Windows vibrate. Doors fly open. My usually calm neighbor John runs by and goes berserk, arms flailing, mouth moving and yet no audible words come out. A 22-ton tracked agricultural vehicle is parked just outside his door.
This feature was originally published in issue #147 of Top Gear Magazine (2005)
His peace (and more than a small part of the surface of his driveway) has just been shattered by the delivery of an Agco Challenger MT875B, no less than the world’s largest and most powerful tractor. With an exhaust pipe that rises like an elephant-infested lamppost from the side of the engine bay, it’s almost certainly the loudest too.
Call it an exaggerated self-defense reaction to the incompetence of other road users I encounter on my daily 30-mile drive to London, or even a gesture of political correctness with the pants down, cheeks pressed against the window, this behemoth of £ 226,000 in the yard is what I’m working towards today.
A major dilemma is already emerging. There seems to be a good chance that the Challenger will get stuck before I’ve even had a chance to get its massive mass moving.
Freshening myself up as I venture out into the crowds, climbing aboard alone proves to be quite an accomplishment. There are stairs to climb to the cabin, then the air suspension seat has to be adjusted in all directions to suit my weight and shape. Scattered before me is a vast array of controls guaranteed to cause utter panic for anyone more accustomed to a car.
Instead of a throttle, there’s a sliding hand throttle, as last used on the Millennium Falcon’s bridge to make the jump to lightspeed, but it’s unlikely to produce the same result here. Instead of a conventional gearbox there is a push button powershift transmission, with sixteen forward speeds and four reverse gears. And instead of regular tires, there are 12 wheels in deep-profile, rubber-coated tracks.
The ridiculous thing is that anyone with a car license can drive a vehicle like this unaccompanied, as long as it has L plates. I get instructor Richard Miller wrong; at the very least, the extra pair of eyes should be useful.
It’s impossible to ignore the scale of the Challenger. I had a feeling it would be similar to a truck, but oh no. With a diameter of 3.4 meters, it is a full meter wider. That’s the equivalent of driving two Fiestas side by side, with space between them. The avenue where I live is narrow, one-way, with cars parked on one side. I have no hope of escaping.
It swings violently forward. Up front is an 18.1-litre Caterpillar turbocharged diesel engine, a locomotive-style turbocharged inline six-cylinder that produces 570 hp and a ludicrous 1,916 Nm of torque. It can also provide a brief boost of 42 percent, if a plow pulled behind it is observed to get stuck in the ground.
I struggle to place this monster with millimeter precision on each side, a crowd now gathered like spectators at a medieval execution.
“Steady,” shouts Richard, the sensitive speed-variable steering threatening to whip the rear end around and wreak even more destruction. Because the tracks can rotate at different speeds, the Challenger can pull a full 360 within its own length.
Like the release after a long period of constipation, it somehow comes off the track. The relief is written big on my face as I am hit with a brief but ill-advised sense of invincibility.
The route ahead will bring many more obstacles. With a top speed limited to 40 km/h, the Challenger is banned from highways. Instead we head down the A41, bypassing Watford before reaching North London. Possibly, quite literally.
The speed differential at the entrance to the dual carriageway is terrifying as cars speed past at 70 mph and above. Close to the controls for the air conditioning and a CD player, I find a switch for the amber lights on the roof. They flicker away, providing vital warning of what’s about to form a rolling roadblock ahead.
Inevitably, the Challenger will have to travel over two lanes. In an effort not to witness the complete embarrassment of the queue behind me, I concentrate on maintaining a straight course. Had I gone off-roading instead, there would have been a gadget on board that could very well have helped. A satellite navigation system can be linked to the steering to make small automatic adjustments, allowing dead straight lines to be plowed across fields with centimeter accuracy. You can see the use in a machine that is mainly sold for carving out vast swathes of the US Midwest.
While the Challenger is undoubtedly intimidating in stature, I somehow feel less tension than during my typical run-in to work. There’s a perverse sense of fun to be had from the look of panic on the faces of drivers in front of me as I emerge at intersections. Also nobody dares to cut into me on roundabouts; of course, the chances of them being able to get through are slim. And for the first time ever, triggering a Gatso camera has become a physical impossibility.
Yet dangers that have never occurred to me now call for consideration. At Staples Corner, one of the busiest arteries leading traffic into central London, I approach a height-restricted railway bridge. If the Challenger is rammed under this, half of the capital could come to a standstill. I back off the throttle, move the gear lever down to tenth and hit the big brake pedal hard, before briefly stepping on the creeper pedal that cuts out the drive… none of that comes instinctively when faced with the need to accelerate quickly. Pull . The Challenger stands squarely in the middle of the arch and just passes through it.
Possibly the hairiest stretch between home and the offices of Top Gear in White City is now ahead. There is no room for shyness; in every traffic jam, mouths drop open, fingers point and telephone cameras appear. A student taxi driver doing The Knowledge nearly flings himself off his step-through moped while trying to grab a shot.
A little further on, a white van man leans out of his window and makes an up-and-down motion with his flattened palm; it takes me a moment to realize that this isn’t a dirty gesture, but rather a suggestion that I drive right over the edge of the growl ahead. The closest I get is when I’m forced to drive the tracks over curbs and the edges of traffic islands through the tightest sections of Edgware Road and Ladbroke Grove.
The truth is that there are some insanely small escapes. A police officer watches in amazement as I brush past a row of cones, possibly confused as to which of the many traffic offenses he needs me for. Soon after, a couple of scaffolders politely jump into their truck and move it well out of the way for me to get through. Somehow it seems fitting that a poorly parked Land Cruiser Amazon is the closest thing to being crushed, as the tractor’s extra, downward-pointing side mirrors reveal what a close touch of destruction it just had.
Resisting the temptation to take a shortcut right through the middle of Shepherd’s Bush Green, I make my way to HQ. I make one final 90-degree turn and stop at reception, the mass of the Challenger extinguishing the light from the building’s pebble-strewn facade, colleagues gaping silently.
My journey to work has never felt like such a mission. When I look at my watch, it’s 5:00 PM. I managed to arrive just in time to turn back and take on the epic journey home.