It was in the unlikely setting of a notorious road junction in southwest England called the Magic Roundabout that 9.5 tonnes of Hong Kong history came to the bemused attention of the police one Friday night.

The astonishment of the officers in Swindon was understandable. After all, it isn't every day that a hulking blue armoured car, "armed" and with Chinese markings, brings two lanes of a busy intersection to a standstill.

On board the marooned vehicle were a party of teenage girls on their way to a school prom and the somewhat flustered owner of the Saracen Mark II armoured car, surgeon Phill Burgess, who had bought it months earlier.

"The girls on board were the daughters of people who drink in The Plough," 62-year-old Burgess explains, referring to his local pub, behind which he keeps his Saracen. "We broke down 10 yards from where we were supposed to take them. When we broke down I rang the wife and said, 'Guess what? We've broken down on the Magic Roundabout.'

"She then texted my daughter, Sarah, who's up in Lancashire and said, 'Your dad's broken down with his damn tank on the Magic Roundabout. My daughter then put it on Facebook and said, 'To all my mates in Swindon, don't go near the centre, because my father's down there blocking the road with his tank.'

"She got a message back from her friend Jess, who is in Swindon police. She said, 'Yes we know - we're on the way.' The police turned up and started putting cones around us because we were blocking two lanes of traffic, and one of the coppers came up and said, 'Are you Sarah's dad?' and then said into his radio, 'Yes, Jess, it's him.' After that, the police escorted us back home in case we broke down again."

Incongruous in small-town England, the armoured car would nevertheless have been a familiar sight to any passing middle-aged motorist who'd spent their earlier years in Hong Kong. The vehicle was one of 15 Saracen armoured cars, numbered one to 15, that patrolled the streets of the city from 1970 until the late 80s, undertaking crowd-control duties and appearing at Queen Elizabeth's birthday parades and police passing-out ceremonies.

One of the vehicles came to a sticky end early in its Hong Kong posting. "No 13 was doing a cash escort to/from Queen Mary Hospital in very wet weather when the tyres lost adhesion and it went over the side of Pokfulam Road," says Ian Stenton, the first full-time officer commanding the Saracen fleet. "Very, very luckily, whilst the crew were rattled around inside rather considerably, they had no serious injuries. The vehicle was however considered a write-off.

"We operated from Yuen Long Police Station, at first, despite being part of PTU [the Police Tactical Unit]," says Stenton. "In the books, all 15 operated out from Yuen Long but, in actuality, operational requirements required one to be in Police HQ - for the HKI and the commissioner - and one in Kowloon - for the K regional commander. Later on, one was always rostered for some form of servicing by the government garage in Sung Wong Toi​. As time went by, and after we'd moved to PTU proper, one was also stripped down for a major overhaul - which could take around three months."   

Built by Alvis of Coventry from the early 50s onwards for the British Army, the Saracen has a colourful history, having seen active service in Northern Ireland, Aden, in the Middle East, Malaysia, Bosnia, Sri Lanka, Soweto, Namibia and Lebanon. The 15 used by the Hong Kong Police were imported in 1970, when a personnel carrier fleet was established as part of the Police Tactical Unit in the aftermath of the 1967 riots. They were distinctive for being painted blue as opposed to the green most Saracens came in.

One tale often told about the Saracen recalls how, in the early 80s, during a disturbance at a Vietnamese refugee camp in Kai Tak, a police driver was told to conduct a "recce" of the fence surrounding the camp. The driver misheard the instruction and, thinking he was being told to "wreck" the fence, punched an armoured-car-shaped hole in it by driving straight through.

However, according to Steven Wordsworth, who retired from the police force last year, the story is inaccurate.

"I was present that night, commanding Foxtrot Number 1 Platoon of the PTU Foxtrot Company," says the former chief superintendent. "This was our second night at Kai Tak as we had responded to the initial outbreak of violence the night before.

"Access to Kai Tak was limited and the Vietnamese, being no tactical slouches, had the gates covered. To provide ease of access, the option of breaking a wall was discussed and a Saracen brought forward for that purpose. Unfortunately, the Saracen could not get a run up and therefore the attempts to breach the wall did not continue.

"The replacements for the Saracens, the Saxons, did pull down a section of the fencing at High Island Vietnamese Camp, in 1996, when the Viets blocked all gates," says Wordsworth. "But that's another story."

When they were replaced by Saxon armoured cars in the 80s, 12 of the Saracens were driven to the Hung Hom docks, shipped back to Britain in part-exchange for their replacements and auctioned off. They were bought by local dealers and those in other countries - and are reappearing on the road as renovated "big boys' toys".

With a six-cylinder, eight-litre Rolls-Royce engine that does about 10km to the gallon, Burgess - whose other car is a Land Rover - admits the 11-seater Saracen is not the most practical of vehicles and he had to overcome the objections of his wife and two daughters to get his hands on one.

"I had been trying to persuade my wife for years that I should be allowed to buy some sort of military vehicle," he says. "She kept saying to me, 'If you want to buy this toy then what you have got to do is give me the same value in money and the running costs.'

"In the village there is a guy who is ex-REME [British Army Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers] and I said to him, 'If I get a tank or something similar, would you help me look after it?' Eventually he said, 'Oh, go on then' and my good lady said, 'Oh, go on then.'

"We wanted a Saracen because it's the sort of thing we could use on the road and it has a good history behind it, but they're not that easy to find. We eventually tracked an ex-Hong Kong one down through an ex-army dealer."

