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Buick M18 Hellcat Tank Destroyer First Drive

Posted in Vehicle Reviews on October 31, 2013 Comment (0)
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Buick M18 Hellcat Tank Destroyer First Drive
Photographers: Jim Fets

Over its 110 years as an automaker, Buick has been through a lot -- Prohibition, the Great Depression, oil embargos, bankruptcy, and even two World Wars. Like many Americans and American companies during World War II, Buick contributed heavily to the war effort. Not only did the Buick Motor Division of GM churn out ammunition and engines for the Army Air Force's B-24 bombers, but they also contributed by designing a completely new class of fighting vehicle -- the now-legendary M18 Hellcat tank destroyer -- designed to punch back against Hitler's panzer tanks. It was one of the fastest tracked vehicles ever produced.

The Buick M18 Hellcat does resemble a tank, but history buffs are quick to point out, it's actually a tank destroyer (TD) -- a now-defunct U.S. Army armor class. Back in the early '40s, doctrine dictated that well-armored tanks, like the Chrysler-built M4 Sherman medium tank, were to be used solely to support infantry assaults and cause havoc behind enemy lines, whereas destroyers like the Hellcat were supposed to use their speed and maneuverability to flank the enemy and destroy its armor before high-tailing it out of the danger zone.

With the war gearing up, early TDs were rushed into service, using existing platforms as the jumping off point. For example, the M3 TD was a halftrack with a 75 mm gun mounted on it, the M6 was a Dodge WC pickup with a 37 mm gun, and the M10 was essentially a Sherman tank with an open turret and paper-thin armor. The architects of the tank destroyer doctrine weren't at all happy with the improvised designs ( and neither were Army generals like George S. Patton, who argued that the Tank Destroyer would "just become another tank") and pushed for a ground-up TD design.

1944 Buick M18 Hellcat Tank Destroyer top view
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That design would ultimately become the M18. With the tank destroyer motto of "Seek, Strike, Destroy!" in mind, Buick was tasked with building the Army a prototype. Its design studio, under the tutelage of legendary automotive designer Harley Earl, went to work in the fall of 1941, mounting a closed turret with a 57mm gun onto the chassis of a light tank. Though transmission problems limited top speed to just 38 mph, the Army saw some potential in Buick's design and ordered two prototypes. With word of the thick frontal armor of the German panzer spreading, the Army ordered Buick to fit a larger 76 mm gun to one of the prototypes, and because of packaging and weight constraints with the new gun, Buick fit the new prototype with an open-topped turret. But the Army still wasn't satisfied -- they wanted more power out of its new tank destroyer, so Buick yanked its own engine out, and replaced it with a monstrous 16.0-liter supercharged radial nine-cylinder engine. Called the Continental R975 and found in the Sherman tank and aircraft like the Ford TriMotor, the engine made 400 hp and 940 lb-ft of torque, and was paired with a three-speed "Torqmatic" automatic transmission, giving the TD a top speed of 60 mph.

The Army called it the M18. Buick called it the Hellcat. As a finishing touch for publicity shots, the Earl design studio penned a logo for its creation that ended up becoming the emblem of America's tank destroyer force; it featured a black cat biting down on tank tracks with the TD motto of "Seek, Strike, Destroy!"

After rushing it through testing in the first half of 1943, the M18 Hellcat went into production at the Buick plant in Flint, Mich., in July of that year, costing taxpayers $55,230 a pop -- or about $746,000 in today's dollars. Buick initially was slated to build 8986 Hellcats for the U.S. Army and Lend-Lease recipients, but ultimately only 2507 would be built, with production ending in October of 1944.

1944 Buick M18 Hellcat Tank Destroyer yop gun
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The Hellcat was advanced for its day. Its rear-mounted engine and front-mounted transmission were designed for easy maintenance and, if necessary, could be swapped-out in the field, with the engine mounted on tracks that allowed it to easily slide out of its compartment. The M18 was also one of the first tanks with a torsion bar suspension -- a suspension design that's still used on modern day tanks like the M1 Abrams, and Russian T-90. Plus, its 60 mph top speed would allow it to run circles around German tanks, which usually topped out at around 25 mph on paved roads. In fact, the Hellcat's 60 mph top speed is about 20 mph faster than an M1 Abrams will do today -- though a former M1 crewman has told me that the Abrams is good for close to 70 mph with the speed limiter removed.

