Determined as they are to have nothing but quality products, they’ve had me delving into all sorts of things and it’s stuff I really enjoy. But this time it really came from left field.
As in ‘left of Perth’ because I was sent to South Africa to check out the entire range of Front Runner racks and camping accessories that Opposite Lock has been importing for a while now. Trouble is, they’re not well known on the Aussie market and as a consequence they haven’t achieved the penetration they deserve. In fact, the first Front Runner product I ever fitted was a rack to my 76 Series test vehicle last year. It was so good I’ve fitted one to Milo now, too.
A lightweight aluminium barbecue plate (braai plate in local parlance). A great place for it, too!
Why? Because they’re super strong, lightweight (all-aluminium in the racks) and come in a modular package which means you can add almost any accessory securely. The level of common sense in the design is terrific, too, even down to simple things like allowing you to walk all over the rack in bare feet because the slats are horizontal.
But are they tough enough for Australian conditions? That’s what we went to find out.
First thing, though, was to have a look around the showroom and factory in Johannesburg.
Travelling with Land Rover nutcase Gordon Shaw, who’s also the biggest retailer of Front Runner products in Australia through his Opposite Lock store in South Sydney, we barely got past the Defender Heritage model decked out in full Front Runner gear. Stan Illman bought this one with no plans to drive it, he just couldn’t resist owning one and so he got the team to dress it up as a display. With it’s skinny steel rims and light green paint it’s just pure eye candy for any off-road enthusiast.
For those of us who thought this South African company only made roof racks, the fully loaded Landy opened a whole new window.
Stan’s the powerhouse behind Front Runner’s superb manufacturing facility. He’s always been involved in manufacturing, but his passions include overlanding, motorcycling and off-road racing – all things you see reflected in the Front Runner products. He’s won the ‘Roof of the World’ rally a couple of times, too. Looking through his photo albums was like looking through a world adventure book.
Originally he bought into Front Runner because, as an ‘overlander’ himself, he could see plenty of room for accessory development in a country that loves going bush. Pretty soon Stan was applying his manufacturing expertise to the factory while refining and expanding the range of products. The theme might have been race-inspired right from the start: lightweight, innovative, practical and strong. Yes, I came away impressed!
The product line-up includes a corrugation-proof rack mount for MaxTrax. It was great to see our Aussie-made MaxTrax are appreciated in South Africa. As one of our African guides said, ‘you don’t go anywhere without Maxies over here, not when walking out can mean getting eaten.’
I thought I’d seen plenty of products on the Heritage – and all over the surrounding walls – but there turned out to be another floor of products just above. This time it was a blend of quality stuff from other companies (and more Front Runner camping goodies). Everything had that look of real-world development and experience. The storage boxes were stackable and the kettles made from stainless steel with big handles and easy-pour spouts. I realised that if Stan wasn’t happy with something, it got put straight in the box and sent back.
The factory itself, a massive building around the corner from the showroom, was modern and organised with machinery even I recognised as state-of-the-art. Profile cutting, forming, powdercoating and final packing is all done in-house so quality control can be maintained.
The adventure doesn’t just stop on the first floor – upstairs has an entire range of camping gear.
That’s essential when a roof rack is supplied flat-packed in a box with all fixtures and fittings included. Having assembled a couple of racks and quite a few Front Runner accessories, I’ve been impressed with both the instructions and the organisation that goes into every product. They even include little notes from each person involved in the packing process for a personal touch.
Having experienced the range, I was keen to get out and do some testing. Outside was assembled a group of dead-stock vehicles – a Jimny, a shorty Pajero and a Kia Sorrento of all things – proudly showing off Front Runner gear. The one vehicle that had any pretensions as a serious off-roader was a TJ Jeep Wrangler with suspension, tyres and a winch.
The testing was about Front Runner’s range after all, so the decision had been made to transform ‘lightweight’ vehicles to underline the benefits of lightweight products. Looking at the two-ply stock tyres on the Kia I figured we might have bitten off more than we could chew.
Front Runner owner Stan Illman and his daughter Renee, who manages the business every time Stan’s out overlanding.
A half dozen or so journalists and engineers were looking for places to stash their bags in cars already packed to the brim with food, drinks, camping gear and tools for a fortnight’s worth of trekking through the Kalahari Desert. You could smell adventure in the air.
I reckon Stan must have caught a whiff of that because minutes later he’d cancelled a heap of business meetings, chucked a bag into his decked-out Mercedes Gelandewagen and led the way out of town.
How did we go? Stay tuned, you’ll find out exactly how far a fully loaded Kia Sorrento on stock tyres with no clearance can go when you’re being chased by a lion.