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First Out of the Gate

Lifestyle

How can you determine if a vehicle is truly a classic? One sure way to judge is if it’s popularity has withstood the test of time. Is it still considered desirable and increasing in value? Do people still have thriving clubs for it? Does the original manufacturer still treat it as a corporate icon?

 

It’s safe to say Ford’s Bronco checks all those boxes. The evidence is all around us. