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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Shooting Brake
Shooting Brake
8 months ago

What can I say? I’m a chump for the Champ!

Mike F.
Mike F.
8 months ago

While the Champ would be far more interesting and cool upon resurrection, there’s just too much resurrection needed for my tastes. Take that Miata out, set the worst time at the local autocross, and then head straight for the hills.

XLEJim700
XLEJim700
8 months ago

I’m voting Champ for no good reason, or maybe the best reason: In the late seventies I hung out at The Osprey Hotel in Manasquan, NJ [The Longest Bar in the World].

I guess it was around 1977 when a shiny white Lincoln Town Car pulled into the lot and this textured grizzly of a man stepped out with two pretty blondes in tow. I’m smoking a cigarette by the main door and as they’re walking toward me, I thought, hey that looks like Chuck Wepner.

Welp, it was Chuck Wepner, but the blondes were a mystery. Surely a couple of North Jersey beauties, though. I did not ask for an autograph, or even congratulate him on going 15 rounds with Ali (minus 19 seconds, because the ref stopped the fight).

Instead, I walked over to the car and took in the glorious image of white leather, fresh polish, opera windows, and sparkling chrome.

The license plate?: CHAMP

Some things just stick with you.

Canopysaurus
Canopysaurus
8 months ago
Reply to  XLEJim700

Extra credit for the Bayonne Bleeder reference.

Cyko9
Cyko9
8 months ago

This face-off is dictated by use. If you want to trash an offroader, the Miata is probably the better bet. I’d cut those fenders, though, or just take them off. But if you want something unique that you could offroad and still show, the Champ has character. You might end up trying to sub some rare parts, but it’ll start conversations.

10001010
10001010
8 months ago

There should be a second poll for us to vote on Morphine vs Kenny G. Fuck yeah Morphine with Mark Sandman proving that a bass guitar doesn’t need 5 or 6 or 7 strings or even the usual 4.

Oh, and the car, well The Answer is obvious on that one.

Mike Harrell
Mike Harrell
8 months ago

The self-esteem I derive from my Austins currently tops out at the Vanden Plas level. I’m not sure I could handle one with a Rolls-Royce engine.

Balloondoggle
Balloondoggle
8 months ago

The Miata looks surprisingly good with the big wheels, but the older vehicle is more likely to be doable with my skill set.

MaximillianMeen
MaximillianMeen
8 months ago

I’ll take my sax a Quarterflash at a time. Rindy Ross looks much better in a leotard than either Kenny G or the Hugh Grant look-a-like.

How can anyone say no to an Austin in Austin?!?

Gilbert Wham
Gilbert Wham
8 months ago

I see there is a small lead for ‘Yes, I am insane; please give me that David Tracy special. That’s right! The one made from pure unobtanium!’.

I am proud to be a member of such a splendidly optimistic cohort.

TOSSABL
TOSSABL
8 months ago

Thanks for introducing me to the Champ. Among the interesting info I found on them was the mention that the military one was supposed to be able to ‘ford’ waters up to 6 feet! The snorkel normally laid on the right fender, and could be swiveled up for deep-water use.

Six feet of water. I can’t even. Makes me think of the Dirt Every Day episodes on driving a Jeep underwater. I think Cletus McFarland did something like that as well

Cheats McCheats
Cheats McCheats
8 months ago

Uh yeah, no thanks.

Duke of Kent
Duke of Kent
8 months ago

I always kind of liked the idea of a regular car jacked up a little bit with some chonky tires and additional ground clearance. It would make me less nervous about hitting a pothole wrong or crossing railroad tracks too aggressively.

The Miata is not really what I had in mind, though. It looks like it’s been ruined. But at least it runs, so I voted for it.

Alexk98
Alexk98
8 months ago

The Miata all day every day. For one, I’ve basically torn my NA half way apart and put it back together again, so I know my way around the chassis for most things, and two because a 3″ lift with unshaved fenders is from what I understand, a completely reversible modification. Meaning I can blast around town ignoring every single curb and bump, but could just as easily swap coilovers and street wheels/tires on and make this thing a track/AutoX toy.

Throw in all that with the absolute loads of parts availability, institutional knowledge and forums, groups and the like, and you can’t ask for much more fun for the money. Don’t get me wrong, the Austin is neat, but you’ll have an awful time getting parts, will spend probably 2-3x the purchase price to get it running/driving, and at the end of the day have a worse car.

Miata all day, every day.