The Hellcat did have drawbacks though. Its 76 mm gun had limited punching power against the thick frontal armor of most German tanks (a problem not just limited to the Hellcat) and its open turret meant its crew was susceptible to snipers, artillery fire, shrapnel, and grenades. Its armor was also paper-thin -- just an inch at its thickest -- a tradeoff its designers made in an effort to increase its speed and agility.

Despite the limited number of Hellcats produced compared to other tank destroyers, it performed admirably in combat. The M18 fired its first shot in anger at German panzers during September of 1944, when a unit knocked out eight enemy tanks with no loses of its own. In an even larger engagement later that month, five Hellcats of the 704th TD Battalion ambushed a column of more than 30 German tanks, knocking out 19 panzers. Just two Hellcats were lost. The Hellcat would go on to serve with distinction in major battles across Europe, including the Battle of the Bulge. The Hellcat would even find success in the Pacific Theater, where the only deployed M18 battalion played a key role in liberating the Philippines from the Japanese. Post-war, the Hellcat would go on to serve in the Italian, Greek, and Taiwanese armies, as well as on the other side of the Iron Curtain in the Yugoslav People's Army and Bosnian Serb Army, among others.

That brings us to 'our' Hellcat, which is owned by the Sloan Museum in Flint, Mich. Purchased for around $48,000 in 2001, our Hellcat has a pretty interesting history. Some time after the World War II, our M18 was given to the Yugoslavian Army, where it served throughout the Cold War. After the fall of the Iron Curtain, it was used in combat during the Bosnian conflict of the mid-90s, before it was disabled by an RPG that blew its left track off. After the war, the Sloan Museum and Buick bought this Hellcat from the former Yugoslavia and brought it back home to Flint. Though running, it was in rough shape (see sidebar/gallery); it was etched in graffiti commemorating accused-war-criminal Slobodan Milosevic. The Sloan Museum, together with its Auto Maintenance & Restoration head Jacob Gilbert, ace mechanic and historian Bill Gross, and a team of volunteers turned the graffiti-covered hulk into a completely functioning piece of history that looks as it did when it rolled out of the Buick factory in 1944. It's worth mentioning that the Sloan Museum's Hellcat wears the same serial number it did as when it served in the U.S. Army during World War II; any veterans that recognize it (or better yet crewed it) are invited to reach out to the museum, as they'd love to learn more about its service.

That's what brought me to a little farm outside of Flint -- the chance to not only experience history, but live it (not to mention live out my childhood dreams). But before I could drive it, the M18 had to be started up. Starting up the Hellcat is a much more labor intensive process than just twisting the key and pushing a button; starting up the Hellcat requires manually cranking the engine, turning three fuel valves on, priming, and eight other steps -- and that's under normal conditions. Only once all those steps are complete can you set the magneto switches to on and fire the tank up. You know you've done it right by the lovely racket of the nine-cylinder supercharged radial and the plume of white smoke it sends up as it gets chugging.

1944 Buick M18 Hellcat Tank Destroyer side view in motion
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Once it's started it, you've got to actually move it. Unlike the brave kids who fought in Hellcats during the war, my Army training is limited to three-years of JROTC in high school. Luckily I've got Bill Gross helping me out in the driver's position, while I get to use the dual-controls in the co-driver's spot. As Bill shows me, driving the Hellcat is actually pretty simple, with the most complicated task being manually setting the idle RPM via a hand throttle in front of the driver's position. Next, as you'd do in any car or truck, you shift the automatic transmission into first gear, put your foot on the accelerator, and you're off. Only, there's no brake pedal. Or steering wheel, for that matter. Braking and steering is handled by two levers mounted in front of you, with each controlling the corresponding side's brakes. Pulling left brakes the left track turning the TD left, while pulling right has the opposite effect; pulling both levers towards you stops the Hellcat.

Driving a tank (excuse me, Tank Destroyer) is like nothing else I've ever experienced. Everything from the rumbling radial behind you, to the controls at your waist, to the view out ahead, with the big 76 mm gun point forwards just makes you feel like such a complete and total badass. Despite the complicated start up process, the Hellcat is actually pretty easy to drive. Any and everything seemed possible. After donning a period-correct tanker's helmet and watching Bill absolutely destroy a freshly mowed field from the co-driver's position, I was itching to give it a shot. I unlocked the co-driver's control levers and took over.

