Craigslist Classic: 1954 Austin Champ – The Other British “Jeep”

Here’s a vehicle that’s never seen on the pages of CC but will finally have its day of fame here, thanks to one being for sale here in Eugene, no less. We’ve had numerous articles on the other British “Jeep”, the Land Rover, but unknown to me—and perhaps you—there was another one, the Austin Champ.

Why is it so relatively rare and almost unknown, compared to the LR? Because of a common issue that has plagued so many military vehicles—it was too expensive; costing twice as much as the LR. Why? For one thing, it had a fully independent suspension front and rear utilizing double wishbones, designed no less than by Alec Issigonis. There were some others too.

The British Army wanted a better Jeep in the late 1940s, one that could operate in a wider range of conditions and presumably with a better ride than the buckboard Jeep. Development began in 1947 by the Nuffield organization. It took a few years of refinement, and after 30 prototypes built by Wolseley, Austin won the contract to build them, in a former WW2 airplane factory.

There were two primary variants: the basic version, known as “1/4 ton Cargo Truck” and the “Fitted For Wireless” (FFW) version, which had a larger generator and other changes to support radio equipment.

The engine is a 2.8 L four cylinder version of the Rolls-Royce B range engine family, which also included inline six and eight cylinder versions, all using a maximum number of shared parts. These were F-head engines (overhead intake, side valve exhaust), as were the later versions of Willys Hurricane four. Power was rated at 80 hp.

Given the dual belt pulleys on the generator, I’m guessing this was one of the FFW versions. The fuel and electrical systems were all designed to operate under water, as the Champ could ford in up to 6′ of water.

The initial batch of engines were built by R-R, and then by Austin, who bought a license to do so. Austin planned a civilian version, but its high price made it DOA, with some 500 built, all exported. To Oregon, perhaps?

Here’s a look at the front suspension, which used torsion bars front and rear. The Champ used a cruciform frame (X Frame), which did not allow room for the usual transfer case to be located midships. So the fully-synchronized five speed transmission (not cheap, undoubtedly) fed the rear differential, which incorporated both a rear gear as well as a return driveshaft to the front axle. That allowed five gears in reverse, FWIW.

The rear end. Presumably the front and rear suspensions were identical. The suspension worked extremely well, giving the Champ superb off-road capabilities.

The body was open, a four seat tub built out of steel by the Pressed Steel Company. A PVC top and side curtains were available, for weather protection. The Land Rover’s enclosed body alone made it more appealing to its actual users.

The Champs vastly higher cost and the reduction in the Army in the early 1950s resulted in a reduced contract, with only 11,000 of the planned 15,000 being built. Most were soon redeployed to the Territorial Army, and by the mid-60s, it was phased out from the military entirely. Not exactly a glorious career.

As to this Champ, it’s being offered for $1,450, which includes these spare parts. The seller says the engine “is not seized and complete” but “does not run”. And there’s no title either. But none of that should keep you from saving this rare British relic from an ignoble future.

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