Ethos

Modern Nostalgia: Driving Icon’s Derelict Ford Bronco

Answering an existential question while sampling Jonathan Ward’s latest project.

Shouldn’t a connoisseur of mechanical novelty find solace in Land Rover’s charismatically imperfect off-roaders? There may be some nuance to the sentiment, but Jonathan Ward’s complicated relationship with the British brand has intrigued me for the decade or so since I first met him. It wasn’t until Ward invited me to sample his latest Derelict project, a 1966 Ford Bronco Roadster, that I stumbled upon the opportunity to untie that philosophical knot.

“Mind if I bring my ’63 Land Rover Series IIA?” I queried casually, aware that my weekend toy would distract from the main attraction. “Of course not,” he replied, an accession that speaks more to his pantheistic automotive enthusiasm than it does my potentially provocative intentions.

Derelict my Bronco: Icon’s Derelict Bronco looks mild but goes like hell, thanks to a modernized 5.0-liter drivetrain.

Ward is drawn to wear and tear just as much as—if not more—than he is to perfection. His fondness for decay led him to spin off his Derelict line, which preserves the ravaged skins of rust-encrusted barn finds while applying an ungodly number of man-hours toward modernizing their internals. They’re typically priced just less than Ward’s fully restored Broncos, which hover around the $210,000 mark. But Derelicts are significantly more labor-intensive, and working around each vehicle’s peculiarities requires case-by-case problem solving.

Rescuing a car from the scrapper, or better yet, reconstructing it while respecting the natural decrepitude of aging, is never a linear process. It’s also a formidable undertaking that triggers tangible excitement in Ward, with bonus points when cars are accompanied by personal recollections and a trail of faded Kodachrome prints. “The romance of the patina and the dents and dings, it makes you wonder where it’s been, what relationships have been forged,” Ward says. “Oftentimes I had to erase those parts during a restoration, which kind of kills that personal story.”

The 1966 Bronco Roadster is Ward’s 13th Derelict restoration and his first Bronco to receive the treatment. Bronco Roadsters, built between 1966 and 1968, are rare, stripped-down variants of the stalwart American off-roader that sacrificed niceties like doors and a roof in the name of ready-for-anything simplicity. These models were underappreciated in their time, with waning interest in the back-to-basics trucks leading to the production of only 5,000 or so until they were discontinued.

Icon’s inaugural Derelict Bronco came with an appropriately rich backstory and patina to drool for: dulled paint, a hazy smattering of surface rust accumulated during a half-century under the central Texas sun, and a dented right front fender that betrays a life of utility. The sculpted wheelwells remain uncut, helping the Bronco retain its original proportions. “This truck is like a great pair of flip-flops you’ve owned for an irresponsible number of decades,” Ward says. “You put them on, and you feel like you walk better in them.”

There are human artifacts, too. Snapshots of the owner’s son with the car when it was delivered new. Later photos of the son with a teenage girl who would become his wife. Handwritten maintenance notes on the engine box. “The story was so cool,” Ward says. “I was giddy about it.” He wasn’t the only one. After Ward shared a snapshot on Icon’s Instagram account, an interested buyer stepped forward in less than an hour. The Derelict Bronco was greenlit, and the buyer consulted with Ward on a variety of creative decisions throughout the process.

Transforming a battered vehicle into a Derelict requires a delicate balance of preservation and renovation—as mentioned, it takes more work than a full-on restoration. For starters, it took time to figure out the process of effectively sealing in the sheetmetal’s rust and imperfections. “I’d been researching hydrophobic and oleophobic coatings for years,” Ward says. “I’m a coating geek.” His search led him to a product called Nano Tech manufactured by Ceramic Pro, a firm whose work is usually found on personal jets and exotic cars. Collaborating with the firm’s chief chemist, a formulation was tested on sample body panels and fine-tuned, yielding a solution that worked with old sheetmetal’s porosity and irregular surfaces. Surface treatments and additive materials played several roles in the project. In addition to sound deadening and heat insulation tactics, Ward also tended to unlikely areas, including the windshield, where adding a hydrophobic coating enabled him to retain the old vacuum wiper system because a modern one would have “ruined the aesthetic.”

Certain features are no-brainers, like the hand-scrawled maintenance notes in the engine bay he chose to preserve. Others became mechanical, geometric, and aesthetic puzzles that required careful consideration. Ward’s fondness for Brembo brakes necessitated bigger wheels to house what he calls “those big-ass football calipers.” The wheels, 18-inch forged aluminum pieces designed by Icon and manufactured by Wheel Pros, required reworking because it’s easy to push them too far outward, creating an “overstanced” look. Although Ward says it pains him to even say the words “faux patina,” the wheels, steering column, and inner fender ECU enclosure needed to be manually worn in order to match the rest of the vehicle. “Oh, and the gas cap’s bullshit, too,” he adds.

The Bronco’s ragged, dented skin serves as the ultimate low-fi decoy for the hardware lurking beneath that contemporizes its road manners. As with all of Ward’s creations, the frame is mandrel-bent, boxed, and powder-coated by Art Morrison. Tucked into the engine bay is that mainstay of American muscle, the 5.0-liter Ford Coyote V-8, tuned to Ward’s spec and producing 412 horsepower and 390 lb-ft of torque. A stainless steel, ceramic-coated Borla exhaust system adds a bit of throaty musicality, and power is routed through an AX15 five-speed manual transmission. The driveline is ready for off-roading, with an Atlas transfer case routing driveshafts to Dynatrac differentials equipped with ARB lockers. Ward selected the shortest shocks manufactured by Fox Racing in order to preserve the Bronco’s stock proportions, and the suspension is configured with a radius-arm front and four-link rear setup. As you can imagine, those 21st century underpinnings endow the Roadster with a performance envelope belied by its 1960s-era aesthetic.

