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.
"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.