Creating ‘Eleanor’s Big Brother’ in time for SEMA was no small feat

The movie Gone in 60 Seconds has an incomparable pull on many people, but perhaps none more than Mike Caudill. “Pretty much every time it’s on television, I’ll stop and watch it,” Caudill said, estimating he’s beyond 100 viewings and counting.

When Caudill decided to customize a Ford Bronco for the annual SEMA show, Nov. 1-4 in Las Vegas, he approached Kenny Pfitzer, the 43-year-old operating partner in Zero to 60 Designs. Sensing Caudill’s uncertainty about the project’s direction, Pfitzer asked, “What’s your favorite car?”

The answer was Eleanor, the Ford Mustang that’s central to both the original (1974) version of Gone in 60 Seconds, with extravagant chase scenes and a backbone-crushing 128-foot jump, and the equally action-packed remake released in 2000. Caudill loves the remake’s 1967 Shelby GT500, which is gray with black stripes.

So the next step was obvious: Why not give Eleanor a sibling? The plan solidified to transform Caudill’s Bronco — now called Eleanor’s Big Brother — in time for the Light Truck and Aftermarket Accessories display at SEMA. Caudill said more than 80 proposals had been submitted by would-be participants. “From what I understand, we were selected as one of the two (qualifiers), based on the fact we have about 17 sponsors on the vehicle.”

Pfitzer went to work and refined the drawings. The mild makeover Caudill had first envisioned gave way to a scheme for a more extreme off-roader with a five-inch chassis lift, fabricated steel bumpers and a sturdy roll cage. Having perfected his design and metal-forming skills during stints at some top Southern California customizing companies, Pfitzer fired up the welder in the 15,000-square-foot shop he opened earlier this year in Corona, Calif.

The donor vehicle, a 1975 Bronco, had been acquired for $11,500 from a seller in Fort Collins, Colo. “Not a lot needed to be done to it,” Caudill said. For the powertrain, he found a 302-cubic-inch Ford V-8 from a 1986 Mustang and a four-speed manual transmission.

Driveline components came from SEMA members. An Advance Adapters Atlas gear-driven transfer case was paired with axle shafts from Yukon Gear & Axle – just the beginning of a host of heavy-duty upgrades. Hydratech brake components are another part of the package.

The body was sprayed with a protective coating of gunmetal gray Line-X Ultra, an all-new offering that resembles a powder coat but has a soft-touch character. Black stripes were applied, matching Eleanor’s. Pfitzer designed a fully customized interior, including seat upholstery embossed with a “Ford Bronco Brothers” logo designed by Caudill. (A corresponding website is planned.)

Caudill, 41, got involved in the build because Pfitzer was also completing two other customs as well as the prototype for a limited-edition sports coupe. “I need you to help wrench on this thing,” he told Caudill, who heads his own public relations agency.

He had to admit being more accustomed to watching dozens of cars wrecking onscreen than to ever building one. His biggest mechanical project had been rebuilding a small-block Chevy V-8. In the rush to finish Eleanor’s Big Brother, Caudill found himself in Pfitzer’s shop on enough late nights to make his wife and two young children wonder what he was up to. The entire build took about three months, partially because the original Bronco was in good shape and partially because of those late nights.

“It’s like a seven-headed monster,” Caudill said. “I have so much respect for car builders.”

Last-minute touches added LED lighting with side spotlights and individual “rock” lights from Rigid Industries. Wet Sounds, which produces stereos for marine applications, stepped off its usual path and supplied a lavish system. Electronic and audio technician Carlos Martinez put in a dashboard-mounted SPOD universal switch panel; a smartphone app allows Caudill to control individual accessory functions via Bluetooth. The overall emphasis was, in Pfitzer’s words, “just making a more rugged outdoor feel. Keep it simple — nothing too crazy.”

Before Pfitzer sprayed on the thick black stripes, one of Caudill’s final tasks was to transport Eleanor’s Big Brother to Edelbrock’s facility for installation of the fuel injection components. When he finally mounted the Mickey Thompson Classic III wheels and 37-inch tires and removed the supports on which Eleanor’s Big Brother had stood, Caudill said he experienced a deep feeling of brotherhood with Pfitzer. And he could finally anticipate the excitement of driving onto the LTAA’s stand in Las Vegas.

But don’t look for another show vehicle 60 days from now. “I’m really good at P.R. and marketing,” Caudill said. “My day job works for me.”