Russian empire (1914)
Experimental vehicle – 1 prototype built
A weird behemoth
The Tsar tank, also known as the Lebedenko tank or Netopyr, is probably one of the weirdest armored fighting vehicles in history, and it seems more in place in a science fiction novel or steampunk nightmare than real-life. While not a tank in any way, as it had no tracks, the Tsar tank’s huge wheels were yet another answer to the problem of passing over rough terrain and other obstacles. A set of rear wheels were meant to stabilize the tank, while the front wheels, powered by a 250 hp engine each, would easily pass over most obstacles.
The idea was first envisioned by engineer Nikolai Lebedenko, and he also received help from Nikolai Zhukovsky, Boris Stechkin and Alexander Mikulin. A scale model with a spring motor was presented to the Tsar of the Russian Empire, and he was impressed by its ability to climb some thick books laid in front of the model. He decided to fund the project, and the tank earned the name of its sponsor, who would ultimately sink 250,000 rubles into it, which is equivalent to several tens of millions of dollars today.
A single prototype was built. The hull resembled a tuning fork, with the two 9 m wheels mounted on the arms. Each of them was powered by a 250 hp engine. At the center of the hull a large structure was added, containing a top turret and sponsoons. These would have held the Tsar tank’s crew, ammunition and armament, probably a myriad of cannons and machine-guns. The vehicle had to be dismounted into several parts in order to be transported.
The prototype was shipped to a proving ground 60 km from Moscow, where it was demonstrated in front of a commission. However, it soon got bogged down and it was not retrieved. The whole project was shut down along with the whole concept of ferris-wheel-tank, especially due to the costs and inefficiency of the concept. The prototype remained on the spot until 1923, when it was scrapped.
Would it have worked?
It is often stated that the Tsar tank was underpowered, but explaining its failure is not that simple. 500 hp, for the time, was a huge amount of power and even given the weight of the vehicle, its power-to-weight ratio would have been better than any other tank at the time, even the light Whippet. However, the way that power was transmitted to the wheels was crude. But the biggest problem of the Tsar tank was its weight distribution. Due to some miscalculations in the design phase, too much weight rested on the rear wheels, which, indeed, got stuck during the tests.
Due to the sheer dimensions of the vehicle, it would have been very prone to damage from artillery, especially the rather fragile front wheel. Also, the armament would have had very limited arcs of fire due to being blocked by the front wheels. But the pure psychological effect of seeing such a beast rolling towards the trenches would have been tremendous.