CSRoad
CSRoad
8 months ago

I picked the Champ they were effectively an improved Willys “Jeep”, which had its roots in the Austin Bantam. It is a tangled web . I think even not running it is a far better investment.

JDE
JDE
8 months ago
Reply to  CSRoad

And if you use a Roxor from India to resurrect the bantam then it kind of comes full circle on the British colonialism thing.

Soso Tsundere
Soso Tsundere
8 months ago

My dentist played the Phantom of the Opera Broadway soundtrack on repeat! To this day that play makes my mouth feel all chalky and gross. I’d take Kenny G any day over that, even if it is Novocaine For the Soul.

I voted for Frankenstein’s Miata Monster, but give kudos to any soul brave enough to tackle either project.

Icouldntfindaclevername
Icouldntfindaclevername
8 months ago

I really want the Austin, but parts are going to be a problem if you want to keep it original.

Nsane In The MembraNe
Nsane In The MembraNe
8 months ago

How DARE you do that to an NA Miata. They’re a dying breed, and nice ones are now commanding as much as $20,000 or more. They’re not cars that should be clapped out…they’re cars that should be treated with respect. They’re a vital and still somewhat accessible piece of automotive history and pure driving joy.

If we keep turning them into Frankenstein projects there won’t be any left, and they’re a car everyone should experience at least once. If you want to build an off-road zombie for trolling purposes use something else please.

*climbs down from soapbox*

Alexk98
Alexk98
8 months ago

Normally I think pretty similarly on classics, but having owned an NA for a couple years now, once they get scruffy and crusty, its not really economical to bring them back to showroom condition given what some parts can run.

The fact that lift kits like the Paco Motorsport 3″ lift are basically shock top hat spacers means these are very reversible, so I see no harm in these mods if they keep the car on the road long enough to see it to a point where it would be worth a proper restoration or refurbishment instead of becoming another parts car.

Seriously though, people are getting really trigger happy with parting out running NAs because they can legitimately make more money parting them out, and I think that right there is a real shame. If it gets crashed beyond repair? sure part it out, but I’ll be damned if I tear apart a solid runner for an extra thousand bucks.

JDE
JDE
8 months ago

They are becoming valuable simply because they are dying or being made into things like this. It happens to the best of the previously cheap beaters out there.

Mr Sarcastic
Mr Sarcastic
8 months ago

That Miata was thoroughly trashed prior to the dainty off road bits added. And it is not a 4×4 but a RWD with a tiny motor and wheels to big for it. Think some 9 year old girl in her mommies high heels. They don’t fit are clunky and actually ruin performance.

Nic Periton
Nic Periton
8 months ago

The Champ is ripe for repatriation, rough and running ones go for around £10,000. Restored and pretty? £20,000+.

Geoff Buchholz
Geoff Buchholz
8 months ago

Miatas (Miatae?) are terrific, of course, and this one looks fun — but many Autopians caution about taking on someone else’s project, and I think this applies here. Plus, reviving the Champ (but not too much — that patina is legendary) would yield an unique runabout that would pull focus at those snooty “cars and coffee” events on the North Shore.

Put me on Team Underdog, again: we’ll take the Brit.

StillNotATony
StillNotATony
8 months ago

God help me. I picked the Austin. I just couldn’t resist the call of the weird.

Canopysaurus
Canopysaurus
8 months ago

Champ, definitely. Who can say no to a small 4×4 designed by the father of the Mini and Mini Moke? Not me.

IRegertNothing, Esq.
IRegertNothing, Esq.
8 months ago

Sanity be damned, I want that Champ.

Toecutter
Toecutter
8 months ago

I’d turn that Miata into a ghetto, streamlined version of a Rally Fighter. Miata Italia front end and custom aero pieces designed to avoid infringing on the ground clearance, while still reducing drag, and an aero fastback top.

And a Cummins 4BT with a tuned injector pump.

It would be nice to have a 40-50 mpg offroader.

Drew
Drew
8 months ago

The Miata is ready to go and I’m always tempted by an off-roadster. I hope someone revives that Champ, but that person certainly won’t be me.

OnlyFlans
OnlyFlans
8 months ago

Mark, you just jumped exactly 1 million points in my opinion of you for picking Morphine as a band with a prominent saxophone.

That said, I still went with the Lexus because, while it may drive like Kenny G, I would rather listen to Morphine on its bangin’ Mark Levinson stereo than on my phone while waiting for the Passat to be fixed at the shop.

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