A Ranger Raptor fresh off the assembly line is driven over a rough-road course to check for rattles. Picture: DENIS DROPPA
A Ranger Raptor fresh off the assembly line is driven over a rough-road course to check for rattles. Picture: DENIS DROPPA

Ford SA invited journalists to spend some time on the production line of its Silverton factory near Pretoria last week, not just as observers but helping to assemble the new Ranger Raptor bakkie, which is due to be launched in SA early in 2019.

After a recent investment of almost R3bn to expand its capacity of up to 168,000 vehicles per year, comprehensive upgrades and changes were implemented at the plant.

Ford’s Silverton plant churns out about 530 Rangers and Everest SUVs daily, destined for the local market as well as 148 left- and right-hand drive countries. It’s  an enormous logistical exercise and every vehicle has to be fitted with the correct basket of features — lest some dealer in Manchester or Mexico City ends up with a Ranger missing the desired load-bay liner.

I’ve spent a lot of time on factory tours and, while it can be fascinating, it’s not the same as donning gloves and doing the work yourself.

I was first assigned to the Trim 1 station where, under the close guidance of Ford’s factory workers, the job was to insert either protective plastic lining or tie-down hooks into the load bays, and to attach the Ford badge to the tailgate.

Ford’s Silverton plant churns out about 530 Ranger bakkies and Everest SUVs every day. Picture: SUPPLIED
Ford’s Silverton plant churns out about 530 Ranger bakkies and Everest SUVs every day. Picture: SUPPLIED

Simple enough, and the conveyor belt moves at a slow enough pace for even a rookie to get it done timeously before the vehicle crawled to the next station. The tricky part, initially, is figuring out which vehicles need the hooks and which ones require the load-bay liners, and this is done by deciphering the codes printed on to a sheet of paper taped to the vehicle’s bonnet as it moves around the enormous factory.

The codes look like the scribblings of a mad scientist, but they’re the “DNA sheet” that ensures each vehicle gets its allocated list of components. The components, with their various bolts and washers, are all lined up at the correct station in a complex logistical exercise that Henry Ford (the father of the vehicle production line) would be proud of.

The code sheet ensures the vehicle gets its allocated list of components. Picture: DENIS DROPPA
The code sheet ensures the vehicle gets its allocated list of components. Picture: DENIS DROPPA

Next up was Trim 4 station where the work was slightly more complex, involving fitting a wiper motor. Make sure it’s the right way up, plug it into the wiring loom, and use a power tool to tighten three bolts to the correct torque. An alarm shrieks if you’ve undertightened a bolt, one of the countless checks and balances on the line to ensure product quality.

It’s fairly frenetic work and you only have a couple of minutes to complete the task, made more complicated by there being two different types of wiper motors. Here again, the mad scientist’s code sheet specifies which one to use. And make sure you go to the correct side of the car because left- and right-hand drive vehicles come through the line at random.

You get the hang of it and fall into a rhythm, but it’s hard work and it becomes monotonous.

There are dozens of stations in Ford’s factory, where the Rangers and Everests are assembled in a small piece at a time by factory workers. While the bodies are mostly built by robots, adding the countless pieces of trim, sound-deadening, and wiring is more complex work that requires humans.

The engines are built at Ford’s Port Elizabeth factory, and brought to Silverton where they’re slotted into the vehicles. Each vehicle that comes off the line is taken through a rough-road course to check for any rattles or squeaks, and a water spray to ensure there are no leaks.

After nearly three decades of test-driving and writing about cars, it was the first time I experienced what happens at the “coal face” of vehicle production and it was an eye opener. I spent only an hour or two at each station, and I take my hat off to the workers who spend eight or more hours a day doing the same repetitive task. And to the people who work out the complex process, ensuring that widget A isn’t accidentally united with vehicle B, pure genius.

Ford’s much-anticipated Ranger Raptor high-performance bakkie is due to go on sale in SA in the second quarter of 2019 at a price still to be announced.

The Raptor features a reinforced chassis supported by completely different front and rear suspension compared to the standard Ranger. Up front this unique Ford Performance model is equipped with heavy-duty springs and sturdy aluminium upper and lower control arms in place of the welded steel units of the standard Ranger.

At the rear, the Raptor features a multilink solid rear axle with Watt’s linkage that has more in common with the setup employed on the Everest SUV than the normal Ranger.

Ranger Raptor has a high-performance 157kW engine and uprated suspension. Picture: SUPPLIED
Ranger Raptor has a high-performance 157kW engine and uprated suspension. Picture: SUPPLIED

Motorsport-derived Position Sensitive Damping Fox shocks are used, with huge ventilated disc brakes all round. Accommodating the Ranger Raptor’s long-travel suspension, 150mm wider track, 168mm wider body and much bigger tyres required significant upgrades at numerous points along the assembly line. There are about 350 parts that are unique to the Ranger Raptor, which adds a lot of complexity to the line.

One of the biggest updates for the 2019 Ford Ranger and Everest will be the launch of the new-generation four-cylinder turbodiesel engines, including the advanced 157kW and 500Nm biturbo unit that, paired with a new 10-speed automatic gearbox, will power the Ranger Raptor and selected Ranger and Everest models. The existing Duratorq TDCi engines, in 2.2-litre four-cylinder and 3.2-litre five-cylinder guises, are also fitted on the assembly line.

The Raptor looks the part with its elevated ground clearance, huge all-terrain BF Goodrich tyres, and bold black grille, along the black wheel-arch flares.

There’s a five-mode Terrain Management System offering two road and four offroad settings.