Stroke of Madness

Jaime Cox Jamie Dee Fish
ford-bronco

"Can I ask why you want to do this?"

I'm at Wilson Off Road in Fayetteville, North Carolina, talking to the proprietor, Keith Wilson. Like a doctor interviewing a hopeful sex-change patient, Wilson wants to make sure I've made up my mind before they start cutting. I espouse my practical reasons for wanting a diesel Bronco, but ultimately this is all about one's personal notion of cool. I think it's perfectly obvious that a Power Stroke Bronco is inherently desirable, but I recognize that not everyone shares that sensibility. When I tell the Wall Street Journal's Dan Neil about my plan, he replies, "The '93 Bronco was almost perfect. All it needed was a belching-black plague upon this earth under the hood." Yes, but think of the money I'll save on spark plugs.

A few days later, both the Bronco and the F-350 are at Wilson's garage, ready for the transplant to begin. The Bronco, perhaps sensing its fate, develops an alarming knock on the way to Fayetteville. The check-engine light is on. Given what's about to happen, it should read "chuck engine."

I show up wearing garage-appropriate attire because Wilson has agreed to let me "help," by which I mean attempt to help without actively hindering progress, breaking his tools, or severing any of my digits. Sure, I'm not remotely capable of doing this project myself, but I want to understand how it was done and say that I laid hands on it. Even if those hands are actually gripping cups of coffee that the real mechanics send me out to buy so I won't ruin my own Bronco.

At 11 a.m., Keith Morgan, Wilson's head mechanic, begins orchestrating the transformation. By two o'clock, the Bronco's engine, transmission, and transfer case are sitting in the bed of the F-350 parked alongside. The engine and transmission both bear grease-pencil marks from a junkyard. I had a feeling that Broncos don't go 220,000 miles on their original powertrains.

While Wilson's team of ace wrenches performs a week's worth of work in three hours, I complete about ten minutes' work in the same amount of time. Ever since I bought the Bronco I'd hated its chrome brush guard, which exuded a misguided flashiness more appropriate to a period Laforza. I'd tried unsuccessfully to remove it at home, and my troubles are validated when it takes an air-powered chisel and an impact wrench to break the brush guard's rusty stranglehold. Maybe I should've acquired that guardrail bumper after all.

After lunch, I turn my attention to extracting the remains of the Bronco's dual exhaust system. The pipes don't want to make it over the rear axle, and the discussion turns to cutting them in half. Then, I have an epiphany. "What if you jack up the frame to give the axle some droop?" I ask. A mechanic named Aaron slides a jack under the receiver hitch, gives the rear end an instant lift kit, and the exhausts easily slide out, ready to live another day beneath someone's Chevy Monte Carlo project car. Hey, I was helpful!

At the end of the day, I mop the floor. I feel a little bit like a restaurant patron who's wandered into the kitchen to bother the chef.

We have a problem," says Morgan. It's the next morning, and the F-350's front end is already dismantled. The truck's wonderful, resale-killing rustiness is now setting up a potential impasse. Because the Power Stroke uses a radiator approximately the size of the Great Wall of China, we need the F-350's radiator core support. But the core support's lower reaches have rusted to oblivion, and it doesn't appear that anyone sells a reproduction piece. "Either you need to find one at a junkyard or this is going to involve a lot of fabrication," Morgan tells me. I decide that today my usefulness will be derived from parts sleuthing, and I spend the better part of a rainy afternoon stomping through the mud in a rural truck graveyard. But $250 and a couple of hours later I have my trophy, which I throw in the bed of a 2013 Ram.

After I deliver it to Wilson the next day, I recuse myself from further interference. I had envisioned myself turning wrenches, helping nose the 7.3-liter down into the Bronco's engine bay, squinting knowingly at the front end, and commenting on suspension geometry. In reality, when I see the dismantled F-350 dashboard and its Medusa-perm of a wiring harness, I think, "That is a mess that I would have no idea how to fix." I am in way over my head. Thoroughly daunted.

Eyeing the empty Bronco engine bay and its maze of disconnected hoses, wires, and brackets, I ask Morgan how he keeps track of everything -- just sorting out which bolts go where would have me busy until hovercars are plying the space highway. "I've been doing this twenty-five years," Morgan replies. "It's like a puzzle. You just figure out where things go."

Well, in this particular puzzle I've figured out where I go: home, so the pros can work without an omnipresent idiot asking where to find a T50 Torx bit or a pair of vise grips. A couple of weeks later, Keith Wilson sends me an e-mail saying the Bronco is ready to go. I'm filled with trepidation. I've spent a lot of time and money creating something that never existed, hoping that my dream doesn't turn into a nightmare. I'm like the Elon Musk of 1993 diesel-powered Ford Broncos.

I pull into Wilson's parking lot to find the Bronco waiting out front. The first thing I notice is the three-prong power cord dangling from the grille -- the Power Stroke's engine-block heater. Excellent. Wilson appears with the keys and tells me to hop into the passenger's seat for a shakedown run. "This thing is badass," he informs me. "I want one for myself."

He turns the key and 444 cubic inches of compression-ignition V-8 rumble to life, the massive Garrett turbocharger whistling softly even at idle. The interior now sports an interesting gray-on-tan two-tone effect, courtesy of the F-350's transplanted dash. I am inordinately pleased by the mere fact that the column shifter and push-button four-wheel drive have been replaced by a five-speed stick, a manual transfer case, and a clutch pedal. That alone is a worthy upgrade.

Pulling out onto the street, Wilson rolls into the throttle in second gear and a wall of torque launches the Bronco effortlessly forward. Holy cripes. The Bronco...the Bronco is fast. The F-350, I should mention, was equipped with an adjustable ECU controlled by a rotary knob on the dash. I never altered the stock mapping, on the theory that 215 hp was enough. But there are four settings that supposedly juice the engine with up to 140 additional hp, and Wilson has the computer on one of the more aggressive settings when we merge onto the highway. Whatever the effect of the magic computer, the Bronco slays 50 to 70 mph with the manic quickness of a BMW 335d. This I did not expect. I cackle like a maniac, awash in relief that the Bronco is even better than I expected. "This thing is a sleeper," Wilson says. "It's like a diesel muscle car disguised as a Bronco."

That makes no sense at all. And I love it.

2 of 2
J Michael
I hope we will find out more on this project.
Tony Antonacci
Great story and article Ezra. I would really like to hear more about how it runs and handles. I always liked the 90 - 95 model Broncos a lot. They still look cool today and I agree they are under appreciated. The biggest problem is exactly as you mentioned - their power trains. Not that they were bad at the time but 12 MPG's and lack of reliability after about 120K or so makes them less attractive to people who still wouldn't mind having one for a fun off-road truck.

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