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Michael Vanvakaris’ 1969 Bronco

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My History:

The inspiration to build this Bronco comes from the long history I have had in owning and building Early Broncos since 1980 when I purchased my first 71’ model. I first got a ride in the 71’ in the summer of 1977 while on an off road trip to the mountains of Big Bear, California with my father, brothers and some neighbors who enjoyed playing in this area. The truck was owned by a neighbor’s nephew who used it to get to places he could utilize his ham radio setup he had in the truck. My father and brother had jeeps at the time and I had never been in another type of off road vehicle when I was asked if I would like to ride with the owner. Afterwards, seeing what a capable truck this was compared to my father and brothers jeeps, I was hooked! Being seventeen at the time, I took on a few extra jobs to begin saving up for a truck as cool as this one was. Between 1978 and 1980, I owned a 1950 Chevrolet Pickup and began to learn mechanical, bodywork and customizing skills to restore it and make it my own style. Some of those skills I learned so long ago I still use today when building vehicles.

By 1980 I had saved up a little bit of money when my father called me and told me that the Bronco was up for sale. I immediately asked what the price was and found out that it was way out of my range so I asked my father if he would loan me the extra money to buy it. He agreed and after checking out the Bronco that I had not seen in a few years, I had to have it even though it needed some work. I immediately began to work on it customizing it to my liking by limo tinting the windows, pin striping it, re-carpeting the interior and working out the mechanical bugs. By 1981, I had really gotten bit by the customizing bug after reading articles in the various off road magazines about James Duff and Ted Nugent’s Early Broncos.

Learning to Fabricate:

In 1982, I was attending welding classes at this time with my now long time friend Trent Riddle and we needed a creative outlet to show our newfound skills so I started building a grille guard for my Bronco and Trent’s Scout. Trent and I eventually sold the grille guards and I began building a pipe style bumper with the grille guard incorporated in them. One day, while visiting Santa Monica beach, I was approached by a fellow Bronco owner and asked where I got my front bumper. I explained to him that I make them and he immediately asked if he could buy mine right there on the spot. I remember quoting him $100.00, he agreed and we actually installed his “new” bumper on his truck in the beach parking lot! By 1984, I had finished welding school and started Michael’s Welding and Design part time and began building custom bumpers, roll cages and suspension pieces for all types of vehicles. These were the days of full blown show trucks sporting 20 shocks and as much chrome and lighting as you could install on your truck. My brother Brian and I were booked solid every weekend for six or more months in advance installing roll cages, welding shock mounts and building bumpers for lots of different people. We actually had an appointment book and if you missed your appointment, your name went to back of the book!

The Magazine Connections:

Meanwhile, around 1986, I continued to customize my Bronco and one day during a small roundup, a photographer named Stuart Bourdon from Four Wheeler Magazine picked out my truck and asked if I would be interested in a photo shoot. I was overwhelmed that he would pick my truck and explained to him that I was also working on something very special-a matching trailer.

I asked if he would consider waiting until I completed the trailer for the photo shoot and he said he wanted to shoot the truck now and then when the trailer was complete, he wanted to shoot it again. My brother Mark and I drove the Bronco with the engine on its last leg all the way up to Pismo beach for the photo shoot. I was met there by Duane Elliott, a master photographer and he worked his magic. My goal was to make it through the shoot even if the engine died. Luckily, it did not and we made it home before it finally succumbed to the trashing we had given it during the “action” shots of the shoot. Two months later, I was called into the offices of Four Wheeler and the crew there told me that they had picked my truck for the cover of the upcoming October issue. As a custom truck builder at the time, this was a dream come true although I could not really believe it until it came out on the newsstands. Trent and my brother Brian helped me install a fresh 302 we had built and two months later I visited the local 7-11 store. On the newsstand, there it was, my truck on the cover of the worlds leading off road magazine. I bought every copy I could find in town and passed them out to everyone I knew!

The Harry Robinson Connection:

In 1988, I had the honor of being befriended by Harry Robinson, owner at the time of Link-Arc, an under hood welder company and a fellow Bronco enthusiast. We had met at one of the SCORE truck shows and immediately hit it off as we were involved in the same real job business of selling welding supplies. One day, while visiting Harry at his home in Yucca Valley, he asked that I accompany him to meet a new, young Early Bronco enthusiast who had just opened a shop in town. We drove my Bronco down to this new shop and I was introduced to John Blaser and we immediately hit it off after touring his small, fledgling shop. John was young, gung ho and ready to rock as he put it and I just somehow knew that this was the beginning of a long friendship. Some months later, John and I were discussing business names and he asked what I thought he should call his shop. I explained to him that I thought that West Coast Broncos would work great because it sounded like a giant shop encompassing the entire west coast of the U.S. He agreed and looking at this website proves what hard work, determination, skill and a love for what you do can do! By late 1988, I completed my trailer and contacted Stuart at Four Wheeler again and after seeing pictures, he set up a shoot in the mountains of Big Bear at a stream crossing, ironic isn’t it? Once again, lightening struck twice and the staff at the magazine chose my Bronco and Trailer to be featured on the cover in 1989! This particular issue sold out and these are very hard to come by these days. It was so successful, that the magazine used the picture on their subscription cards for a few years as a marketing tool to sell more magazines to potential subscribers.

