30 January 2023
Almost as ancient as the hills it works on – and still going strong. Alisdair Cusick meets the oldest vehicle still in use within Mountain Rescue England and Wales
I’m standing the middle of a rather windswept moorland field, on the Somerset-Devon border on Exmoor National Park. High up, away from any roads, rolling hills surround me in every point of the compass bar one, where the sea, far off on the horizon forms the only straight line in my view. Looking around, I can’t see a single house or farm; just endless moorland, separated by lines of trees and bushes. Amongst the verdant scenery, a full three fields away, the tiniest white dot appears from a dip, slowly bobbing and weaving through the view towards me. It is the familiar shape of a Defender, and this is the landscape it works in.
Exmoor Search and Rescue team are all volunteers
The Land Rover belongs to Exmoor Search and Rescue Team who are today using the Defender, providing rescue cover for the Man vs Moor running event. For 30 years, Exmoor SRT have been on call, ready to provide specialist Mountain Rescue services to much of Devon and Somerset, from Hartland Point in the West, Yeovil in the East and Bridgwater to the North. The Team are on call 24 hours a day, 365 days per year. That call could be for missing/injured people searches, pre-hospital medical care, right through to specialist rope or water rescue work. They do this without government funding, all run entirely with volunteers through fundraising events.
Titch and Billy from the BBC Speedshop episode
You may recognise the Defender from its recent appearance on BBC 1’s Speedshop programme, where the TV stars refreshed the ageing Land Rover, modifying it to prolong its working life. But this story isn’t just that the car appeared on TV; the real story here is of the oldest Land Rover still working in the Mountain Rescue fleet.
Revamped Defender is now extremely well equipped for water and off-roading rescue operations
Team Leader James Bartlett explains the story of the SRT and the Defender. The Team uses four vehicles, strategically spread over two locations. Their rescue centre is in South Molton, housing a Toyota Hilux, designated Ex.93, and the Defender, Ex.94. A satellite base in Taunton Fire Station houses two other vehicles, both all-wheel drive VWs, to provide easy access and a prompt response to the Eastern side of their area, including the Quantock and Blackdown Hills.
With no Government funding, vehicles are usually acquired through fundraising. Over the years, the team has had several vehicles including multiple Land Rovers, although the first Control Vehicle was a caravan. Ex.94 though, came about in rather different circumstances.
“We were donated the Land Rover in 2015, by Devon and Somerset Fire Service,” explains James. “There was a donation of six Land Rovers from their fleet to the PenMaCRA (Peninsula Mountain and Cave Rescue Association) teams.” When it arrived, it had very few miles and was almost standard, the sole extra being a roof rack, and a white respray over the Fire Service red. Adding a radio and blue lights, that is how it ran for many years as the SRT’s water rescue vehicle.
Good lighting crucial for rescues at night and in poor weather conditions
By 2021 it was still in use, now having the accolade of being the oldest Defender in use by a Mountain Rescue Team in England and Wales. Practically, it was nearing the end of its operational life, forcing the team to make difficult decisions around maintaining it, or replacing it with something else. “That ‘something else’ raises lots of questions about what that vehicle is,” says James. With the ball rolling on that decision process, Ex.94 developed reliability issues, specifically around the electrical systems.
Then came an email from Mountain Rescue England and Wales, saying: “There’s a TV show coming to the BBC, and they’ve approached Mountain Rescue, looking for a Land Rover to feature and modify,” James explains. “I very tongue-in-cheek replied, thinking no one is going to want to touch a 30-year-old Land Rover nearing the end of its useful life. But the story behind the car was great because it was donated by the Fire Service, it is the oldest operational Land Rover in Mountain Rescue England and Wales and it was entirely stock.” For TV, it all added up.
The Defender carries oxygen bottles to help treat those in distress
“They came down, had a look at the vehicle, made sure it was structurally okay and good to go,” relates James. “They asked us what we wanted from the vehicle. We said reliability, and to be able to function as a dedicated water rescue vehicle.” The accident with Keswick Mountain Rescue in 2019 where one of its 110s rolled, writing it off, brought an emphasis on team safety to the fore. Because of that, the Exmoor SRT were keen on a roll-cage for Ex.94.
“We gave them a brief of function,” explains James. “It needed to be able to wade, to be used off-road, be able to self-recover, operate in inclement weather and safely store our equipment.” Which is where Terrafirma stepped in, generously donating much of the kit that went on the vehicle.
Winch at the rear as well as the front
Terrafirma managing director, Eddie Priscott, takes up his company’s part in the story. “I specified it with what I thought they would need for how they were going to use it,” says Eddie. “Although old, for its age it was in remarkable condition – it was a very worthy base vehicle,” he adds. The troublesome wiring was so poor, Priscott says it was a fire hazard. One of the most time-consuming elements was to start all that again, with Auto Electrix completely rewiring it.
Upgraded suspension a vital improvement
Eddie expected soft ground and water to be involved, so chose Terrafirma kit to let the rescue team wade and track across boggy terrain without damaging the ground, nor getting stuck. “Hence locking rear diff, big tyres, and two winches with synthetic rope,” adds Eddie. Suspension to balance payload and off-road ability was carefully selected, along with plenty of lighting – essential for inclement weather and 24/7 deployments. “That vehicle should now be able to access all areas, not get stuck, and recover anything or itself. The rear winch in particular means you can drive knowing full well you can pull yourself out of anywhere.”
