published Thursday, June 6th, 2013

Tanks for the memories: North Georgia armored vehicle playground worthy of a bucket list (with video)

Ultimate adventures: Driving at Tank Town USA
For $50, visitors to Tank Town USA in Morganton, Ga., can drive a 15-ton FV 432 armored personnel carrier, previously used by the British military, at the five-acre heavy equipment playground.
Tank Town USA owner Todd Liebross, top, instructs Michael Foell as he drives an FV-432 armored personnel carrier over a junk car in Morganton, Ga.
Tank Town USA owner Todd Liebross, top, instructs Michael Foell as he drives an FV-432 armored personnel carrier over a junk car in Morganton, Ga.
Photo by Doug Strickland.
  • photo
    A customer lumbers along a 0.6-mile, hill-laden course with guidance from Tank Town USA owner Todd Liebross, on top. A young passenger, belted in a seat at right, has a bird’s-eye view of the action.
    Photo by Doug Strickland.
    enlarge photo

VEHICLE SPECS

* Model: FV-432.

* Introduced: 1962.

* Country of origin: United Kingdom.

* Carrying capacity: 2 crew and 10 troops or 8,090 pounds of equipment.

* Weight: 33,686 pounds.

* Fuel tank: 119 gallons.

* Max speed: 32 mph.

Source: Army-Guide.com

IF YOU GO

* What: Tank Town USA, tank driving and car crushing.

* Where: 10408 Appalachian Highway, Morganton, Ga.

* When: 11 a.m.-6 p.m. most Saturdays and Sundays; weekdays by reservation only, but reservations recommended for weekends as well.

* Cost: $50 for 10-minute tank drive, including a passenger; $150 to operate a piece of construction equipment; $500 to crush a car, plus the normal tank drive.

* Phone: 706-633-6072.

* Website: www.tanktownusa.com.

MORGANTON, Ga. — When you're coaxing a gut-rattling roar out of a diesel engine propelling 30,000 pounds of steel up a steep incline, there's an inescapable sense that AC/DC should be playing a theme song in your honor.

The legendary Aussie rockers have built a career out of paying musical homage to all things big, brash and furious. They could practically set up residence as the house band of Tank Town USA.

There, in a five-acre dirt lot just off Appalachian Highway, owner Todd Liebross is in the business of fulfilling the dreams of anyone who rolled a toy M1 Abrams across the living room shag carpet, pretending they were single-handedly saving the world.

Pay him $50, flash a learner's permit and sign a waiver agreeing to generally avoid causing too much unsanctioned mayhem, and Liebross will give you a tank-driving crash course and 10 minutes behind the control levers of the FV a 15-ton British armored personnel carrier.

The experience is truly bucket-list worthy, even if you don't splurge on the $500 option to drive the eight-foot-tall, treaded behemoth over a car, squashing it like a steel grape. At $5 a minute, this dirty deed doesn't come dirt cheap, but the thrill is worth the cost.

"It's rare that I get somebody who doesn't have fun," Todd says while we take care of some pre-tanking paperwork in his "office," the repurposed crew compartment of one of the four FVs parked on Tank Town's lot.

"This is the honest-to-god truth, but no one has been late to an appointment," he adds. "They're always 20 or 30 minutes early."

How it started

A former Marine Corps. Reserve mechanic, Liebross says Tank Town USA was the fulfillment of a dream that started after he saw an Internet listing for a tank-driving business in the United Kingdom, where surplus military hardware can be sold to civilians. Liebross has collected vintage military jeeps and trucks since graduating high school in the mid-'90s, and the idea of adding tanks to his collection was tempting enough that he flew overseas to see if it was feasible to bring them stateside.

Three years later, he worked out a business plan, sold the concept to an insurance provider and bought four FV-432s, which were shipped to Charleston, S.C., before tractor-trailers brought them to Fannin County.

Since opening in April, Tank Town USA has attracted about 100 drivers for a 0.6-mile trip around the hill-laden course. The name may not be accurate, but at least it's catchier than Armored Personnel Carrier Town USA, and Liebross says he's working on getting a 36-ton, Soviet-made T-55 battle tank to avoid any claims of false advertising.

For now, he says, most people don't mind that they're driving something without a cannon or other form of armament.

"I've had some tough customers out here, guys who have driven heavy equipment their whole lives and, at the end of it, they say it's one of the coolest things they've ever done," he says.

After taking a turn navigating the carrier around Tank Town's track, it's easy to see why Liebross spends most of his time smiling and dolling out high fives to customers from across the Southeast, some of whom stop in just to satisfy their curiosity after seeing the sign on the side of the highway that reads: "Drive Tanks. Crush Cars."

Taking the controls

Despite claims on the Tank Town website that controlling the FV is like driving a car, the experience shares almost nothing in common with the passenger sedans whose flattened, much-abused corpses litter the property.

In a cab surrounded by a half-inch of steel designed to protect against small arms fire and shrapnel, the driver sits unrestrained in a chair, head poking out above the entrance hatch. The sense of claustrophobia and armored omnipotence is furthered by the near-deafening roar of the Rolls-Royce engine's air intake directly to the left of the hatch.

Turning is accomplished by pulling on a pair of levers to control the carrier's treads. Unlike steering wheels, which provide instant feedback through minuscule movements, the levers must be yanked back until the treads engage, causing the FV to rotate sharply around a central axis rather than along the smooth arc of wheeled vehicles. The setup makes for some inelegant navigation, but then again, it's a tank.

Other than a massive accelerator pedal and a surprisingly tiny gear shift -- the tank is automatic, but the familiar drive, neutral and park options are there -- the cab is not at all what you would expect to find in, say, a Ford Taurus. Fortunately, Liebross is a patient coach, and his practiced spiel will get even complete tank neophytes up and running in just a couple of minutes.

With the engine gunned and the treads clanking and squeaking up and down hills, trailing a massive plume of powdery dirt, it's easy to lose yourself and start grinning like Gomer Pyle while your inner child claps euphorically.

Even after dozens of trips around the track shouting the same instructions into drivers' ears, Liebross says tank instruction -- now his full-time occupation -- has lost none of its luster.

"It hasn't gotten old yet. I guess when it does is when I'll sell them and move on," he laughs. "It always brings a smile to my face."

Personally, it left me thunderstruck.

Contact staff writer Casey Phillips at cphillips@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6205. Follow him on Twitter at @PhillipsCTFP.

about Casey Phillips...

Casey Phillips has worked as a features reporter in the Life department since May 2007. He writes about entertainment, young adults, technology and people of interest. Casey hails from Knoxville and earned a bachelor of science degree in journalism and a bachelor of arts in German. He previously worked as the features editor for Sidelines at Middle Tennessee State University. Casey received the East Tennessee Society of Professional Journalists Award of Excellence for Reviewing/Criticism in ...

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