There are those who believe that less is more. They read Walt Whitman and Henry David Thoreau, dream of living in a cabin by a pond in the woods, and worship nature in all its divinity: they rake Zen gardens and marvel at a single blade of grass.
Then there are the Conquest Knight drivers – a group that is prepared to spend more than half a million dollars on a super-sized SUV that will crush ordinary cars, repel bullets, and keep an angry mob at bay should things go south in the streets.
I took a test drive recently, and can report that the Knight is a vehicle like no other. I knew from the spec sheets that it would be large, but seeing it in the flesh was still staggering: the Knight loomed at the curb like an aircraft carrier that had been painted black and decked out with solid chrome door handles.
"Think of it as an armoured private jet," said Conquest Vehicles president Bill Maizlin. "You're riding in luxury, but you're totally secure."
I could see what he meant. The Knight's door had the heft of a bank vault, and it closed with an ominous metallic thunk, like the mechanism of a giant artillery gun (the doors are secured by massive electromagnets and hinges that weigh more than 35 pounds apiece). Behind the wheel, I was lord of a rolling castle, and I briefly wondered if the Knight could be ordered with a drawbridge and boiling-oil dispensers.
I looked out through thick bulletproof windows over a long black hood that was slashed with cooling vents. The dash was studded with controls that included five different horns and sirens.
In the Knight, I was ready for anything, from a knife attack to a bazooka round – its reinforced steel hull was like a rolling bastille, and the tires were designed to go up to 40 kilometres even if they got shot off the rims. Next to an battle tank, this was about as secure as you could get.
The Knight was also the most attention-getting vehicle I've ever encountered. Within moments, it had attracted a throng of onlookers, who stared at the Knight as if it had arrived from another planet. (Several asked if we were shooting a movie.)
Until a couple of years ago, I'd never heard of Conquest Vehicles or the Knight. Against all odds, it's a Canadian company, with a small factory in Toronto's northern suburbs. Each Knight is built by hand, using Ford engines and running gear (usually the F-550 chassis). Conquest caters to a rarefied clientele who are prepared to spend more than the price of a Rolls-Royce for on an attention-getting fortress on wheels.
Maizlin started his company in 2008 after working with a firm that sold military hardware. "My idea was to bring military design to the high-end luxury civilian market," he said. "We weren't producing for the masses."
This was an understatement. Only seven Knights have been completed, and nine more are under construction. (The company has plans to scale up production and sell as many as 100 Knights per year.) The target buyer is security-minded, extroverted, and well-heeled. To date, every buyer has been male. (Among them is an American billionaire whose wife uses the Knight to drive their children to school.)
"In the Knight, you are sitting in an armoured cocoon," Mr. Maizlin told me. "That's what our clients want."
The company's key markets include Russia, the Middle East and Africa, where uneven wealth and sharp social division make a high-security vehicle especially desirable. The Knight is available in two versions – the fully armoured XV, and the lightweight Evade. In this case, "lightweight" is a relative term – the Evade weighs more than 7-1/4 tons – more than three Ford F-150s. (The Knight XV can top nine tons.)
Knight customers are offered a wide range of customization options. Among them are B7 ballistic plating (designed to stop an armor-piercing bullet), 76-mm thick windows, a granite-topped decanter bar with crystal glasses, a security safe, an oxygen survival system (in case of gas attacks) and custom-stitched leather seats. The XV version starts at $629,000 (U.S.), but some customers have pushed the price up to nearly a million with extra features like bombproof floors and customized interiors (one Middle Eastern oil magnate ordered his Knight with rubies and diamonds embedded in the dash).
Now it was time for my test drive. The Knight was the largest four-wheeled vehicle I'd ever driven. Passenger cars scurried around far below, like dinghies manoeuvring around a battleship, and I felt the Knight's seven-ton bulk through the seat of my pants – if I wasn't careful, I'd be picking Hondas and Chryslers out of my grille.
The Knight's weight came from more than just its size and security features. In back was a 32-inch Sony flat-screen TV, a PlayStation system, a satellite receiver, a granite bar and power-operated steps that folded out like the stairs of a Learjet. On top of the dash was a pair of video screens that showed the outside world through heat-sensitive cameras known as FLIR's – cars and pedestrians appeared on the screens as ghostly white shapes, like missile targets in a Tom Clancy film.
I wondered where I should go in the Knight – the financial district, perhaps? As attention-getting devices go, the Knight would make short work of the Bay Streeters' Porsches and BMWs. Or maybe I should go to a crime-ridden neighbourhood, where the Knight's steel fortifications would render me Glock-proof. I decided on Kensington Market, home to Toronto's single greatest concentration of social activists and environmental buffs.
Kensington is the spiritual home of the Occupy movement and the bicycle. Residents pride themselves on an art installation called the Earth Car (an old Ford that has been filled with dirt, converting it into a wheeled planter). So what would the Kensingtonians think of the Knight, which is designed to protect one per centers from the resentful masses? (And burns about 40 litres of fuel per 100 kilometres.)
As we wove our way through the market's narrow streets, every head turned. Jaws dropped, and countless people snapped our picture with their cell phone. Finally, I found a spot large enough to park the Knight (I used the FLIR screens to double-check that I wasn't running over any people or cars.)
I soon realized that the Knight was a social litmus test on wheels. "Who do you think you are?" one woman asked, shaking her head. A thin guy in sandals and a greasy-looking Cowichan sweater walked straight up to me, his lips contorted in fury: "Big tough guy in his big tough truck, right? Screw you!" (He didn't give me chance to tell him that I usually drive a 2002 Honda, but he probably wouldn't have approved of that either.)
But some others loved it. "That's wicked," said a young guy on a bicycle. "It looks like Terminator 4," said another.
A glassy-eyed man in dreadlocks watched in wonder as we deployed the Knight's electrically powered steps. He gazed at the rear compartment with its granite bar, hand-stitched leather and windows that would make an AK-47 bullet bounce off, and rendered his opinion: "Awesome ride."
He was soon pushed aside by yet another naysayer – a woman who gave me the kind of look that Donald Rumsfeld might get at a Greenpeace fundraiser. "That's just gross," she said. "I hope you're proud of yourself."
Maizlin shugged: "People either love it or hate it," he said. "You can't satisfy everybody."
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