Whether you are banging about in the bush over rough terrain, clambering over rocks up a mountain pass, fording through a rocky water crossing, or travelling on a rural road at night with your eyes peeled for that Kudu that suddenly appears next to the road, it is always good to have the extra peace of mind that comes with having your vehicle protected against rough terrain, ground and animal strikes.
In this second phase of our Ironman 4×4 Bush Truck build, we look at some of the Vehicle Protection Gear that we think is essential for any serious off-road truck that will be going off the beaten track. Damage sustained when off-roading is often mostly cosmetic, even if it is heart wrenching. However, if it is mechanical, such damage can sometimes stop you in your tracks and can often result in very costly recoveries on the back of a low-bed truck, especially when this has to be done over the border.
There are essentially four areas that we see as vulnerable on a typical double-cab bush truck: the front, rear, sides and underneath.
Front end protection
There is really only one option when it comes to proper front-end protection – a full replacement bull bar. While it may look impressive, a nudge bar is definitely not going to cut it, and neither is a wrap-around tube-type bush bar.
For a serious animal strike, you need a purpose-designed and -engineered full replacement bull bar that will take the brunt of the damage and keep your radiator alive. This could mean the difference between getting out of a rural area safely, and being stranded with an immobile vehicle in a potentially life-threatening situation. I think there is no argument about which to choose.
On the Ford Ranger PXII, as with most other popular 4WDs, we offer choices ranging from a plain black Commercial Bull Bar which is our most affordable option, to our top-of-the-range Protector Bull bar which is a gunmetal colour, with stainless steel hoops across the top. In between, we have a Commercial DeLuxe Bull Bar, which has proved to be our most popular choice with serious off-roaders. It is similar in design to the plain Commercial Bull Bar, but it comes with the addition of fitted driving lights which replace the driving lights fitted in the original front bumper of the vehicle.
This is a tough bull bar, featuring a single loop that sits across the top of the bar from left to right. The loop is welded into the body of the bar and supported by two vertical plates that run from the very top of the loop down to the very bottom of the bull-bar pan, where they form an integral part of the mounting bracket assembly. These plates are on either side of the winch cradle. The Ironman 4×4 bull bars are designed and engineered in Melbourne, Australia, and are both airbag-certified and fully winch-compatible. They have been designed to be as tough as they can be without compromising the integrity and reliability of the vehicle to which they are fitted.
Many clever folk have made their own bull bars, and there is a plethora of bull-bar manufacturers around that make great-looking bars. However, very few of these companies have the technical ability to properly determine the negative effects of fitting their new design of bull bar to the front of a modern 4WD. If the bar is too light and flimsy, it is not going to offer much protection, and it may move around and vibrate to such an extent that it damages the vehicle body or other parts. Making it too heavy is going to put undue strain on the front portion of the vehicle chassis to which it is mounted. I have seen a heap of pickups with cracked or broken front chassis arms because of bull bars which were clearly too heavy. Getting the right balance between strength and weight is quite a trick.
Then there is the issue of air flow. If the bull bar has been designed without taking into account the required air flow to keep the engine at the correct temperature, this may well cause engine overheating problems. Reputable manufacturers check airflow and coolant temperatures and design accordingly – most others, however, do not. Some vehicles have their main engine air-induction nozzles in the nose of the vehicle. If the bull bar changes or restricts the availability of air around this area, it may also negatively affect the performance of the vehicle.
Airbag certification and compatibility is a hugely misunderstood subject. The airbag system in your vehicle is part of the SRS, or Supplementary Restraint System, as it is supplementary to the seat belt system, which is the Primary Restraint System. It is your seat belt which is (mostly) going to stop you from going through the windscreen in a severe front-end collision. The airbag helps your seat belt to stop you from coming into contact with the dashboard or steering wheel when the passenger compartment is being contorted around you during a severe accident.
The system that governs the deployment of the airbags is very complex, and a huge amount of engineering has been employed to make the system work correctly. It is vital that the airbag deploys only when required, and that it deploys and then deflates at exactly the right time. The airbag sensors are the main components of the system that determines airbag deployment, and they are usually found somewhere in the nose of the vehicle, with one mounted to the vehicle bodywork on either side of the radiator. These sensors measure deceleration, and not vehicle deformation. When the measured deceleration exceeds the limit that is set by the vehicle manufacturer, the sensors relay this information to the SRS control unit, and in collaboration with other sensors and systems, the SRS control unit may deploy the airbags.
