Don't Kick the Tires

Patrick Robb's vehicles were not owned by a little old lady who drove them to church on Sundays.

Patrick Robb's business philosophy is as unambiguous as the army tanks parked outside his small South Denver home. Taxpayers, he argues, spent a fortune bankrolling the fiercesome weapons of the Cold War. Now that the war is over, it's time to get some back.

"I look at it this way," says the 37-year-old former computer salesman. "We already paid for them. We should be able to play with them."

Robb is doing just that. During a trip to England a few years ago he stumbled onto the British Ferret, a light tank first built in the early 1950s that was only recently decommissioned. He bought one for himself and then began importing them--twenty tanks in all since last year--and selling them to weekend warriors across America.

"It's a totally studly vehicle," Robb says of the four-ton Ferret. "Testosterone is oozing out of the thing. You would think women wouldn't like it, but the opposite is true."

The Ferret is a squat, compact scout car used by armies to reconnoiter enemy positions. It's a Rambo wannabe's dream, if a little overequipped for the Rocky Mountains. The standard equipment includes dual fire extinguishers, pickax, shovel, first-aid kit, chains, escape hatches, a movable turret with periscope sighting, an intercom and bulletproof tires. It also comes with armor that can withstand .50-caliber bullets and, should the two ever meet, will turn the average car into modern art.

A tow truck veered into Robb's lane on Colorado Boulevard a few months back but failed to clear the Ferret. The tank "crushed his tow rig," says Robb, laughing. "Opened it up like a can of tomato soup." The Ferret was slightly dinged.

The tank can also hit a top speed of sixty miles per hour and travel in up to five feet of water. But the windows are so small that seeing out is tricky, and the lack of power steering makes turning an adventure in itself. Alas, the 30mm Browning machine gun mounted to the turret and the six electrically fired "smoke dischargers" up front have been disarmed.

A basic tank costs about $16,500. A nicely equipped unit runs about $18,000. A "complete overhaul"--complete with Kevlar helmets, radio packs and biochemical driving suits--goes for $22,000. Robb's sales pitch, like the items he's selling, is unorthodox. "If you're an asshole," he says, "these are not the cars for you."

For Robb, the Ferret is just the start; other military vehicles, he says, are waiting for America's post-Cold War consumers in wet, grassy lots throughout England, Holland and Germany. Heavy trucks from Mercedes-Benz. Amphibious all-terrain vehicles from Volvo. Armored personnel carriers just a little bigger, Robb notes, than your basic Chevy Suburban. There's even a 1942 English fire truck on the auction block. Anheuser-Busch is interested in buying that one, Robb says, and filling it with "beer and scantily clad females."

Robb's girlfriend, Theresa Rohan, says Robb's interest in tanks is totally in character. "He's really different," she says. "He's really, really intelligent. He gets bored with everyday things."

Maybe that's the result of growing up a military brat and roaming the world with his mother, sister, two brothers and Air Force colonel father. The young Robb spent time at Lowry Air Force Base in Denver, as well as in California, France and Italy. And he hated the military. "I moved every year and a half, so you think I was going to enter that life?" he asks. "Fat chance!"

Robb instead became a techno nerd, a Star Trek-loving whiz kid who readily admits that the 9-to-5 routine never appealed to him. He was always more interested in fiddling with machines and equipment.

"Ever since I was a kid, I liked to take stuff apart and put it back together," says Robb. He was already learning to program computers before he hit high school in San Diego, and once there, he didn't last long. Robb had trouble "staying within the guidelines of normalcy," he acknowledges. "It's so easy for me to get distracted. My mind goes out and plays."

Robb took the California High School Proficiency Exam at age fifteen and tested out of his remaining years. "I was enjoying myself in school--I wasn't attending classes," he says. "I was a real hazard to the community."

After high school, he took ten years off, traveling and working a string of odd jobs--managing a garden center, working construction, selling men's clothing and engaging in what he describes as "questionable activities." He won't say what those activities were, but he allows that he "gained insight into the transportation of various products nationally and internationally." That insight, he adds, has helped him master the logistics of transporting military hardware halfway around the world.

After school, Robb worked several computer-related jobs, then started his own computer business before discovering the Ferret, which he describes as a "Rolls Royce on steroids." Made in Coventry, England, by Daimler, now an affiliate of Mercedes-Benz, the Ferret made its debut in 1952. With England still recovering from World War II, the tank was designed to be built totally in-country and with parts that were interchangeable with other British armored vehicles. Robb says it was a popular vehicle among troops, many of whom preferred it to the more technologically advanced vehicles that replaced it when the Ferret was decommissioned.

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