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Interview with Tough Dog's Simon Vella

By 4x4 Australia, 23 Jun 2019 Opinion

Interview Tough Dog Simon Vella feature

Tough Dog Suspension’s Simon Vella has spent more than a quarter of a century designing suspension for everything from off-road tourers to bullet- and bomb-proof five-tonne Land Cruisers.

WAY BACK when I started, my role was hands-on. I built all the cab-mount suspensions for International and Iveco trucks. We were an OEM supplier to International Trucks, and my role was to supply them with the product they required.

At the same time, John Agostino (4 Way Suspension’s founder) was running the 4x4 program and developing product for the 80 Series LandCruiser under the Tough Dog brand name. At that time, the 80 series was a

As a company, 4 Way experienced far more growth in four-wheel drive suspension than cab mounts and I came across to the four-wheel drive division of the business. In 1997 I became production manager for the business. I spent at least 10 years running day-to-day activities. Like any small business, there was much more going on for everyone than just their core job.

We might act like a corporate company – and I’m proud of the growth we’ve achieved as a brand – but at the bones of what we do here we’re still a family business, which I really like. My role grew with the needs of the business, and I was taking care of staffing and HR, daily operations and production as well as getting involved in sales and marketing. In 2000 I formally took on the role of General Manager.

Tough Dog’s international sales also saw me flying around the world to bring on new dealers. There’s so much going on in a family business you need to be a jack-of-all trades, and more importantly, passionate about getting the job done. 

That ‘get the job done’ mentality has helped us over the years, and its also the reason I joined the guys on the 4x4 Of the Year testing. We had a marketing job to do, I wanted to see the new vehicles on the market in the field and on top of that, we had new product to torture test as well!

We want to take the next step as a business but at the same time, I don’t want to lose touch with the hands-on connection with the product that I’ve spent so long with. With that in mind, I’ve transitioned into my new role as Director of Product Development and we’ve brought on a new General Manager. Moving forward, you’ll see this brand grow substantially in the next five years.

As far as product development goes, there’s been a lot of interesting stuff. We’ve spent time in the UAE developing solutions for armoured-plated suspensions for military vehicles that are built on the 200 series and 79 series Land Cruisers. These vehicles have 12mm plate steel floors, and are rated to withstand 7.62mm rifle fire and IED explosives.

Related: Tough Dog supports tough testing

These projects are really important because you’re exposed to the gravity of the situation. As in, there are very serious consequences if the product fails in the field – so you’ve got to take what you do very seriously because lives are at risk.

We also had a project about 10 years ago that was equally interesting – and funny. I went to South Africa and met with the client. They’d heard good things about the Tough Dog range, and they were suffering from inadequate suspension in their safari vehicles.

But they made one thing very clear; If our product failed, the customers would be eaten by lions. Yes… Eaten! Here in Australia we’re used to dangerous animals, but nothing here is really planning on eating you! We ended up winning the contract and they’ve been an ongoing customer ever since. 

Battery powered four-wheel drives are going to be here a lot sooner than you think, and that’s where our development will likely be focused in the future. As battery vehicles improve, manufacturers will be harvesting energy from anything they can on and around the vehicle; the shock absorber is a perfect example. The kinetic and heat energy generated is wasted at the moment. 4 Way Suspension will most likely be a lot more electronically focused moving forward to cater to the advances in the market.

People get worried when advances mean big changes to their vehicle. In the last 30 years of suspension development alone, we’ve seen a perception change from ‘real’ 4x4s only having a live axle configuration to the current perception that embraces independent suspension. Some people went so far as to say the torsion bar 100 series LandCruiser meant that Toyota probably wouldn’t sell another one! Today’s issue is all around engine displacement, efficiency and emissions.

These days, smaller technology driven engines with DPFs fitted and AdBlue tanks rule the roost; those cast-iron boat anchors of the past are waning. The natural next step is to develop hybrid and electric technology to the point where it can withstand harsh environments. That’s an evolution that personally, I support; it’s the next big thing and we’re excited to see what the future holds.

Meet the Expert
Name: Simon Vella
Role: Director of Product Development, Tough Dog
Experience: 26 years