A tale of two Ford factories - and the 1800km charitable adventure between them
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By: Justin Jacobs
The current Ford Ranger, code named the T6 or PX model, has been in service since 2011. During this time the Ranger has become one of our country’s top selling bakkies, in some instances out selling the ever popular Toyota Hilux.
The Ranger has received its fair share of updates which benefited the styling, technology and the engine offerings. Now a new Ford Ranger is on the horizon and the T6 will soon be parked, but before that happens we took it for one last epic drive to explore just how this bakkie has changed over the years.
We were invited by Ford South Africa to take part in what would be an unforgettable trip through some of the most breath-taking parts of our country. It also turned out that we were the only automotive media publication invited.
Other guests included owners, Ranger club members, social media influencers and a few big shots from Ford South Africa. The purpose of the trip was to push the Rangers to their limit while sharing some of our best Ranger moments.
Our trip would see us venture from the Ford Struandale Engine Plant in Gqeberha, up towards the south western border of Lesotho, through the Drakensberg and on to the Ford Silverton plant. This near 1800km trip would see us cover various roads, terrain and weather conditions. It also happened at the same time when heavy snow was scheduled to fall in the mountains of Lesotho. This definitely would be the Ranger Life.
Where it all started
Our trip began at the Ford Struandale Engine Plant which officially opened in 1964 and which has assembled many of the brand's most iconic engines. These include the likes of the Essex V6, Kent and RoCam motors. In recent years the plant has focused its attention on producing power-plants for the Ranger and Everest models.
In 2018 Ford South Africa invested R3-billion into its production capacity, which saw the installation of a sophisticated new assembly line for the brand's latest line of 2.0-litre turbo and bi-turbo diesel engines. The Struandale plant has the capacity to make 120 000 of these new-generation 2.0-litre engines a year and thanks to some recalculated math from those who run the show, that works out to a new engine every 134 seconds.
Before we left the plant though we had to load some newly built engines onto the load area of our fleet of Ford Rangers. They were destined for the Maluti TVET College in Phuthaditjhaba (four days later) so that students could get to grips with the complexities of the engines for educational purposes.
With the engines loaded our fleet, which consisted of a Raptor, Wildtrak, FX4, XLS and an XL, headed off towards the Kwandwe Game Reserve where we were to meet up with Vincent van der Merwe. He is involved in the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT) and its Cheetah Metapopulation Project. The Cheetah Metapopulation Project tackles Cheetah conservation on all fronts, but predominantly focuses on increasing and preserving the Cheetah population.
They require a capable vehicle to conduct the translocations, visit potential new reintroduction sites, and ensure that Cheetahs are managed effectively to prevent inbreeding. For this reason Ford donated a Ranger XLT to the project. It has transported numerous Cheetahs within South Africa and as far up as Malawi. Vincent has experienced fuss-free ownership of the Ford Ranger but thanks to IOL and a blast in the Raptor we may have created a slight dilemma as all he wants now is a Raptor…
The Ranger story
The Ford Ranger has fast become one of the top selling vehicles in South Africa. It forms part of the greater contribution that the automotive segment makes to the South African GDP, which in Ford's case is around 1%. The company employs approximately 4 300 people and supports over 50 000 jobs in the total value chain.
The Ranger has become a staple within our economy, be it for work or leisure the Ford Ranger is able to accommodate a wide variety of needs.
It is for this reason that there are over 16 000 different combinations of Rangers produced at the Silverton Plant. It has evolved over the years to meet the requirements of different customers. In years gone by, a bakkie was somewhat of an agricultural vehicle, it was used mostly for work but the need for more luxury items, safety and refinement quickly took centre stage.
The Ranger now features items that used to be reserved for only top of the range cars.
It now includes a modern design which looks as good on the city streets as it does out in the wilderness and a touchscreen infotainment system that offers Apple CarPlay and Android Auto as well. Ford recently introduced the Ford Pass app which lets you control and monitor various functions of your Ranger from a compatible smartphone.
Numerous safety systems have also made their way into the Ranger. These include Lane-Keep Assist, Active Cruise Control and Collision Avoidance Alert.
