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I Drove an Armored Military Vehicle Around Nashville

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author photo by Doug DeMuro May 2017

I recently had the opportunity to visit the McDonald's drive-thru in an armored vehicle designed for wartime combat. It's called a Ferret; it was used by the British military, and the nice woman at the McDonald's drive-thru happily took my order for chicken nuggets, even though I was wearing a military helmet and standing behind a massive, fake military machine gun.

Here's how this all came about. A few months ago, I got an e-mail from a viewer in Nashville who offered me the chance to review his Lamborghini Huracan. This was a nice offer, but I had already done a Huracan, so I turned it down and thanked him. He then replied that he has an extensive collection that also includes several other vehicles, including a Mercedes-McLaren SLR and an armored military vehicle. I then booked a flight to Nashville.

And this is how I found myself sitting at a gas station, filling up an armored military vehicle with fuel, directly next to a guy in a Ford Focus.

Actually, this is skipping a few steps, so let's go back. First off, the vehicle itself: I told you it's called a Ferret, and that's the actual, technical name for it -- not one of those military nicknames, like how they call a vehicle "the Alarm Clock" because the technical military acronym is ALRMCLK, or because it's shaped like an alarm clock, or something. The Ferret looks like a tank, and everyone calls it a tank, but because it doesn't have tank treads, it's technically an armored car. Therefore, I'm referring to it as an armored car, so I don't get angry YouTube commenters coming in here and screaming about how I'm technically wrong, and they're technically right, and also I didn't get chicken nuggets, but actually Chicken McNuggets.

So anyway, the Ferret. It's an armored car that was manufactured throughout the 1950s and 1960s, for use by the British military, and it really looks like a tank. It has wheels and tires, yes, but it also has no readily apparent windows. It has a turret, and it has a machine gun mounted on the top. These things are no longer in military service, but they're pretty small and -- apparently -- relatively simple to work on, so they're starting to find their way into the hands of collectors. And in the great state of Tennessee, you can register one of these things for the street.

And, so, I drove it on the street. But this is skipping a few steps, too, because you don't exactly just hop in an old military vehicle and start moving. In fact, it took the owner several minutes to explain the complicated driving process to me -- and while I won't bore you with all the specifics, I'll say this: The pedal area is so unbelievably small that my feet barely fit in, the windows are so small that I could barely see anything out of it, and changing gears was a rather counterintuitive process that involved pre-selecting the next gear and letting out a sort of clutch pedal when you were ready to actually begin traveling in it. It's also tremendously slow and rather hot inside the cabin, and we haven't even reached my favorite bit: The steering wheel is angled downward, toward the floor, which means your hands sit at an uncomfortable angle when you're steering.

Given these vast limitations, I drove the Ferret around a parking lot for approximately three minutes before I felt I was ready to bring it on public roads.

So our first adventure with the Ferret was to drive it to a gas station and fill it with fuel. The moment I got out on the road, I discovered that the Ferret is almost unbelievably slow; so slow that I'm not entirely sure it should be allowed on public roads, largely because it moves at approximately the same pace as a seal on land and with roughly the same level of dignity. I say that because the Ferret is not particularly attractive, or particularly graceful, especially with me at the wheel, fighting the controls, trying to stick my feet on the pedals and work the challenging clutch-and-gear lever situation.

Eventually, we arrived at the gas station, and what happened then was precisely as you might predict: An enormous number of fellow gas station attendees came up and asked why I, a regular human being wearing tennis shoes, was filling up a tank at a gas station in suburban Nashville. I considered telling them that "you never know when a war is coming." I did not.

After the gas station experience, I drove the Ferret to McDonald's, where I ordered some chicken nuggets while sitting in the turret and manning the machine gun. At this point, the owner of the Ferret did the driving, and I did the ordering, which is a tremendously inefficient system that I hope the British military fixed for the second generation of this design -- namely, in all military vehicles, you really should be able to drive and order fast food at the same time.

Unfortunately, this limitation of the Ferret especially underscored its largest problem, which is noise. Although the Ferret is not especially loud on the outside, it's almost unbelievably loud on the inside, to the point where people sitting inside -- supposedly, there's room for three -- will probably assume they are in active combat every single time they turn on the Ferret, even if they're actually sitting in an empty field. So what happened in the drive-thru was, I couldn't drive the Ferret from the turret, and the Ferret's owner couldn't hear when I had ordered the food so he could drive forward. We eventually developed a system to overcome this issue: I reached my leg down from the turret and kicked him in the back.

Eventually, after we finished in the gas station and after I got my McNuggets, my day with the Ferret was complete. Now, these may seem like two tremendously minor errands to you, a normal human with a normal car, but they were rather stressful in the Ferret -- largely due to the noise, the heat, the slowness, the limited visibility, the tight interior, the difficult driving experience and, oh yeah, the constant fear of police involvement because we had a fake machine gun mounted on the roof.

And so, these events took more than an hour in the Ferret, but they were tremendously exciting and also absolutely hilarious -- and I'm very glad I had the chance to drive this vehicle on the road, thousands of miles away from where it was commissioned, decades after it was made, in a situation where its builders never thought it would end up: suburban Nashville. Following our McDonald's adventure, we drove the Ferret to Chili's, parked it next to a Ford Taurus and had lunch. Mission accomplished.

Doug DeMuro is an automotive journalist who has written for many online and magazine publications. He once owned a Nissan Cube and a Ferrari 360 Modena. At the same time.

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I Drove an Armored Military Vehicle Around Nashville - Autotrader