer weaponized, there are other potential hazards to still be concerned about.
“We also had to clean them,” Mundy told me. “The U.K. has Mad Cow and other things... We care about our ports, about there being mud from a different country from a vehicle coming in that was clearly in the mud in a different country. So they had to go through a thorough cleaning before being loaded on the ships.”
Once they arrived, the Club added additional modifications to make it more difficult for any troublemakers to try and drive off with one of their armored vehicles and added some additional “safety systems” that mostly amount to a lot of fire extinguishers.
“There’s no key to a tank, there’s a starting procedure. We’ve gone ahead and added a couple of extra hoops to keep them safe. We’ve also added safety shutoffs as well as a fire suppression system in addition to the ones they came with from the MOD. As you can see on the Chieftain, there are fire extinguishers mounted, and then the seats on top of it have four-point harnesses and buggy seats from summit racing.”
The seat mounting had to be looked over by the Club’s insurance company, but Mundy said it wasn’t a much different process from insuring the race cars already built by Monticello.
“I don’t think 35 tons is going anywhere. Take your foot off of the accelerator it will come to a stop in about 10 feet. It’s not an inertia vehicle, especially on flat ground.”
Mundy told me that maintaining the platoon comes down to a lot of “checking fluids and continually lubricating all things that move,” telling me the tracks are lubricated with just regular gear oil, and that there’s “nothing easy about working on tanks.”
Estimated annual maintenance cost is on par with maintaining large farm equipment, Mundy told me, and the key is to not abuse the vehicles just because they seem tough. “We keep speeds low, and that’s fine, and we look for longevity.”
Parts are also seemingly fairly easy to find, as well. “I was able to find a whole motor, and I have a heat exchanger, for the 432. The military makes plenty of spare parts for the things that they’re using. Now I have a spare [engine] pack that I can pull parts off as I need them. There’s two cranks sharing a cylinder, a really cool two-stroke diesel, and multi-fuel,” Mundy told me as he walked me around an engine the size of my New York City apartment’s living room sitting in the corner.
“The cooling fans are hydraulic. All of the electronics sit in an oil bath. I can jump the other tank with the generator on this engine. And it’s supercharged. The engine pack itself weighs about 2,000 pounds. The frame around it is to lift it in and out, to change the filters and oil, you need to pull the pack out for it. And you can just download the manuals online.”
Know What You’re Getting Into
Unsurprisingly, the easiest way to get two big heavy vehicles across an ocean is by boat, and that’s exactly what the Club did after the vehicles were prepped by Tanks A Lot.
“The unfortunate part is while the Chieftain was prepped properly, the 432 was shipped with water in it, and not antifreeze. The engine actually froze on the boat on the way over,” Mundy said.
“We were so stumped when it got here because the Newark port workers couldn’t get it started. The engine was so hydrolocked, and they cranked it for so long, they actually melted the battery terminals off of the batteries because they were trying so hard to make it start.”
He added, “It’s a two-stroke diesel, there’s no way for the exhaust valve, like in a gas engine, to spit the water out. It all just goes to the bottom of the engine.”
Unable to get the APC off the boat in Newark, its original destination, Mundy had to let it ride with the ship all the way down to Brunswick, Georgia and fly down to meet it. He claims the Club even had to pay for the extra $3,000 in shipping costs to send it down there.
“I just went in there and diagnosed, changed the batteries out, and at that point, all the water had defrosted and was in the actual engine and transmission, so it was actually below the cylinders. Two pistons share a cylinder, and basically the bottom pistons had enough water where I couldn’t compress them again.”
Mundy was able to get it running and shipped back up to Newark, only to have the engine freeze up again four days later, he says, and he claims they ended up spending the entire cost of the initial purchase of the APC on buying a replacement motor and hiring a mechanic to fix it.
“Unfortunately, what should have been a six to eight-month process took an extra four months, due to the damage that happened while on the boat,” he said. “My advice for anyone looking to buy anything ex-military is to hire a professional to go with you because the sellers aren’t going to step up and help you once it’s already here.”