CLASSIC CAR REVIEWS – AUSTIN CHAMP

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Designed to be an unbeatable fighting vehicle in the light of WW2 experience, DAVE RICHARDS tests the unbeatable Champ

HISTORY

After WW2, the War Office saw a need to replace the ubiquitous Jeep with a more bespoke vehicle better suited to British Army needs. It had to be an all-purpose light-truck suited to all theatres. A prototype known as Car, Light 5cwt 4×4, Open for Various Roles was running by 1947. The design was put out to commercial tender. But during 1947 Nuffield Mechanisation produced a couple of 4×4 field cars called the Nuffield Gutty. These were effectively the pilot model for the Champ, and one can be seen at the BMIHT museum at Gaydon. Prototype development went further with contract 6/VEH/2387 on 27 August 1948 signed with Wolseley. The ensuing Mudlark can be recognised as an embryo Champ.

CLASSIC CAR REVIEWS - AUSTIN CHAMP

Parts of the vehicles readiness for use in any area in the world are a reflection of how much Empire Great Britain still administered during the early 1950s.

The most incredible feature of the Champ and its design wasn’t the ability of the truck to go as fast forwards as backwards – impressive though this party trick is – but the necessity for it to be able to wade in depths of up to 3 feet of water in an unprepared state, or up to 6 feet deep if ‘prepared for wading’, which means raising the wing-mounted air intake and making a few other waterproofing adjustments. Champs also had to be available in ious versions, such as fitted with telephone line laying equipment, a field ambulance rig with two stretchers, an appliqué armour kit, with a Turner winch, or ‘FFW’, Fitted For Wireless to allow long-range communication. The prototype cars read like a who’s who of the British Motor Industry, with bodies coming from Fisher & Ludlow, AC and Solex on the fuel system, Morris for the radiator, Borg & Beck for the clutch, Austin for the transmission and Girling for the brakes.

As production readiness closed in, the Austin Motor Company was contracted to build the order in 1951. Champs were built at the firm’s Cofton Hackett plant for the military contract using the smallest of the standardised Rolls-Royce B-range of engines. This B40 lugging lump was fitted in a waterproofed state, so the Champ could be driven at depths of up to 6 feet of water when the air intake was raised to its wading position. Was the Champ a success? It had an outstanding cross-country performance, and in an era when most civvie-street cars were slow, could outperform many of them on-road. It was too expensive, at £1200 per vehicle in 1952, over-complex and the order of 15,000 was too large for the British Army as it reduced size during the 1950s. The Champ’s contract was terminated around 4000 vehicles short of the order number. The Army found that for most general purpose uses, the Land-Rover at half the price could do 80 per cent of the work the Champ could. Then, as now, raw economics sealed the Champ’s fate, consigning it to history without the development from Austin that could have turned the model into a British global challenger to Chrysler’s Jeep, and giving Solihull’s Land-Rover a 4×4 competitor through the 1960s.

ON THE ROAD

As you climb aboard the Champ, you’re first faced with what appears to be a high sill, then what appears to be duckboards on the floor. Look closer and that’s exactly what they are, complete with large drainage holes below. This car’s submersibility is evident from the start. Starting involves putting the key in, then flicking the ignition toggle to ‘on’, then thumbing a starter toggle elsewhere on the instrument panel.

The big Rolls Royce four starts easily. Whereas other 1950s vehicles have positive earth and 6 or 12 volt electrics, the Champ’s 24V negative earth system helps drag the large pistons of the 2800cc motor into life. It ticks over with a burbling enthusiasm. The five gears are arranged in a now-classic dog-leg pattern, with first left and down, then the four remaining gears arranged in a conventional H pattern. “You won’t need first, that’s a crawler gear” owner Alan Rawsterne informs. So into second, lift the floor-hinged clutch and you’re off. Pedal weighting is less heavy than you’d imagine, certainly less so than a Land-Rover 20 years junior. Shifting up through the gears, you find that you can throw almost any gear at it, such is the torque output. On a steep incline offroad, let the Champ slow below a slow walking pace and just as the motor feels inclined to stall, bury the throttle and from 250rpm a wall of torque lugs the Austin forwards withgreat urge.

Traversing rocky terrain, the four independently sprung torsionbars deliver an incredibly smooth ride, especially for a vehicle with such a short wheelbase and narrow track. The agility of the Champ, it’s ride-comfort, power and performance make the vehicle feel much younger dynamically. And unlike most pre-1980s designs lacking in power assistance, the control-weighting endows the Champ with an ease-of-use and indefatigable air of permanence. Sadly this lulled British squaddies into a false sense of security when the vehicle was in-use by British forces. The speed and dynamic qualities of the Champ meant that when it did eventually get out of shape when being driven on or off-road, crashes that happened were serious. Contemporary Land-Rovers and other four-wheel drive off-road vehicles simply didn’t have the power or the comfort to allow the high-speeds to happen in the first place.

So where does a Champ sit in the military vehicle collecting stakes now? They’re cheaper than WW2 Jeeps, vastly more comfortable and competent. Plus they are a wholly British engineering success story on a par with other Cold War iconssuch as the Vulcan bomber and Lightning jet fighter. Yet they’re cheaper than most Land-Rovers in decent nick, and more capable off-road. If you’re a true petrolhead, you’d be foolish to ignore the charms and eccentricity of this best-engineered, money-no-object War Office design. That it’s 60 years old this year is astonishing. Buy one for similar money you’d pay for a grey import 8-12 year old Shogun and you’ve got a characterful, appreciating asset supported by one of the friendliest owners clubs in the business.

SPECIFICATIONS

Engine 2838cc/4-cyl/SOHC Power [email protected]
Torque 147lb [email protected]
Top speed 65mph 0-60mph 20secs
Fuel consumption 15mpg
Transmission 5-spd manual
Values £1500+

Champ Trivia

  • Civilian versions of the Champ were built and used an Austin A90 Atlantic motor
  • The B40 engine was a development of the Rolls Royce 20HP of 1922.
  • All 5 gears featured synchromesh
  • A Champ is featured throughout the video ‘Reward’ by The Teardrop Expodes, which reached no6 in the singles chart in January 1981.
  • The Champ served with the British Army in the UK, Africa, Germany, BAOR Cyprus, Libya and the Suez Campaign.
  • Early vehicles were sent for troop trials at the end of the Korean War.
  • B40 Rolls Royce motors were built under licence by Austin. R-R built versions have a 4-digit engine number, Austin built ones 5.
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