It’s so simple you could spit on it, pee in it, use your T-shirt as a gasket, put it back together in the field, and party on.

My Land Rover and I met Ward and his stallion at a sprawling private orchard not far from Santa Susana Airport, a dusty outpost where Steve McQueen was known to fly his Stearman biplane in the 1970s. At first glance under the warm California sunlight, the trucks seem starkly different. The Rover was built when the sun had already set on the British Empire but adventurers still explored the remotest corners of the earth in crude off-roaders, while the Bronco recalls the fundamentally American time and place when the Beach Boys were in their stride. Just five years after “Good Vibrations” was released in 1966, Parnelli Jones won the Baja 1000 in his gloriously modified “Big Oly” Bronco. Yet there’s a prevailing sense of purposeful minimalism to both British and American machines: the naïve stares of the round headlights, the unpretentiously boxy bodies, and the folding windshields—both are swathed in elegantly unassuming emblems of impending adventure.

But that’s where the similarities end. While the Land Rover’s modest 2.25-liter four-cylinder petrol engine produces 77 horsepower and leverages short gearing and sheer determination to huff its way up steep grades, the Bronco’s dual overhead cam V-8 produces omnipresent torque that makes acceleration a nonissue. The Rover’s leaf-spring suspension articulates over terrain like a billy goat but transmits bumps and ruts with spine-compressing shockwaves; the Bronco’s remote reservoir Fox shocks provide enough compliance for high-speed desert running, though its solid front and rear axles retain some of the original model’s signature crudeness.

Chasing the American steed across the SoCal landscape, the Rover feels like it has to try at least five times harder to keep up with the ’Stang-powered Bronco. I can’t help but feel competitive, despite the massive imbalance of power. I’m deeply impressed by the Derelict’s athleticism and legit patina, but I also want my little guy to hold his own against the deep-pocketed opponent. At one point on a sharp uphill turn, the Rover pulls ahead while the Bronco’s footing falters. I snicker. But the Bronco regains traction in no time and carries on, its BFGoodrich tires spraying clouds of dirt as it rips through the landscape.

It’s improbable, this transatlantic juxtaposition. But it opens up a conversation with Ward, the one that’s been smoldering in the back of my head for longer than I care to admit. After our drive we break for a chat and a beer, and I finally ask him point blank: “What’s your beef with Land Rovers, anyway?” With a deep breath, he answers, “In all fairness, I think it extends to British automotive design and execution in general.” Aha, a big topic, indeed. “The problem is the stark contrast, in my humble experience, between the lovely, magical, gorgeous brand DNA and the execution, be it engineering or . . . maybe that pencil pushers are more regarded than they are even in Detroit. It kills me.” Okay then, now we’re getting somewhere. “Now to credit your truck,” he says, “one could counter my point by saying, ‘Yes, but it’s so simple that you could spit on it, pee in it, use your T-shirt as a gasket, put it back together in the field, and party on,’ to which I counter: Take a Toyota Land Cruiser of the same year, and you’re not going to have to [do all those things] because the thoroughness and execution of the engineering is just so far beyond.”

Diehards covet the Series IIA’s metal dash; later models received safer but less sexy plastic surfaces.

Fair enough. But like me, Ward admits to a weak spot for the old buggers and their “charmingly archaic” quirks. “I love your truck,” he says. “I just bought a Series IIA. It’s like that flawless woman who’s just an emotional psychotic that you’re still drawn to because of her beauty; even though you should know better, you’re still drawn, like a moth to the proverbial bulb.”

The thing about Ward, who has tackled everything from a Willys Jeepster to a Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud to, yes, several vintage Land Rovers, is that he carefully considers a vehicle’s intended mission before tackling a restoration. “If we took your old Brit on the freeway and started griping about how vague the steering is, that’s on us, not Rover,” he says. “It wasn’t intended to do that. Even when clients call and they want to hand me a beautiful stack of cash to enable me to do my thing, I’m warning them of shortcomings that will remain. If you’re comfortable within the confines of its original intent, they’re lovely. However, if you’re trying to make a refined, quiet, squared-off-corners, symmetrically true freeway flier out of it,” he quips, “you’re rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.”

The Landy can run, but she can’t hide: The Coyote-powered Ford churns out more than five times more oomph.

And maybe that’s the distinction. Ward’s Derelict Bronco has an improbably rounded skill set that mashes up mechanical stoutness and modern levels of performance with emotionally evocative wabi-sabi textures. Even more, there’s no worry of putting the first scratch on this well-worn specimen. In Ward’s words, the owner can “just hop in it and wail on it.”

It took more than five decades for this particular Bronco Roadster to patinate and scar, and less than a year for it to receive the Icon treatment. It’s fascinating to consider how the unhurried progress of entropy meets the studied industriousness of one man seeking to attenuate the flaws and dings within the constraints of science, engineering, and order. When it comes to automotive canvases that fit within that narrow sliver of the Venn diagram, it’s a rare beast that meets Ward’s golden mean of effortless authenticity and potential for mechanical improvement. This particular Bronco Roadster seems to capture it ideally.

So maybe my original question of Ward’s preference was too simple in its nature, too binary in its supposition of good and bad. Turns out the origins of his disapproval or discontentment with certain automotive strains comes from a singular vision of how his Platonic ideal of automotive perfection plays out. It’s a strange and wonderful place, that sweet spot where old greets new, nostalgia meets modernity. All ancient machines should be so lucky.

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