The Cult of Cars, Racing and Everything That Moves You.
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Driving the Perfect Ford Bronco Was a Religious Experience

All photos by the author except where noted
Photo: Andrew Collins
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The square-framed round-light’d face of a 1966 Ford Bronco is as classic and commanding of respect as Nick Offerman’s facial hair. The whole design is a tribute to freedom. This one, decorated with dents and revived with a healthy V8 engine, accomplishes something few customized cars ever do: it just freaking feels right.

(Full disclosure: Icon 4x4’s PR outfit asked if I wanted to drive this Bronco. I did. One of the company’s guys rode around the valley north of Los Angeles with me while I put a few miles on it. Oh yeah, and if you want to buy a sweet picture of this thing, you can do that and $100 goes to the American Wild Horse Campaign charity.)

Old off-roaders like this are prime candidates for restomodding because everybody wants the classic truck look, and nobody wants the reality of classic truck ownership. Don’t believe what you’ve seen on Instagram; it ain’t all dusty sunset drives and wind-blown manes of golden retrievers. Shunting an archaic 4x4 through LA traffic is a bitch and it’s not all that safe.

But there’s something uniquely satisfying about muscling old iron around. At least, once you get familiar with the idiosyncrasies of your equipment.

From the pumps of gas you carefully match to the cadence of a cranking starter, to double-clutching an old agricultural gearbox, and carefully calculating your stopping distance all the time, not to mention braving the elements, driving anything like an early Bronco or Blazer or Jeep or Scout is like doing a secret handshake. Getting it right takes effort, but the payoff is fulfillment that makes you feel all warm and fuzzy. And oh yeah, a nice side effect is that you look like a fucking boss.

The coolest thing about Icon’s new “Derelict” Bronco project here isn’t its howling Coyote V8, sewer pipe off-road axles, artfully preserved patina or its beautifully executed wheels. Customizers, and Ward specifically, have been doing “old body, new running gear” for ages. No, this truck’s best trick is the fact that you can climb into it, blast out of the barn, and inside of 10 minutes feel like you’ve owned it for 10 years.

Its brand new engine fires right up and will let the truck rip from stopped to screaming as quickly as you can crash through gears. Big-ass Brembos bring the old brick back to a halt in just as much of a hurry.

But while Jonathan Ward and his team at Icon 4x4 have modernized every aspect of this Bronco down to its chassis and bones, driving it still feels like a practiced exercise. There is no roof, no roll cage and no climate control beyond what your god of choice might provide from the sky.

The controls that are left–a huge steering wheel, long-travel gearshift lever and a clutch–move deliberately with a lot of weight, making every move feel important. The shocks are on the stiff side, and bounce your butt a bit as you bound over bumps. Just like it is in an actual old truck. Except when you step on the gas or brake, the vehicle responds with bite proportionate to how dramatic the driving experience feels.

This Derelict Bronco preserves its 52-year-old look exceptionally well, but much more impressively, it interprets the sensation of driving a classic in such a way that saps off the misery without gutting its personality. Well, I guess this truck’s true original personality is gutted, but what it’s been replaced with is just as much fun and a lot easier to be friends with.

It’s more than “easier” though. Genuinely gratifying to drive. And even though Icon’s work in this world is legendary I was still surprised at how perfect this Bronco felt and looked.

Now I’m not the only one who’s drowning in his own drool over early Broncos. If you have tried to buy one in the last few years, you know that they’ve solidly appreciated right along with air-cooled Porsche 911s and Toyota FJ40 Land Cruisers.

Hence restorers are snatching them up and reselling them as quickly as they can. The truck you’re looking at here was bound for such a fate; Ward bought it from a Texas man, the original owner, who’d retired it from farm duty.

You can hear the truck’s whole backstory in a video Ward posted earlier this week. The plan was to rebuild, retrofit, respray and resell it like Ward’s other excellent Bronco projects but I’m glad Ward was moved to treat this one a little differently.

Those U-shaped door cutouts are not the handiwork of a shade-tree mechanic with a Skilsaw. They were the signature element of the early Bronco’s Roadster trim which, according to Jeff Leslie at Autoroundup, only made it to 5,000 of the more than 225,000 Broncos built in the original body style between 1966 and ’77. Far fewer are said to be intact today.

Ward’s truck here is intact, alright. The dents and surface rust on this off-white slab of steel were all earned over its half century on the Earth so far, and have been preserved with a special aircraft clear coating. But the rest of the truck is basically brand new.

This old Bronco body sits on a fresh frame made by prolific hot rod chassis designer Art Morrison, with a 5.0-liter V8 you might recognize from a Ford Mustang wedged under the hood and hooked up to an AX15 five-speed manual transmission.

Power makes its way to the wheels, which are custom made to look old but be large enough to fit over massive Brembo brakes, through a pair of coil-sprung mighty Dana straight axles.

In the engine bay, a little fake patina was added to the passenger side to match steel ahead of the driver that, amazingly, is covered in hand-scrawled maintenance notes from the truck’s original owner. They probably won’t be much help since the old running gear as been gutted, but it sure does look cool.

So yeah, there isn’t much ’66 Bronco left here, and I guess I have to admit that that makes my assessment of it as “perfect” a little dirty. Except I don’t care. Ward’s Derelict is your classic 4x4 fantasies come to life, it makes you rough it just enough to feel special while being so much more rewarding than the Bronco would have been with its cranky old carburetor and leaf spring suspension.

Tooling around in this thing was like driving an actual dream, and I’ll never forget it.

And as an epilogue, let me treat you to some of the fantastic photos Icon’s own hired photographer got of Ward himself running around the rocks in the Derelict Bronco: