I blame it all on the Icon FJ40. A few years back, my wife and I took a road trip through the Rockies in an achingly gorgeous 1967 Toyota Land Cruiser. That little four-by-four was fresh from an Icon overhaul, which bestowed it with a modern four-cylinder International turbo-diesel and a five-speed manual transmission. Wending across the Continental Divide, a note of turbo whistle overlaying the diesel's growl, fresh mountain breezes wafting through the open-air cockpit, I might've fallen a little bit in love with that thing. Of course, we always want what we can't have, and in the States a convertible, manual-transmission diesel four-by-four is a mythical creature. That Icon FJ carried an appropriately mythical sticker price of $122,000. If I want my own version of the diesel FJ experience, I'll have to get creative.
At first, I ponder taking advantage of the twenty-five-year import exemption by shipping a Mercedes-Benz G-wagen cabrio here from Europe. But after perusing many international classifieds listings, I discover that there is approximately one rust-free convertible G-wagen in Europe, and it's owned by monks who live on a Greek island accessible only by hot-air balloon. So I turn my muse to the Land Rover Ninety, a.k.a. Defender, but eventually decide that a right-hand-drive Defender exudes a tweedy Anglophilia that marks its driver as the kind of guy who acquires a British accent during a layover at Heathrow. And I'm not that sort of chap, old fellow.
My jones for a diesel off-roader gets bad enough that, at one point, I'm seriously considering a Suzuki Samurai converted with a Kubota tractor engine. That's when I discover the Ford Bronco. It's a white, 1995 full-size model, a regular O. J. special but with a 1997 Power Stroke diesel under the hood and a five-speed manual shifter poking through the floor. Price: $5500.
I'm not immediately smitten. Full-size Broncos never particularly interested me, and I don't know anything about the Power Stroke. But over the next few days, I talk to a former Ford mechanic who tells me that the 7.3-liter Power Stroke was an International design and is legendary for its reliability -- he'd seen one come into the dealership with 680,000 miles on it. The 7.3-liter is turbocharged and direct-injected, so it's both powerful (215 hp and 425 lb-ft in its wimpiest guise) and relatively refined. The ZF five-speed manual is a well-regarded transmission. And if you stop to ponder the Bronco, it's cooler than its current status suggests.
The full-size Bronco, which seemed so mammoth in its day, is the length of a Ford Edge and weighs about as much as an Explorer. The top comes off. And the Power Stroke basically bolts right in because the front end of the Bronco is nearly identical to the front end of that era's heavy-duty pickups. So I call the owner and tell him I'll take it.
But on the day I'm supposed to pick it up, the owner sends me an e-mail. The curt message reads, "I hate to tell you this, but it just left. We had it advertised and someone just paid for it and left." This is unwelcome news. Over the course of those few days, I'd gone from indifference toward the Power Stroke Bronco to thinking that no other truck would do.
Facing the grim reality that I've missed my chance, I realize that I'll now have to do things the hard way. If I want a Power Stroke Bronco, I'll have to build one myself.
Finding a Bronco is the easy part. Five days after the first truck escapes my clutches, I'm the proud owner of a black and tan 1993 Eddie Bauer model. With a clean body but nearly 220,000 miles, it costs me $1850. Big Broncos, it seems, are an underappreciated used-car value. I open the rear window and take my dogs for a ride. I unbolt the top, fold the rear seats forward, and use it as a pickup truck. The Bronco is awesome. But I can see why Broncos are inexpensive to buy, because they're certainly not cheap to drive. When this 12-mpg, 5.8-liter Neanderthal rolled off the assembly line, nobody predicted that filling its 32-gallon tank would someday require two swipes of the credit card because the pump stops at $100.
While Broncos are still wallowing at the low end of the depreciation curve, I quickly learn that Power Stroke diesel trucks enjoy dauntingly robust resale value -- anything in good shape with fewer than 200,000 miles probably costs more than the complete Power Stroke Bronco that I snoozed on.
At first, I scour salvage-auction listings for a low-dollar basket case. But it seems that every promising wreck of a heavy-duty F-series turns out to be either gasoline-powered or two-wheel drive, or it spent fifteen years towing a thirty-foot trailer before it rolled into a leaching field and caught fire. And that's how I end up driving 700 miles in a jacked-up, clapped-out 1995 F-350.
This particular truck has the ingredients that I prize: Power Stroke 7.3-liter engine, manual transmission, four-wheel drive, and only 171,000 miles. At $3750, this F-350 is appropriately affordable -- probably because it's the ugliest truck in the state of Connecticut.
We can argue about whether flat black is still fashionable, but we can agree that flat white never was. The truck had a front bumper fashioned from a section of guardrail, but the owner chose to keep it, citing the great truism that you never know when you're going to find another nice piece of guardrail. The grille and radiator jut out over the bumperless front end like a bad overbite.
The F-350 has a lift kit, but the 31-inch Super Swampers are actually smaller than the stock rubber, giving it enough dead-cat space for a dead mammoth. Chrome smokestacks protrude through the bed, and a sticker on the rear window warns onlookers that nothing in this truck is worth your life, an assertion underscored by a depiction of a revolver. The driver's-side seatbelt mount is a skiff adrift in a sea of rust. Nonetheless, I pull onto I-95 determined that today I'll live by the credo of another sticker on the back window, the one that implores humanity to Git-R-Done. If you're getting the idea that I secretly really like this F-350, you're correct. But that doesn't diminish my conviction that, if all goes well, this will be the F-350's final ride.