How does this relate to the bull bar that you have just fitted to the front of your 4WD? It means that, should your bull bar not be airbag-certified, you may be faced with several issues in the correct deployment of your airbag system. While fitting the bull bar, you will have noticed that there is precious little behind that big plastic bumper on the front of your tough 4WD.This is primarily to ensure pedestrian safety during a vehicle-pedestrian accident, but is also an attempt to save weight. The front end of your 4WD becomes an intricate crumple-zone to cushion the effects of a front-end collision. In small collisions, the vehicle deceleration is relatively slow, and the airbags do not deploy. It is on these occasions that bull bars that are not airbag-certified may, in fact, cause your vehicle to decelerate at a rate akin to being in an accident at a much higher speed, because the non-compliant bar alters the crumple-zone behaviour on the front of your vehicle.
Remember that airbags are really a last resort. You do not want them to deploy unnecessarily. In fact, a deploying airbag can injure you severely, and is one reason that passengers should not put their feet up on the dashboard. The idea is to hit the bag only once it has been fully deployed − and is, in fact, already deflating. Also, an airbag is a one-use item. An airbag-deployment destroys your steering-wheel boss as well as the dashboard on the passenger’s side, and the residue of airbag propellant can also cause cosmetic damage to the interior of the vehicle. This all adds considerable cost to the repair of your vehicle. I have had more than one conversation of late with insurance companies who have noticed the higher-than-normal repair bill on a 4WD involved in a relatively small accident, but fitted with a non-compliant bull bar. There is a very real possibility that your accident repair claim could be repudiated. In short, a certified airbag-compatible bull bar will not unnecessarily activate your SRS system in a slow-speed accident, but will ensure that the system works correctly in the event of a bigger shunt.
So, to our Ranger Bush Truck. We have a fully airbag-certified Ironman 4×4 Commercial DeLuxe Bull Bar to fit to the nose of our Wildtrak. The Wildtrak comes jam-packed with standard gear, including a number of active and passive safety systems. Of course, there are airbags galore, and the correct operation of these has been taken into account in the design of our bull bar and its mounting system. The Wildtrak also features PDC (park distance control) sensors in the front bumper as well as in the rear bumper. And there is a rather large rectangular radar sensor on the driver’s side of the bumper next to the number plate − it is hidden behind the plastic of the bumper and cannot be seen in front of the vehicle. This is the Adaptive Cruise Control sensor.
Adaptive Cruise Control (ACC) is activated when you engage cruise control, but can be disabled if you want to use cruise control in the normal manner. It uses the radar sensor to determine and maintain a safe following distance from the vehicle in front of you. Should this vehicle be travelling more slowly than you are, or slow down, the ACC will apply the brakes to maintain this set safe-following distance. When you then overtake the vehicle in front of you, or the vehicle ahead speeds up, the Wildtrak will again move up to your cruise-control setting. This radar sensor cannot see through metal, so the Ironman 4×4 bull bar has a plastic mounting insert to ensure that the system operates correctly.
The first step in fitting the Ironman 4×4 Bull Bar is to remove the original plastic bumper. As mentioned, there is precious little behind this bumper apart from a small metal stiffener panel and some soft metal brackets. Because of the complex design of the original plastic bumper of the Ranger, especially under the headlights and grille, the upper half of the original bumper is refitted once the lower half has been cut off to allow fitment of the new bull bar mounting bracket and winch cradle.
The Ironman kit consists of a mounting bracket with incorporated winch cradle plate, the bull bar itself, and a set of three protective plates. Once the lower half of the original plastic bumper has been cut off, the remaining upper half is re-fitted to the vehicle and secured in place with the original clips. The Ironman bull bar mounting bracket is then bolted onto the now-exposed chassis of the vehicle. This bracket, with its incorporated winch cradle plate, does NOT have any crumple zones between the winch plate and the vehicle. The airbag-compatible crumple zones are between the mounting bracket and the bull-bar body. Thus, when winching, it is as if the winch is bolted to the chassis of the vehicle. (There are several bull bars which have the winch fitted to the body of the bull bar. This compromises the integrity of the winch mount and can lead to bent brackets and misaligned bull bars.)
At this point, the winch should be mounted if required. The bull bar is now offered up to the mounting bracket. I have fitted a few bull bars in my time and have come to realise that, despite what you might think or what the vehicle manufacturers might say about their vehicles, there is quite a large degree of tolerance in the dimensions around the chassis on your typical bakkie.
At one point during my tenure in Australia, I was assisting with the fitment of eight identical bull bars to eight identical double-cab “utes” of a very popular Japanese manufacture. This was in the early days of Ironman 4×4 bull-bar manufacture. The first two mounting brackets went on relatively easily, but the third refused point-blank. The holes just did not line up. We checked all of our brackets, but as these are robotically cut and welded, we were not expecting any to be out of tolerance… and nor did we find any. We then turned to measuring the vehicles, and, lo-and-behold, we found a 17mm difference between the narrowest and widest width of the chassis on these eight trucks. It was at this point that we decided to implement a system of slotted mounting holes on our mounting brackets and bull bars, to compensate for this type of tolerance on vehicles.
