I write these words in the hinterland between Christmas and New Year. There isn’t much to do. In desperation the other night, I found myself watching the Horse of The Year Show on television, the annual event where they crown the horse that has done the most to influence the events of the year, sold the most records, been voted as best dressed horse by a jury of its peers, or shaped the world’s cultural landscape in the fields of style, politics and entertainment.
Truth be told, I wasn’t really paying attention as I have a fractured relationship with our equine brethren, and I only really switched my brain on for the dog agility support act. I’ve always considered horses to be highly unpredictable creatures, good for pulling a narrowboat or a plough but somewhat out of place in the modern mechanised world. They always give the impression of having a hair trigger, constantly primed for an extreme reaction to something they’ve already encountered a million times previously such as a leaf, a gust of wind or another horse. Even if you strike lucky and somehow find a relatively calm one, horse ownership seems to be an endless cycle of vet bills and ketamine, some of which you may need to administer to yourself as a coping mechanism. All of which makes the motor industry’s fixation with naming cars after horses quite curious. They’re supposed to evoke power and strength; Mustang, Bronco, Colt. Other horse characteristics are played upon elsewhere, Pinto for example evokes the tendency of a horse to react badly if approached unexpectedly from behind. Some names pulled from the big equine bag of inspiration were more humble; Pony conveys the idea of a smaller animal that won’t necessarily run out of control as quickly as a fully grown one. Marketing is nonsense of course and you wouldn’t want a car that bore the true characteristics of a horse – not unless being bucked out of the sunroof on a regular basis is your idea of fun. No, horses don’t belong on the motorway; they’re best suited to tramping over difficult terrain and generally plodding around without falling over. That’s a useful horse, something like one of those small chestnut coloured ones they have in the Tyrol. A Haflinger, they’re called.
The fully motorised Haflinger which we’re interested in was a product of the now dissolved Austrian firm, Steyr-Daimler-Puch. Latterly best known for motorcycles and mopeds, the company was originally founded in 1864 as a rifle manufacturer before diversifying into bicycles and subsequently making the leap into car production just after World War I. Steyr either showed great foresight or benefitted from a significantly lucky break by hiring Hans Ledwinka to bring their first car to fruition, Ledwinka being destined to go onto design the revolutionary streamlined Tatra cars of the 1930s. The Ledwinka family connection would serve the firm well. By the mid-1950s the first seeds were being sown for the idea of a new lightweight four wheel drive vehicle. Following the end of World War II and the dissolution of the Anschluss, the Austrian Army re-established itself as a peacekeeping force. The country declared neutrality and formally abstained from further military alliances in 1955. The Allied forces had helped to mobilise the new army with surplus Willys MB Jeeps, but by the mid-50s they were ageing and a homegrown transport solution was called for. Step forward Erich Ledwinka, son of Hans, bringing with him a sack full of experience from Tatra’s truck division. The design brief was for a vehicle capable of negotiating rough roads, degraded tracks and places where there were no tracks at all. Lightness and manoeuvrability were key with high ground clearance and a low centre of gravity being essential. The running gear needed to be simple and easily serviceable but simultaneously hardy and reliable in the toughest Alpine conditions. Compromise was not on the table; those neutral Austrian borders weren’t going to protect themselves.
The Haflinger is the very definition of designed-for-purpose. Debuting in 1959, its tiny proportions meant it could get to places a Land Rover couldn’t, and it would do so in moderately more comfort than that offered by an open Willys MB. It had a strong tubular backbone chassis which enclosed and protected the propshaft. Wheels were placed at each corner and both differentials could be locked to deliver true all-wheel drive. The wheel hubs were cleverly designed with the centreline of the axle above the centreline of the hub, so a small and light road wheel and tyre could be used without compromising ride height. Suspension was provided by fully independent coil sprung swing axles at each end and the minimal bodywork facilitated steep approach and departure angles to make the most of its mechanical ability. Power came from a 28bhp air-cooled flat-twin 643cc engine, mounted in the rear and shielded from underbody damage. Such uncompromising design created a vehicle that was almost unstoppable off road. The locking diffs could be engaged on the move and an optional Kriechgang, or creeper gear, gave a reduction of 75.6 to 1 at a maximum speed of 4 mph. If all else failed, at 600kg it was light enough to be lifted back onto firm ground by four Austrian soldiers. On the road it could just about achieve a noisy and bouncy 45 mph, but with no distant countries to invade this wouldn’t be an impediment. A useful payload of 500kg was plenty for the small dimensions and almost as much as it weighed itself. Trim and creature comforts in the cabin (I use the term loosely) were essentially non-existent, but it could all be cleaned out with a hosepipe if the rain hadn’t got in there first. The only serious drawback seemed to have been a lack of braking performance from the drums in wet weather, but this didn’t stop the orders coming in. Around 7,000 entered military service, not just in Austria but in Switzerland, Australia and the Congo too. The Royal Navy also brought a batch to Britain to tow Wessex helicopters and subsequently for use by Bomb Disposal in Northern Ireland. Steyr even produced a version with tracks instead of wheels, revelling in the fabulous name of Schnee Wiesel or “Snow Weasel”. Who wouldn’t want one of those, if only to casually rest your keyring on the bar to impress the ladies?
Over a 16 year production run approximately 16,500 Haflingers were produced. Steyr later scaled up the principles of the Haflinger into the larger Pinzgauer which was available in 4×4 or 6×6 variants, becoming arguably the most capable military vehicle of its generation. Military fleets tend to be well maintained and vehicles usually have long service lives before being demobbed, so you would imagine there would still be a reasonable supply of ex-military Haflingers out there. Similarly, they developed a cult following in the civilian market due to their unique capabilities, so you might expect there would always be a few offered for sale at any one time. However perhaps it is exactly because of these capabilities that they seem to be quite tricky to locate. Even some of the marque specialists seem to be low on supply and I strongly suspect that Haflinger keepers go in for long term ownership as it’s not entirely clear what you would replace one with.
For a while this was in danger of being a Prime Find without a Find, but after much searching I’ve located one for sale in Australia. It’s ex Australian Army but has been in single private ownership for 34 years. The vendor tells of a comprehensive rebuild and restoration having been undertaken in the past and reports that it is original and correct. At AUS $ 35,000 – the equivalent of £19,500 or Euro 21,500 – it’s not cheap, and the seller advises, “if you think the asking cost is too much, there is no need to tell me”, but it certainly seems to be a seller’s market out there so thoughts of haggling may be optimistic. If you’re set on driving a car with a horse name but think that a Hyundai or Ford just won’t fit the bill, maybe the Haflinger is what you are looking for. Here are a few pictures we have borrowed from the advert:
You can find the original advert here if you fancy a trip to Victoria, Australia: Steyr Puch Haflinger 700AP
From the seller’s description, it sounds as if this one is in tidy condition. So tidy in fact that he hasn’t even had it offroad since a major restoration. Seems a bit of a waste when you have a terrain-munching vehicle like the Haflinger.
Let us know how you get on. If you’re planning on driving it back to Europe, better plan to take your time.
With our Saturday instalment of Prime Find of the Week, we’re offering our services to the classic car community, by passing on our favourite classic car for sale from the week that passed. This top-tip might help a first-time-buyer to own his first classic, or it could even be the perfect motivation for a multiple-classic-car-owner to expand his garage with something different. We’ll let us inspire by anything from a cheap project to a stunning concours exotic, and hope that you will do the same.
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