It all started with a Jeep – for American off-roading and Doug Pettis. The machines gifted from the Greatest Generation have allowed subsequent tinkerers to leave their mark before passing them on down the line.
For Doug it was all about performance, pushing the limit, finding tougher terrain. What makes his story special though, is that this Jeeper ended up President of ARB North America. Yes, he finally bought a fridge freezer.
This is the story of American 4×4’s third generation.
Doug’s earliest off-roading memories were made in his father’s 1970 GMC ¾ ton 4WD truck. This simple childhood joy sowed seeds of a lifelong 4WD passion.
“We could go play in the snow and the sand and I just thought that was the coolest thing,” he remembers.
For most in America’s first few generations of 4WDers, off-roading is a family affair. An interminable gift passed down from grandfather, father, to son. Of course, WWII Jeeps had a lot to do with it.
“My first experience behind the wheel was probably at 12-years-old. My grandfather had a 1951 M38 on his ranch in South-Central Washington and he always used to say, ‘As soon as your legs are long enough to reach the pedals, you can drive the Jeep.’ So, for my brother, my cousins and I, it was the first vehicle that we drove.”
This inheritance of gears and oil has stayed in the Pettis family and, if Doug has anything to do with it (oh, he does), the 4×4 tradition will continue on infinitely. It still gets out on the trail from time to time, but most often the M38 is nestled in Doug’s Seattle garage, awaiting the next pair of legs just long enough to reach pedals.
For any kid aspiring to 4WD, getting the keys to your own vehicle is a rite of passage. For Doug, it was a 1982 CJ 7. It was a start, but geared a little too tall as he tells it, and while it got him out exploring the vehicle had its limitations.
He wheeled rec areas around the Pacific Northwest like Tillamook State Forest and Brown’s Camp. Naches near his home in Southwest Washington state was one of his early haunts too. These areas fed both his need to get out and explore in the CJ, and his hunger for more. Tougher trails commanded an even more capable vehicle.
“I was looking forward to the day I would graduate college and have the means to build something more robust. I always dreamed about coming down to Moab or running the Rubicon Trail, but didn’t have the capability at that time.”
True to the era, Doug fueled his 4×4 interest by mail, then VHS.
“I consumed every 4WD magazine there was. I was reading about this wild Australian company that came up with a selectable locker called an ‘Air Locker.’ Knew I had to have it. Couldn’t afford it then, as a poor college student, but knew I wanted that capability.”
Needing to know more, he mailed-in an offer from the magazine for a free VHS tape from ARB.
“It was very short, just about five minutes, but I played it over and over to watch all the things that Air Locker allowed them to do – and to listen to all those funny accents on the video. From that point I knew ARB, and I knew I needed those Air Lockers whatever it took.”
In 1999 the world scrambled to ready for Y2K, but the only scrambling on Doug’s mind was over rocks.
“I sold my previous CJ 7 and tracked down an ’86 CJ 7 with the Dana 44 rear end so I could put Air Lockers in that front and rear.”
He spent the early 2000s building out the vehicle – obviously not complete without ARB Air Lockers – specifically with Moab in mind. He did a little trail-testing back home, but the rig’s first true challenge was the American 4WD motherland that is Moab, Utah.
“The first trail that I ran was Elephant Hill. I kinda signed up for that one by accident but it’s become one of my favorites. It’s in Canyonlands National Park, the views are incredible, the hike up to the confluence of the Colorado and Green rivers is very memorable.”
Doug smiles thinking back on that first run with Air Lockers. “I remember, though I might not have needed them for that trail, the Air Lockers gave me so much confidence. I was engaging them sooner and probably more often than I needed to but it was a lot of fun.”
As a crawler and a Jeeper, ARB was synonymous to Air Lockers for Doug; and this wasn’t at all uncommon in the company’s early introduction to the Americas. In fact, Air Lockers were most often referred to as “ARBs.” The reputation of its flagship product had outpaced broader knowledge of the foreign brand’s overland-centric product suite. “Honestly, all I knew of ARB initially was Air Lockers. To me, they were the toughest locking differential, product-proven in the Australian Outback in some of the harshest environments on Earth. Later on, I would come to find all the wonderful products they develop.”
ARB. American Road Bound? Air Right on Board? Nope, meet Anthony Ronald Brown.
On a trip to Australia’s Northern Territory, the ‘Top End’ as the locals say, ‘Tony’ Brown quickly recognized the need for more robust product. Through much tinkering and testing prior, his own Series 1 Land Rover held together well across the 2,300-mile journey from his home in Melbourne.
Imagine trekking from Cabo to Seattle on washboard roads with stock suspension and sparsely available gas stations. Or Miami to Montreal without seeing any city lights, toting a roof rack you and a buddy welded together yourselves. It’s easy to see how, on his trip to the Top End and others, Tony regularly found himself lending a hand to repair broken 4×4 equipment.
“He came back from that trip and started building products; the first one being a roof rack. He deeply understood the need for more robust products like bull bars for vehicle protection and better roof racks for loading up gear.”
So much like off-roading itself, the origin and success of ARB ties directly to family. Tony’s brother Roger, joined him to help get the budding business off the ground, then a short time later their younger brother Andy came onboard as well. Andy is the present-day managing director and Roger serves as chairman of the board.