The Ranger also features Ford’s latest power-plants in the form of various 2.0-litre turbo diesels and the impressive 2.0-litre bi-turbo. The latter, which offers 157kW and 500Nm of torque, can be found in the gravel-road conquering Ranger Raptor with its Fox suspension, bespoke chassis and an efficient 10-speed automatic gearbox.
All of these items came in handy when we reached our second stop, Tenahead Mountain Lodge when we found ourselves in the middle of a snowstorm.
One of the other safety items which we relied on was the downhill descent control. Having tried to descend a snow and ice covered mountain road without it activated I realised that I’d run out of underpants within no time.
No matter how hard you push the brake pedal the vehicle just won’t stop. This system works with the four-wheel drive system by braking individual wheels so that a safe and forward tracking speed can be achieved. Once the Ranger takes over the hard work you can enjoy the benefits of heated seats while traversing a mountain range, at night in some of the heaviest snow that the area has seen in recent years.
Making roads through snow
Day three of our trip and it was time to leave the snow-covered mountains and head for the Kwa-Zulu Natal midlands. Getting down the mountain would take some time as more snow had fallen overnight. This meant that we not only had to find the road but also make a road through the 27cm of snow while still carrying the 235kg engines on the rear of our Rangers.
Once down the mountain it was evident that the journey was not going to get easier. As the snow melted small streams had turned into raging rivers, many of which ran over the low bridges. Our guide, Gideo Basson would brave the icy waters at each crossing, of which there were about five, just to make sure it was safe. Thankfully the Ranger offers a wading depth of between 600mm and 850mm and we got through with ease.
We headed towards Escort where Ford had arranged a surprise for us. We would get to experience the new NWM SACCS Rally Ranger. Power for the new FIA Ranger is derived from Ford’s impressive 3.5-litre V6 twin-turbocharged EcoBoost engine, which powers the exceptional Ford GT supercar, as well as the Ford F-150 Raptor in North America.
In this application, the EcoBoost engine has been optimised to meet the strict FIA regulations for the class that allow a maximum power output of 300kW and 600Nm of torque. As impressive as it is one expects a purpose built rally car such as this to be equally impressive. What you don’t expect is how brilliant the Ranger Raptor is on the same test track in the hands of a professional racing driver like Gareth Woolridge.
Once our minds had been blown, the time had come for us to part with the engines that formed part of a bigger donation, which included 10 locally produced Ford Ranger bakkies and a total of 42 engines to Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) colleges across South Africa. This initiative will equip colleges with latest-generation vehicles and engines, valued at over R4.6-million, to empower students with crucial skills and technical training in the automotive sphere.
The home stretch
With our cargo delivered the final destination was the Silverton assembly plant in Pretoria to highlight Ford's investment into the South African economy with a special tour of the new Tshwane Economic Zone. The innovative new R3.4-billion Tshwane Automotive Special Economic Zone, which was officially announced in November 2019 by President Cyril Ramaphosa and Gauteng Premier David Makhura, is forging ahead at a rapid rate. Big factories are being erected to accommodate all the suppliers needed for the production of the next generation Ford Ranger.
The Tshwane Automotive SEZ is estimated to create over 8 700 jobs during the construction of the first phase of the project, with around 2100 permanent jobs for operations. Thousands of additional jobs will be added as it evolves into a multi-faceted hub designed to bolster the manufacturing capacity and global competitiveness of the South African automotive industry. It will also benefit the production of the Ranger because suppliers will literally be located next to the factory.
The Ford Silverton Plant is also undergoing improvements and construction projects for more effective production of the next Ford Ranger and VW Amarok model.
Having started at the engine assembly plant, driving a convoy of Rangers across some of the most beautiful yet harshest terrain in South Africa and ending a week later where the Ranger is assembled, made for a very special journey.
Hearing the stories from customers, employees and those whose lives have been positively impacted by the Ranger just shows how important these vehicles are to our country.
The next generation model promises to be better than ever and it will also feature the latest technology. Unfortunately we can’t expand on too many details as much that was discussed is still top secret but what we can say is that the next Ranger is going to be absolutely brilliant.