Ride along in two ends of the Baja-tackling Bronco spectrum
Under normal circumstances, we’d never think of piling up a pyramid of logs to vault into a Bronco. (One can simply take the Wild West aesthetic too far.) Then again, veteran Baja-racing trucks tend to follow their own set of rules.
For this 1968 Bronco—the same one Rod Hall and Larry Minor thrashed to an overall win at the Baja 1000 in 1969—a mounting block is essential.
We clamber onto the booster logs. Right leg on block, left leg over sill, rear end on sill, hands on rollcage, pull, and—thump—land painfully on a snug bucket seat. The interior is totally stripped, but the lack of creature comforts certainly doesn’t dim the smile on the face of Shelby Hall, helmet-clad and Sparco-gloved in the driver’s seat. Shelby, third-generation off-road racer, granddaughter of Rod Hall, and veteran of modern Baja racing, warns me that this veteran 1968 Bronco is a vintage truck, so it will ride like one. Looking out across the steep grades of an off-road park in Holly, Michigan, we’re counting on it.
The truck’s 347-cubic-inch, 350-hp V-8 coughs, clears its throat, and settles into a healthy growl. Though the Bronco was rebuilt in 2015 for yet another run at the Baja 1000, Rod Hall mandated that Samco Fabrication “bring it back to how it was when I raced it in 1969,” according to broncocorral.com. Clearly, V-8 power was essential.
Shelby, who piloted the resurrected truck in the 2016 Baja 1000 (now known as the NORRA 1000), shoves the truck into gear and tips it down the first incline of our short loop. Up and down the sandy slopes of this ORV park, the Fox monotube shocks produce an almost comfortable ride; it’s the harder-packed dirt of the straight segments that threatens, at times, to compact our spine. The orange-and-white truck kicks up dirt, which flies past the stubby fiberglass windscreens and clouds the cabin.
Around a bend, we’re looking at a gentle rise in elevation. All of a sudden, a Bobcat appears in our path, leveling the trail. Neither the Bronco nor its pilot seems flustered. With a quick clackclackclack, Shelby brakes and ratchets us into a low gear, eyes forward and hands confident as she waits for the Bobcat to reroute.
With a wave at the Bobcat, which has pulled well out of our way, we roar ahead, the Bronco sounding like anything but a retired vintage racer. Despite its retro livery, much of its mechanical guts have been extensively refurbished, including its rear axle, which boasts new Motive Gear 4.56:1 gears. Its Dana 44 front unit got the same treatment, along with a Spicer open differential and Currie replacement shafts. The truck churns through the loose sand easily thanks to BFGoodrich Mud-Terrain KM2 tires and American Racing wheels that closely approximate the truck’s original aesthetic.
We crest the last rise, the raucous ride over too soon. Extricating ourselves from the truck via mounting block once again, we attempt to communicate to Shelby just how extremely cool she is. She smiles, laughs, and plows off into the dirt for another run.
Next up? The high-flying Bronco R, which Ford’s design team, together with Ford Performance and Geiser Bros Design and Development, sketched, fabricated, and built in a matter of months. Cameron Steele sits behind the wheel; Shelby’s copilot in the 2019 NORRA 1000, he was also instrumental in the Bronco R’s development.
Spotting the bright-blue, bolted-on footholds on either side of the racer, we snobbishly scoff how this 2018 race truck has made such shameful concessions to luxury. Once inside, we notice a modestly-sized digital instrument panel sitting in the center of the dash and, between the seats, a host of bewildering, silicone-covered buttons.
“Just put your hand out like this,” Steele mimes, “if it’s too much or if you want to slow down.” With one hand on the ribbed-rubber-covered grab handle, we practice a thumbs up with the other.
The Bronco R’s twin-turbo EcoBoost powerplant, of course, has a much higher pitch than its distant ancestor’s V-8. The V-6 emits a nasally tone that must cause skull-drilling mania over 30+ hours of racing. Steele guns it, we pitch down the first incline, and suddenly all we can think about is holding on for dear life.
The generously-sprung Bronco R surfs over the course’s loose sand as Steele points the truck away from the narrow, wooded trail sections toward the back of the park. We slow down briefly for a sharp ridge in the trail, the truck pitches over it, and we roar into a large, sandy bowl surrounded by some roller-coaster-worthy inclines. The Bronco R sweeps sideways across the bottom of the bowl and leaps up the pair of hills, catching air and sponging up the eventual impact without protest. Steele trusts the truck, tossing it over an angled rise and flinging it into a tail-happy slide. This Bronco R gobbles up terrain that would stop most SUVs in their tracks.
Hopefully, this year is kinder to the Bronco R than 2019 was. The truck had a trouble-plagued run at Baja in 2019, including transmission cooling issues, a broken lower control arm, and a Trophy Truck that decided to flip onto it. The 2019 running was already complicated by a three-day deluge preceding the race, and Ford called things quits around the 600-mile mark. The team’s planning a return for 2020, banking on far more testing time than its compressed 2019 timeline allowed.
The Bronco R romps around the dust bowl twice and then performs a neck-snapping exit over a ridge at its edge. Rounding the last corner into the plateau where we started, a siren suddenly wails. It takes me a moment to figure out that a state patrol car way out of its depth has not, in fact decided to join the fun; Steele’s punched a button on the center console to announce our return. After yet another slightly breathless extraction process—the 2018 truck features a helpful divot on the roof for a hand—I’m standing nearly eye-level with the truck’s battle-scarred fenders.
Despite its edgy graphics, the truck gives the impression of one giant rollcage barely sheathed in composite panels. The bare-bones look is most conspicuous at the truck’s rear, where a Ford attendee points out the extra space for a second spare 37-inch tire. The truck’s left taillight is out, and nobody is stressed about it.
Though its racing debut was far from a smashing success, the Bronco R helped demonstrate how committed Ford is to resurrecting the Bronco legacy in all forms. For a taste of how it feels to tackle these same trails in a production 2021 Ford Bronco, check back with us this coming Tuesday.