I recently met a gentleman of Dorset who kindly showed me his car collection. It included an Austin Champ, the Jeep look-alike in service with the military 1954–66. Originally intended as an alternative to the Land Rover, it couldn’t hack it alongside Solihull’s finest — less adaptable, less reliable, more complex, twice as expensive. Yet it is now something of a cult car.
It’s a big butch bruiser, with a high bonnet like a shaven head about to butt you. Rigorously utilitarian, many examples were shorn of any comfort or convenience (roofs, windows, doors) but they sprouted plenty of extras, including mountings for your .303 Vickers or .30 Browning. They had a 2,838cc Rolls-Royce engine, could be driven underwater to a depth of six-feet-six and had five reverse gears to match the five forward. Suspension was by Alec Issigonis, progenitor of the Morris Minor and the Mini. Eccentric touches included a slim metal pipe with a screw top protruding from the engine and containing the service history on a scroll of paper.
Apart from sand, into which it was inclined to sink, the Champ could go pretty well anywhere, but there was a cost: the high centre of gravity meant that it turned turtle easily. A National Service cousin of mine lost one over the cliffs at Dover (he survived) and a friend found himself on two wheels merely by taking a right outside Buckingham Palace.
‘Killed more men than any action it was involved in,’ said my host, a former military man who knows his military vehicles. Its impressive wading ability required only a snorkel to let the engine breathe — but no one thought much about the crew, who would presumably have to hold their breath. That RR engine was reliable if maintained properly — an important if — but maintenance was complicated and when it did go wrong — as all engines must, eventually — it was difficult to work on.
By comparison, the less powerful Land Rover engine was simple to maintain, durable and tolerant; they’ve been known to plod on with bullets in them. The Champ achieved about 15mpg at best, which in the hands of the rough and licentious soldiery could be reduced to single figures. Having five reverse gears was all very well if you wanted to exit an ambush quickly, but have you ever tried reversing rapidly over a distance while changing gear?
The trouble was, too many senior officers were given a voice in the Champ’s specification and so they all felt they had to say something. Hence they ended up with an expensive, dangerous vehicle that did no more than the Land Rover they already had, and was less adaptable. Dr Fox’s MoD reforms may be even longer overdue than we think.
But, but, but — my host fondled the bonnet, I clambered aboard, we cranked the old girl and she filled the barn with a noise like the production line she was built on. The Champ is an awkward, ugly, cussed old beast, and I quite see why he loves it. There’s a kind of honesty about such vehicles, for all that they were misconceived. It’s their plainness of design, their brutal functionality, their lack of any pretence to be other than what they were. And, tractor-like, what they were is determined wholly by what they were for. Nothing else matters. There’s something touching about such integrity of purpose.
As there is about those who take pleasure in collecting ancient made things. It’s mostly men (not always — I know a lady who is devoted to her 1960s tractor) and the automotive objects of their love are often those with which they had some association in their youth. So, yes, sentimentality and nostalgia come into it. Money as well, of course — the upper end of the classic car market has remained buoyant throughout the recession as people with a bit to spare seek somewhere to put it and people with the old Aston in the barn seek to make from it. But at the cheaper end it’s more often simple love for the thing itself.
My host, for example, gains no conceivable advantage from keeping his Champ legal and occasionally chugging through the lanes and meadows of Dorset. He simply takes pleasure in it and a significant part of that pleasure is sharing it with others. Self-indulgent though it is, there’s an appealing innocence about such disinterested enthusiasm, about liking something for its own sake. Essentially, it’s an expression of sympathy, not only with the made object but also with the minds, intentions and strivings of those who got the Champ so intelligently, so idiosyncratically, so comprehensively, wrong. And you can’t help liking it.