Back From The Dead
Thanks to the quick thinking of his friend, Miles Podmore lived to tell the tale of a devastating crash and bring his Defender back from the brink of death
LRM catch up with the teenager whose epic African adventure was cut short by a catastrophic crash
Agleaming silver Defender makes its way slowly along a verdant greenlane; behind the wheel is a fresh-faced, blond-haired young driver, wearing a broad smile. It’s hard to believe that less than a year ago both man and machine were on the brink of oblivion.
catastrophic crash on a remote track in Ethiopia not only ended Miles Podmore’s dream expedition to Cape Town, it almost killed him. Only the quick thinking of his travelling companion, Max Farnsworth, saved his life.
Teenager Max was briefly knocked out in the accident, but came round to a scene of utter devastation. What remained of the Land Rover laid bent and battered, strewn along 100 yards of barren desert. And ten yards from the wreckage was the motionless body of Miles.
Max rushed to his young friend’s side. He was badly injured and unconscious, but he was still breathing – just. Alone in the middle of nowhere in a foreign land, with no transport and a friend in a coma. What could he do?
“A lesser man than Max would have gone into shock and panicked, but he didn’t –his quick thinking and his actions over the next few hours saved my life,” says Miles.
Max stood by the remote roadside until, at last, another vehicle came along. He flagged it down, persuaded the driver to help drag his unconscious friend into the back, and take them both to the nearest hospital, in Gondar.
The hospital was run-down and filthy. Max had to step over a stinking open sewer to enter the hospital, where sick people were lying on the floor because there were not enough beds. Finding a harassed local doctor, he persuaded him to examine Miles. He found four broken ribs, a punctured lung and a severe head injury, but told Max: “I cannot treat your friend as I haven’t got the drugs I need.”
But Max wasn’t prepared to give up on his friend. He insisted the doctor gave him the list of drugs he required, then got a local taxi to take him to all the small, sparselystocked pharmacies in the town until he had bought all the medicines on the doctor’s list. He then returned to the hospital and said to the doctor: “Here are the drugs you need, now treat my friend, please.”
Once he was satisfied that Miles was getting the treatment he needed, Max called Miles’ parents who were in a restaurant in their home town of Bicester, Oxfordshire.
“It must have been the most difficult phone call of their
“What remained of the Land Rover laid bent and battered, strewn across the desert”
lives,” says Miles. “But I knew nothing about it until I woke up in hospital, four days later.”
While Miles was in a coma, his parents had contacted his medical insurers, who arranged for him to be airlifted to a better-equipped hospital in Nairobi, in neighbouring Kenya. They had then taken the first available flight to Nairobi, where his mother went straight to her son’s bedside, while his father took an internal flight to Ethiopia, to check out the wreckage of the Defender.
It wasn’t any old Defender, of course. Regular readers of LRM will recall the Boy Wonder feature in the October 2015 issue in which we introduced Miles Podmore. The Land Rover-mad youngster had started reading LRM when he was eight years-old. At 13 he bought his first Land Rover, a tatty ex-farm 200Tdi 90, which over the next five years he carried out a complete restoration, using a scrapped 300Tdi Discovery as donor vehicle.
Miles transformed his 90 into an expedition-prepared Land Rover, which was ready for the road by the time he left school at 18. His academic results at Oundle School in Northamptonshire had already won him a place at Warwick University to study automotive engineering, but first he planned to spend a gap year with his friend Max, driving from Oxford to Cape Town.
Miles had sent us regular updates of the pair’s adventures, which we published in LRM in last year, until four months into the expedition when the accident happened.
“Max was driving at the time, but it could have been either of us,” says Miles. “I can’t remember anything about the accident, but apparently he lost concentration for a split second, a wheel dropped over the steep gravel bank at the side of the road and it went out of control, rolling four times before coming to a halt.
“Neither of us were wearing seat belts, because they weren’t mandatory in Ethiopia and we were getting in and out of the vehicle so much. In fact, I think not wearing a seat belt probably saved my life, because I was thrown through a side window. If I had been strapped in, I would probably have been crushed in the wreckage.
“I stress that I’m not advocating not wearing a seat belt. They save thousands of lives and everybody should wear them. But in this freak accident I’m glad that I wasn’t.”
The aftermath of that accident was a scene of twisted metal, as Miles’s dad Bruce discovered when he finally arrived on the scene. In the real world it would have been a total write-off, but Bruce – himself a huge Land Rover fan – noted that the chassis still looked straight and the engine bay was more or less undamaged. He also knew how much that Land Rover meant to his son, fighting for his life in a Nairobi hospital.
“He knew I’d never forgive him if I came round and found out he’d scrapped my Land Rover,” says Miles. “Instead he arranged to have the wreck removed to a secure compound and have it shipped back to the UK – for which I’ll never be able to thank him enough.”
When Miles did come round, it wasn’t an instant recovery. After suffering a massive brain trauma, he drifted in and out of consciousness. At one stage he thought he had been travelling in a Toyota and, after seeing his parents for the first time in the morning, by the afternoon he’d forgotten they’d been. He was in the Nairobi hospital for a month before flying back to England where, incredibly, it was discovered that he had also broken his collarbone – something that had gone undiagnosed in Africa.
