The Laird Centaur is a weird British vehicle developed in the 1970s and ‘80s. Fittingly named after the Centaur mythical creature, which has the body of a horse and the torso and head of a man, it had the front end of the legendary Land Rover and a tracked rear-half.
However, by this point half-tracks were a rather outdated concept, and the fact that the Land Rover front end was not in the slightest bit bulletproof, meant it never entered service.
A handful of prototypes were built, which examples still surviving today.
British Half-Track Development
The British have, surprisingly, a fair amount of documented use on half-tracks, although they never quite took off with the military to the same extent that they did with the US, Germany and France.
The British did see their potential and saw the pros and cons. Wheeled vehicles, while highly mobile on roads, easily bogged down off road due to a lack of traction. Half-tracks improved this, but saw increased maintenance and cost issues.
One of the first half tracks built by the British was by the FWD, or Four Wheel Drive Lorry Co., Ltd of Slough.
This machine came in short and long-wheelbase versions but was made for export only, with both the Danish and Sudanese as customers. It was never used by the British military although it was tested by the Mechanical Wheeled Experimental Establishment, or MWEE, under the name B4E1.
The War Office also imported several American-made 3-ton Burford-Kegresse vehicles for testing with the Royal Artillery but never in sufficient numbers. These were American Burford trucks with French Kégresse-type tracks.
These were a continuous rubber belt rather than segmented links, but only 3 or so were ever bought and tested. Ironically, many modern IFVs are going back to a similar type of track today.
Meanwhile, Martel, a renowned inventor of the period and influencer on the mechanized warfare era was busy developing and making everything from one man tanks to similar, small roadless vehicles and yet he never used the name half-track.
The interwar period saw a wide variety of half-tracks and for a while, the UK led the world in military mechanization. Unfortunately, by WW2 much that had been learned was forgotten.
During the Second World War, work would be carried out by Bedford, a truck or lorry maker, to use the UK parlance, who made transport trucks up until the late 1980s and struggled on under different names before going defunct in the early ‘90s.
One of their earlier experimental vehicles was the Bedford Bren, so named as it was a Bedford truck combined with a modified Bren gun carrier chassis – but this never really took off. Another early war concept was an AEC Matador version with a ¾ track configuration. The AEC, or Associated Equipment Company, built several trucks and armored cars and had a go at developing half-tracks too, but like Bedford wasn’t successful and never put any into production.
The UK was supplied with Lend-Lease US half-tracks such as the M2 and M3 which saw service throughout the Second World War and even post-war for many years. With the enormous American supply, the UK began to slow its own half-track development.
Yet for all this, the UK didn’t want to be too entirely dependent on the US, both as a sense of pride and for its own commercial interests. Thus, it set to studying the enemy’s half-tracks – notably German ones – for its own use.
The British had captured several German Sd.Kfz. 7 half-tracks during the North African campaign and promptly transported them back to the UK in 1943 for examination by engineers at Vauxhall’s in Luton.
The vehicle received high praise upon inspection and along with captured plans and documentation they were sent for evaluation, particularly in the field of towing field guns such as the heavy 17-pounder. Some of these vehicles were pressed into British service working with the RAF, while others were dismantled and reverse-engineered.
Within a year the British had copied and remade their own version of the German half-track under the name The Bedford Tractor, or TRACLAT, for Tracked Light Artillery Tractor.
It wasn’t a pure clone, changes were made, notably, the steering was switched over to a right-hand drive, and the road wheels, while keeping a similar look, were slightly different. Also, 320 mm wide tracks replaced the German ones.
Many parts were taken off Bedford trucks; the front wheels were a standard pair of unpowered Bedford wheels and the engine was a six-cylinder Bedford truck engine delivering 136 bhp.
Unlike the German vehicles that depended on the wheels to steer, the Traclat worked more like a conventional tank, adjusting the speed of the track on either side.
The TRACLATS proved very successful in trials, easily able to tow their guns through thick mud but they were too late to see service in the Second World War and fell to post-war cutbacks. They were briefly tested in Germany, but no orders were placed and the UK would use up its surplus stocks of Lend-Lease vehicles.
After the Second World War half-tracks gradually faded out of service in many armies. The US continued to use up wartime stock through Korea, but new designs or modifications never really went anywhere.
With the invention of the fully enclosed APC design, first done by the UK but never put into service, followed by the IFV or battle taxi, the half-track notion became somewhat redundant.
Once you had a vehicle that could truly go where tanks could, mount firepower to deal with most threats and offer more protection to the crew, this isn’t surprising.
So it might come as a shock then that decades later a British firm decided that half-tracks might once again make a comeback.
The Laird Centaur
This project was undertaken by Laird Ltd of Anglesey, a small island located just north of Wales, then changed to just the Laird Group in 1970. They had purchased a large factory-cum-hangar in Beaumaris, which had belonged to Saunders Roe in the 1940s to house Sunderland and Catalina flying boats.
Laird under various names and so forth made a variety of things until it finally went defunct in 2018 including railways parts, electronics and for reasons a half-track.
The Laird Centaur, as it came to be known, was only ever made in limited numbers, with the aim for the export market primarily during the early 1980s. 7 vehicles were made in total, 6 of which used the Land Rover Stage One front end, and one using the Land Rover 110 longer wheelbase model.
It’s often said that the back end is a CVRT, but this isn’t the case. The drive sprocket is from the CVRT, as are the tracks, but the wheels are copies of the old idlers used on CVRT as opposed to the road wheels, while the tracks are added from a Scorpion with rubber blocks to each link.
Each Centaur was powered by a 3.5 litre Rover V8 petrol engine that drove both front wheels and the tracks through a manually operated gearbox. The vehicle had 8 forward and two reverse speeds, which are provided by a high and low-ratio transfer facility in the four-speed gearbox.
Both track and wheels are powered through a differential built into the gearbox which can be locked if required.
Centaurs were designed from the outset with adaptability in mind for a wide range of roles, and many different designs were drawn up, from armoured ambulances down to anti-aircraft versions, mortar vehicles, anti-tank variants, cargo carriers to gun carriers and mine layers. Laird also stipulated that the vehicle has a low maintenance footprint and anybody familiar with a land rover will require minimal retraining.
The MOD did show some interest and the Centaurs were extensively tested in both Oman and Norway for hot and cold weather trials. As part of an export concept, the Laird group set out from the outset to make the vehicle as adaptable as possible.
Unfortunately, no orders were placed with the MOD or foreign customers.
The vehicle suffered from several issues; it was not provided with any NBC equipment, and, as it was essentially just a Land Rover front it was vulnerable to even small arms fire. The vehicle was also very noisy and extremely uncomfortable to ride in.
The tracks were said to jump up and bang on the underside of the hull, but this was a track tensioning issue, rather than a design flaw.
It also suffered horribly on loose gravel, which would swamp the road wheels and had to be dug out.
It’s believed all of the 7 made still survive today – an unusual feat for prototype vehicles – although one of them found in the gulf was nothing more than a wreck. A running version can currently be found in the Vehicle Conservation Centre at The Tank Museum, Bovington.