Long reliant on foreign products to stock its armored corps, the small European nation of Switzerland was forced to turn to an indigenous tank initiative when its usual Western suppliers were wholly committed to the ongoing Korean War (1950-1953) and its communist-induced struggles. For the interim, the Swiss settled on procurement of approximately 200 of the French-made 75mm-armed AMX-13 Light Tanks beginning in 1952. However, this only proved a partial solution for a major ground war, centering between the West and the Soviet Union, still proved a real threat in Europe during this tumultuous period of history and would require combat tanks of certain firepower and protection. Considering where Switzerland lay geographically, at the heart of what could become another global land war, it required a serviceable armored corps to help slow any potential Soviet advance prior to a properly formulated Western response. The country bordered powers in France, Germany and Italy - all whom would be pulled into another European war if Soviet leaders so chose it.
While most tank discussions of the Cold War primarily center on American, British and Soviet developments, it is interesting to note the Swiss contribution to armor history as the country did, in fact, manage a small tank industry during the height of the Cold War decades, though the endeavor went on to showcase varying degrees of success through its Panzer 58, Panzer 61 and Panzer 68 developments.
Sensing the requirement, the Swiss government finally moved ahead to approve an indigenous tank design effort beginning in 1953 to which work on the type resulted soon afterwards. However, programs such as these involve much engineering effort and financing and it was not until 1957 that a pilot (prototype) vehicle was made available. Design was wholly conventional for the period, featuring a fully-traversing, conically-shaped turret atop a rather stout-looking armored hull with a track-and-wheel arrangement. The running gear included six double-tired road wheels to a track side with the drive sprocket at rear and the track idler at front while three track return rollers were used for the upper track sections. The hull was given a rounded, raised glacis plate with the driver's position at the front-center. Track fenders were home to stowage boxes, extra track links and any "pioneer" equipment required by the crew. The turret featured the main gun stemming from a heavily fortified armored mantlet at front with a raised commander's cupola offset to the right side of the turret roof. The engine was fitted to a rear compartment. The vehicle would be crewed by four including a driver, commander, gunner and loader in relatively cramped fighting conditions.
The initial pilot vehicle was outfitted with a 90mm tank gun while the second test vehicle was rather interestingly fielded with an 83.4mm system of British origin (the British 20-pdr series). However, it was finally settled to use a higher-penetrating 105mm main gun to counter the threat posed by Soviet armor (primarily the T-54 MBT) and a limited production batch featuring this armament followed through ten examples, adopted as the "Panzer 58", or "Pz 58 / MPz 58" ("Mittlerer Panzer 1958"). Six smoke grenade launchers allowed for a self-generated smoke screen. A 20mm cannon was also fitted as a coaxial weapon alongside the main gun in the turret. Self-defense was through a coaxial 7.5mm machine gun as well as a turret-mounted 7.5mm machine gun.
The Swiss Army classified their Pz 58 as a medium tank at a time when the Main Battle Tank (MBT) was becoming the norm in combat tank terminology. The light, medium and heavy tank classifications were popular leading up to, and throughout, World War 2 before the British Centurion of 1946 rewrote the books on armor classifications followed by the arrival of the Soviet T-54 of 1949.
The Pz 58 was powered by a Mercedes-Benz 837 8-cylinder engine of 600 horsepower output. This was augmented by use of an auxiliary Mercedes-Benz OM 636 series as required. The installation allowed for maximum road speeds of 34 miles per hour and cross-country travel at approximately 19 miles per hour depending on terrain. Operational range was limited to 220 miles and roughly 100 miles cross-country. Off-road travel was assisted through a plate spring/swing arm suspension system. The vehicle weighed in at 38.7 tons (Short) and managed a running length of 8.5 meters (gun forwards) with a width of 3 meters and a height to turret top of 2.85 meters.
Production of the completed twelve vehicles fell to Eidgenossische Konstruktionwerkstatte Thun (EKT) of Switzerland and spanned 1957 into 1961.
Despite the relative "newness" of the design, the Panzer 58 only managed a short operational service life with the Swiss Army, this from 1958 to 1964, before thought gave way to a more refined version that ultimately became the "Panzer 61" adopted in 1965. The Panzer 61 owed much to the Pz 58 for much data garnered from the original served in the Pz 61's development. The Swiss government commissioned for 150 of this type which served until 1994. The Panzer 61 was, itself, succeeded by the evolved Panzer 68 and these served from 1971 into 2003 through 585 delivered examples.
The modern Swiss Army makes use of 380 examples (2013) of the excellent German Leopard 2 (2A4) Main Battle Tank as the "Leopard 87" ("Pz 87"). Thirty-five were former German Army products while the remainder were produced through a local-license initiative.