Baby, you can drive my tank

Our occasional series, putting professional drivers in their fantasy cars, sees Shane White in a DB7, writes Matthew Gwyther; DRIVING AMBITIONS 2: THE TANK DRIVER
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You would not want to meet Corporal Shane "Snowy" White of the 9th/12th Royal Lancers (Prince of Wales's) coming the other way down a double-parked road when he is in command of his everyday set of wheels. (Not that his vehicle has wheels.) Cpl White is a member of "the heavy troop" and his 12ft-wide machine, tracks and all, weighs in at 62 tons.

He's got some interesting extras fitted, as well. If we're lucky we get leather; if we're from Essex we stick on a spoiler. Cpl White, however, has a "fixed cupola with SFIM gyrostabilised panoramic sight incorporating Nd-YAG laser rangefinder," not to mention a Coax MG - Hughes 7.62mm chain gun and two banks of 5 x L8 grenade dischargers just in case road rage ever gets the better of him. Such extras add to the on-the-road price, however, which is in the region of a cool pounds 3 million. (And when you wear them out, a new set of tracks is pounds 36,000.)

Cpl White is currently on long-term secondment to the Royal Armoured Corps Vehicle Squadron, based at Bovington camp in Dorset, where his task is to keep a squadron of these Challenger 2 tanks on the road. Although he's qualified as a tank instructor his real job, and true love, lies elsewhere and is with smaller, faster reconnaissance vehicles. "Our job in battle is to go up to 180 kilometres forward of our troops and observe," he says. "If the enemy sees you, you've got to get out quick but still stay in touch."

He is a car man through and through, born up to his elbows in sump oil. "I just love cars," he says. "That's why I specialised as a driver/ mechanic." His first vehicle, aged 17, was a Citroen Pallas estate. "We called it the hearse after I painted it black," he recalls. "We all used to travel home in it from the camp with our kit bags in the back, but the insurance crippled me in the end." He traded it in for a Vauxhall Chevette, a model which vies with the Allegro for Nastiest British Car Ever. "It was a really sporty version," says White in its defence. "It had alloys, a boot spoiler and I blew three engines."

From that he moved on to a tax-free Mitsubishi Colt bought while on a tour in Germany. "That was a mistake. I got conned into five years of finance on that one." Ever restless for a new drive, he got himself a Ford Orion 1.6 Ghia. "I stuck on twin Webers, a special fast cam, an air filter, a big-bore exhaust, 15in alloy wheels and a full Ford RS body kit. I sprayed it completely white including the wing mirrors and the number plate surround. It was really nice and turned the heads. My boy racing days have slightly gone now, though," he says wistfully. Since the arrival of his daughter, Jasmine, the family wheels have been a bomb- and-baby-proof Mitsubishi Spacewagon.

No less resilient, the Challenger is renowned for its secret Chobham armour that is supposed to give the tank's occupants a fighting chance if they get hit by enemy fire. "The last thing you want to do in a tank is get hit," says White. "It's very scary, so you go round hills not over them and peek over ridges. Not a lot can penetrate Chobham but if you took a direct hit you'd get pretty banged about. These days there are two sorts of shells - heat rounds and high-explosive squash heads. Heat rounds have a solid rod of metal inside which goes molten on impact and jets through armour. Squash heads are cone shaped and splat like putty when they hit you. The shock wave tears off a scab of metal which flies around inside the turret and destroys whatever's in there. Getting hit by one of them is the worst thing that can ever happen."

The Challenger isn't hugely luxurious inside, although the gun loader can make a cup of tea on board in the seven-pint kettle. Despite its hydrogas suspension the tank gives a bumpy ride over rough ground and it's as well to get a firm grip when the driver yells: "Brace, brace, brace," otherwise you could end up with a bad case of tank crew elbow and knee. Its 12 cylinder, 1,200 horse-power engine with twin turbochargers can propel it forwards or backwards at about 37mph on roads and at 25mph across country where it will flatten most obstacles in its path.

For his Dream Machine, Cpl White chose something a little better appointed internally, the Aston Martin DB7. The DB7 was a landmark car for Aston Martin - now part of Ford. Previously, its output had been quite literally hand-made. Sheets of aluminium were beaten into shape by craftsmen in leather aprons and engines were pieced together by master engineers.

The DB7 is put together by more conventional production-line methods and consequently is cheaper than its pounds 177,000 older brother the Vantage. A DB7 can be yours for a mere pounds 78,500. "It's possibly just a little bit out of my price bracket," admits Cpl White. "If I was to win the Lottery I'd buy one immediately but until then, like most people, I'll stay in my dream world." By contrast, the fuel consumption would give him nightmares - the guzzling so appalling that its manufacturer doesn't release any figures. Cpl White had to make several trips to the petrol station during his 48 hours.

Although he clearly appreciated the Connolly hide interior, what really got Cpl White going was the DB7's speed. It's more of a big grand tourer than a seat of the pants sports car but it can shift. "It's tremendous," said White. "The best car I've ever driven in my life. It was the acceleration that made it for me. It sounds like a turbine and if you put your foot down hard it'll go right up and keep on going until you ease off." The car is capable of 165mph but not on the summer roads of Dorset, which are laden with gently swaying caravans.

In fact, it was the more sedate moments with his Dream Car that brought out the poet in Cpl White. "In the evening we drove off to Bournemouth. Just the two of us. We had a picnic hamper in the boot with strawberries, cream and lemonade.

"You can drive right up to the sea. It was around 11 o'clock and we put the seats right back. We turned the map-light on and had the cream on the gearbox tunnel. They had some sort of candle fair on, so everything was lit up. It was really romantic. That was the life. We both felt quite special." !