With all 4WD vehicles that have a separate ladder-frame chassis and vehicle body, we also often find that there is some tolerance between the position of the body and the chassis. Typically, a double-cab bakkie has eight mountings between the front cab and the chassis, and the load bin has another six. These mountings are rubber spacers with large washers and long bolts and nuts. The vehicle manufacturers are very good at getting the front cab and the rear load bin to line up with each other, but we find that these are rarely dead square on top of the chassis. As mentioned, we have found that chassis differ from each other.
The plastic bumpers on the front of modern double cabs are attached to the body of the vehicle. Over rough terrain, the body and load bin of the bakkie can move around on the chassis mountings, which have some give to reduce noise, vibration and harshness (NVH). Thus, the plastic bumpers move around with the body, independent of the chassis. When the plastic bumper is replaced with a steel bull bar attached to the chassis, it will move in line with the chassis and independently from the body. For this reason, a gap needs to be left between the new bull bar and the body of your truck, or the bull bar will bang against the much thinner vehicle bodywork and cause noise and damage.
Once the bull bar has been fitted, it is aligned to the body of the bakkie with the aforementioned gap, and tightened up. Remember that all of the holes are slotted, so the perfect position is relatively easy to find. Once we are happy with the position of the bar on the mounting bracket, and the mounting bolts have been tightened and torqued, a pinning hole is drilled though the metal where the bull-bar bracket and the mounting bracket plates overlap. This pinning hole gets an exact-size bolt and nut which are also tightened, to prevent any movement of the bar on the slotted mounting holes.
The Ironman 4×4 Commercial DeLuxe Bull Bar features park-light and indicator repeater LED lights that need to be connected to the vehicle park lights and indicators. The Wildtrak has quite a complex front lighting system, with daytime running lights, park lights, low beam, and a very poor high beam. Finding the correct wires to tap into is a bit of a mission, and much care has to be taken when soldering wires onto the vehicle’s existing wiring. The bull bar also features halogen driving lights which are sometimes incorrectly referred to as fog lights, or spot lights. Fog lights are most often yellow, and spot lights are quite bright and should turn on and off with your high beam.
The original Wildtrak front bumper had a pair of driving lights, and it is easy enough to connect the driving lamps in the new Ironman bull bar to the vacant plugs on the Ford wiring loom so that they will operate on the same switch as the original lights. Unfortunately, this switch for the driving lights is a non-latching switch and has to be switched on every time you turn on the Wildtrak lights. I may eventually exchange this for a dedicated latching switch. I travel with my lights on at all times, in the interests of being seen, and I always have these driving lights on. They are mounted low and do not dazzle oncoming traffic at all. It is my humble opinion that many approaching car drivers are blinded by high-mounted headlights − I see this all the time.
With the bull-bar lighting wired up and working as desired, we can now mount the protective plates underneath the bull bar to round off the installation, and to offer protection to the components, radiator and intercooler mounted behind it. There is a centre plate, and two side plates − one on either side under the bull bar wings. The last thing to do is to trim the plastic fender-liner inside the wheel arch so that it marries up with the rear edge of the side protection plates under the bull bar wings.
The Ironman bull bar features high-lift jacking points integrated into the design of the front of the bar. Care should be taken when using these jacking points, as one needs to consider the fact that any sudden or severe force applied to these jacking points may compromise the airbag crumple-zones that are part of the design of the bull bar mounting brackets.
Rear protection bumper and tow bar
The Ranger is sold with a straightforward tow bar, as standard equipment, mounted underneath the rear bumper. The rear bumper is neat and features rear PDC sensors. The tow bar, however, hangs down quite low and is definitely going to have a negative effect on the rear departure angle when one is off-roading.
At Ironman 4×4, we have a neat Protector Bumper that replaces the rear bumper and incorporates a rated tow bar. This bumper tow bar fits more snugly against the body of the truck and features additional protective tubing around the lower-rear corner of the load bin. This is an especially vulnerable part of any double-cab bakkie because of its long wheelbase and rear overhang. The rear bumper also features high-lift jacking points.
The fitment of the Protector Bumper tow bar is very straightforward, and it mounts onto the chassis where the original bumper and tow bar were. The original Ford tow-bar loom is retained and the round trailer plug is mounted onto the Ironman rear bumper. Holes have to be drilled through the bumper’s 4mm steel for the four rear PDC sensors. The sensors are fitted into these new holes along with the plastic surround from the original bumper. To ensure their correct operation, take care to place the sensors in more-or-less the same position and orientation as they were on the original bumper.
