Why a Champ?
Probably the main reason for it was when I joined a friend on an off-road-day event. We were in his CJ5 Jeep and I loved it. This was a car event not about speed or who has the most beautiful or rare car, this was about fun, taking it slow, needing ingenuity and thinking.
If I was enjoying this so much I wanted to do this more often, I should have a 4 WD drive vehicle, right? So the next time I entered in my Range Rover. This car was very capable, more than I thought, but somehow not as much fun as an open 4WD car. Off road you need to go a little bit further than you normally would do. I did not want to damage my RR too much – it had presentable paint, no dents and I would really like to keep it that way.
The nice period came of thinking about a suitable vehicle. As a fun vehicle, it should not cost much to buy. If it was an old car, insurance costs would be neglible and free of road tax.
There were so many options. Land Rover? Toyota Land Cruiser? DKW Munga? Nissan Patrol? Jeep CJ / Nekaf? Suzuki SJ80? Daihatsu Rocky/Taft ?
“Modern” Japanese off roaders (that is 1980s and newer in my book) mostly were too expensive (Land Cruiser FJ40), or just too new. I wanted to be able to maintain the vehicle myself and I was not interested in diesel engines or ECUs. I also was not willing to learn about two stroke engines – which the DKW Munga had. This was used in the Dutch military as successor to the Nekaf Jeep in the 60s but after a couple of years the Nekaf was brought back into service again as the DKW was not (reli)able enough.
Nekaf Jeeps (a local assembled Jeep 1955-62) were interesting but, like an original Willys Jeep, too expensive.
An old Land Rover then? Some years before, a friend asked me to help find a Land Rover for him. After a few weeks we found a perfect example. Long wheel base (109”), two door, series 2a originally but had been upgraded with a modern Defender 4 cilinder diesel engine, 5 speed gearbox, and parabolic composite single leaf springs. He was happy with the car. I liked the car but not to the extent I would also want one. There was absolutely no comfort. Springing was very hard, you almost had to wear a helmet to avoid hitting the roof too badly. I did love its honest, simple engineering, sturdiness, solid feeling though. It was also very good off-road, we did an event in his car.
A problem when wanting a good, not rusted Land Rover was that they were pretty pricy. I did not want to fork out that much. Also, most were diesels of which I was no fan. In Belgium the Minerva Jeeps could be found sometimes, a local Belgian variant of the Series One Land Rover. Again, too expensive. I wanted a fun car for not much money.
I read about the Austin Gypsy. This is a car designed in the late fifties by BMC (Austin) to compete with the Land Rover. It was a moderate success, never a real threat to Land Rover sales. Production ended late sixties. These cars were pretty hard to find in our country. I never found one.
I read about the Austin Champ. I had heard of these before but was never interested in owning a military vehicle. But this was not your average military vehicle. It had an interesting development history, the forerunner of the Gypsy. After World War 2, the British decided they wanted their own Jeep. The fruit of this was both the Austin Champ and the Land Rover.
Although the dimensions were almost the same (Champ is 4” longer), the Champ was very different to the Land Rover. Summed up it can be said that the Champ was more sophisticated and modern. Nice as that might seem, it was a disadvantage for the military because maintenance, fuel consumption and high cost were important.
The Champ had no chassis but had a monococque body (which is sturdy, there are not many Champs which are scrapped because of rust).
The engine was no feeble car-related unit but a big Rolls Royce 4 cilinder. The front and rear suspension were not simple leaf sprung axles but all wheels had independent, torsion bar suspension. As a result the car was heavier than a Land Rover. The big engine did help though, it has more power and torque than the Land Rover unit but not surprisingly did require quite a lot of fuel. It was much more expensive than a Land Rover. Commercially the car was a sales failure. Only the British army (and some British Empire/ Commonwealth countries) took a load of Champs. It was produced for just six years. A handful only were sold outside the military.
Most Champs were retired and sold off by the army by auction during the sixties. A few dozen were then sold to the Netherlands where they were used as farm trucks or off road fun cars.
The more I learned about the Champ, the more my interest grew. Yes it might have been a commercial failure but there was an active Champ Owners Club, spares were not really a problem. Compared to a Land Rover it was a very smooth running and suspended car. The engine had more power and torque, and the comfort was so much better. Comfort was probably not important for soldiers originally but I liked that fact. I also liked the fact it was an unknown car to the greater public, but still very capable off road. Cheap, quirky, capable, what was not to like?
