Sunday, December 1, 2019

Guest Blog: A modern day Transport Cell challenge

Today I'm excited to share a UKEA Guest Blog about Tim Houlton's modern day attempt of one of Houdini's most famous challenge escapes: the Transport Prison Van.

by Tim Houlton, Allan Taylor & Chris Gower

So where on earth do you get a Transport cell from I hear you ask? Well, it’s a funny story but the prisoner transport unit was originally sold at a motor auction and purchased by a vehicle recovery company. They bought it for its chassis cab with the intention of converting it into a new recovery truck for their fleet. The prison truck body was then removed and put up for sale on E-Bay. Before the truck was sold the usable electronics had been removed and kept for spares and when they did, the looms were cut through causing further damage. On the positive side the mechanics of the security systems on the truck where intact as were all the internal fixtures.

The Challenge

The concept of a cell escape in terms of my escapology performances isn’t one I had previously considered; I enjoy the audience participation aspect of performance. The idea of adding a cell escape to my range of performances came from Andy Robertson’s Escape from a cell at Peterhead Prison on 31st October 2017 along with David De-Val’s book Cell Escape – The Real Secret presented to me by Rebecca as a thank you for assisting with an escape that she and Allan performed. The prison truck escape idea actually came about during a conversation with Allan Taylor whilst replacing his kitchen floor, we were talking about the Discovery channel series Houdini’s Last Secrets Allan and his Wife Rebecca featured on the show and had been involved in the episode that spoke about the Siberian Cell escape.

So taking this discussion one step further, we knew the many rumours about how Harry had succeeded and defeated the technology of his day but could we do it again in the modern age?

First step was to make this beleaguered prison transport unit actually work and that was quite a project. Getting a Haynes manual for this truck basically isn’t happening, I’ve never seen the inside of one of these trucks and the equipment that remains was largely approaching the end of its life. I started with the wiring that didn’t go anywhere and with the display from the main panel and worked from there. Originally the truck would have had a central panel running down the ceiling down the truck from one end to the other. This panel had the main lighting, Fire detection, CCTV, speakers for the sound system (yes it had a sound system) and some form of indication of the status for the locking systems on the cell doors. The status indicator was critical as the signals from the locks went into it and emerged in another format to communicate with the main panel. So in short I had a puzzle and people who know me will tell you I love a good puzzle. Many hours and days later the systems were in working order and that’s when the real challenge begins on how to defeat this thing. The obvious solution is the escape trap hatches on the roof.

The locking mechanism release involves operating a lever inside the truck body and another one that would have been inside the cab. The lever that would have been inside the cab is badly rusted and seized, even if I could operate both at the same time from inside a cell the one outside cannot be released. The trap hatches and the locking mechanism for them have sensors on them that will trip the alarm system. The cell doors don’t have a hatch so that option isn’t viable. I have a 50mm gap under the door that is a metre away from the main lock on the outside of the cell and the auxiliary lock and both of those mechanisms are also monitored by the alarm. The cell door is in a solid steel structure and the 3 stage locking system goes 40mm into the door in the centre and at the top and bottom. I’m sure you agree it’s an interesting challenge.

The Escape

Saturday 23rd November 2019, a day to remember. After our tour of Hull to view some historical Houdini locations, we all met back at the Hotel and set off in the rain in convoy. The first sight of the Prison Van was when we travelled down a small country road and looked over to a disused gravel pit where the Transport Unit was parked.

The main door was secured with a high security DOM lock and had a three point locking mechanism. On entering the unit there were six cells each one having a triple locking system. Firstly when the door is slammed it is locked like a night latch, turning the key deadlocks the latch and finally another key is used to secure the door top and bottom and also sets the alarm. Needless to say there are no keyholes inside the cell. Each Cell has a hatch in the ceiling used in cases of emergency. These hatches can only be opened using two independent levers.

These levers are located at the front and back of the van and need to be operated at the same time. Tim had rebuilt all the electronics and basically a guard would travel with the prisoners. An alarm would sound if any of the doors were opened or if the escape hatch was opened. Furthermore another alarm unit was wired into the main cab to alert the driver if any problems occurred.

After changing into his ‘Lucky’ shorts, T shirt and heavy motorcycle boots, Tim was checked by our volunteer Police Officer using a metal detector to ensure he did not have hidden tools. Two large D padlocks were locked onto his ankles and were connected by a chain and secured with two Abloy high security padlocks. His wrists were handcuffed with a pair of single linked Chubb Arrest Handcuffs which were double locked. The chain from the legs was then attached to the link in the handcuffs using another Abloy padlock.

Tim was then escorted into the cell and yet another lock secured the chain to the floor. Several of us checked the cell to make sure there were no tools hidden. The Cell Door was then slammed shut and the key turned to deadlock the door. The second key was then used to set the alarm and throw the bolts top and bottom. The outer door was closed, locked and the timer started. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 minutes passed then at 7 mins 40 seconds the panic alarm sounded! Next thing we know the Prisoner Tim was on the roof drinking a bottle of milk completely free from the cell and all his shackles! He took his bow and climbed down with huge applause. The Milk was dedicated to David De-Val who famously escaped from York Prison and was found outside drinking a bottle of Milk.

The main door was opened and the Cell Door was still closed. When the Cell door was opened everything was still in place and the escape hatch secure. Well done Tim, really looking forward to our next UKEA meeting when we might have an idea on how you accomplished this remarkable escape. This is a first in the history of escapes and will go down as one of the great escapes in the 21st century.

You can watch a video of the escape at the De-Val Escapology YouTube Channel.



  1. I don't suppose he's going to share the secret of his escape.

  2. He used a small saw and cut through the Zinc floor, oh wait he came up through the ceiling! Cool escape!

    1. Haha. But did they give him the finger? Twice!

  3. The guy in the neon green jacket isn't talking.

  4. Hey all, the escape was a memorable one but it was also a modern transport cell so different in many ways compared to the Carrette that Harry escaped from, also, in my opinion the modern cell was far more difficult due to the high security locks and security alarms built in, not forgetting the high security handcuffs and D locks used. A very big well done to Tim

    1. Indeed! I'm baffled as to how he could have done this. Of all the modern recreations of Houdini feats, this is unquestionably one of the best (and hardest). Congrats Tim!