Symposium: Think Tanks
How does a gentleman who owns 60 tanks celebrate the Fourth of July? However he wants to. In the case of Jacques Littlefield, he will invite several dozen guests to his 470-acre ranch in Portola Valley, Calif., where they will snack, chat, and then cheer as he drives one of his German Panzer tanks over a rattling 1975 Buick Skylark. “People always find that interesting,” Littlefield says.
Given the uncertain nature of these times, the folks of Portola Valley might also find Littlefield’s demonstration of military might reassuring. They can take further comfort knowing that their neighbor’s collection of more than 200 military vehicles also includes self-propelled guns, armored personnel carriers, and antiaircraft vehicles. At most, a dozen collectors in the country possess similar stables of war machines.
Littlefield’s bent for bellicose machinery began rather harmlessly when he purchased several tractors and fire engines after graduating from Stanford in 1973. When he progressed to tanks about a decade ago, he benefited from fortuitous political and economic timing. A surplus of vehicles from Czechoslovakia and other former communist nations became available at reasonable prices— some as low as $1,000, thanks to the recession of the early 1990s.
Because of his collection, Littlefield is known in social circles as the Tank Guy. More than once, Littlefield has found himself at a social function where his reputation has preceded him. Yes, he admits, the notoriety brings a guilty pleasure. “It didn’t take long to become a big fish in a small pond,” Littlefield says. “It’s a niche where it’s possible to be a really major player, and there’s a certain amount of satisfaction from that alone.”
Ours is, after all, an age of specialists. The more specialized you are, the more significant you can become. To obtain his doctorate in music, my brother-in-law wrote a 300-page dissertation on African-American vocal inflections from the Motown era to the present; he landed a tenure-track job before even defending his piece. Likewise, I once met a man who collected original comic strip art. It was an untapped niche, and he soon was able to quit the real estate profession to become a full-time comic strip broker. When he died, he left a museum-quality chronicle of 20th-century American newspaper comics.
In collecting terms, anyone can graduate from the seedlings of baseball cards to Bugattis. Concours after concours features the prizes of car collectors, the ubiquitous Hispano-Suizas and Pierce-Arrows and Packards. But plant a hulking Sturmgeschütz III—one of the jewels of Littlefield’s collection—on the 18th green at Pebble Beach, and even if the Best in Show prize eludes your grasp, you are certain to become the center of attention. “I wouldn’t be as prominent if I collected boats or cars,” Littlefield acknowledges.
As the Tank Guy, however, Littlefield has become chairman of the U.S. Army’s Patton Museum of Cavalry and Armor. He has lent his vehicles to the producers of Saving Private Ryan and other films, and he leads nearly 4,000 people a year on tours of his collection. Highlights include the 222, a rare World War II German armored car, and England’s Conqueror tank, which weighs 73 tons when loaded with soldiers and ammunition. Littlefield is the only collector in the world who owns the jumbo-size Cold War tanks of the Soviet Union, the United States, and the United Kingdom.
Reputation comes at a cost. Littlefield says that he has invested “multiples of millions” in his collection; highly coveted pieces can fetch $100,000. He will continue to add to his collection, but his acquisitions are growing ever more selective. “Now I’m looking for the really difficult things to find,” says Littlefield, who wishes for a German Tiger. “As with art, you move past modern art and the Picassos and start to look for a Titian.”
As an enthusiast of all things mechanical, Littlefield says that what he ultimately derives from his hobby is the pleasure of seeing something old and dilapidated restored to its former glory, ready to go into battle—albeit against a rusting Buick.