On today’s Shitbox Showdown, we’re going off the beaten path in more ways than one, and looking at two off-roaders that go well beyond the normal Jeeps and 4×4 pickups you’re used to seeing. One of them was never supposed to go off-road at all, and yet off-roading it has become popular enough that you can buy lift kits for it. The other is so rare that I had to look up its exact specs, despite being steeped in British car lore my entire gearhead life.
But those will have to wait a minute, while we take a look back at yesterday’s matchup. I expected this one to be lopsided, but I guess I wasn’t prepared for just how lopsided it would be. Only fifty-six of you voted for that poor Passat. Actually, make that fifty-seven; if I ever say I want to buy a plain white Lexus sedan instead of, well, almost anything else, just call and schedule a cremation, because I’m dead.
A few of you claimed the dynamic difference between the two cars isn’t that great. After all, they’re both automatic four-door sedans; how different could they be? Let me put it this way: this song and this song both have prominent saxophone parts. Which one makes you think of your dentist’s waiting room? (if it’s the first one, your dentist is way cooler than mine.)
All right; enough of that. Now it’s time to go play in the dirt. If you think about it, all cars were originally off-roaders; sure, some streets were paved with bricks or cobblestones before the automobile rose to prominence, but cars first took hold not in cities, but in the countryside between cities, where the roads were dirt, weeds, and horse shit. Look at how much ground clearance a Model T has – it needed every inch of it. In a way, the market turn in recent decades to trucks, SUVs, and crossovers is just getting back to the autombile’s roots – if Starbucks drive-through lines were rutted dirt tracks, that is. (And maybe they should be; make the Q7 and RX400h crowd earn those frappucinos.)
Regardless, a vehicle with enough suspension and traction to keep going where the pavement ends is nearly universally equated with fun these days, even if its original intended purpose was more serious. And if a car was designed for fun on the road, but happens to be capable of going off-road with a few modifications, that can make it even more fun. Let’s take a look at one of each.
Engine/drivetrain: 1.8 liter dual overhead cam inline 4, five-speed manual, RWD
Location: Lago Vista, TX
Odometer reading: ad says 100,000, but probably not accurate
Let’s be honest: everyone who has ever owned a scruffy beat-up Miata, myself included, has thought about doing this. The first time I saw a lifted Miata, it struck a harmonious chord deep within my soul on an instrument I didn’t even know was there. The idea has been executed with varying degrees of success over the years, but the basic notion of taking a simple, cheap, tough little roadster and jacking it up to take on the trails just feels so right.
It’s hard to say how well-executed this one is from a handful of exterior-only photos, but the fact that it runs and drives well and is currently registered is encouraging. It also doesn’t look like the builder tried to take it too far; those are 29 inch tires, and stock wheel arches. It looks like everything just clears. The typical lift kit for a Miata is just blocks that raise the lower shock-mounting points three inches, which raises the roll center and probably messes up the Miata’s playful handling, but it shouldn’t be far enough to put too much of a strain on tie rods or CV joints or anything. And I bet the big soft tires actually help the ride quality; Miatas are not known for their limo-like ride.
Mechanically, it’s a stock late NA Miata, from the sounds of it. That’s all good stuff, including Mazda’s underrated 1.8 liter BP twincam four, and one of the slickest-shifting manual gearboxes ever installed in a car. Some Miatas came with a limited-slip rear differential, which would help immensely when things get muddy, but there’s no word on whether this car is so equipped.
The interior has been gutted, the seller says, which isn’t surprising. The front bumper cover is completely gone, and the rear cover has been substantially trimmed, to add some approach and departure angles, terms not normally associated with Miatas, but there you go. The typical “oh look another red one” paint is chalky and bleached, but who cares? Order some cheap wrap film off eBay and go wild. Yes, NA-chassis Miatas are starting to go up in value, but Mazda built a metric crap-ton of them. Why not do something fun with the ones that will never be collector’s items anyway?
Engine/drivetrain: 2.8 liter F-head inline 4, five-speed manual, part-time 4WD
Location: Austin, TX
Odometer reading: 71,000 miles
Runs/drives? Ran great 3 years ago, needs reviving
First, I regret to inform you that the seller of this vehicle has fallen into the trap of calling any small open-top 4×4 a “Jeep.” It’s not uncommon, and plenty of brand names end up as stand-ins for generic products: nobody says “cotton swabs,” for instance. They’re Q-Tips, even if they’re the crappy generic kind. In the Atlanta, Georgia area, every soft drink is a “Coke,” regardless of brand or flavor. I suppose this is why the various stewards of the Jeep trademark over the years have been so rigorous about defending it, even when it seemed silly.
And to be fair, the Jeep came first, and a lot of early 4WD utility vehicles borrowed heavily from World War II military Jeeps; Land Rover prototypes were even built on Jeep frames. But this is no Jeep, or Jeep clone – it’s way cooler than that. In place of solid axles on leaf springs, the Austin Champ features four-wheel independent suspension on long torsion bars, designed by none other than Alec Issigonis of Mini fame. It’s powered by a Rolls-Royce four-cylinder that’s basically half a British tank engine. And its reverse gear is in the transfer case, not the transmission, so it has five speeds in forward and reverse.
This Champ is currently non-operational; it has been parked for three years. But it ran well prior to that, and the seller seems confident that it could be revived pretty easily. It needs brakes, however, before it could be driven safely. The seller is including some extra parts (which may or may not be the brakes), and a whole stack of papers, including service manuals, wiring diagrams, and a British Motor Heritage certificate, a cool piece of documentation that lists the vehicle’s exact build date and original specification.
Sometimes, when looking at project vehicles like this, a car will look all right at first glance, and then get gradually worse as you dive deeper into the details; you’ll start to see rust in places that spell disaster, or spot missing mechanical bits that are forged from pure unobtainium. But other times, a vehicle makes a lousy first impression, but isn’t nearly as rough as you thought it was when you look closer. And I think this little Austin Champ is of that second type. There’s no rust-through that I can see, the engine compartment looks intact and complete, and the seller seems to actually know and care about it; it’s not just some derelict heap that’s been sitting in the back forty for decades. It would still be a massive undertaking, no question, but it looks doable.
Ask the Gambler 500 folks, and they’ll tell you than anything can be an off-roader if you try hard enough. And former military trucks are where the whole “Jeep thing” started anyway. These two are outliers, but only just, and either one could be a fun little adventure-mobile with a little work. Which one are you tackling?
(Image credits: Craigslist sellers)