Michael’s Welding & Design, More Magazines and TV:

In the meantime, I was attending every truck show I could and continuing to change and upgrade the bumper designs I had come up with to target the now changing market. At the time, more and more Bronco owners were beginning to REALLY use their trucks in off road situations and this called for the use of winches and tow hooks etc. In late 1990, I was in business full time running Michael’s Welding & Design and met with John to discuss a project that I wanted to do for one of my employees and brother in law at the time. We struck a deal on a basket case and I would consider this John and I’s first real project together. Sometime in 1992, John and I were featured working on our Broncos for an article involving under hood welders and in 1993, OFF-ROAD Magazine contacted me to do a special photo shoot. They asked if I could round up some fellow Bronco owners for a “Bronco Special” issue and I agreed. I contacted Harry and John who had built their own trucks up to magazine quality status and all three of us were featured in the December 1993 issue, with John beating Harry and I out for the cover photo! Sometime in 1995, Harry Robinson and I were featured on an episode of Truckin USA’ on national television roaming around the mountains of Big Bear in my Bronco and we had a great time.

Hard Times and a New Beginning:

Sometime in 1996 I traded my Trailer to Harry for an under hood welder and unfortunately by 1997, I had fallen on very hard financial times. I had to sell my beloved Bronco to pay for back house payments. In 2001, John contacted me and we discussed me coming to work with him on a part time basis. I had not been to his shop in long time so I was shocked at what he had built and more importantly, what he was building for customers. These Broncos were real world, off road capable trucks that went fast, looked like race trucks and were a far cry of the old “show trucks” of the past. John, I and Tyler who was a very young up and comer and a few other enthusiasts began to design and build many of the products that West Coast Broncos sells today.

A Second Chance: My “New Bronco”

In early 2005, John and I had a customer who had brought a 1969 model to the shop to build what was to be one of the most expensive and, as John put it “ruthless” Broncos we had ever done. This truck was to have everything trick we were building at the time and include all of the latest go fast, high horsepower parts that we could get our hands on. Phase 1 had John and his crew stripping the truck down and removing all of the drive train until there was just a shell of a truck left. I was called in to build a full roll cage using chrome moly tubing and adding many of the extras we were offering at the time. Upon completion of this step, the owner had fallen on hard financial times and the truck was put out side in the back of the shop. It sat there behind the shop for almost two years until one day, John asked me to go to lunch to discuss an idea he had. He explained to me that the owner was done with the project and wanted to sell it off in its current condition. He told me that I, of all people, HAD to have another Bronco especially since I worked with him at WCB. By this time, I was in much better financial condition and my life had turned over a new leaf with my new wife, Kelly Anne. John and Kelly Anne knew of my passion for Early Broncos and John and I hammered out a deal where I was able to purchase the project. I explained to John that my goal for this truck was to build an all around use truck using what experience I had learned customizing trucks in the past 25 years and also what I had learned at WCB. Once acquiring the Bronco, my mind raced with what I was going to do and my wife gladly listened and totally backed my efforts one hundred percent. This meant many weekends away from home so John and his wife Christy allowed me to stay at their home during the process.

The Buildup:

John and I came up with a special plan to showcase what WCB can do and I added my custom touches with some design ideas coming from my wife also. We started by looking at 1978-79 Broncos as a parts source because of the extra width heavy duty housing axles, steering boxes and transfer cases. The extra width axles would be very helpful with stability issues especially while running in the sand dunes as would be the beefier steering box. John found a 1978 Bronco that I purchased as a parts donor and we began by stripping the steering box, axles, steering column and the 205 transfer case out of it. Tyler was commissioned to clean up all of the parts and he went off on them with John’s steam cleaner revealing parts that were in excellent condition. We then stripped the 1969 tub off of the frame and I began cutting away all of the unnecessary frame bracketry and the front inner fender wells off of the tub. I started by moving the coil spring buckets outward three inches on each side to accommodate the wider 78’ front axle and then once complete, we added the WCB 12” over stock extended Radius Arms to the truck for better suspension travel in sand areas. I then moved the rear axle spring perches inward so the leaf springs would be in line and added the custom mounts for the King Reservoir Shocks that I would get in the future. The next step for the drivetrain was to build a custom tubular cross member to hold the small block C-6 transmission and 205 transfer case in place behind the 351 Winsdor engine that was to be installed. This proved difficult, even for me, as the idea was to be able to remove the cross member for future maintenance. John and his crew rebuilt both axles and added disc brakes to the rear and then Tyler painted the frame, axles and related hardware and re-installed them. After we completed this step we installed a 351W, C6 transmission and 205 transfer case. I went to work on the front shock hoops for the King Reservoir Shocks and the tube structure that was to house the radiator, hold the grille and support the new WCB Pre Runner Fenders in place.