There is a club in the Netherlands for vintage army vehicles. They have a register for all known Austin Champs in our country. I got in touch with the registrar and got an address of someone locally who had a Champ. With a friend, I visited him one day in December, it had snowed a bit. He lived in the countryside in an old farm, the Champ sat under a large cover with snow. We took the cover off to have a look at the car. It was the first time I saw a Champ in real life and I immediately liked it. It looked like it had been standing there for years. Then the owner asked if we wanted to have a ride! He was sure the engine would start, and indeed it did without problems. We drove off his land onto a forest road. I was glad to bring a warm winter jacket, I had not foreseen to actually take a ride in an open Champ in this kind of weather! Half an hour later we returned to his home. The owner said parts were no problem, there were many owners who had spare parts and there were UK specialists who sold new spares like brake and ignition parts.
So I went looking for one. Found one but it had a dismantled rear suspension. Found one which really had too much rust. Found not one but three which could only be bought in one package. No. Then this ad appeared:
An advertisement on the local internet market place. It was being sold by a farmer, his father had owned it for over 30 years. It had not been used for many, many years. Asking price was cheap because it did not run, but I was assured the engine would turn. When they offered the car would be delivered to my garage, a deal was made.
Of course, I could have predicted it: the car was bought when I really had no time for it. I was in the middle of building an extension to my garage. The Champ did not run yet, so was moved to the garden.
It stood in the garden for more than half a year waiting for the garage extension to be finished. In the mean time a close friend loved the Champ enough to find himself a similar one!
When we finally got to work on my Champ, it was fairly easy to get the car running. Cleaning the ignition points, putting in two batteries (it is a 24 volts car), some fresh fuel and the engine sprang to life. It needed brake hoses, rubber cups for the brake cilinders, a new simple one box exhaust with side exit fabricated and one or two new water hoses.
But then, as might be expected, the Champ was not used much. I took part in a few off road meetings which was fun. It was quite amazing how good the Champ is in the mud – even had to rescue other cars on slippery slopes. A minor negative maybe is that the driver and passenger also get quite wet (and dirty), it is a very open car!
My Champ friend and I agreed we should do a big tour, to visit the Champ 60th Anniversary Meeting in the UK. The organisers aim was to get 100 Champs together. A tough challenge as in previous meetings the highest number had never exceeded 60 or so.
Our Champs were driveable, but also for a long trip? Why not? We just went for it. It was summer, not too hot, no days of rain forecasted. Important because our Champs did not have a top! Also the wipers were of the pneumatic type which means hopeless. Travelling on the motorway to the ferry (70 miles), then using nice country lanes from Hull to Evesham – a trip of 160 miles. Problems?
Of course there were some problems but nothing that could not be fixed at the road side. The mounting screw of the ignition points of my Champ came loose, the thread was worn. Replaced by a spare screw which was too long but was hacksawed to length. The brake master cilinder of the second Champ leaked, this took some time to repair (new copper ring to the connection of a brake line) because we had to bleed the brakes. Which meant just in time we got at the meeting just when they were about to close up for the evening. Everyone else had arrived during the day (which we tried to do as well). But the excellent news was that we were car number 99 and 100!
We put up our tents in the big field. It was amazing to see so many Champs. Most were in excellent condition, restored to as new. Clean and shiny, they had the right military period accessoiries, lamps, mirrors and seats. Our two Champs were right on the other side of the spectrum. Dusty, rusty, old non original paint, wrong mirrors and seat covers. It seemed we were in a very small category of owners who did not regard the Champ as a historic military vehicle only, but as a fun off road car too. The military aspect of the meeting (many people acting as if this was an army exercise, clothed as soldiers and using all military camp equipment) did put us off a little, at the second day we decided to leave early.
It was a lovely drive to an Inn where we had a good meal and a walk around the pretty town. The next morning it turned out it had rained overnight, not a real problem as most of our luggage was inside the inn. The Champ has a wooden floor on top of the steel floor in the footwells, so a bit of water in the footwells is not a problem.
After this event, the Champ was not used much. It was “temporarily” stored in the barn where it still is today. In the past we always took our off road adventures with both Champs, but my friend has since sold his Champ. I have managed to buy a 24 Volt second hand winch which I plan to mount on either the front bumper or at the rear. This will make it possible to single drive the car off road without too much fear of getting stuck. Of course that may still happen, but with a long cable and a tree nearby there are more possibilities to winch the car out of a bad situation.
The storage at the barn is cheap and I still am not done with the Champ. Want to make new adventures in some near future which is the main reason for not selling the Champ. Just need some more spare time…
Further reading, Paul N found one for sale last year:
Nice article about the Champs history: