Home » Alternative Off-Roaders: 1997 Mazda Miata vs 1954 Austin Champ

Alternative Off-Roaders: 1997 Mazda Miata vs 1954 Austin Champ

Sbsd 11 7 2023
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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.

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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.)

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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.)

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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.

1997 Mazda Miata – $3,500

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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

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Runs/drives? Yep!

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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

1954 Austin Champ – $3,500

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Engine/drivetrain: 2.8 liter F-head inline 4, five-speed manual, part-time 4WD

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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)

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Jakob K's Garage
Jakob K's Garage
7 months ago

MX-5 is too ruined for my taste so I’ll try the Mighty Mite looking thingy. Cool it’s not a regular Jeep like everyone else has 🙂

Xpumpx
Xpumpx
7 months ago

I have grown to HATE looking for obscure parts. Miata for me

Morgan Thomas
Morgan Thomas
7 months ago

Would definitely go the Champ, with the intention of building a ‘Buttercup’ replica.
Buttercup was a modified Champ built by Australian stuntman Grant Page (stunt coordinator for Mad Max, amongst other things). The bodywork was stripped off the chassis, a V8 fitted at the rear with ski boat style zoomie pipes (I think Chev V8) and the seating position was at the front between the front wheels. There was a token attempt at a roll bar, and it was painted yellow, hence the name.
Search YouTube for ‘Grant Page and Buttercup’, and there’s a good video of this thing being hammered over sand dunes – although the narration is redubbed in German, for some reason.

Scott
Scott
7 months ago

That Austin is odd and cute, but I’ve got to vote Miata here: I’ve owned two (my current one being a black ’95 w/hardtop that never fails to put a smile on my face, even when just running errands) and though they were/are both mostly stock, I’ve seen these off-road/overlanding Miatas (always NAs so far) here and there in person, including an impressive one often parked in the lot at the Burbank Costco. If Mad Max drove a MX-5, he must be hitting Costco for that $5 rotisserie chicken deal.

I think it would be fun to drive a Miata that sits higher off the ground than they normally do, that’s all. Plus, with the pop-up headlights and big wheels, I think they carry off the dystopian post-apocalypse thing quite convincingly despite their diminutive stature. 😉

Turbotictac
Turbotictac
7 months ago

I have owned 5(and a half) Miatas and always wanted to lift one…eventually I will find a less than nice condition NA or NB and do it. I had a VERY rust 04 Mazdaspeed I bought with the intentions of lifting before remembering how insanely valuable Mazdaspeed specific parts are and parting it out. A lot of the parts may have also ended up on my 04 MSM daily as well…but, one day. I do have an engine currently in my 99 I am hoping to replace with the built one, which would be ideal to swap into another once it comes out. So, one day.

Mr Sarcastic
Mr Sarcastic
7 months ago

“Hello Mudder” that is the Miata it is a murder no rooming the arches for any bumps
“Hello Fodder” the Austin will truly go fodder than the murder. Mudders nest Fodders hunt.
Pick me up from Camp Grenada. Only the Fodder is good for the long trip on different surfaces.
So the answer is clearly a true Holy Grail and not a worn out Red Miata.

Church
Church
7 months ago

Half of you are crazy.

Myk El
Myk El
7 months ago
Reply to  Church

Pretty sure voting for either would qualify as requiring some sort of mental health evaluation.

Farty McSprinkles
Farty McSprinkles
7 months ago
Reply to  Church

I resent that. I believe we are all crazy!

Tony Cotton
Tony Cotton
7 months ago

My brother used to drive Champs in Cyprus. People would put wire across the road to remove the drivers’ heads so they often had big radio masts at the front to cut the wire.

Doug Kingham
Doug Kingham
7 months ago

I’m sending the Champ link to my dad. It’s probably a bit too much of a project for him, but you never know. He drove one of these when he was in the equivalent of the Core of Cadets at university in the UK and he absolutely loves these.

Shop-Teacher
Shop-Teacher
7 months ago

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?”

People who insist on buying old German cars love to harp on immeasurable dynamics to justify their wallets getting mercilessly crushed to smithereens. Go hammer that Lexus around a rallycross course, and tell me it isn’t fon.

It’s not what the car is. It’s what you do with it.

Anyways, for today I’ll have the Miata. That Austin is COOL AF, but I have to be honest with myself that I am not the guy to get that running, and leave that one for somebody cooler than I am.

Pneumatic Tool
Pneumatic Tool
7 months ago

I’m fascinated by the Austin. It’s like a bizzaro world jeep; there’s things on it that look similar/expected, and even more things that aren’t. The engine bay alone is a journey to weirdness…where’s the carb? What’s with the single pipe coming out of that boxy exhaust manifold looking thing? What’s the thing on top of that with all the braided lines coming out. So many questions – it’s fascinating.

Frank Wrench
Frank Wrench
7 months ago
Reply to  Pneumatic Tool

That certainly is a funky carb set up. I almost thought it was a propane carb at first (I have one of those siting in the barn that goes to I don’t know what) but there’s there’s a jerry can and fuel filler neck on the back.

Farty McSprinkles
Farty McSprinkles
7 months ago

I don’t get the appeal of off roading cars that are not meant to be off roaded. I went with the Champ. It would be a crazy project, but at least it would be cool when it was done. I bet 9/10 people would look at it and think it was a Jeep.

Andy Individual
Andy Individual
7 months ago

It sure looks like a postal jeep with the roof cut off. It even has enough rust and the steering on the wrong side!

Col Lingus
Col Lingus
7 months ago

No vote till I see the Carfax on both of these shitboxes.
Then, a big no to each. YMMV

JDE
JDE
7 months ago

Miata is definitely not always the answer. in this case a newish Roxor donating everything except maybe the front clip and Vin numbers would be the right answer to make the old Austin Jeep a fully functional daily driver that would mostly be street legal at that point.

JDE
JDE
7 months ago
Reply to  Mark Tucker

I would disagree. I think the body bits are the only really interesting bits. plus outside of an efficient and probably more reliable diesel power plant, I would almost guess most of the other bits are pretty similar, just newer.

Mr Sarcastic
Mr Sarcastic
7 months ago
Reply to  Mark Tucker

Truly a holy grail

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