The brothers’ improvements to 4×4 products were very well-received and over time the company expanded into more and more avenues of off-road adventure, or “overlanding” as it was deemed Down Under. Suspension was next, then air compressors, down to fridge freezers and awnings, and most recently rooftop tents. They kept manufacturing close by in Victoria and coupled a laser-focus on quality with substantial investments in engineering. ARB’s rapid ascent to the most trusted 4×4 brand in Australia soon brought global expansion into view.
In the 90s ARB followed the demand for its Air Lockers to North America and established a foothold just outside Seattle. Turns out a lot of people watched those VHS tapes! Enthusiasm for Air Lockers spread throughout the American off-road community, with the help of folks like Jim Oostdyk, and slowly, from there, more and more product categories voyaged across the Pacific to find their home in American vehicles.
Meanwhile, young Doug sought a career path that would intersect 4WD.
As Wayne Gretzky famously stated, “You miss 100% of the shots you never take.” While the ink dried on his Business degree, Doug penned two letters, licked two stamps, and took a shot at introducing himself to the then top two 4×4 companies in the States – ARB and Warn Industries.
He didn’t hear back from either company, but instead followed the masses into tech. He found success in information technology sales, but when the dot com bubble burst Doug navigated himself closer to his passion for the outdoors with a tenure at Benchmade knife company.
Doug always kept 4WD in his sights and in 2012, a recruiter’s call connected him with one of the companies that he’d written to all those years ago. Finally, he landed his dream job and set right to work.
“The challenge in growing the ARB brand in America was that most people only new the company as Air Lockers. It was to make people aware that ARB is so much more than that with Old Man Emu suspension, fabricated products, and more; there’s such a broad range. It’s making people aware that we’re really an off-road solutions company.”
In the first wave of American consumers that ARB would prove its full value to, was Doug.
“My local 4WD shop had been trying to get me into a fridge freezer for a long time and I always thought, ‘that’s an indulgence, that doesn’t really help the capability of my vehicle’. Once I joined the company though, I found out exactly how incredible these products really are. How their airbag compliant bumpers worked… just all the engineering that they put into the product is really fantastic. It opened my eyes.”
His understanding of ARB as an entity would be incomplete without experiencing the environment from which it was born. Doug would make the pilgrimage to Australia later that year.
“I was completely blown away by how advanced the factory is, the manufacturing process, all the engineering that goes into it. At that time, they had about 50 engineers on staff. It’s over 80 now.”
Robust engineering is undoubtedly a competitive advantage, but more importantly it’s crucial to the safety of a 4×4’s passengers. The nature of Australia’s expansive wilderness makes animal strikes a dangerous threat to off-road recreation. A crippled vehicle is the last thing you want to happen a hundred miles from help, and capable protection equipment is the farthest thing from extravagance. Here, it’s necessity.
“It’s really fascinating when you see the development and manufacturing of our front-end protection, our bumpers. ARB engineers design them to be completely compliant with all safety systems on the vehicle: parking sensors, radar cruise control and airbag deployment. It’s not just a big hunk of steel on the front of the vehicle, it really is an engineered piece of metal that is designed to complement and work with your vehicle.”
Outside the factory walls, Doug found even more inspiration.
“It’s incredible how many built vehicles you see driving around in Australia. Every truck has a bull bar on it, every truck has a snorkel on it – the fit rate on those products is amazing. More so than a floor mat or an air freshener back home, everybody has it. It’s really in their DNA; it’s their culture. They’re big 4WD enthusiasts.”
American 4×4 growth had been steady in the years leading up to 2020, and then… boom. Closed borders and the need to distance ourselves turned flirtations with 4×4 into a full-blown frenzy.
“There’s a lot of people discovering overlanding and adventure travel now for the first time. It’s really bringing families back to nature and it’s fantastic to see.”
For newcomers, Doug advises looking at everyday use as much as off-roading needs when planning upgrades.
“You should modify and accessorize your vehicle based on the products you’re going to use most frequently. Typically, I recommend suspension because you ride on that every day, you feel that comfort every day. Interestingly enough, next I would consider a fridge freezer for the same reason – you’ll absolutely use it every day whether hauling food to the kid’s ball game or out to a campsite. From there, move into increasing the capability of your vehicle with a winch-bar, Air Lockers or on-board air. Storage and recovery will round it out.”
From Johnson Valley to #VanLife, the demand for options is vast – and ever-growing. But even before this tsunami of new interest made landfall, automakers were exploring platforms that could more easily be tailored aftermarket. Considering its rich Australian heritage, ARB was a natural fit to lend a hand.
“We first started conversations with Ford surrounding the Ranger in 2015, then in 2016 we partnered on Bronco development. It was so rewarding. For an OE to reach out and work with us… I think we both learned a lot in the process, but most importantly we made it easier for consumers to get more from their vehicles. That end goal is something we continue to work on with several OEs.”
‘Better and better’ never rests and for Doug and ARB, that’s the whole, entire point. The same spirit in which Australians welded their own roof racks and bumpers in order to get out and explore still powers ARB’s trajectory. Investing millions in R&D each year, and keeping a meticulous focus on quality while ramping production balances the company’s growth and reliability.
“The consumer places a lot of trust and faith in our products and we hold that promise dear. ARB – that brand – means we won’t let you down.”
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