Mark Renton, director of the Museum of American Armor, sits...

Mark Renton, director of the Museum of American Armor, sits on an M48 Patton tank that is among the 50 vehicles he and a staff of 30 volunteers help maintain. Credit: Morgan Campbell

Seated in the turret of an M74 Armored Recovery Vehicle, Mark Renton turns to a visitor — crammed into a tiny seat next to him behind one of the tank's 30-caliber machine guns — and explains the steps required to start up a 26-foot long, 56-ton vehicle built in 1954.

The process is more involved than pushing the ignition button on your average 21st century sport utility vehicle.

"You turn the magneto," says Renton, 57, pulling on a lever and pressing on a pedal, "you push the clutch down and" — the rest of his words are drowned out by the deep roar of the vehicle's 500-hp Ford V-8 engine reverberating through the steel frame of the M74. The converted Sherman tank, which never saw combat, is among those that had been retrofitted with a winch and spade to serve as a sort of tank tow truck.

At the sound of the rumbling engines, Renton smiles the way a scotch drinker might after sipping a rare single malt. It's a smile of satisfaction, an acknowledgment by an aficionado of something that is well made, something that performs as it's supposed to.

But lest any visitors get the idea that sitting 11 feet off the ground in a cocoon of 4-inch armor plating confers invulnerability, or that it must have been great fun to roll along the countryside at 20 mph flattening all obstacles in front of you, Renton is quick to offer — as the scotch connoisseur might not be — a sobering reminder.

"Pretty claustrophobic in here, isn't it?"

It is, acknowledges the visitor, whose knees are jammed up to his face.

"Noisy, too. Hard to hear each other right now, imagine if things were exploding around us."

What did you say?

"And what if this thing was hit by an antitank weapon, and you had to escape. Do you know how we'd do that?"

Uh … no.

Renton points to a small metal rectangle underneath the visitor: The escape hatch that appears barely wide enough to accommodate your average human thigh, much less an entire body. "You'd have to move the seat, open that hatch and squeeze yourself through it. If you were dead, we'd have to push you out of the way first."

Suddenly, the idea of sitting in a tank doesn't seem quite so glamorous.

Lifelong gearhead

As director of the Museum of American Armor in Old Bethpage, Renton likes to impart that lesson to visitors. He knows how cool the hardware is — he's kept it running since the museum opened 2014. Indeed, he and some of his volunteer crew of 30 are among a select few in the United States still capable of maintaining, fixing and operating such vintage vehicles.

But as much as he loves tinkering with the engines, as much as he appreciates the skillful design and manufacture of the armor used by the U.S.military in the second half of the 20th century, he knows that, at least for those who saw action — particularly in the epic tank battles fought in Europe during World War II — any glamour and excitement quickly faded.

"People suffered and died in these vehicles, to protect our freedoms," he says. "People, especially the young kids who visit us here, need to know that it wasn't a video game. There is no reset button."

But there are lots of gears, tubes, plugs, cranks and motors. And that aspect of mechanized armor is what attracts Renton to the museum's collection, which consists of 50 tanks, halftracks, armored scout cars, jeeps and other military and support vehicles (mostly from World War II, but including armored vehicles used in the Korean and Vietnam wars, as well).

This year's “World War II Encampment Weekend” at Old Bethpage Village Restoration will return on June 19-20. Kevin Carroll, the Museum of American Armor, community affairs director, explains what visitors can expect.  Credit: Newsday / Alejandra Villa Loarca/Alejandra Villa Loarca

A gearhead since he could hold a wrench, Renton displays the utmost respect for the quality of work that went into these machines, the most famous of which — the Sherman tank — first rolled off assembly lines 80 years ago this month (February 1942) and was a key factor in the defeat of Hitler's Germany.

The walls of Renton's office, in the museum's 25,000-foot facility adjoining Old Bethpage Village Restoration, are festooned with memorabilia that bespeaks not only his interest in military history — but family history as well. There are photos of Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt; a painting of the successful American attack on the bridge at Remagen, the armor-led assault that marked the beginning of the Allies’ final drive into the German heartland; and a recruiting poster for the World War I-era U.S. Tank Corps.

But there's also a photo of the aircraft carrier his father served on in the 1950s, and photos of the family's gas station in Freeport that was run by several generations of Renton's family from the early 1900s until a few years ago when Mark, by then the owner, sold it. Then a Gulf station on North Main Street, this was where Mark began, as a young boy, to learn how things work — and how to fix them.

Mark Renton maintains the Museum of American Armor's vehicles, which...

