Steve Preston, 51, owner of Sergeants Towing in Portland, Oregon, on his 1944 Buick “Hellcat” M18 tank destroyer, as told to A.J. Baime.
Once you’re a collector, you’re always a collector. But your passions can change. As a kid, I collected knives. Later, I got into military history, so I started collecting military knives, then guns, then eventually, vehicles. Now—though I never served in the military—I have about a dozen military vehicles, and most of them run.
Everyone knows what a Sherman tank looks like. A tank destroyer looks similar but has thinner armor and an open top turret, for greater speed and visibility. The Hellcat was the fastest tracked vehicle of any kind during World War II, with a top speed of about 55 mph.
Mine was built in 1944 by Buick in Flint, Mich., with a 975-cubic inch airplane engine in it. According to my records, it was sold as surplus after World War II to the Yugoslavian military, where it was used in the civil war there in the 1990s. I found it in Denver and bought it in 1999 for $60,000, and immediately set to restoring it. It loves aviation fuel, but I can pump regular leaded gas into it.
Now I donate rides for school and hospital fundraisers. The craziest thing I’ve ever done with it? At a car show in Portland, I showed up early and towed a 1984 Camaro with no engine in it into the middle of the grounds. Soon there were hundreds of cars there, and I had the announcer say: “Would whoever owns the 1984 Camaro, please move it, or we’re going to have it towed away.” Of course, nobody moved it. With everyone watching, I fired up the tank destroyer and crushed that Camaro. The crowds loved it.
I also take the tank destroyer to regular car shows, and park it among the other collector cars. Hey, it’s a 1944 Buick, right?