Tubework and the Interior:

Now it was time to get to work on the tub and because the cage that I had originally built for this truck came with the project, I decided to really trick it out. Interestingly, my wife came up with the idea to add grab handles for the rear passengers, something John and I never really thought of. This was because we both typically had built trucks with the mindset of being the driver and not a passenger. I also added gussets, front grab handles and came up with the trick fold away tube housed mirrors and added tabs for the flag pole for the dunes. Next, Tyler prepped the tub and applied the bed liner material to the top AND bottom of the tub. I really wanted the pre runner look and I struggled with the bumper designs.

The front design came to me after looking at John’s real race bronco and the rear removable bumper/spare tire combination came to me after studying many pictures of different race trucks. The bumpers give the truck a much longer look and I feel really compliment the rest of the tube work. Some interesting details are the “floating” Bronco emblem on the top tube of the rear bumper spare carrier which my wife challenged me to do exclaiming that I could do it since I was a fabricator, right? The other example is the trick flip out NASCAR style gas cap which I borrowed from an early Dodge Charger. I designed, built and added the side bars mainly to help my wife and I get into the truck and they are not really rock crawl friendly, but my plans for this truck are the sand dunes at Pismo and Glamis and light trail riding in Big Bear, of course. Next came the dash and I wanted something different, driver friendly with a race truck look.

Starting with a WCB blank face dash, I layed out the location for the Autometer gauges and all of the switches for the heater, lights etc. This proved to be the most difficult part of the project as I was using the large Autometer Speedometer and Tach and little room was left for the other gauges. In addition, I wanted to be able to remove the dash for maintenance but the cage was now in the way. I called on my old friend Trent Riddle because he is one of the best wiring guys I have ever worked with. He and I had worked on my other Bronco years earlier and I never had any problems so lucky for me he was willing to help me again.

Colors and Final Assembly:

Once the dash was sorted out and all of the tube parts were powder coated Silver Bullet Silver, I pondered what color to paint the truck. I knew I wanted it some shade of blue but did not want to try to recreate my old broncos color scheme. While driving on the freeway one day, my wife spotted a new model Toyota pick up and said that the blue shade blew her away. After studying the color in all types of conditions, from bright sun to overcast conditions, this was the color we chose because we think it looks best anytime of the day.

I arranged for paint and body work from a local shop because I just didn’t have it in me to do it especially after learning and doing it to the many trucks I have built in the past. I shaved the windshield frame drip rails, removed the windows in the doors and welded the slots left over to smooth out the now ½ steel doors. Once home from the body shop, I went at it installing all of the accessories like the Tuffy console, PRP Seats, stereo and I built a tube structure to house the Optima battery under the passenger seat. During this time, I spent many, many hours making the aluminum panels for the bumpers, door inserts, rear tub inserts and door tops.

This involved hundreds of hours on my drill press making the “engine turn” design on these panels and to preserve the work, I had them all powder coated clear. Lastly, check closely on both the front and rear bumper tube work and you will see my initials “MV” built into them. This is a design that I have hidden in many of the vehicles I have built for myself over the years. This project took almost three years because I had limited time to work on it and it involved a lot of customization but I would do it again because I love it so much.

Completion:

Very recently after completion, my wife and I attended a local car show and entered the Bronco just for fun. We walked away with the best truck at the show award and to date we have won may more awards with the Bronco. We are looking forward to seeing fellow enthusiasts out in the dunes and just plain having fun with the truck now that I have worked out all of the bugs that are typical with a project of this magnitude. I cannot thank John and Christy, Tyler, Trent and of course my wife Kelly Anne for their help and guidance with this project.

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57454 Aviation Dr., Yucca Valley, CA 92284
Tel. (760) 365-7890 • Emergency Cell Phone (760) 220-8232
email: bronco@wcb4x4.com

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