16 May 2023
Patrick Cruywagen has a frank discussion with Louis Tinsley, former British Special Forces soldier and co-founder of the technical clothing range ThruDark, about Land Rovers and how he found success after soldiering
The military provides serving members with a brotherhood and new family. Clocking out of the military and into civvy street can be one of the most daunting things for a soldier or sailor. Suddenly your brothers and the banter are no more. Some struggle with the transition and there are various charities that offer lifelong support to service personnel and military veterans. Others take the skills and discipline they learnt while serving and make a success of their lives. This is the story of one such individual, Louis Tinsley, a former Special Boat Service soldier and co-founder of the successful technical clothing range, ThruDark. Louis drives a late old-style Defender 90 pick-up and it serves as his daily. This is what Louis had to say about soldiering, Land Rovers and life after the military when I caught up with him recently.
Who is Louis Tinsley?
I am a former Special Forces – in the Special Boat Service – operative. I left the military five years ago to start a clothing company, so I basically went from door kicking to fabric pulling. I grew up in the Lake District. Mum and Dad separated when I was quite young and we moved up there with my elder brother when it happened. We lived out in the sticks in a place called Kirkby Stephen.
My brother and I loved the outdoors and did all the regular associated stuff like building tree houses, making dams on rivers or walking in the hills. It was a great place to grow up and I consider myself very fortunate.
The 90 is Louis’ daily driver and generally not used off-road
Do you remember your first Land Rover experience?
Oh yeah. Dad had a red Defender 90 station wagon, which he would pick us up in and take us from the Lake District to Leeds where he lived. It used to have all his tools in the back as he was a mechanical engineer. A wire mesh screen separated the tools and those sitting in the front two seats. Dad would throw some towels over the tools and we would lie down flat on top of them for the long journey east.
My brother got really car sick so he would get the seat next to Dad, while I bounced around on a bed of wrenches and socket sets in the back.
Did you go straight from school into the military?
I really looked up to my elder brother and he went into the Royal Marines after school. We used to watch the eighties movies Commando and Predator on TV and they inspired us. We were both clever kids but I would not call us academics. We were good at our sports such as rugby, football and cross-country.
The recruitment adverts for the Royal Marines were on at the time: the one which said, ‘99.9 per cent need not apply’, made us think that we could do it. My brother applied. Got in, qualified and I followed in his footsteps. There’s no history of other family members in the military.
Camo covers to protect the seats from the dog
Did you also kick-off your military career in the Royal Marines? Any Land Rover stories?
When I started in the Royal Marines we used Snatch Land Rovers. After passing initial training my first draft was to a place called the Fleet Protection Group in Scotland and they used these Landys to patrol the area. They were armoured lumps and I spent lots of time in and around them.
Was there always this drive and desire to be the best?
I always had the drive to be better and the best, whether it was on a school cross-country run, in the football team or during training in the Marines.
I first did my corporal’s course at the Commando Training Centre Royal Marines in Lympstone, but my first step towards becoming a Special Forces soldier was when I took the UK Special Forces Support Group aptitude test in St Athans, Wales. This qualified me to support the UK’s Special Forces on operations. There you see the guys operating and doing the better jobs and I knew that being a Special Forces operator was my target.
Louis out on desert ops in Yankels
Did you use Land Rovers while on operations in hostile environments such as Afghanistan?
Whilst in the UK Special Forces Support Group we did a joint operation with the Pathfinders in Afghanistan where it was all about mobility. This included the old school Land Rover WMIKs [Weapons Mount Installation Kit] of course, best described as a stripped-down chassis with armour-plated sides and mounted guns such as the GPMG on the top. We also used Yankels, big trucks with big guns really.
Land Rovers are not the most reliable. Did you have a good run with them in the military?
Yes, I really did. When on operations we also used much bigger vehicles such as the Yankels which had the coach chassis and high ground clearance, yet would still get stuck from time to time. Not so for the lighter and smaller Land Rovers.
All good things come to an end. Why did you leave the military?
I did a total of 14 years in the military, half in the Royal Marines and the other half in the Special Forces and I actually got a medical discharge. There are a few reasons why I left really. I was coming to the end of the rock star years when all of the big jobs were on and things were slowing down a bit. Also, I had spent a lot of time jumping out of planes, yomping with kit on my back and doing pretty hardcore stuff.
