by John Norris
Developing new specialist vehicles for the military to use in extreme conditions can prove to be a fickle thing. Conditions change, budgets are slashed and the requirement for such vehicles can suddenly cease to be.
Back in the 1980s, vehicle designers produced no end of ideas. Some even entered preliminary production, though events often overtook development. Over time, the need for a number of these designs disappeared. One vehicle which did weather the changes of the time was the Supacat 6X6, described by the Coventry-based British Company of Alvis as an “… all terrain mobile platform.”
The company of Alvis is usually associated with armored fighting vehicles such as the Scorpion range of Combat Vehicle Reconnaissance (Tracked) CVR(T) and the Saladin armored car. During the 1980s, however, in a departure from normal designs, they produced a lightweight, open-topped 6X6 vehicle intended to serve in multiple roles as a rugged support vehicle. The name of the vehicle has since then been used on other vehicle designs but the fact remains that the Alvis design was the first.
Looking like a six-wheeled version of the so-called “Quadbikes” popular today with farmers and some adventure sports, the Supacat was steered by handlebars with power assistance in the same manner. Weighing 3,637 pounds (1.6 tons) the vehicle was surprisingly versatile and extremely powerful for its size.
A MANAGEABLE SIZE
The Supacat measured 10.9 feet in length, 6.56 feet in width over the wheels and 6.2 feet in height to the top of the roll bar on the open topped version. These measurements varied slightly according to the role in which the vehicle was operating.
It was sufficiently compact to be double-stacked on flat-bed trailers for transportation by road or on pallets for airlifting by cargo aircraft. The vehicle could be carried internally aboard heavy lift helicopters such as CH-47 Chinook or as an underslung cargo by the same aircraft. The Supacat could be air-dropped from cargo aircraft such as the C-130 Hercules from its rear ramp using parachute systems. Such capabilities made it suitable for use with units of special forces operating in desert or snow and deployed at a moment’s notice.
Powered by a Volkswagen four-cylinder 1896cc engine that developed 78bhp at 4,000 rpm it could reach a top speed of 40mph on roads. Fuel capacity was 11 gallons of diesel and operational range depended on the type of work in which it was engaged.
The basic version was fitted with seats for the driver and co-driver with room for up to four additional passengers seated on the surfaces along the sides. It could ford water obstacles up to 34 inches deep and although it floated due to its boat-like construction the vehicle did not have any power to propel itself in water.
The body was made of aluminium panels riveted together or screwed for maintenance access. Paddles could be provided if the situation warranted it for the crew to negotiate larger bodies of water. It was fitted with a tow-bar for a specially-built two-wheeled trailer and it could tow loads up to 2.1 tons. The rear area provided 28.6 square feet for cargo.The Supacat could carry loads up to one ton as standard or 1.4 tons in an emergency.
The shape of the hull was well-sloped allowing angles of approach up to 57 degrees and angles of departure up to 58 degrees. Unfortunately, it also meant that the ground clearance was little over eight inches when operating with ordinary low-pressure 31×15.5×15 tires.
The vehicle can operate in snow up to twelve inches deep. The three tires on either side could be fitted with a lightweight but durable caterpillar-type track and this increased the ground clearance by another four inches. This feature could be fitted in around fifteen minutes under normal conditions.
Optional fittings included a winch with a 110 pound capacity and fuel tanks of 22 gallons and ramps for easy loading. Kits were available to construct a canvas cover over the rear and also a cab for the driver in cold conditions.
The rear area could be fitted to allow a range of weapons to be mounted and used directly from the vehicle including anti-tank missiles such as TOW or Milan. The firing posts for these systems would be fitted directly behind the driver’s position and several reload missiles could be carried on the vehicle itself and the trailer unit. This gave a full 360 degrees arc of fire but it would have been vulnerable to enemy fire.
Mortars with special base-plates to absorb the force on being fired could be used from the rear and ammunition carried in the trailer unit. Machine guns could also be fitted and the vehicle could tow light field guns up to 105mm calibre with the crew on board. In such roles other vehicles would carry the ammunition for the guns making them affordable vehicles.
SUPACAT IN SERVICE
The British Army and Royal Air Force obtained a small number of Supacats that they tested with air-landing units (including the 5th Airborne Brigade) in the mid- to late-1980s. Although it showed signs of being useful, it was never taken into service in large numbers.
A few were sold to overseas armies and they were deployed on military operations and to support humanitarian relief missions. It could have been a more useful vehicle if the military situation had been different and perhaps if competition from comparable designs had not been so strong.
Today ex-military models are available through websites on the Internet. A recent check on prices revealed that a former military Mk II 1600 Supacat in good condition was offered at £14,040GBP. As an unusual vehicle, it could be seen as an investment and is certainly affordable to operate and perhaps even make a good ‘run-around’ at some of the larger military vehicle gatherings.
The Supacat name is still used but that vehicle is a larger, more robust 6×6. But that, as they say, is “a cat of a different color.”