From bullet proof BMWs to B7-armored Land Cruisers, SVI Engineering does it all.
Once the reserve of super spies, vehicle armoring has become increasingly popular among the world's elite - and we're not talking about A-list celebrities and politicians. An increasing number of high-net-worth individuals opt to convert their luxury vehicles into wheeled fortresses, particularly in countries with lawless societies.
South African-based SVI Engineering invited CarBuzz to its state-of-the-art facility to get a behind-the-scenes look at what goes into armoring a car.
A beautiful nation with a population of nearly 60 million, South Africa - hopeful of hosting an F1 race again soon - boasts awe-inspiring landscapes, majestic scenery, and a favorable exchange rate. But, like any country, it has its problems too.
"Look at bulletproofing and armoring as an extra layer of safety," says SVI's Nicol Louw. "A modern car has airbags and crumple zones. You hope you never have to use it, but if worse comes to worst, you're glad it's there."
Massive inequality and a legacy of racial discrimination have led to a serious crime problem. In 2021, nearly 5,000 carjackings were reported between January and March. This startling figure doesn't take vehicle theft into account. Louw, who is an automotive engineer and keen driver at heart, explains the uptick in popularity as we make our way to Pretoria, the nation's capital city.
"It's not just government ministers that require bulletproof vehicles. Many of our clients, particularly in the Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal provinces, have experienced a violent [carjacking] and don't want to go through that again." We turn off the road and enter an unassuming driveway. To a passer-by, this could be the entrance to an upmarket housing estate - but what lurks behind the fortified gates is anything but golf courses and luxury homes.
Chickens and geese run about the manicured lawns and contemporary architecture, contrasting sharply with the armored Toyota Hiluxes, Mercedes S-Class sedans, and military-spec vehicles littered across the facility. I catch a glimpse of the brand new Land Cruiser 300 out of the corner of my eye, hoping to get a closer look at the highly desirable forbidden fruit.
In the metal, Toyota's range-topper has an abundance of presence. But this particular example hides a heavy secret. As you've probably guessed, this isn't your average LC300. Louw explains this is the first-ever example the company has worked on. Armored to B6 protection, this luxury SUV is capable of withstanding attacks from assault rifles; B6 is the highest level of armoring available to civilians.
The discreet option means the vehicle is virtually indistinguishable from other models. Armored glass, 1.5 inches thick, and steel plates protect occupants from potentially devastating attacks. While this adds plenty of extra weight - 1,760 lbs, to be exact, this doesn't affect the turbocharged V6's performance that much, but you feel the weight in other places. Opening the doors, for example, can be a rather cumbersome affair.
Interestingly, SVI doesn't armor the rear window - but there's a very good reason for this.
An armored bulkhead in the trunk will stop bullets from penetrating the passenger compartment. Should the vehicle be involved in an accident, occupants can exit from the escape shoot and break the unarmored windows at the rear. The LC300 also benefits from a suspension upgrade (to support the added mass).
There's a small price to pay for this level of protection, though. The side glass is only able to open 5.9 inches and Louw recommends not using the power windows unless strictly necessary.
"We include this so the driver can provide their license to the police if pulled over." If you're interested in this package, it takes four months to convert a vehicle and can cost more than R1 million (approx. $60,000). That doesn't include the price of the car or taxes.
Walking around the facility, it's clear to see the armoring experts take their jobs very seriously. The workshop is a shrine to precision and craftsmanship. Skilled tradesmen work silently on several vehicles, including two brand-new LC300s. "Both of these vehicles have zero miles on the clock," says Louw. Their innards sit on a shelf, ready to be refitted once the process is complete.
The factory is bustling with activity. Elsewhere, a Ford Ranger also receives B6 armor. In the corner, a Land Cruiser 200 is fitted with a safe in the rear. "Some of our clients need to transport big ticket items and need their vehicles to withstand serious threats." But it's not just wealthy individuals that rely on SVI's expertise.
Just outside of the facility sits a Toyota Hilux. Like the rest of the vehicles on the property, it appears to be just like the thousands of Hiluxes racing across South African roads. Look closely, however, and a divider can be seen in the middle of the windscreen. Very soon, this tough truck will be pressed into duty as a security vehicle.
Known as "Stopgun" armoring, this protection is favored by the security, mining, and courier industries. Two options are available: V1.3 utilizes a double-door system, while the newer V2.0 setup has integrated armoring. The latter also retains the curtain airbag system but, as with the former, the windows remain fixed. The side windows also include portals for weapons, should the occupants need to defend themselves. This conversion can be completed in just a month and is priced from R240,000 (approx. $14,250).