Mark Renton maintains the Museum of American Armor's vehicles, which perform maneuvers during the museum's World War II Weekends. Credit: Morgan Campbell

'Learned the old ways'

"My gas station was a throwback, because we did repairs," he said. "That's where I learned the old ways of mechanics and how to fix and build things."

There, under his father’s tutelage, young Renton learned how to fix flats, change oil and assist with basic repairs. He also pumped gas for customers — among whom, at the time, were still men who had served in what was then generally referred to as simply, "The War."

"I had a lot of World War II vets who were customers," Renton says. "A Tuskegee airman, a guy who served under Patton."

He learned from them as he learned from his father and other mechanics working at the station. The passing on of that generational knowledge has impressed Shane Ekberg, 35, a volunteer at the museum who assists Renton in vehicle maintenance. "Working with Mark reminds me of working with my father," said Ekberg, who lives in Plainview and has been a volunteer at the museum for the past year. "They grew up in that same era, where you had to be good with your hands, good with tools, to work on cars."

Renton also shares with Ekberg’s father a wariness of the post-analog world.

"He hasn't fully embraced digital technology, to say the least," chuckles Ekberg. "He wants to keep alive that old way of doing things. And if you're interested in learning those old ways, he's a good teacher."

"If there is such a thing as a tank whisperer, Mark is it. He can detect the sound of a misfiring engine cylinder at 50 feet," said Dave Levy, 54, of Melville who, under Renton's direction, led the museum's volunteer team in restoring the engine of the its prized World War II Sherman tank on its landmark anniversary.

A photo of Mark Renton, left, and Gary Lewi, hangs in...

A photo of Mark Renton, left, and Gary Lewi, hangs in Renton's office at the Museum of American Armor in Old Bethpage. Credit: Morgan Campbell

A car show meeting

Renton, who lives in Massapequa, has a collection of vehicles that he's built on his own. A lifelong volunteer firefighter, he built a vintage fire truck as a gift for his wife, Elaine, when they were dating (the couple married in 2005). For years, Mark and Elaine took the firetruck and a jeep that he had built from spare parts to local auto and air shows. It was at one such show, back in the mid-1990s where they met Gary Lewi, who would later be a driving force in the creation of the American Airpower Museum in East Farmingdale.

"I asked Mark to provide professional support for some of the vehicles there," said Lewi. "He repurposed a Grumman ‘tool train' into a people carrier that allowed visitors to safely inspect the flight line. That was, to me, an eye-opening example of his skill, his ability to repurpose equipment in a museum setting and an extraordinary work ethic."

By 2012, Lewi was involved with the nascent armor museum, which was founded by philanthropist Lawrence Kadish of Old Westbury and, along with a New York State grant, funded by $5 million of his own money.

"It became obvious we would need a paid, full-time professional," Lewi said. He knew just the man: So in 2013, Renton sold the service station in Freeport and accepted a full-time position at Museum of American Armor, which opened on June 6, 2014, the 70th anniversary of D-Day.

Military vehicles from the Museum of American Armor on Sunday delighted onlookers at an Independence Day parade held at Old Bethpage Village Restoration. Newsday’s Cecilia Dowd reports. Credit: Newsday / Raychel Brightman, Cecilia Dowd/Raychel Brightman, Cecilia Dowd

Speaking about Renton's skill, Lewi likes to tell this story. A few years back, Lewi says, the museum purchased an M8 tank from a broker who was apparently based in Southeast Asia. But the tank itself was in Europe. "Money is transferred, the broker is suddenly reported dead in the jungle, but the M8 arrives from the Jersey docks," said Lewi. "When we uncrated it, we find that it is, for all practical purposes, a shell."

Renton immediately began working his sources and using his mechanical imagination to find components — from engines to brakes — that would make the tank more than a stationary facade. "Among the improvisations he came up with were torsion bars you would normally find supporting railroad car suspensions," Lewi recalled. So, while the interior of that particular tank may not be historically accurate, "at least it allowed us to get it on the road, so to speak."

Now the museum's visitors (numbering about 16,000 annually pre-COVID-19) see a collection of painted, well-maintained and operational tanks and armored vehicles — a number of which take to the field in mock combat during the museum's popular World War II Weekends. Renton is responsible for making sure that all of this happens. Then again, keeping engines humming, keeping people in the driver's seat, whether the vehicle is a Sherman or a Subaru, is nothing new to him.

"It's what I've been doing all my life," he says.

Visit the museum

The Museum of American Armor is open 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Friday to Sunday; 1303 Round Swamp Rd., Old Bethpage; 516-454-8265;


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