Tuesday October 18, 2016
Written by Andy Roberts
As the Land Rover Defender has recently passed into motoring history, it is timely to remember one of the British pretenders to its crown.
The Austin Champ now seems to belong to a black and white past of National Servicemen in Pathé Newsreels - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CUXkbT_UpsA - and low-budget science fictions films about alien beings invading Chobham Common.
But when they were launched in 1951 they had a genuine claim to be one of the world's most sophisticated 4WD vehicles; there was independent suspension on all four wheels (a revelation to any soldier used to a Jeep's cart springs), rack and pinion steering and a choice of two or four-wheel drive. The transmission was via a five-speed all-synchromesh transfer box, which meant that the Champ was one of the few vehicles that could reverse as quickly as it went forwards.
The 'Truck, 1/4 ton, CT, 4×4, Cargo & FFW, Austin Mk.1' - or Champ, as it is better known - was the product of four years of development to build a Jeep alternative for the British Army. The engine was a 2.8 litre four cylinder Rolls Royce B40 unit which made the Champ capable of climbing 1-in-21 gradients while a speed limiter quelled over exuberant behaviour from squaddie drivers by cutting out the ignition at 3,750 rpm - a useful safety device on a car devoid of metal doors. The army placed an order for 15,000 Champs and in 1952 Austin offered a civilian model which was fitted with the A90 Atlantic's 2.6-litre engine and a 12 volt (as opposed to 24 volt) electrical system.
Drivers found the Champ to be extremely comfortable even over rough terrain and it was famous for its ability to motor along a river bed at depths of up to six feet once they were ‘prepared for wading’. However, production ceased in 1956 after only 500 civilian models had been sold and the army had received just 11,732 units, as the Austin had not proved trouble-free. The interior was difficult to access, the body lacked a tailgate and military engineers regarded the Champ as a heavy and complex machine that had difficulty in retaining oil in its rear axle. The Land Rover, which had been used by the military since 1949, was deemed to be far easier to work on and the War Office ultimately opted for the Solihull product, which could undertake 80 per cent of the Austin's work for virtually half of its £1,200 price tag.
The last military Champs were demobbed in 1966 but when Which magazine tested a second-hand example a year earlier its drivers preferred it to a new Land Rover. The report may have remarked on the possibility of falling out of the side but the Austin still offered ride and steering qualities that belied its age. In many ways it anticipated the future BMC/BL tendency to launch a product with faults for the customer to rectify thereby blighting the potential of a fine vehicle.
Had this not been so, 2016 motorists might have been mourning the passing of the Austin Champ after 65 years.