FLINT, Michigan -- Will Foster never has too much trouble getting a parking spot for his second vehicle.
After all, who's going to argue with a guy driving a half-scale Panzer tank complete with a working air cannon?
"I took it home, driving it around in this white picket fence neighborhood and one of the neighbors called the cops on us," said Foster, a Kettering University student who began building the tank from scratch nearly two years ago.
"(Police) came and they just told us to head back home, but they were also laughing at it because they had never seen anything like that before."
That's an understatement.
Roughly the size of a small car, Foster's tank can reach speeds of around 20 mph with its three-cylinder diesel engine. Just like the real thing, the tank runs on treads and has a 360-degree cannon powered by compressed air from a scuba tank.
Its camouflaged plywood exterior has become a curious fixture at Foster's Theta Xi fraternity house, where it is often parked next to a shed with a sign that reads "Panzer parking. Violators will be totaled."
A builder and tinkerer since he made his first tree house at age 9, the Annapolis, Md., native came up with his first designs for the tank when he was 14.
But, he didn't have the money or manpower to pull it off.
Seeing golf carts dressed up as tanks in paintball competitions rekindled the idea and it gained momentum when he arrived at Kettering in the summer of 2006.
"I said to the guys at the house, 'Can I build a tank in the parking lot here?' because lots of guys have their projects that they're working on," he said.
The whole house has had a hand in building the tank.
"It's been a lot of trial and error. As it is now I've probably got $2,000 worth of parts on it, but about $10,000 total has gone into it because I'd buy a $200 part that didn't work, then go to a $300 part that didn't work before finding a $50 part that did," he said.
An early version based off the drive system of a lawn mower failed quickly, sending Foster and his cohorts to studying the hydraulic systems of Bobcat-style construction equipment.
It was a step in the right direction, but still there were problems. Two more drive systems failed, and it took four major alterations to the tread to keep the tracks from slipping off the drive wheel.
Through it all Foster stayed intensely focused on solving problems as they crept up, impressing his fellow engineers to be.
"He's a genius when to comes to visualization of a problem, seeing what needs to be done and figuring out every step along the way that needs to happen," said Steve Sankey, 27, a fraternity brother who pitched in on the tank's construction.
"We'd all work on it and there were lots of those lightbulb moments when we were trying to figure out a problem with it. The tank has kind of become a part of Theta Xi."
Aside from being a fun problem and curiosity -- "Kids run after us like we're the ice cream man when we take it out," Foster remarks -- the tank has given Foster valuable job experience.
After listing it on his resume Foster was recruited by armored vehicle maker Force Protection Inc. for a summer co-op job that he starts this month.
"They asked me a lot about it and that's the kind of engineering job I've always wanted, so it's great," he said. "I've always been a builder but not someone with all the book smarts, so I love stuff like this rather than being one of the people at school with great grades who can't turn a wrench."
Foster's predilection for tinkering -- his 1986 Chevy Silverado was rescued from a junkyard and now has a 10-inch lift and 37-inch wheels -- is endearing to girlfriend Heidi Clark, a recent Kettering graduate who has also helped problem solve and build the tank.
"When there's a problem with it that's all he'll think about and he stays really, really focused on it until he can figure it out," she said. "It's funny because he gets all these stares from people because they don't know what this thing is or who would have something like that."
He's getting used to the stares -- even the frequent interest of police, especially when towing the tank on a trailer between Michigan and Maryland.
Usually, Foster said police just ask for his license and registration before sending him back on his way.
"I tried to not mention that it had a working cannon on top."
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