Much as the landed aristocracy of Europe traditionally commanded stables of thoroughbreds and packs of highly trained dogs to assist in their hunting parties through the forests of England, Germany, and France, so too did American hunters once enlist the assistance of their own trusty steeds. Over here, however, faced with ranches and game parks spanning hundreds of thousands of acres, mechanical means eventually took over as more suitable and practical form of transportation than mere horseback.
The end result? The fascinating world of “hunting cars,” or “Texas Quail Rigs,” which expanded on the vein of vehicular modification that had once guided the Maharajas of India on their own big game exploits. Several of these unique callbacks to classic Americana were on display at the 2018 Amelia Island Concours d'Elegance, providing a fascinating look back at an underappreciated era of coachbuilding.
Master of the road and off-road
It's unlikely you've ever seen a version of the Buick Roadmaster quite like this one, which was commissioned by a seven-term Congressman named Richard M. Kleberg, Sr., to serve as his hunting rig on the enormous King Ranch. How big was the King parcel? It sprawled a massive 825,000 acres across four Texas different counties.
After having made do with a makeshift 'sport-utility' type home-built rig based loosely on a 1946 Ford outfitted with a winch, Kleberg elected to pursue his quail from the more comfortable – and stylish – confines of a heavily modified Buick, which was built in 1949 with the cooperation of GM's Styling Section. In fact, Buick sent a representative down to Texas to tool around the ranch with the Congressman in the Ford and take notes on what worked and what didn't with that particular homebrew in order to improve on it wherever possible.
The Roadmaster chassis itself was chopped approximately five inches, but the vehicle is six inches taller than stock due to a suspension lift intended to give it respectable off-road capability, and also four inches longer thanks to a stretched cargo area at the rear that was formed out of 20-gauge steel. Like its predecessor, the car includes a hidden cable winch in the front bumper and also adds a 32-quart cooling system along with nickel-chrome moly steel axle shafts and steering parts, the latter two installed to ensure no chance of a breakdown out on the plains.
Buick fans will also notice that the front grille is complemented by intakes situated just above, where additional air helped keep the engine from running hot. The entire rig weighs 900 lbs more than stock, even with the extensive use of aluminum at the front of the vehicle.
In addition to its various mechanical upgrades, the Roadmaster also features several obvious nods to hunting convenience, including leather rifle holsters built into the fenders (where they can be easily reached by passengers), a fold-down windshield to facilitate shooting from inside the cabin, and a frightening fender seat for those willing to brave the bumpy Texas terrain in order to gain the best possible vantage point. Hidden compartments and additional storage for food and supplies were also included throughout the vehicle, and there's also a radio telephone, an altimeter, and a compass inside the cabin.
Past is present
Amelia Island also displayed several other intriguing hunting rigs in the King Ranch Roadmaster's class. In fact, a 1968 Jeep Wagoneer sat right there alongside the Buick, which is fitting since it was originally created as a copy of one of Kleberg's later quail rigs. Like the Roadmaster, it too features a heavily-modified body—this time doorless—with its own rifle holders, bumper bar, and a large, raised bench seat at the rear that serves as a shooting platform. Of course, it also comes with four-wheel drive, something that Kleberg couldn't have begun to dream about for his Buick in the late ‘40s, but which is now par for the course for any off-road ride.
Most of these vehicles have been lost to the ravages of time, left to rot in barns or in fields after their days of traipsing through the wilderness in search of prey were done. It was a rare treat to see these hunting rigs alongside the older Rolls-Royce and Armstrong and Phantom-based “shooting brakes” from the 1920s that inspired their production.
The Texas Quail Rig spirit continues on today, with pickups, SUVs, and even a Unimog or two having replaced custom automobiles—but the modifications are just as elaborate, if not more so, than what one would find in dusty ranch archives. The ability to install flatbeds, hydraulic cranes and power buckets for hydraulic shooting platforms on these heavy-duty vehicles, not to mention their much higher gross weight capability, has created a virtual blank slate for outfitters to fill with their imaginations.
It's hard to say whether modern-day rigs will eventually join their predecessors in the ranks of classics, but one thing is certain: quail are no safer in the 21st century than they were 100 years ago.