All right, you men, listen up. Abraham Shiepe has a few choice words to say about the glories of the American Way of Life.
"There's no place but the United States where you can start with just an idea, stand behind what you believe even if people think you're crazy and end up the way I have.I don't have a college degree, but I couldn't have done better in the stock market or if I went to school to become a doctor. Where else could a person come in with nothing and go out with everything he ever dreamed of?"
Even as he speaks these words, or to be more exact, shouts them above a dull mechanical roar, Abraham Shipe is staring straight ahead through a small rectangle of safety glass, his eyes focused on the four lanes of the San Diego Freeway. He is driving his idea, an 8 1/2-ton tank that can be hired out by the hour. Only in America, or to be more precise only in Los Angeles. "Anybody can rent a limosene in any city in the country," he says. "Where else can you rent a tank?"
Who would want to rent a tank for $35 an hour, driver included? Enough people to earn Shipe nearly half a million dollars in the nine years he's been in business. "There's no competition; it's like taking candy from a baby," the pleased owner says, pointing out that he's pretty much booked up through July of 1981. "i like the situation, it's like Studio 54, where the guy could choose who he wants to go in and out. It's unique."
Among the folks who've passed Shipe's muster are stars like Carol Burnett, Steve Allen, Lindsay Wagner, Tom Snyder and Merv Griffin. Cher has used it three or four times, as has the rock group Kiss. The tank is popular for such mundane tasks as taking people to dinner or picking them up at the airport --" for people who don't like to fight the traffic" -- and it gets called on about once a month to transport a groom to the church for a (ho ho) shotgun wedding.
Other tank jobs are more bizzare. A man used it to deliver a divorce decree to his wife, and when he aimed the tank's gun turret at her window, she burst into tears. Ford dealer and ex-race car driver Parnelli Jones decided to declare war on foreign cars as a gimmick and hired the tank to crush a Toyota, a VW and a Datsun, just like that. And then there are those adventurous souls who like to engage in a little tanky-panky.
"People like to do it in a tank," Shiepe says with a reasonably straight face, swearing that he knows of at least one Big Star -- no names please -- who used his vehicle for just such a purpose. He says his drivers -- he has five, including two moonlighting L.A. policemen, a Treasury Department agent, a lawyer and a psychiatrist -- are often propositioned by clients, "but they're told not to get involved with the passengers."
The tank in question is not technically a tank but an M20 MPC, or military personnel carrier, that moves on six enormous, 290-pound, foot-wide tires. It was made by Ford in 1943 and saw action in both World War II and Korea, where its three-quarter-inch steel plating presumably came in handy. "This is the kind of thing the big shots would ride around in to check up on the Shermans," Shipe explains. "General Patton would have ridden in this one."
After its fighting days were over, the tank was sold to MGM for $1. It gained a measure of fame as the hard-charging star of the TV series "Rat-Patrol," but in 1970 when the studio held a massive auction of surplus properties, it found itself on the block.
Abraham Shiepe was 25 at the time, a drugstore manager who dreamed of better things. He went to the auction to bid on the Cotton Blossom, a full-size riverboat he wanted to turn into a marnia restaurant, but dropped out of the bidding when he found the Cotton Blossom didn't have a bottom. He next turned his eye to a locomotive, but it went for a princely $65,000. Then he saw the tank. "When I was a kid, I never had any toys," he explains, "and even though I couldn't wind this up, I figured 'What the hell.'" At $2,000, it seemed like a bargin.
Shiepe's first problem with the tank was getting it street legal, the state of California being understandably reluctant to allow the big fellow the partol freely on its pristine highways and byways. One year of legal battles and $8,000 in legal fees later, he got it registered, helped, Shiepe feels, by his threat to sell it to a prominent black militant group eagar for a command vehicle.
Next came the process of fixing the tank, installing vinyl-covered benches, carpeting, a stereo system, even a color TV. The brakes had to be worked on because the tank took a full 100 feet to stop. The tank's original Hercules engine lasted for quite a while, but was replaced two years ago by a Corvette 400. For those interested in tank trivia, it takes premium gas and gets an unassuming 4 1/2 miles to the gallon.
Driving around in the tank does have its disadvantages. It is noisy, not heated or air-conditioned, and when it hits a bump so do the passengers. Yet after all, it is a tank , and it would probably take Ernest Hemingway to describe how honest and clean it feels to rumble down the street in one. "One good thing about a tank," says Shiepe placidly as he rolls over a parking lot barrier, "you go where you want. Driving it gives me the best feeling, a secure feeling. I know if I ever have an accident, I'm not going to feel anything."
The tank is a persona non grata in some parts of Los Angeles -- it's great weight would crack the water pipes under smaller streets and it tends to collapse most driveways. It is difficult to maintain -- Shiepe uses a mechanic from nearby Camp Pendleton -- and police are fond of pulling it over on general principals. Another problem is security: A lot of extremist groups, Shiepe hints darkly, would like to have it and "if it gets into the wrong hands it could do a lot of harm." As a result the tank "sleeps better than most people do," hidden away in a climate controlled shelter far from the prying eyes of men.
Still, Shiepe is so fond of his tank that when he gets tired of the business as he expects to in two or three years -- "you can only make so much money," he says by way of explanation -- he will donate it to a military museum instead of selling it to another entrepreneur. "Unless I die first," he adds quickly. "Then I want to be buried in it. Why? I figure its the safest place to be."