Don't Kick the Tires

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.

Over the years, the tank has been sold to about thirty countries, says Robb. Ferrets even saw action during the war in the Falkland Islands. Unfortunately for the British, they were on the Argentinian side.

Today Robb travels all over Europe looking for vehicles. "After the fall of the Soviet Union [in 1991] there was basically a fire sale of equipment" throughout Europe, he says. The U.S. government, by contrast, sends its old combat vehicles to the scrap pile. While it's possible to purchase American military trucks and cargo vehicles at auctions, anything more dangerous is strictly off-limits.

"Part of it is political," explains Fred Harris, a property-disposal specialist with the Army's Defense Reutilization and Marketing Office in Memphis. Harris says the country's Big Three automakers pleaded with the military not to flood the market with vehicles that could go toe-to-toe with their off-road and sport-utility vehicles. But Harris says that's only part of the picture. Many military vehicles aren't street legal, he says, and the government is also afraid that parts may be sold abroad and used against U.S. soldiers. "It's never a good thing to have our own guns pointing at us," Harris notes.

But according to Robb, the blame for all the Humvees stuck in the scrap heap belongs solely to Ford, General Motors and Chrysler. Some of the vehicles that are destroyed, Robb adds, have only a few hundred miles on them. "I paid a lot of money as a taxpayer for that shit," he says angrily. "Quite frankly, that's distasteful to me. It makes no economic sense."

Robb envisions one day selling his wheels of steel to fire departments to help combat forest fires, to construction crews who need to lug stuff into hard-to-reach places, or even to law enforcement agencies. For now, though, the main buyers are off-road enthusiasts like Lakewood resident John Cruse, a heating-and-air-conditioning repairman who bought his tank about a year and a half ago and likes to take it camping. "People always want to come by and talk" when they see the tank, Cruse says. He's equipped his ride with a small boom box and drives it "whenever I can get in it. It beats going to the movies."

Robb says people routinely flag him down to ask about his Ferrett and tend to converge around it when it's parked. He and the tank get invited to parades and festivals. And though the gas mileage stinks, the machismo never runs low. "Last year I went to this biker party," says Robb. "And I was God.