War is deadly serious business. But it takes some unconventional thinking and unbuttoned creativity to constantly dream up new ways to carry soldiers into war and annihilate the enemy. Check out this selection of wild wartime vehicles that proved a little too far out.
The Motor Scout
The last century of warfare has shown us that strapping a big gun to something that flies, dives or drives is not so much invention as a natural human compulsion. In 1898, two years after Henry Ford revealed his quadricyle in Detroit, a British inventor named F.R. Simms mounted an iron shield and a 1,000 round Maxim machine gun on a similar design and created the world’s first armed gas-powered vehicle.
Built to provide cover fire for advancing infantry, the Motor Scout had a 1.5 HP engine and a “petrol” tank capable of carrying enough fuel to travel 120 miles. (Simms is also credited with creating the term “petrol”.) Bicycle tires proved about as practical as a jaunty hat and dapper suit on uneven, crater strewn battlefields. Consequently, the Motor Scout never made it into mass production.
Ever since France’s quick surrender in World War II, the country has had a reputation for being a pushover, militarily. France probably did little to help their image in the eyes of enemies in Algeria and French Indochina where, in the 1950s, the cash-strapped nation began equipping some of their elite paratroopers with the cartoonish-looking Vespa 150 TAP.
Designed as a bunker buster that could also take on enemy tanks (seriously), the 11hp Vespa carried a 75mm, recoilless anti-armor rifle. It had a three-speed transmission, 8-inch wheels, and could travel at speeds up to 40 mph for over 100 miles before having to refuel.
Airdropped in pairs into enemy territory, a two-man team would unpack each scooter from palettes packed with hay bales (to provide low-budget, impact protection). Ammo was secured to one scooter while the other was strapped with the big gun and the tripod it mounted on for firing; the rifle lacked any aiming device and, thus, could not be fired safely without it. Around 500 “bazooka Vespas” were reportedly produced in the late 1950s and today are considered highly collectible.
Presumably, ramming a wooden pole through the spokes of a wheel would work just as well stopping a vehicle at the turn of the century as it would later in any number of Hollywood films depicting the stunt. This didn’t stop early Russian tank designers who, in 1915, began testing a drawing-board concept for a terrifying war machine that could ford shallow rivers, level enemy positions and, if the fight demanded it, flatten entire towns.
Bristling top to bottom with cannons and guns and capable of transporting a 10-man crew, a prototype “tsar tank” weighing in at 60 menacing tons utilized large Ferris-type front wheels nearly three-stories tall and independently driven by 250hp Sunbeam engines. A smaller rear steamroller-type wheel (only five feet off the ground) was intended to provide stability and maneuverability.
Testing began and quickly ended in a series of failed trials that showed how vulnerable the giant wheels were to mortars and artillery fire. There was also the issue of the tank’s enormous weight (and relative lack of power), which caused the machine to bog down in soft ground. In one such exhibition, a tsar tank became so inexorably stuck in a field outside of Moscow that the crew reportedly abandoned the vehicle until it was later salvaged as scrap in 1923.
In 1968, long before Imperial Walkers lumbered across the snowy planet of Hoth in Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, General Electric began working on a strangely similar form of quadruped robot that could be used to help carry infantry equipment over rough terrain.
Controlled by the hand and foot movements of a single human operator, a prototype version of the “walking truck” was delivered to the military for testing in 1970. Weighing over 3,000 pounds, the vehicle utilized a complicated hydraulic system that burned over 190 liters of oil per minute and could only cover around five miles before needing to refuel.
The U.S. Army ultimately decided that helicopters were more practical means of delivering troops and cargo and shipped the “walking truck” to the U.S. Army Transportation Museum in Fort Eustis, Virginia, where it currently remains on display.
In 1942, the British Army first began experimenting with the idea of a jeep that could leap over chasms and enemy positions because, well, wouldn’t that be totally badass?
The Air Ministry turned to Raoul Hafner, an Australian-born helicopter engineer, who basically combined a Willys MB with a 40-foot “gyro kite” to keep the vehicle aloft after being dropped from an aircraft or released from a tow vehicle.
Operating more like a glider than a real helicopter, the Hafner Rotabuggy reportedly took to the air for the first time in 1943 after being towed skyward behind a supercharged 4.5-liter Bentley. The vehicle was also successfully dropped from a Whitworth-Whitley bomber, with the most successful flight coming in 1944 when a Rotabuggy reportedly flew for 10 minutes at an altitude of 400 feet while hitting a top speed of 65 mph.
The British would continue to experiment with “flying jeep” technology into the 1960s with a prototype version that, instead of an external rotor, used lift fans built into the body of the vehicle. The later “Airgeep II” was surprisingly capable but far too costly to mass produce compared to lower maintenance helicopters that proved more rugged and versatile.