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ESRT members James Bartlett, John Witt and Eoin Murray standing proudly with their new steed : credit: © Alisdair Cusick
How do you replace a loyal workhorse that is no longer produced? That was the dilemma faced by the Exmoor Search and Rescue Team. Alisdair Cusick investigates

We’ve had the new Defender for a few years now, and sightings of the L663 out on the roads are now common. Buyers of the L663 tend to be consumers, where sales are won with marketing, brand awareness and model appeal. But what about the commercial customers of the model, who relied on the original Defender as a working tool? They chose the Defender by a totally different set of metrics: the vehicle was bought to perform a task, just like a hammer or screwdriver.

So where does the latest Defender fit in with that traditional buyer? I’m barreling around the scenery of Exmoor in Devon to find out, with a user who needs a rugged 4x4 as a workhorse – the Exmoor Search and Rescue Team.

Loaded with kit and personnel, the 130 rides well over the rough stuff

Regular readers may recall Exmoor Search and Rescue Team’s (ESRT) LRM cover story of last year. Its 30-year old 110, call sign Ex.94, had a glossy TV makeover courtesy of BBC Two’s Speedshop programme, before gracing LRM’s front page. Holding the accolade as the oldest Defender in use by a search and rescue team in England and Wales, the slogging 2.5 diesel had a 2022 reboot to suit future use by the team. That was then, and I’m now back with the ESRT to learn about that future. The story today is all about that 110’s replacement, because Ex.94 is to be retired.

Team member James Bartlett explains the multiple reasons that decision came about. “As the team’s operational requirements developed, so did our need for the vehicle. It was increasingly becoming a water rescue vehicle, carrying a powered boat, inflatable raft and recovery equipment.” The size of that equipment, and the hard-top’s narrow rear door was beginning to create manual handling issues for team members. Secondary to that, as the amount of kit increases, so does the weight. “We were increasingly approaching the maximum payload capability,” reveals James, keen to avoid running the 110 at the limit. Standard deployments were also encountering issues, not least that the vehicle only had two seats. They could take kit, but they couldn’t take people, ruling it out for solo deployment on a rescue job needing both boat and the team to operate it.

Roll cage fitment deemed a must after Keswick rescue team’s rollover

Then there were the useability factors. The absence of ABS and power steering were drawbacks for team members more accustomed to driving a modern car. Looking ahead and managing budgets, it became difficult to justify a vehicle that, at times, didn’t meet operational needs and undoubtedly needed future repairs. As sad as it was, the old 110’s time was up.

But replacing it should be easy, shouldn’t it? Historically, users would just look at the new model offered by Land Rover and source an up-to-date replacement. Now, though, it doesn’t quite play out like that. The Defender as we knew it stopped seven years ago, and the new Defender is firmly ensconced in the luxury end of the market – with a price tag to match.

Kit storage and organisation is the next problem to solve

When it came to looking at a replacement, the ESRT drew up a list of what the car needed to do. “We had a working party who decided what the operational purpose was, then secondary requirements, then pre-defined specifications,” details Bartlett. Then they decided how many people it needed to carry, space, payload, off-road abilities, plus a little extra for additional kit. “I made a huge spreadsheet of the water rescue, medical and personal kit, with individual weights,” explains James. “Then we added 100kg per person, plus 25kg per person of personal kit.” That came to 650kg in weight for personnel, 250kg of rescue kit, and they wanted 100kg of spare capacity. On top of that they looked at limitations: towing capacity, driving confidence for team members, then comfort, as deployments have become increasingly national. Beyond that, sourcing, funding and build times were assessed. All that information was crunched, then went into a business case put to the team’s executive committee.

The interior is laden with communication, lighting and location equipment. A must for their job

During their presentation the team offered options ranging from decommissioning Ex.94 and not replacing it, updating it further, or going for the purchase and equipping of a pick-up based platform. To decide on possible vehicles, James collated a list based on the 2015 model year, for the broadest range of options. All makes and models were investigated for completeness, and all the various metrics compared to decide a best fit. The new Defender was ruled out as being cost-prohibitive, as was the Ineos Grenadier. “On top of the cost, the payload capabilities of those vehicles just didn’t offer us the one tonne we needed,” James adds.

In the end, only one vehicle offered the magic combination of being a five-seat pick-up with a 1425kg payload: the original Defender 130 hi-capacity pick up.

Did you know? While the Exmoor Search and Rescue Team opted for an original Defender 130, there are teams using the new Defender. Patterdale Mountain Rescue Team has a 110 already in use, and two other search and rescue teams in the UK are currently kitting out the new model. One is a 130, intended for use as an ambulance.

Heated seats with custom embroidery from local specialist, Exmoor Trim

With this choice being given the green light, James went on a hunt armed with a wish list. “A late-model 130, low mileage, good condition, ideally in white, and with a canopy already fitted,” he recalls. By total chance, they found the hen’s tooth: a 75,000 mile 2016 model that ticked every one of those boxes. In fact, the car was first registered to Land Rover and still wears the company logoed OX registration plates.

