We revisit our experience with Austria's super-light, military-purpose off-roader. Its simple construction and all-wheel drive proved its strongest assets
Kris Culmer
21 September 2017

The Willys MB jeep of World War 2 kick-started the concept of civilian off-road vehicles.

It became popular for its rugged abilities in peace time and it was the inspiration for the original Land Rover.

On the other side of the Alps, the MB served the Austrian army well, but by the late 1950s, a replacement was required. The result was the Steyr-Puch Haflinger.

The Haflinger was rather different from its predecessor and its British contemporary, being more in the style of a truck than a passenger car.

Named after a mountain-going pony, the simple but ingenious all-wheel-drive Haflinger was, as Autocar put it on 14 August 1964, “designed for service not only where roads have deteriorated into tracks, but over virgin country where not even a path exists”.

We continued: “Its chief attributes are lightness, which reduces the tendency to sink into soft ground, and good fuel economy for a utility vehicle of this type, especially in field work.

“Key features of the design for good cross-country performance are a high ground clearance with a low centre of gravity; low gearing in conjunction with an engine that can be worked hard indefinitely; and the ability to lock both differentials, giving power to all four wheels, i.e. all-wheel drive, not just four-wheel drive.

“Based on a tubular backbone, enclosing the propeller shaft for the front differential – thus solving the problem of long grass tangling with it – the chassis is simple yet strong.

“The rear-mounted, two-cylinder power unit is only 643cc, and it is tucked away in an enclosed compartment. It’s air-cooled, and uses inclined pushrods and rockers to operate valves at 63deg included angle. Maximum power is 28bhp at 4500rpm.

“On the road, the lack of power is a drawback, and the car cannot be recommended to those who seek car performance with cross-country ability thrown in. It is primarily an off-road vehicle.

“The final drive gearing is standard at 4.22 to 1, but the driveshaft at each wheel terminates in a spur wheel reduction gear, which also contributes to the high ground clearance. Three spur gear reductions are available, and the car tested had the highest ratio – 2.38 to 1, giving an effective gearing in top of 7.1 to 1.

“Top speed per 1000rpm is only 9.5mph, and as the engine is governed not to exceed 4500rpm, the road maximum is little more than 42mph. On a downhill run, the Haflinger can occasionally be coaxed to about 48mph, but the governor can be felt holding it back.

“All wheels are independently sprung by coil springs, with swing axles front and rear, Aeon rubber buffers within the springs to give progressive rate on bump, and telescopic dampers.

“Drag links connect the swing axle ends with the tubular backbone chassis, those from the front suspension being inclined rearwards, and those from the back being inclined forwards. Each completes a sturdy triangle for the suspension layout.

“The ride is very firm, and somewhat bumpy over bad roads, but the vehicle has a feeling of immense strength, so that really rough going can be attacked at speed without fears of damage.”

So, before we get stuck in, how did the Haflinger handle on the road?

“The steering provides sensitive control with a minimum of play. Little effort is need and there is little wheel shock. An unexpected feature, in view of the height off the ground, short wheelbase and unsporting purpose of the Haflinger, is its excellent handling, which allows it to scuttle along winding country lanes.

“The finned drum brakes are of a generous size for such a light vehicle, but in spite of this, they need a firm shove on the pedal for quite ordinary stopping. Hard non-fade linings mean that the brakes do not deteriorate with prolonged use on long descents. They are, however, severely affected by water – a point to remember when making use of the car’s deep wading prowess.

And now to the mountains.

“The worse the conditions, the more the car impresses; but it is not without limitations. Our assault on a mountain had to be called off when the most hopeful route ended in a deep ditch with no way around it. Attempts to cross resulted in the only occasion on which the vehicle became bogged down; but it freed itself quite easily with the aid of a two-man push at the front. This lightness is perhaps one of the greatest assets of the design.

“As the going gets tougher, the Haflinger driver has three lines of reserve to fall back on, beginning with his four-wheel drive control. This is a simple handle between the seats. It engages the front differential and there is no need to stop the vehicle to use it. Should traction still be inadequate, there are two more pull-up levers for locking both the front and rear differentials. These can also be engaged while you’re on the move.

“With both of these locks and four-wheel drive engaged, the vehicle will keep going through mud, sand, marshes – anywhere, in fact, until the terrain is so bad that not one of the wheels can find any grip.

“The third resource is a very low gear marked K (for kriechgang, or creeper gear). Fitted for an extra £45, this gives an overall reduction of 75.6 to 1, and a maximum speed of about 2mph.  The four normal gears have excellent syncromesh, but not surprisingly the kriechgang has to be engaged with the vehicle at rest.

“In this ratio, the Haflinger will climb any gradient, even as steep as 1 in 1, on which the wheels can find enough grip. When the car refused the slopes of Cader Idris in north Wales, the engine was still pulling gamely, but the wheels were sliding on wet grass. To give an idea of the steepness of the hill, the front wheels were lifting clear of the ground under gentle braking on the backwards descent.

“A lot of extra equipment is available, but the four-wheel drive and differential locks are included in the standard price of £628.”

Overall, our testers were impressed with the Haflinger’s off-road ability, although the Land Rover was deemed better for those seeking a car for the road as well as the farm.

However, the utilitarian little Steyr-Puch found great success, especially with the military. In fact, the Royal Navy took delivery of several in 1963, using them to tow Wessex helicopters, and as bomb disposal vehicles in Northern Ireland.

The Haflinger retains a cult following around Europe, with many enthusiasts clubs, and Steyr-Puch, as part of Daimler, went on to use its off-road expertise to develop the Mercedes-Benz G-Wagen.

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Comments
3

21 September 2017

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21 September 2017
I've got a soft spot for the Haflinger (no not some boggy marsh) but a genuine appreciation for this sort of vehicle. Technically, its engineering (with the possible exception of its brakes) was very advanced for its time and yet in other respects it was remarkably simple and well suited for its intended purpose.
One of these, an S1 Landy and early Unimog would defintely find a place in my fantasy garage.

21 September 2017

The Haflinger was such an incredibly effective design, that it was followed in the early 1970's by the significantly larger Pinzgauer. Examples of this can still be found in the British Army, though sadly Steyr-Puch sold the manufacturing rights and ultimately the vehicle was discontinued. To this day, the basic concept of the Haflinger remains supremely effective in truly difficult off-road conditions. A true icon in the world of off-road vehicles.

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