If you’re the U.S. Army and you need to get all kinds of personnel or equipment from a boat onto a beach, you need a landing craft. When you need to get a lot of personnel or equipment from a boat onto a beach, you need a very
big landing craft. These days, that sort of job is handled by massive hovercraft, but before those came along, the perfect solution had four wheels and 1,000 horsepower.
The LARC-LX was designed by R. G. LeTourneau, the same mad dreamer behind the U.S. military’s massive off-road land trains, and it was the largest wheeled amphibious vehicle ever made up until that point. Entering service in 1952, it saw its first combat action in Vietnam in 1967 and was used by the Army for just short of 50 years. Over time, the military sold some of them off to the public as they were gradually retired, so surprisingly, a lot of them are still around and running just fine. Today, they’re used for everything from joyrides to real marine logistics.
Originally called the BARC, the 100-ton behemoth was powered by four Detroit Diesel 6-71 engines producing 265-horsepower apiece, with each engine driving one wheel. Thanks to more-than 1,000 combined horsepower, the LARC-LX was capable of 15 mph over land or 7.5 mph at sea when empty, despite its immense weight. Those speeds go down a bit when it’s carrying a payload of 60 to 100 tons, of course.
Interestingly, all four wheels could steer independently. That meant the LARC-LX could turn especially tight by turning the front and rear axle in opposite directions—similar to a new S-Class—or it could “crab walk” like the new Hummer EV, moving sideways while also moving ahead. That was handy for making the 60-foot-long, 26-foot wide, and nearly 20-foot tall monstrosity seem just a bit smaller.
Typically, the LARC-LX was tasked with carrying heavy machinery to the shore in order to prepare a landing area. Stuff like excavators, bulldozers, and other heavy equipment likely also made by LeTourneau. Sometimes it would also carry equipment like tanks and fighting vehicles, but the fact that it could carry up to 200 troops seems more like a demonstration figure to show off more than anything else. The image of 200 excited soldiers running aboard a landing craft in full gear would certainly be a good way to sell your vehicle to the Army. In fact, a video of such a demonstration is in the video below.
If you watch that footage, you’ll notice a soldier running up to one of the LARC-LX’s more-than 8-foot-tall wheels and just making sure one of the nuts on it is tight. I wonder what the process for changing a flat tire on one of these is like. If I had to bet, a crane would be in order.
As previously mentioned, the enormous machines saw service all the way up to 2001, being gradually phased out in favor of larger hovercraft. If you’re wondering how they managed to stay at least somewhat relevant for nearly half a century, well, it’s a story of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” The LARC-LX stuck around because—in a nutshell—it required very little maintenance and was very reliable. If you needed to move a bunch of stuff through the water onto land, they were the go-to machines.
Also, despite getting just 1/10th of a mile per gallon, and yes, that’s ten gallons per mile, the LARC-LX was far more efficient than the massive gas turbine-powered hovercrafts that replaced it. The huge LACV-30 hovercrafts burned an average of 260 gallons per hour, as compared to just 38 for the LARC-LX, according to mastermarinesurveyor.com. The Army also liked how versatile they were, in fact, they still had 36 of them in 1979, well after the introduction of the LACV-30. In a report, the Army Materiel Systems Analysis Activity was quoted as saying “despite its shortcomings in speed, the LARC-LX has no major deficiencies and is probably the most versatile literate vessel in the current inventory.”
The Army also liked that it didn’t kick up any dust as the hovercraft did, could climb steeper gradients, and the fact that it had four engines instead of just two, made it more reliable. Indeed, the LARC-LX could still function if half of its engines were out of operation.
However, despite being reliable, versatile machines, they were officially put out of action in Oct. 2001. The story of the military’s use of them ends here, but happily, the story of the LARC-LX in civilian hands is still ongoing to this day. You can see one delivering a cement truck to a town on Long Island below.
A cursory search around Google or YouTube will have you finding LARC-LXs still in action all over the world. The Lane Motor Museum in Nashville has one it likes to crush cars with, one was recently shipped from Maine to the United Arab Emirates where it was restored, and at least one company in Maine is still using one to transport heavy equipment across bodies of water, and to remote locations. I know this because you can rent it on their website, and if you look up the company’s address on Google Maps, you can see it in their yard quite clearly.
On top of that, I’ve found one listing where you can just straight up buy one of these machines. The cost? Just $50,000. Is that a lot of money? Yes. Compare it to a car, though—you could either have that Toyota Sienna Minivan or a 100-ton, 1,000-horsepower amphibious landing craft. Up to you!
So this story has a happy ending, then. The military decided it needed to move a bunch of stuff onto land, it ended up getting the massive LARC-LX as a solution to that problem, and now 70 years later, you can buy one for the price of a well-optioned new car. The march of time may be unstoppable—but it appears the LARC-LX just might be as well.
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