But what if you require something tougher than a Hilux or Ranger? Well, SVI will gladly point you in the direction of MAX 3, a bespoke machine based on the venerable Land Cruiser 79 pickup truck. As we walk into the designated production site, we get to witness the marriage of the armored body and the 79's chassis. As standard, this mighty creation receives B6 armoring, but Louw explains this can be upgraded to B7. Blast protection is also available.
Two body styles are available; a pickup truck or a personnel carrier. Despite the imposing bodywork, MAX 3 is a surprisingly easy vehicle to drive. Unlatch the massive doors, and you're greeted with a familiar site - the innards are lifted straight from the Toyota donor car, and so too is the 4.5-liter diesel V8 with 202 horsepower and 317 lb-ft of torque.
These modest outputs move the 7,714-lb creation with a surprising turn of speed. It's remarkably easy to drive and goes about its business with gusto. The five-speed manual gearbox is well-suited to the rugged persona.
During our brief stint at the wheel, we were impressed by how compliant the ride is. It sails over bumps with ease and makes light work of obstacles. Despite the capabilities, clients aren't in for a shock when it comes to maintenance. A Toyota dealership will happily service the vehicle. Louw notes MAX 3 is particularly handy in riot situations and is ideal for the mining industry.
But, when parked next to SVI's ultimate offering, MAX 3 is made to look like a family crossover. During my tenure as a motoring scribe, I've been lucky enough to drive hundreds of vehicles, ranging from small hatchbacks to race-ready Porsches. Over the years, not one vehicle has intimidated me, but MAX 9 had me second-guess my driving capabilities. Getting into the cabin was daunting enough. Standing 97.7 inches tall, I embarrassingly displayed my lack of athleticism by clambering into the cabin with zero grace or decorum.
After catching my breath, I sat back and took in the cabin details. It's equal parts spartan and civilized. The exposed metal and rubber floors aren't the last word in luxury, but MAX 9 boasts amenities such as an automatic gearbox and air-conditioning. My knowledgeable guide fired up the 6.7-liter Cummins engine, which rumbled into life immediately. After maneuvering the 230-inch long (lengthier than a Maybach 57) machine out of its parking space, he handed driving duties over to me.
It turns out I shouldn't have been worried at all. Place the gearbox into drive, and MAX 9 sets off with ease. The 282-hp motor carries the 16,500-lb monster with ease, but this is mostly down to the 715 lb-ft of torque. The steering is light and utterly devoid of feeling; twiddle the tiller as much as you like, and you still have no clue what the front wheels are up to. Again, there's a very good reason for this.
MAX 9 has been designed to traverse rutted roads and escape warzones in a hurry. The numb steering is to prevent the driver's thumbs from being lobbed off by sudden movements. It is remarkably easy to pilot, but the brake pedal does require a meaty shove to bring the vehicle to a stop. The 365/85R 20 tires crush everything, resulting in a rather civilized ride. The monocoque hull has been designed to take hits from blasts and bullets, with a V-shaped body to protect from landmines.
Should you need to defend yourself, it's even available with a turret-mounted weapons platform mounted on the roof. This is operated via the remote control station inside the vehicle. If, however, you need to flee in a hurry, MAX 9 will whisk you away to safety at up to 87 mph.
A quick stop at the development site piques my interest. While we cannot divulge any details, the company is working on some hugely exciting projects that will appeal to existing customers.
With the driving part of the tour now completed, I'm escorted to an undisclosed location. Here, I'm given an assault rifle and told to fire at B6 glass. After a few attempts, I nail the pricey pane. Unsurprisingly, the side window doesn't break a sweat and stops the bullets dead in their tracks.
High on adrenaline, I could see the value in having this type of protection. For some, it may seem like overkill - but when you're at risk of being targeted because of your financial status, it's a small price to pay for your protection. If you don't require protection from assault weapons, SVI also provides the option of B4 armoring. This only adds up to 661 lbs and can stop handguns up to a 0.44 Magnum, courtesy of the 0.8-inch armored glass and Kevlar sheets. Armoring an S-Class or 7 Series, for example, costs around R630,000 (approx. $37,400).
SVI's services extend beyond bulletproofing and armoring. The company has a designated support team that can assist clients should their vehicles have a problem. What's more, there is a range of accessories to choose from, including PA systems, ballistic front grilles, and, of course, run-flat tires. If you want an armored train, the company can fulfill those requirements, too.
We must make mention of the driver training SVI offers its customers. The added weight brought on by armoring affects a vehicle's dynamics and handling. The driver training program aims to help owners handle their cars with expertise by teaching evasive maneuvers, offensive driving, and defense techniques. This also covers the legal aspects by educating clients on how to protect themselves in their vehicles lawfully. If you've got an SUV, there's an off-road course, too.
"Once you get used to driving around in an armored vehicle, you feel naked in a vehicle that isn't," quipped Louw.