Once bought, the process of becoming the new Ex.94 began, and it highlighted the benefits of opting for a Defender, where an established aftermarket exists, one laden with goodwill. The team needed to up-plate the 130 to 3500kg gross weight, “but that is done very easily,” Bartlett admits, by fitting heavy-duty wheels, uprated suspension and beefier tyres. A thorough service by 4x4 Adventures followed, then the MT82 gearbox output shaft – a known TDCi weak point – was changed for an uprated Ashcroft unit as a preventative measure.

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Narrow track of the Defender means it can get to places other vehicles can’t

Further upgrades and modifications came thick and fast. The underbody got a full Dinitrol rust-prevention treatment for longevity and the load bay was lined. Then on went chunky Gwyn Lewis steering bars and mud shields to seal off the usual muck traps. Old Man Emu dampers and HD springs meant the chassis would withstand prolonged off-road use, and a Goodwinch TDS9.5C winch and bumper plus auxiliary battery kit added self-recovery ability. Exterior lighting came from ORE 4x4’s headlight and scene lighting ranges, on top of the usual bright livery. Heated seats, replete with Exmoor SRT logos, came from local Exmoor Trim, and an Optimill quick-release steering wheel and swivel lock added security for peace of mind.

Work, not play: The 130 creeping across the moors

Roll cages on UK rescue Defenders are considered essential since the Keswick rescue team’s rollover of 2019, which wrote-off that vehicle. “We knew the 130 cage would be a special order, but hadn’t anticipated the huge cost of fitting,” sighs James. That cost made the project financially impossible – until, that is, it was suggested he speak with Eddie Priscott, director of Terrafirma. “Eddie was involved in much of the Speedshop build, but came back to generously suggest a solution for the 130: he’d install Terrafirma’s new Protection and Performance roll cage free of charge at Britpart’s workshop, if they could cover the fitting for a magazine feature.” Which is exactly what happened: even I picked up the tools while covering the installation for LRM earlier this year. Industry generosity like this runs deeply through the Land Rover scene.

Did you know? Keswick Mountain Rescue Team’s 2013 Defender 110 was written off after a wheel slipped off a steep hillside track, causing the car to roll a number of times down to the road below. The roll cage meant there were only minor injuries, but unfortunately the damage was extensive enough to write off the vehicle. Despite this, it was subsequently bought by a keen Midlands enthusiast who went on to rebuild the Defender on his driveway, returning it to the road.

Water rescue unit vehicle getting in a bit of practice…

The end result is not just a fulfilment of the ESRT’s initial brief to replace the old 110, but is an intelligent build, designed to provide years of reliable service. Knocking about the moors of Exmoor for our photographic shoot, Ex.94 looks, rides and drives superbly, as well as successfully manifesting as the Swiss army knife the ESRT needs it to be. We wade rivers and cross moorland tracks in what feels for all the world like a brand-new Defender, but one that can deploy a rescue team and any manner of kit as required. Crucially for the future, it can also be fixed anywhere, affordably, with a ready parts supply.

In our enthusiast world, we sometimes forget about those who rely on a vehicle simply to do a job. Since production of the traditional Defender finished, many such buyers have turned to double cab pick-ups such as the Ford Ranger and Toyota Hilux. But the ESRT’s 130 wasn’t a purchase driven by nostalgia or brand passion. Rather, it reveals that even though it has long ago ceased production, there are still markets where only one car has the breadth of talent to undertake some of the toughest jobs: the original Defender.

 

Exmoor Search and Rescue Team in action

Impromptu call to action during the LRM photoshoot gave an impressive demonstration of the ESRT’s professionalism

​​​​​​A totally unfunded service staffed by a team of dedicated volunteers, the Exmoor SRT is there to assist in all manner of remote locations. From lost and injured walkers, flood incidents (nationally) or missing persons, the team is ready to help.

I saw this first-hand during the photoshoot, where we happened upon an injured walker in a remote riverside valley. Suddenly the team calmly worked as a unit; first locating the casualty, reporting the needs back to the staff member at the Defender, and then treating the casualty on the scene – a fair distance down a riverside path – and returning them to their vehicle with directions on how they could get to the local hospital.

The Defender not only got the team down into the valley, but then served as communications hub, team bus and medical unit. Tomorrow it could get a call to work bumper-deep in floodwater, helping other people in need.

If you would like to make a donation to this worthy organisation, go to exmoor-srt.org.uk.

 

Suppliers

Gwyn Lewis: suspension, mud shield kit, battery tray, Sumo bars
Ashcroft Transmissions: upgraded MT82 gearbox output shaft
Brookwells: OME springs, service items and consumables
BeaconsandLightbars.co.uk: reversing camera
Goodwinch: TDS winch, bumper and winch kit
North Devon Tyres: BFG KO2 A/Ts
4x4 Overlander: raised air intake
4x4 Works: Front Runner wheel carrier
• 4x4 Adventures: split-charge system
Ore 4x4: headlights, flood and reverse lighting
Mobile Centre: cruise control system
Safe Response: emergency lighting and livery
A&M Coatings: Line-X rear tub treatment
Terrafirma: Protection and Performance roll cage
Wipac: 73mm LED light kit
Optimill: mirrors, security bonnet hinges, windscreen blocks, Momo steering wheel and swivel lock
Exmoor Trim: premium heated front seats
Southwest Rust Proofing: chassis protection and rust treatment

 

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