My back started to suffer plus I had picked up a significant injury in North Africa. The doc said I had two options: stay in and do a desk job, or carry on doing what I was doing but my health would deteriorate. I cracked on and made it worse but after a while I realised my health was more important. The medical discharge was a bit of a golden ticket to going outside and starting a new adventure there.
Louis pays his father £60 a month to rent the 90 pick-up
Is this 90 the first Land Rover you have ‘owned?’
Yes, this is the first Land Rover that I have owned. Dad is old school, as most people of his era are. He has had several Land Rovers over the years and loves them, plus he introduced me to them. He is of the age where people start thinking about what happens when they pop their clogs and he is one of those who does not want to leave all his money in the bank, so he bought this Land Rover as he thought it would keep its value.
He bought it on a whim really, and to be fair to him it is a pretty nice-looking thing with its roll cage and bigger wheels – it certainly looks gnarly. Dad told me that I could use it for photoshoots for my new ThruDark clothing range business. One thing led to another and he eventually said I could rent it off him for £50 a month. I had to haggle him up and offered him £100 a month. We eventually settled on £60.
Not Louis’ regular route to work…
Is it your daily driver?
Yes, it is exactly that. I have never used it in anger or had to engage the diff-lock. My daily commute is only five miles and I have probably done the maximum of a two-hour drive in it. It is perfect for me and the dog and that is the problem with a cab and pick-up. It ideally needs a front third seat like the older ones had.
Like all Land Rover owners, Louis can’t resist adding bits
Is this what it looked like when your dad bought it?
Negative. I got a bit excited when I first got it, like all Land Rover owners do, I guess. It was missing a few things that I could do myself. I was precious about the chassis so I ended up on my hands and knees and diligently painted it with anti-corrosion stuff. I also put on the extra lights myself plus a smaller Momo steering wheel – all easy jobs. I slapped on some camo seat covers to protect them from the dog, too. A previous owner had lifted and chipped it.
Louis installed the Momo steering wheel himself
What next for your 90?
After chatting to Dave Lea from 4x4 Fabrication I got all excited as he suggested several options. At one point he mentioned an engine change which sounded great until I learnt how much it was going to cost me – £30k for a Chevy engine.
Is it true that you have a new Defender on order?
That is right, an all-black P400e and I collect it tomorrow. I am excited about it. I used to drive an Audi but I got badly T-boned, with the missus and the dog on board, by a Jeep Wrangler. It made a right mess and it was all the Jeep’s fault. He pulled out on me at a blind T-junction, and the Audi was a write-off. Since then I have just used the old Defender 90, but then I started to look at the new Defender. A lot of people are unsure about them because they are so different from the outgoing model, but we all know why they had to do it… Emissions, safety and comfort, and I’m fine with that.
Louis' clothing company, Thrudark, has helped his transition from military life
You were successful in the military. How easy has it been to replicate that on civvy street?
The usual and easy thing for our guys is to go into security and protection work in the Middle East – it’s really well paid and similar to the work in the military. I have done bits of it but it has never really set my soul on fire. I did security work for Apple and also at the Superbowl, but that was just ticking me over.
Myself and Anthony ‘Staz’ Stazicker, the co-founder of ThruDark, always had this clothing range idea, as when we were in the military we were given the best equipment and kit, but we were always pulling at it and questioning why things weren’t working or why they hadn't used the best fabric? We naively thought we could make better clothing and equipment and head off to the civilian market with it. So, we started a company called ThruDark and we have been at it for five years now. We make clothing for all sorts of outdoor pursuits in the cold weather and we have things in the pipeline for desert use. It has come a long way in a very short time.
You say it has come a long way in a short time. Explain.
It is that grit and determination. You set your sights on the target and you just keep going for it. Some of the principles remain the same. You have got to have a plan and discipline. I remember sitting down with Staz and a big whiteboard at the start and we set out our five-year timeline in his front room: all the moving parts, key points and targets, we attacked it like that, using our military knowledge and applied it to the business model.
When you leave the military you are a little lost because you don’t have that brotherhood, but things have gone really well for us; at ThruDark we have managed to create that brotherhood. We wanted reliable clothing that lasts. A bit like a Land Rover. If you neglect your Land Rover it is going to go to rat-shit. It is the same with decent, robust clothing. It needs to be looked after.
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