Austin had been a powerhouse name in the English car market for decades when the company entered the four-wheel-drive market in the early ’50s. That first effort was eventually called the Champ and was primarily a military development. More success was achieved in 1958 with the Austin Gipsy. The last time was the Austin Ant of 1966 that went right to the edge of production before being cancelled in the midst of corporate upheavals. Here is the rest of the story on each of these awesome Austins.
The WWII American Jeep had left a mark on everyone and, of course, every country with an auto industry wanted to outdo it. In 1947, the British government initiated a project to design a light tactical 4x4 for the British military. Codenamed FV-1800, the project started with the Nuffield Organization (part of which was Morris Motors) who produced three prototypes that were called the Gutty. Wolseley Motors, which was also a part of the Nuffield/Morris empire, got it’s name into the picture by further developing the project and producing small numbers of an updated rig called the Mudlark. More presto-change badge engineering occurred when Nuffield and Austin Merged in 1952 to become BMC (British Motor Corporation). Ostensibly, Austin was the final developer of the project and given a government contract to produce 15,000 of the units. In reality, it was all just one happy family, likely with many of the same people doing the development work.
The first production rig rolled off the line in September of 1951 and its official nomenclature was truck, ¼-ton, 4x4, CT, Austin Mk.1. Later it became known as the Champ and was a very unusual 4x4 in its day. It had independent torsion bar suspension front and rear. The powertrain had a five-speed gearbox that handed off to another gearbox at the rear that contained a transfer case, the rear diff, and reverse gear. A long driveshaft connected the rear gearbox to the front diff. Yep, you guessed it, the Champ had five speeds forward, five speeds in reverse and could go just as fast in either direction. It did not have a low range, but used an extra deep First gear (5.46:1) for the slow work.
The Rolls Royce B40 engine of the Champ always inspires a bit of an upward nose angle when mentioned. It was a good powerplant, developed for commercial/military use and made 80 gross horsepower from the 2.8L. It was a modular design which shared many components with the Rolls B60 inline-six and B80 straight-eight.
Champ deliveries began in 1952 and almost immediately, the highly complex vehicle began having teething problems, expensive ones and complexity became the ultimate downfall of the Champ. Production continued to 1955, but was cancelled at 11,732 units, well under the 15,000 originally ordered. They officially remained in service until 1966, but few were actually in service, most were held in reserve. An attempt was made to market a commercial version of the Champ starting in 1952 and this is actually where that name is said to have originated. Various versions were developed and sold, including some powered by an Austin A40 engine instead of the Rolls. The commercial endeavor had no more success than the military one.
There is an American connection here as well. In 1952, a Wolseley Mudlark was sent to the Aberdeen Proving Grounds for evaluation by American military reps. According to some sources, that test lasted two years and some say the Mudlark provided an early pattern for the Ford M151 MUTT.
In the mid and late ’60s, seldom did the pages of Four Wheeler not have an advertisement for surplus Champs at $795, and the February 1965 issue had a feature on them. A fair number of them are still around, all right-hand drive, and only the best of them bring any significant money.
The Gipsy came about as a project to knock Land Rover off its pedestal. Though the Gipsy rose from the ashes of the Champ, the vehicles were very different. The Gipsy was an advanced design, but much simpler than the Champ. Though designed to far outshine the Series 1 Land Rovers, the Gipsy had the unfortunate luck to be announced in February of 1958, not long after Land Rover’s very much updated Series II rigs debuted. The blow to Rover status was very much blunted.
Gipsy was built on a very stout ladder chassis with a 90-inch wheelbase and a steel body. What made it really unique was the independent Flexitor suspension. Independent suspension was uncommon enough for a production 4x4 in the ’50s, but the Flexitor system was unique, in essence being a transverse torsion bar in rubber. The Flexitor unit acted as both spring and dampener, though shocks were still needed for rebound. Flexitor had been used on trailers, and still is, and it worked reasonably well in the Gipsy.
Engines were either a 2.2L gasser making 62hp (later 72hp) or a 2.2L diesel cranking out 55hp. Mounted behind was a four-speed manual with a decently deep 4.05:1 First gear and a two-speed T-case with a so-so 2.02:1 low range. These were coupled with 5.125:1 axle ratios for a nice 42:1 crawl ratio.
Several major upgrades came to the Gipsy in 1960 and the new units were dubbed “Series II.” Some troublesome problems with the Flexitor were addressed in the Series IIs, but a long wheelbase (111-inch) unit was introduced with a higher GVW and a leaf-spring rear suspension with a solid rear axle. Continuing issues with Flexitor led to a leaf spring system that was made standard in 1962, with the Flexitor optional, and these rigs were dubbed “Series IV” (there was no Series III). The Flexitor option was dropped after 1965. Nobody cried and with that, the Gipsy started to gain on the Rover a little.
Gipsy sales never matched Land Rover, but by the late ’60s, the company was on the upswing. At that moment, much of the British motorcar industry was nationalized and folded into a big, government-run organization called British Leyland. Guess who else was there? Yep, Land Rover and since they were king-o-the-hill, it was easy to make the case that the Gipsy was, “surplus to requirements” and in 1968, the plug was pulled. The Austin Gipsy had its good and bad points versus the Land Rover, but when taken into context, the phrase “Coulda been a contenda!” is very fitting.
There were some 21,208 Gipsys built and they have a solid base of collector interest in the British Empire. They were exported almost everywhere and built in left-hand drive. There was an organized sales group in Canada, but not here and most of the Gipsys here came from north of the border. Collector interest here is nearly zero but they occasionally come up for sale.
Development of the Austin Ant followed closely on the heels of the Austin Mini and the utilitarian Mini Moke. It was designed by Sir Alec Issigonis, the same fella who designed the legendary Morris Mini back in the ’50s, a model that BMW produces today. The Mini Moke used the same transverse front drive components as the Mini car, but had a utility body on a longer wheelbase. Issigonis had developed a four-wheel-drive powertrain for the Mini and patented some ideas in 1963, but didn’t dust them off until there was some interest in building a four-wheel drive Moke in some numbers.
Work started in 1966 and it was a relatively simple process to make a 4x4 Moke. The first of them looked more like a Moke than anything, but the finalized designs had their own unique look, so they got the unique name of Ant. Some 30 were built for tests, each in slightly different configurations. The body was designed to be adaptable to soft tops, half or full, and fiberglass hardtops. The main interest was military, but there was a commercial prospect as well.
The Ant sat on a 77.5-inch wheelbase, weighed only 1,500 pounds and had a 900-pound payload. The four-speed transmission shared a sump with the engine and had a two-speed transfer case with a 4.41:1 high and a 7.2:1 low. Get those eyebrows down because the gearing stepdown was not that much with the front-drive trans but it was geared appropriately to its power output. The suspension was an independent system with torsion bars. The early Ants used a 56hp 1,098cc BMC A-series four-cylinder. Some of the later ones had a bigger 58hp 1,275cc unit.
The more advanced prototypes were sent to various places around the world for sales pitches. The factory was ordered to tool up for production but this was 1968 and the same British Leyland nationalization that killed the Gipsy killed the Ant. Many of the prototypes were crushed but seven have survived in various parts of the world. They aren’t really collectible because there are so few to collect, but they were a viable development and another in the ”Coulda been a contenda!” brigade.