I saw an old Austin Gipsy recently and it reminded me very much of a series 1 Land Rover or Willys Jeep. There is no mystery around that – they were all designed for a purpose. With the Willys Jeep and the Land Rover developed in the 1940s, the Austin Gipsy was a later entrant to the market – and was designed to be a direct competitor to the Land Rover as the Jeep (built by Ford/Willys-Overland/Kaiser and later AMC) were not readily available in Europe apart from ex military versions.
Austin had won a contract with the British Army to build a utility vehicle which they named the Champ and during the mid 1950s wanted to go head to head with Land Rover in the civilian market and so the Gipsy was born. The Gipsy was almost a clone of the first series Land Rover, with very similar outward design and shape, however apart from being slightly bigger, the Gipsy was made of steel whilst the Land Rover was aluminium. It was under the skin that the real differences could be found.
Power for the Gipsy was provided by a tried and trusted Austin 2.2 litre 4 cylinder overhead valve engine. This motor was first seen in cars back in the late 1940s and had 6 years of life in mid range saloons. Interestingly, although the Land Rover had a smaller motor and had a lighter body shell, the Gipsy was recorded at the time as having better fuel economy due to its tuning and because in road trim it was actually lighter than the Land Rover!
As Austin anticipated selling the car throughout the Commonwealth, they tuned it for torque and to run on poor quality fuels. A diesel motor of a similar capacity was also offered which also found use in the Austin FX4 taxicab (the famous London Taxi).
The real competitive difference for the Gipsy was its suspension – a new low maintenance design was used that was created by one of the industry’s gurus: Alex Moulton. He had worked on the compact Mini and had been testing his new suspension with the army. It was called “Flexitor” and consisted of a trailing arm on which the wheel hub was mounted. One end of the arm was connected to the vehicle by a classic shock absorber and the other end by a compressed rubber cylinder inside a housing. This was connected to the vehicle by axial shafts that meant that the rubber absorbed the movement of the vehicle.
This type of suspension was found to last three times as long as leaf springs and meant less work to maintain than the rival Land Rover. The Flexitor suspension also provided a fully independent setup for the vehicle, however this was compromised by the lack of travel of each wheel, which meant it wasn’t as good off-road as it’s competitors.
The first versions were called the G1M10 and were in production for two years from 1958 to 1960 when the G2M10 was launched with some minor upgrades and modifications which included stronger trailing arms with lever dampers to replace the hydraulic shock absorbers. In 1965, the last of the Gipsy models appeared – the G4M10 which could be bought with leaf springs and a beam axle instead of the independent Flexitor units. This improved off-road handling by allowing each wheel more travel.
Apparently the British Home Office bought several hundred Gipsys – it was at the height of the Cold War and with a nuclear threat hanging over Britian, they wanted to be prepared for the worst. Presumably they thought the Gipsy would be like a cockroach and survive the holocaust. They were kept hidden away in bunkers and by the end of the 1990s, the Government deemed them surplus to requirements and flooded the market with exceptionally clean machines!
As stated earlier, the Land Rover was better at full off-road travel and this was not just because of the suspension. The Gipsy had a low mounted mechanical fuel pump and distributor which meant that it couldn’t cross very deep water – and a report I read suggested that the fuel pump was prone to vaporisation unlike the electric pump that the Land Rover used. Apparently in the early 1960s, one was tested in the Outback under (probably) extreme conditions!
It was designed to be a workhorse with a low ratio four wheel drive system. You could not select high ratio gears with four wheel drive (again a difference from the Land Rover). This was something that Austin saw as an advantage rather than a disadvantage and probably didn’t matter too much for the farmers and workers who bought them. One true advantage was that the transfer box could be put into neutral to act as a power take-off with other equipment.
Over 21,000 units were built in the UK, Australia, New Zealand and South America, however it’s demise was caused by the very vehicle it competed against – not in the commercial market but by mergers and acquisitions.
At the time that the Gipsy was being produced, Austin was part of BMC which was growing through the acquisition of Jaguar and Pressed Steel, a bodywork provider. Having changed it’s name to British Motor Holdings in 1968, it was then “encouraged” to merge with Leyland Motors by the Government.
At the time that BMC was buying Jaguar, Leyland was busy gobbling up Rover and its subsidiaries, so when the two larger entities crashed together, something had to give. The Gipsy was dropped in favour of the much more popular and effective Land Rover.