Burgess paid £6,000 (HK$66,000) for the Saracen in October 2014 and, with his ex-REME friend, Andy Witcher, spent his Saturday afternoons working on it to get it roadworthy.

"It has its ups and downs and we've still got some work to do on it but, luckily, all the spare parts are still fairly readily available," says Burgess.

To make it look more authentic, he has stuck a replica Browning machine gun on the front turret and a decommissioned 1948 Bren gun on the back. He and his friends have taken to wearing military-style helmets when they drive the Saracen around their village, Wanborough.

"People usually drive into a hedge when they see us coming," he says. "The police love it, though. We took part in one of the local village shows with it and we were waiting to follow the procession out and the local police turned up and one young lady PC was up on the turret holding the Bren gun and taking selfies."

Four hundred kilometres away, in North Yorkshire, another of the Hong Kong Saracens has become something of a tourist attraction since being put on the forecourt of a car dealership in Reeth.

"I used to keep it at home but the Tour de France came through this village two years ago and everybody was decking everything out so I made the effort and brought it down here and stood it on the forecourt for the race and hung it with flags," says garage owner John "Jed" Collins. "There was a lot of security ahead of the race and a local policeman came around and insisted on me opening it up and showing him that the machine gun really was disabled, just in case it was some terrorist plot to shoot all the multimillion-pound cyclists as they went past.

"Since then I've left it on the forecourt and it'll average about three or four people or groups of people a week coming to have their photographs taken by it. It attracts far more attention than any of my other vehicles.

"At least once a month somebody will come up to the office and say, 'Do you know I used to drive those?' One or two have been able to recognise exactly which vehicle in the fleet it is."

Collins bought the vehicle online from a British seller in 2002, in the early days of eBay.

"I'd had a couple of glasses of Chablis and I was trawling through eBay out of interest. I came across this Saracen and I thought, 'I'll have a go at that' - and, lo and behold, I ended up owning it.

"My wife, Anne, is rather used to me doing things like that, being a motor trader. Her reaction was, 'Oh, not again.' She didn't quite realise what it was until it turned up on the back of a low loader.

"I used to drive it around the forest tracks and park it near the house. Someone produced a book of walks in the local area and used the Saracen as a reference point, as a landmark.

"Now it starts and the engine goes but the brakes are often seized up and I don't often get the chance to get it going properly. It's a six-wheeler so it doesn't need an MOT [safety certificate] and it doesn't need a special licence to drive it and it's a historic vehicle, so it doesn't cost anything to drive. It doesn't cost anything except the horrendous amount of fuel it gets through. It only does three, four, five or six miles to the gallon."

Back in Hong Kong, former senior police inspector Alan Ng is piecing together the history of the Saracen fleet and trying to track them all down. Burgess and Collins own numbers 11 and 14, respectively. Number one is on display at the Police Tactical Unit headquarters in Fanling - the only Saracen to remain in the city - and another is believed to be in Australia, Ng has discovered. The whereabouts of the remaining vehicles is unknown.

"Hopefully they won't have been dismantled," says Ng, who retired four years ago and runs a model-making business. "It would be sad to see them in a scrapyard or used for scrap metal.

"If I lived in the UK I would definitely buy one myself. You can't drive them in Hong Kong, however. You can have a Land Rover but you can't have an armoured car."

Ng's nostalgia for the Saracens dates back to his early days in the police force.

"When you do your second phase of training, [you] had a passing-out parade and we were carried in one of the Saracens. It made you proud to have such a massive vehicle carrying you.

"It is just an unbeatable experience. With a normal car, like a Japanese car, you put a thumb on it and you almost punch through it. With an armoured vehicle like the Saracen, you have to be on your guard because the door can knock you out if it catches you."

As well as riot and crowd control, the Saracen was regularly used for police public relations events and open days.

"Children would climb all over them," says Ng.

The Saracen parked behind The Plough pub near Swindon is not held in quite the same affection by Burgess' wife, Vanessa, and their two daughters.

"They wouldn't be seen dead in it," he laughs. "Vanessa thinks I'm mad. I had to give her the cash I promised her when I got the Saracen. It's still sitting in the bank. My daughters have discovered their mum has a 'tank fund' and they come up with all sorts of suggestions about what she can do with it."

Collins, meanwhile, says of his eBay purchase, "It was a spur of the moment thing which I've never regretted. It's become more dear to me as each year passes, especially now that it's giving so many people pleasure to have their pictures taken with it.

"I've had quite a lot of offers but I always tell people it's not for sale."

 

The Saracen armoured vehicle in popular culture

The Saracen was synonymous with "The Troubles" in Northern Ireland in the 1960s and 70s and, for British television audiences at least, provided a constant backdrop to coverage of the sectarian unrest.

However, the armoured cars also made their mark in popular culture, with a host of TV and film appearances over the years that helped bolster the rugged reputation of the "Sarrie". A villain in an episode of the 60s TV series The Avengers attempted to smuggle a Saracen out of a British Army testing area by shrinking it to the size of a toy; in the 1992 film The Crying Game, an Irish Republican Army kidnap victim is accidentally run over and killed by a Saracen; and the vehicles were used to carry prisoners and judges in the 1995 movie Judge Dredd.

A Saracen was driven into the heart of London and parked outside the Royal Bank of Scotland by anti-capitalists in the 2009 G20 demonstrations.

Today, the Alvis Saracen APC Appreciation Society has more than 400 members on its Facebook page, including owners and enthusiasts.

Red Door News Hong Kong

If you know the whereabouts of any of the unaccounted for Hong Kong Saracens, please email mark.footer@scmp.com.