Navigating a gangster’s paradise in an armoured car

It’s 3.30pm and I’m lying prone, cradling an R4 assault rifle, about to take a shot at a target 20m away in a secret bunker. I’m aiming not at a bull’s eye target, but at a bitsy metal disc that has been welded on to a metal plate. The ballistic force is so powerful, it snaps the metal disc clean off the plate.

My next shot is a trickier one, taken from a standing position. Braced against my shoulder, the AK47 is aimed at a 50x50cm square of glass, 38mm thick and layered with polycarbonate. The bullet travels a few millimetres through the glass, loses momentum and falls to the floor.

In a real-world situation, that bullet would probably have been aimed at the head of a person. A cash-in-transit driver. A soldier. A security guard. A VIP protection officer. A hijacking victim.

It’s chilling, but to be honest, it feels pretty badass, putting components that are built into the armouring of bulletproof vehicles to the test.

I’m in a testing facility for Special Vehicle Industries (SVI) Engineering in Bashewa, north of Tshwane, where the armoured vehicle manufacturer showcases some of its capabilities to clients, which range from civilian luxury vehicles and cash vans to MAX personnel carriers used in encounters with violent crime, terrorism, protests and regional conflicts.

2,500 armoured civilian vehicles

Since opening in 2004, SVI has delivered more than 2,500 armoured civilian vehicles to the market, for use by executives, farmers, diplomats and other high-profile people.

SVI offers OEM-approved armour on Ford’s Ranger bakkies and is in talks with a German luxury vehicle brand to armour its sedans.

In a statement issued on 3 February 2021, Ford SA said, “With more than 18,000 vehicle hijackings recorded annually in South Africa, according to the South African Police Service annual crime statistics for 2019/20, it makes sense to add another layer of safety for Ford customers in the form of ballistic protection.”

“While we all wish there was no need for armoured civilian vehicles anywhere in the world, being able to provide outstanding levels of safety for customers is deeply rooted in Ford’s DNA, with armoured protection being no exception,” said Ford Africa president Neale Hill, adding that Ford sees armoured vehicle protection as a next step into a potentially life-saving sector.

“Ford is leading the way in customer experience by offering this without affecting the Ranger’s full warranty and service plan, which is a first for any OEM (original equipment manufacturer) in South Africa.”

Hijacking figures more than double

Stats SA’s latest Victims of Crime Survey shows that about 137,000 people were hijacked in 2021/2022, up from 64,000 the year before. But, like rape statistics, only about 63% of the victims reported their hijacking incidents to the police.

SVI believes armouring should be thought of as background technology and an extra layer of security, which works alongside other safety systems such as ABS, airbags and crumple zones.

The company offers B4 protection level (handguns up to a .44 Magnum), which consists of 18-21mm armoured glass in combination with Kevlar sheets for the body, and B6, the highest level of civilian protection allowed without a special permit.

On a Ranger Double Cab, B4 adds an extra 280kg. It takes about eight weeks to install and is so discreet that the only giveaway is a small SVI sticker in the window.

B6 protection has been designed for the valuables-in-transit industry as well as high-profile individuals needing protection. The B6, for R1 assault rifle and AK47 rounds, comprises 38mm armoured glass and special armoured steel plates. It’s heavy, adding an extra 650kg on to the vehicle’s body mass, which requires an upgrade to the Ranger’s suspension. You wouldn’t want to slam a finger in one of these doors; they can weigh up to 40kg.

Only in the movies do bullets bounce off windshields or get lodged in a car’s bodywork, explains SVI’s founder and CEO, Jaco de Kock, who invited me into his secret lair… erm, bunker, to test the armouring.

De Kock is the creator behind the 10-ton military monster truck, the “Marauder”, which was featured on Top Gear by Richard Hammond, before his partner Jeremy Clarkson became a complete idiot and was fired because of a spat over cold grub.

 

SVI offers B6 either as a discreet option, or non-discreet. The former protection level takes 12 weeks to build, while the “Stopgun” security option can be installed in two weeks. Prices range from R234,000 to about R700,000, depending on the model and armour package.

In the MAX range, earmarked for the military and, increasingly, mines, there’s the mighty eight-seater, 7.5-tonne MAX 9, a beast of an armoured personnel carrier, “for the ultimate show of force”, and a MAX 3 Troopy, both of which offer a minimum protection level of BR6 (for assault rifles), with additional protection against anti-personnel grenades. 

The Troopy can be boosted as a six-wheel, multi-purpose vehicle, which increases the gross vehicle mass to 5,500kg. The Troopy has numerous military and security applications, including the fitment of weapon systems, cargo-carrying options and field ambulance concepts. It proved to be quite the trooper during our off-road 4×4 test, through ditches, over hillocks and traversing boulders.

Defensive driving and Kevlar offer protection up to a point, but in an increasingly violent world, clients with a high-public profile or in the business of transporting valuables place their lives and precious cargo in the hands of armoured vehicle manufacturers.

Armouring

Whether it’s conspicuous or discreet armouring, lives are at stake, which is why choosing the correct level of armouring is as vital as selecting a reputable provider.

Armoured vehicles, whether for civilian or military purposes, should provide enough of a shield for the driver to escape a “situation” unscathed, De Kock explains.

This means the windshield, window or rear window need to offer enough resistance, and for the entire body, including the A, B and C pillars, to remain intact, with no kinks in the armour enabling bullets to infiltrate the interior.

Armouring vehicles is by no means an inexpensive exercise, which is why customers should be alert when selecting suppliers: SVI recently uncovered armouring fraud in the industry, which revealed not only a lack of expertise, but also the extent to which customers were being ripped off.

The Toyota Fortuner, armoured to B4 level, had been sent to SVI for a window replacement.

“We took the opportunity to investigate where the armouring was fitted. In the front bumper, there was no armouring.”

It’s important to armour the front bumper because it protects a vehicle’s electronics and engine bay, and also provides partial protection of the firewall in case of attack from the front.

To peek inside the cabin, they removed the door panel and found almost a litre of water in the door because the draining holes were plugged with adhesives used to fix the Kevlar. The A, B and C pillars – the frames of the vehicle – had no armouring, creating worrying ballistic gaps. More shocking was the lack of protection in the tailgate, where there was no armour besides the B4 glass.

“They chose a shortcut; they fitted Kevlar sheets at the back of the seats. But can you imagine if this vehicle, which is used as a seven-seater, has children – the most vulnerable – sitting at the back with absolutely no protection?”

The lesson is: don’t just look at the price or the level of protection. Look at the company providing the protection. BM/DM

Author: editor

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