1944 Buick M18 Hellcat Tank Destroyer engine
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The first thing that shocked me is just how quick the Hellcat gets out of the hole. Slam the Torqmatic into first, and put your foot down on the accelerator and the M18 just hooks up and goes like a, well, cat out of hell. It's astonishing how quick this 69-year-old 18 ton TD is. Credit that to the 940 lb-ft of torque on tap. Somewhat counter-intuitively (but I'm sure to the delight of the kids that drove Hellcats during the War), the faster you go, the easier the TD drives. For example, by the time I took the controls of the Hellcat, the field we were driving on had become what'd be a challenging off-road course for wheeled vehicles, with deep, soft dirt washouts, massive whoops, and plenty of odd-angled ruts and dips. The best way to handle them in the Hellcat, Bill assured me, was to go faster. And boy was he right. The Hellcat is so quick that there are rumors of servicemen in M18s facing off against Willys Jeeps in drag races, with the Hellcat destroying the Jeep off the line.

Keep the throttle pinned and the Hellcat just plows through piles of dirt, and powers over large ruts, plowed fields, and pretty much anything else in its path. The crazy part is that the Hellcat just doesn't even seem to notice obstacles -- it just floats right over them. The ride is seriously cushy, and not at all punishing. Hate to say it, but this almost 70-year-old tank rides better than many, many vehicles I've driven. The closest street-legal comparison would be to the Ford F-150 SVT Raptor, which also has a remarkable ability to go fast in places where you just shouldn't be able to.

Another counter-intuitive trait belonging to the Hellcat is that the faster you go, the better it turns. With most fast off-roaders, you want to slow down before you make a sharp turn or maneuver; otherwise physics introduces your roof to terra firma. With the M18, when you yank the left or right lever (and I mean yank, those things require some effort), the tank leans, the track digs in, and it hooks up and goes. Do it right and you not only maintain your speed through the turn, but you get a very satisfying little drift and a bunch of dirt in your face. There is nothing, and I mean nothing quite like drifting an armored vehicle.

1944 Buick M18 Hellcat Tank Destroyer fire extingiishing system

The only real hitch with the Hellcat is remembering to keep your foot on the throttle to keep the revs up, so the radial engine out back doesn't bog down. The only other draw-back with the M18 is that its cockpit is super small. At six-feet tall, I'd probably have been too tall for TD duty during the War but at least sitting in a driver's position I'd have had a roof over my head. The commander, loader, and gunner sat in the open turret, making them vulnerable to shrapnel, snipers, grenades -- you name it.

Thankfully, I was just in an empty field in Michigan, and none of that really mattered. To the brave soldiers crewing Hellcats back during World War II in a strange foreign land, all of that was a very real concern that each crew took into battle. Despite its thin armor and exposed turret, Hellcat crews would claim 526 enemy armored vehicles destroyed, with just 217 Hellcats lost in action. Its exemplary service record is just as much a testament to Buick's engineering the Hellcat to be the fastest tank destroyer ever, as it is to the young men who bravely took them into battle.

Though ultimately just a blip in Buick's long history, the M18 Hellcat represents a time when Buick and the rest of America stepped up to change the world forever, and that's something always worth remembering.

1944 Buick M18 Hellcat Tank Destroyer front three quarters in motion
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1944 Buick M18 Hellcat
Base price $55,230 (1944)
VEHICLE LAYOUT Rear-engine, front-drive, 5-pass,2-door tank destroyer
ENGINE 16.0L/400-hp/940-lb-ft air-cooled supercharged radial-9
TRANSMISSION 3-speed automatic
CURB WEIGHT 36,510 lbs.
LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT 262 x 113 x 101 in
GROUND CLEARANCE 14.25 in
APPROACH ANGLE 28 degrees
DEPARTURE ANGLE 26.5 degrees
FORDING DEPTH 48 in
MAXIMUM GRADE 60 Percent
MAXIMUM VERTICAL WALL 36 in
RECCOMENED FUEL 80 octane gas
FUEL CAPACITY 75 gal (left tank); 90 gal (right tank); 165 gal total
RANGE 100 miles (on-road)
TOP SPEED 60 mph
ARMOR Steel, 0.19- to 1.0-inches thick
ARMANMENT M1A12 76 mm gun (primary); M2 .50 cal. machine gun (secondary)
AMUNITION STORAGE 45 76 mm rounds; 800 .50 cal. rounds

This story originally appeared in sister publication Truck Trend magazine.

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