The container containing the wreckage of his Defender arrived back in the UK in November last year and was transported by lorry to his father’s factory, where it was left in a concrete yard for Miles to begin the task of stripping it down and assessing the damage.
“By then it was more than six months since the accident and I was physically fine, but I was still suffering from low concentration and lack of energy,” recalls Miles. “I was eager to get cracking, but I was getting tired so quickly. It was very frustrating.
“As I pulled it apart, I started accumulating the parts I’d need to replace, by buying them on ebay. Unfortunately I couldn’t drive, because of my low concentration levels, so it meant my mum was driving all over the country with a trailer, picking up the stuff I’d bought. The wings came from a farm in Hull, the roof and side panels from Halifax, the bulkhead from somewhere deep in East Anglia.
“The bodywork of my car would be from every corner of the country, as well as represent every era of Defender production. In fact the wings were pre-defender, as they came from the 1980s, while the bulkhead was from the 2000s (a Td5) and the roof even more recent (TDCI). The dash panel was from a TDCI, too.”
With the original car being a 200Tdi 90 and the engine and gearbox from a later 300Tdi Disco, that’s the 1990s pretty well covered, too.
Other original bits Miles was able to re-use included the rear door, seat box and seats. The rear tub was badly twisted, but Miles straightened it, replacing the spot welds as necessary. The engine and gearbox were virtually undamaged, although when he removed the timing cover he found the radiator had a fan-shaped imprint in it. The axles were okay, apart from the rear diff, where the 7 mm thick cast iron casing had been punctured by a rock.
Just as Bruce had thought, the chassis was straight. It was
“Despite his bad experience, Miles is determined to continue his epic journey”
the vehicle’s original chassis, which Miles had galvanised during the first rebuild. All that was missing were the engine and tub mounts and the offside rear spring hanger, which had sheared off. Miles welded on replacements.
Soon Miles had a rolling chassis. “To my relief the engine started up straight away,” he says. “There was a bit of smoke at first, but it soon cleared.”
The 90’s hybrid diesel/lpg system, which Miles had designed himself to boost the performance of the 300Tdi engine, was undamaged, as was his own design of pneumatic-operated spare wheel carrier.
From then on, it was a case of reassembling all the bits. “It was only a year and a half since my original rebuild, so I knew what to do. First time around it took me a few years, but this time it only took me two months.”
As the rebuild progressed, so did Miles’ health. Every day saw a gradual improvement in his memory and stamina as the head injury slowly healed.
The rebuild also included some new elements, which Miles introduced after the experiences of his African trip. These included a secondhand Mantec snorkel (the original metal version) which would better cope with the dusty conditions encountered on the African unmetalled roads.
The steel wheels were damaged beyond repair and Miles decided to replace them with standard alloys from a TDCI Defender. He fitted new doors, but instead of looking for secondhand Defender doors, he opted for Series-style split doors, with Rocky Mountain tops and sliding windows, which are a big improvement on the original wind-up ones.
Soon it was time to respray the rebuilt Defender. Again Miles opted for a silver finish, with a matt top coat. He bought a secondhand spray gun from a local body shop and erected a gazebo inside an empty storage area at his dad’s factory to act as a temporary spray booth. “I got it badly wrong at first. I had the air pressure too high and there wasn’t enough paint coming through. The result was dry and patchy, but I soon got the hang of it and was quite pleased with the end result.”
Surprisingly, given what happened, Miles did not fit a roll cage. “I was really terrified to fit one, because I was scared of the number of holes I would have to cut in the bodywork to fit an internal cage. It was stupid, because I know it could save my life and I know my parents feel the same way. I’m pretty sure I’ll be fitting one before long – perhaps an external roll cage as that would leave more room inside – and definitely before I go back to Africa.”
Yes, despite his bad experience, Miles is determined to continue his epic journey, picking up from where he left off, in Ethiopia, and continuing to Cape Town, albeit at a slower pace. “In hindsight, we were trying too hard to push on and should have taken our time and enjoyed the places we were travelling through. I will remember that next time.
But that will have to wait two or three years. This October Miles begins his degree course in automotive engineering at Warwick University. It won’t be until after that that he returns to Africa, and then a career in the car industry beckons. Miles – and LRM – hopes that is with Land Rover.
In the meantime, Miles’s rebuilt Defender 90 passed its MOT with flying colours and he’s now fully recovered and able to drive again, exploring the local greenlanes at a gentle pace. He’s just turned 20 now and thrilled that both he and his Land Rover are here to tell the tale.
“I realise that I’m incredibly lucky to be here. Despite my severe head injuries, I didn’t have a mark on my face. And if it wasn’t for Max’s actions that day, I wouldn’t be here to tell the tale. I can never thank him enough.”
This page: The wrecked 90 was shipped back to the UK and then rebuilt by Miles using parts from every corner of the UK and every era of Defender, too