In a game of military Top Trumps, this ex-Ulster Defence Regiment Series III is unlikely to win many points. It’s not fast, and it’s certainly not as glamorous as the Pathfinder 90 (LRO, August 2014) with which it shares storage space, ‘somewhere in Northern Ireland’.
Even so, there’s still something attractive – and attention-grabbing – about the brooding presence of this lightly armoured Series III as it comes lumbering around the corner. We certainly wouldn’t mess with it... which makes it all the more appealing.
What’s a Series III VPK?
It began life as a GS soft top. Like 300 others it was fitted with a VPK (vehicle protection kit), sometimes called WVPK (wheeled vehicle protection kit), at the REME repair depot in Kinnegar Barracks in Holywood, County Down.
VPK is made from a composite of glassfibre and resin, often incorrectly known as Makrolon. It’ll stop some small, light arms fire but its primary role is to offer protection in a riot, when the bricks and bottles start flying. Makrolon is actually the clear plastic fitted over the windows of some armoured vehicles, such as Jim Sherrard’s Lightweight (LRO, November 2014).
After removing the soft top (the original hood sticks and frame are still inside), the VPK was simply dropped on. It has a roof hatch lookout post at the top: before that, the squaddies would have just dropped the tailgate to the horizontal, with a bar around the back like a crow’s nest, and the soldiers would have stood on the tailgate. No protection for them at all.
Fitting VPKs was a quick, cheap way to give worthwhile protection to a lot of vehicles. ‘The VPK sections would arrive like a big Meccano kit and the guys would just pop it on,’ explains Jim Smith, the custodian of this vehicle. The kit provides protection underneath too – a VPK belly panel runs from one side to the other, and another panel protects the back floor. All the panels are about a quarter of an inch thick.
‘Some VPK Series IIIs were built on civilian chassis, which had the fuel filler in the rear wing. This one has twin tanks under the seats. It also has a VPK fuel filler flap protector [bolted down], which tells me that the kit originally went onto a civilian-spec vehicle. When that vehicle finished service, the kit was transferred across,’ says Jim.
What jobs did the VPKs do?
‘They were used by the army in the city areas until the terrorist threat increased,’ explains Jim. ‘The army then moved onto the more heavily armoured Series III Piglet. Its doors are one-piece ballistic steel with 3in armoured glass, and the bulkhead is armoured with a 5in windscreen.
The side panels are ballistic steel too. ‘The Ulster Defence Regiment kept the VPK SIIIs for a long time after that, but they operated in more rural areas. Typically, they would patrol with the back doors propped open by traffic cones wedged into the bumperettes. It was often a very cold and wet way to spend several hours.
‘When not patrolling, these vehicles would spend many hours at vehicle checkpoints, another potentially high-risk job.’
Despite its years on the frontline, the Series III had held up well against the rigours of time and tin worm. That’s not to say there weren’t any challenges. ‘It was in pretty good order,’ says Jim. ‘Its VPK had been sold off separately, leaving lots of holes where the panels had been attached. It had a good, strong engine with an eight-blade fan, which tells you again that it was once armoured up and the vents sealed. The chassis was good and needed no welding. It’s a GS chassis with the longer spring shackles.’
Jim and his business partner Ian Gordon saw another VPK SIII on milweb.net, a military website for buying and selling ex-military vehicles and kit. ‘It was a rough vehicle but with a complete kit. We bought it and transported it over just to get the kit. Most of the holes lined up when I fitted it to this one.’
Behind the wheel
The eight-bladed fan gives a big whoosh as I drive along. It doesn’t feel as cumbersome as I thought it might. ‘The armour’s not that heavy, but you’re adding at least ¾ ton, so it does affect the handling. The roof section alone took four of us to lift it,’ chuckles Jim.
To me, the most noticeable difference between the VPK and a standard Series III is most obvious at lower speeds; the steering does get quite heavy during three-point-turns.
Trundling along with the wire grille over the windscreen is very odd too: it certainly puts my concerns about being distracted by heated windscreen elements in modern Defenders firmly into perspective.
Unlike some military Land Rovers, the VPK isn’t bristling with weaponry to suit all occasions. But, just like their maid-of-all-work civilian cousins, these trustworthy, honest grafters worked long, hard hours for year after year. They were very much a fixture during a difficult period in recent British history, so I think its admirable that Jim and Ian have preserved this Series III VPK for future generations to see.
This story can be found in the April 2015 issue of LRO. Download a digital issue, or order a back issue by calling 01858 438884.