Under body protection plates
If you look under the front of the Ford Ranger, you will notice a single bash plate covering the engine of the vehicle. It is made from pressed steel that is 1.5mm thick. I was quite surprised by this, and I actually had a look under another Ranger just to make sure. I am led to believe that much of the development of the current Ranger was done in Australia, especially the parts of the vehicle that needed to be tough. This single, relatively small, front engine plate thus seems a tad on the mean side. And behind the chassis cross member at the rear of this plate is the gearbox sump, in all its exposed glory. However, I should not complain, as this gives us an opportunity to sell more of our heavy-duty Ironman 4×4 Under Body Protection plate kits.
This plate kit consists of a front radiator plate, a mid-engine plate and a rear gearbox plate. The plates are 4mm fabricated steel with integrated framework to give them additional strength in the most common strike zones. This also reduces plate deformation and deflects any impact from a ground strike onto the load-bearing elements.
The design of the plates results in a smooth skid-over surface, as all of the mounting hardware and fasteners are recessed to protect them from damage. The front radiator plate also marries up nicely to the centre plate under the bull bar for fully-integrated protection. There was no drilling required and the plates fitted very well. They were very heavy, though; this was certainly a two-man job.
Steel side steps
The last area that we focused on with regard to vehicle protection was the side steps. The original side steps are attractive and very functional. They are a combination of aluminium and plastic and are some of the better-looking side steps found on bakkies.
However, as with any original-equipment steps such as these, they are no good when the going gets tough and you happen to land them on the odd rock. They bend and buckle and get out of shape, and they offer precious little protection to the sill area of the vehicle body. These original side steps are also bolted to the bodywork of the vehicle, and during a ground strike there is also the potential of damage to their mounting points.
A popular replacement for these original “city-slicker” side steps is something that is commonly referred to as a “rock slider”. As the name implies, these allow you to slide the vehicle over larger rocks without damaging the body of the vehicle. The theory is all good. The rock sliders are very robust in design and have sturdy brackets that mount onto the chassis of the vehicle. In order to enable the vehicle to slide over rocks, these rock sliders have to be able to support the weight of the vehicle without deforming. Properly-made rock sliders are indeed immensely strong and do exactly what they are intended to do.
They obviously also prevent most of the damage to the sill of the vehicle during a severe ground strike, but this is where there is a problem. Most modern double-cab bakkies are fitted with side curtain airbags which deploy if the vehicle detects a side impact, or any other abnormal vehicle movement that, according to the SRS control unit of the vehicle, would warrant the deployment of the side curtain airbags.
I have witnessed just such a deployment on a 4WD wagon. The vehicle was coming down a very steep trail peppered with large rocks. Sliding off one rock, the wagon came down hard on the passenger-side rock slider and the side curtain airbags deployed, leaving everybody in the wagon quite shaken. It was a very expensive repair bill.
The Ironman 4×4 Steel Side Steps are not rock sliders, and they will not fare very well sliding over rocks on your favourite rocky weekend-warrior trail. They are certainly tougher than the standard aluminium and plastic steps, and will offer more protection to the vehicle sill area should you experience a ground strike. They are also mounted to the vehicle chassis and so can take more punishment from people getting in and out of the vehicle. The steps themselves, as well as the mounting bracket system, have been designed and certified to be compatible with side curtain airbags. You will therefore have no issues with unnecessary deployment of side curtain airbags while 4WDing.
So, we have fitted some pretty robust protection gear to our Black Ops Bush Truck to make it ready to tackle whatever we’re going to throw at it. As was explained above, there are many advantages to fitting this gear to your 4WD, especially if you’re a serious off-roader. Having done a fair amount of off-roading, I (for one) am a big fan of “peace of mind”.
However, the fitment of all of this gear does come at a price… and I’m not merely referring to rands and cents here. The bull bar weighs just shy of 84kg. To that, we’ve added a 9500lb Ironman 4×4 Monster winch with synthetic rope. This beauty weighs in at 29kg. The Under Body Protection plate kit adds another 46kg, and the new rated recovery points add another 12kg under the nose of the vehicle.
That is a total additional weight on the nose of the Ford of around 171kgs. The Steel Side Steps have added another 50kg to the middle of the truck, and the rear Protector Bumper Tow bar adds 68kg to the rear of the truck. That’s an extra 289kg of weight added to the truck, which needs to be taken into account.
This additional load has dragged the vehicle down closer to the ground and has started to blunt the awesome Performance Centre power upgrade. So, our next step will be to fit a heavy-duty suspension system to help carry this additional load, and some bigger off-road wheels and tyres. Look out for this in the next issue.
By Mic van Zyl