Until now, the $30 million fleet of tanks has been refurbished and housed in seven storage sheds on a family estate up a winding, forested road above Silicon Valley; they are visited only under privately arranged tours.
But in a deal inked on July 4 and announced Monday in honor of Veteran's Day, the 240 pieces have been signed over to The Collings Foundation, which preserves historical military aircraft and now plans to add a new military vehicle museum at its Stow, Mass., headquarters.
Foundation director Rob Collings said the organization hopes to raise $10 million to build the museum by auctioning 160 of the military vehicles in August 2014. Eventually he hopes visitors can learn U.S. history through a chronological walk past the remaining 80 historic military vehicles.
"They'll start in the World War I trenches and go forward through time," he said.
The collection was assembled by Jacques Littlefield, a Stanford University graduate who left Hewlett Packard in the 1970s to focus on collecting and restoring military vehicles.
He acquired his first tanks in 1983, and by the mid-90s the collection included examples from almost all historically significant land battles of the last half-century, according to the nonprofit Military Vehicle Technology Foundation that currently is in charge of the collection.
Before his death in 2009, Littlefield acquired tanks and armored vehicles from the U.S., Russia, Germany, England, France, Switzerland, Czechoslovakia and Israel. There's a Sherman tank and a Striker tank destroyer.
The oldest armored military vehicle in the collection is a World War I era M1917 light tank. While some are quite worn, many have been meticulously restored.
Although proposals have been made, there is currently no federal historic military vehicle museum in the U.S., and only a few significant private collections.
Bill Boller, president of the Military Vehicle Technology Foundation, said the Littlefield family opted to give the collection to the Collings Foundation so more people could visit it.
"Unfortunately this is not the best place in the world, location and accessibility, for the general public, authors, historians, the defense industry, all the people that want to take advantage of this wonderful collection," he said.
A peek inside the tanks offers visitors a chance to appreciate what soldiers go through, he said.
"They are a pragmatic reality," he said. "If you ultimately value the freedoms we have in the U.S., you understand and appreciate the necessity and you have tremendous admiration and respect for those who put themselves in a position to go ahead and do it."
Many of the tanks and vehicles have been popularized in recent years through video games and may be widely appreciated by a younger audience.