Original electrics were a fire hazard, so the whole vehicle was rewired
All the kit, says Eddie, was specifically selected for performance. “You don’t build a rescue vehicle and put on average quality products. The idea was it was all about the specification.” The transformation, done with much enjoyment and great spirits by the TV team, a handful of suppliers and Eddie on the spanners, took around three weeks.
Search and Rescue missions require a lot of kit and the team are always on the lookout for lightweight ways of storing it securely
The SRT were overjoyed with the transformation. “Now we have the vehicle equipped and capable, we’ve been able to put more people through 4x4 training,” James enthuses. Rejuvenated it may be, but there’s no timescale for the vehicle from now. “It is still a 30-year-old Land Rover. It’s a balance – as a charity, we need to make sure the money we allocate to Ex.94 is proportional to its use and operational life,” James sensibly says. “Whilst it meets our requirements and remains economical, we’ll continue to use it. We do need to replace the doors and the rear door sill is rotten. The brakes are still original, it doesn’t have ABS, nor power steering, but the big one is sorting out storage in the back. The challenge is weight in the vehicle; we need a lightweight solution that lets us carry our equipment, securely.”
Would they consider a new model? “As a team we haven’t thought about a new Defender,” he states. “Years ago, we moved across to a Hilux, so we’ve already delved into the world of alternatives. The fact that there isn’t a replacement Land Rover in the same guise brings challenges, but the Hilux are proven in Mountain Rescue,” he adds. “I think Patterdale [Mountain Rescue] have a new Defender, but it is a lot of money,” rues James. “Obviously the functionality of the new car is fantastic, but it comes at a price. As we’ve proved, the VW Transporter is very modular; they don’t offer the same four-wheel drive capabilities, but they are great for storage.”
Compared with their alternative 4x4, the Hilux, the old 110 still rules off-road. “Ex.94 obviously benefits from the kit Terrafirma donated and is brilliant,” asserts James. Today he aptly demonstrates the Defender’s talents: to reach the team’s working location means crossing a mile of featureless moor, with ample opportunity for error and zero opportunity for help. The 110 claws its way steadily over, with James just left to pick an intelligent line through the wilderness.
We perhaps shouldn’t be too surprised the old 200Tdi is still doing the job. “This is a great example of a Land Rover in its element: appropriately modified, still being used,” gushes James. Thanks to a few choice modifications, its story is far from over. The country’s oldest Defender in Mountain Rescue work should be still soldiering on for a good few years yet.
Exmoor Search and Rescue Team
The team average approximately 50 deployments per year, ranging from missing person searches, overdue walkers, searches for vulnerable adults, community support deployments and known location rescues, supporting the work of the Ambulance Service and Fire Rescue Service. The team’s portfolio continues to develop; water rescue wasn’t originally part of their role, but the team have since deployed to assist in large-scale flooding events, both nationally and regionally, including Cumbria, York and most recently Devon and Cornwall.
In 2022 their operating budget is in the region of £52,000, “We generally say it’s between £25-30,000 per year to cover the base running costs,” reveals James. “That excludes capital projects, so replacing a vehicle has to be fundraised separately – our new control vehicle last year cost £80,000 to replace and other expenses such as water rescue PPE are costly.
“The big thing now is finding help to extend the life of the vehicle,” says James. “Donors for parts, maintenance, or suitable upgrades for the Land Rover – we’re always seeking individuals, organisations and companies to support the team, but specifically this vehicle, to keep it on the road,” he adds.
Exmoor SRT 110 Spec:
• Wheels and tyres 315 75R16 (not Terrafirma supplied)
• Terrafirma 4 Stage adjustable shocks
• Terrafirma medium load front, heavy load rear coil springs
• Caster corrected front radius arm bushes
• Terrafirma stainless steel extended brake hoses
• Terrafirma cranked rear radius arms
• Terrafirma polyurethane bushes
• Terrafirma front and rear dislocation cones and coil spring retainers
• Terrafirma tubular front shock turrets and securing rings
• Terrafirma heavy-duty steering rods
• Terrafirma four-stage adjustable steering damper
• Raised air intake
• Terrafirma wing-top chequer plate
• Terrafirma snow cowl
• Safety Devices full external roll-cage with reflectors
• ARB air locker
• High performance ARB air compressor
• Terrafirma commercial winch bumper and M12.5S winch
• Terrafirma rear winch bumper tow bar and A12000 winch
• Terrafirma swivel recovery points
• Terrafirma winch wiring extension kit
• Odyssey battery
• Terrafirma winching and recovery kit
• OSRAM dual-beam spotlights and work lights
• Terrafirma LED headlights
• LED indicator, side, tail and brake lights
• +30mm wheelarch eyebrows
• Terrafirma spare wheel carrier
• Associated service and repairs as required during the preparation work, plus parts and assistance from Auto Electrix (complete rewiring), Vehicle Glazing Specialists and Osram
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