Story and photos by Brian Earnest
Curt Hendrickson tried about everything he could think of to kill off his 1973 Ford Bronco. For 30 years, the rugged little 4×4 was busy jumping stumps, dodging trees, plowing through mud and living in the great outdoors. The Bronco tracked deer, hunted for fowl, crossed rivers, climbed steep hills and generally took a beating.
Many times, Hendrickson tried to drown it, bury it, break it or get it to surrender, but the Bronco kept on coming back for more. If ever a vehicle had earned its right to keep rolling and get a stay of execution in its twilight years, Hendrickson knew it was his Bronco Ranger. Not only that, but the vehicle had some true sentimental value to Curt and his wife, Sue.
“The reason I restored it now after all these years is that I took my wife for a ride the night I bought it, and she was expecting our youngest daughter and our youngest daughter was born that night. So she gave me permission to restore it,” Hendrickson laughed.
“It was strictly a woods machine. We’d drive 100 miles a day in this thing and never see blacktop. Beaver dams, mud… we’d put chains on it with the ‘posi-traction,’ and it would go anywhere.
“Right from the start. I needed a four-wheel-drive. That’s what I bought it for and that’s what we used it for — bird hunting, deer hunting, cruising the back roads. We always had three or four guys in it.”
Hendrickson, a resident of Green Bay, Wis., insists that almost all of the Bronco’s 82,000-plus miles were spent off-road. He half expected that someday the Bronco would just quit somewhere out in the woods and that would be its final resting place, but that day never came. “We’d cross rivers with it where there were no bridges and almost get washed downstream,” he recalled. “We were in a beaver dam one time and the road was flooded and we had ice 4 inches up the windshield. I used to have a power winch on the front and back with 200 feet of cable, and we could pull it in or out of almost anything. We almost couldn’t get stuck.”
About 10 years ago, the Bronco’s brakes finally quit working, and Hendrickson parked it next to his cabin in the Wisconsin woods. He debated the merits of restoring, or at least repairing, the Bronco, but he had a bunch of other collector cars and trucks to play with, so the Bronco simply sat.
“I didn’t want to put the money into a new brake system unless I did something with the body and the rest of it. Just the brake system was $1,000. I always thought I was going to restore it, but every one of my buddies said, ‘Why don’t you get rid of that piece of junk?’” Hendrickson said.
When Sue gave him the green light, Curt put the Bronco in the veteran hands of Jewel Meetz, a well-known Wisconsin restorer and Thunderbird expert who had previously restored a couple of cars for Hendrickson. A year or so later, the Bronco Ranger has never looked better, thanks to a ground-up resurrection that left Hendrickson wearing an ear-to-ear grin when he got the car back in July.
“It had been stored outside of my cabin for probably 10 years. There was nothing left of the floorboards or anything. The body was shot. The top of the hood and the doors were good, but the undercarriage was all rusted, so everything came off and they started from scratch, mechanically and body-wise,” he said. “He replaced the fenders and the grille. The back panels he replaced. This is the same [Emberglow] color. It looks exactly the same as when I bought it. A lot of people comment on the color because they don’t remember Broncos being this color. You don’t see a lot of them around.
“We re-did the seats — reupholstered them. New carpet, of course, and headliner…. There’s a place in [Brighton] Michigan, Jeff’s Bronco Graveyard, it’s one of the largest Bronco suppliers in the country, and we got a lot of information and a lot of stuff from them. It’s all done except for a couple little things. It needs a new horn rim yet. We haven’t found one of those.”
The one concession to non-originality, he says, is the fancier chrome wheels the Bronco now wears. Hendrickson still has the original wheels and hubcaps, but he likes the shiny rims better for car hobby gatherings. “It just dresses it up a little bit,” he says.
Hendrickson wasn’t shopping for a Bronco and had never planned on owning one when he came across his Bronco Ranger for sale less than a year after the first owner had purchased it new. Hendrickson took a liking to the sturdy Bronco immediately, and decided to take Sue for a ride. They didn’t go four-wheeling, because Sue was expecting a baby at any moment, and a few hours later she was delivering a daughter — the first of their three children.
At the time, the Bronco Ranger was a pretty upscale choice to be a woods machine. Not only did it have low miles, but it was loaded with the top-end Ranger package “that had almost everything you could put on a Bronco.” That meant the sporty hood and body side striping and white top. It also had the special-order Traction Lock differential (“posi-traction”) and the optional 302-cid V-8 — instead of the 200-cid six — which was plenty of motivation for a vehicle that weighed less than 3,300 lbs. The C-4 automatic transmission was also optional, and Hendrickson’s Bronco Ranger got it, along with power steering, which he says has come in mighty handy for all his off-road adventures. The Ranger package also included an argent grille, bucket seats with cloth inserts, swing-away spare tire carrier with a cover, woodgrain door panels, carpeting and a few other goodies.
If you were in the market for a Bronco in 1973, the wagon was your only option after Ford dropped the pickup following the 1972 production run. A total of 21,894 Broncos were built for the ’73 model year, which was a slight increase from the previous three years. Then in its seventh season, Ford’s first off-road vehicle was still jousting with Jeep’s CJ offerings and the International Harvester Scout in the fledging 4×4 sport-ute market. Chevy had countered with its beefier half-ton Blazer.
The short 92-inch wheelbase, 302 power, Traction Lock and power steering fit Hendrickson’s needs perfectly, and his enduring affection for his Bronco is obvious. He will miss being able to take a left turn off the highway anytime he wants and knock some bark off a few trees, but the Bronco has given him plenty of happy memories.
“I’ve never wanted another [Bronco]. This is the only one I’ve had. This is the only one I would have,” he says. “It’s just been a neat truck. Very few vehicles could go where this one could because of that ‘posi-traction,’ and the neat thing about it was it has power steering. You can go around trees, in between trees, where there’s no roads — anywhere you want, basically. And the power with the 302 engine in there, it’s got all the power you want.
“It will never see the woods again, obviously. We’ll take it for a ride once in a while, but it’s just a show car now.”
The irony is not lost on Hendrickson. The vehicle that wouldn’t die and took anything he could dish will be treated for the rest of its days with kid gloves.
“Yeah, it’s 180 degrees!” he laughs. “Now I can’t go anywhere near the woods with it.”
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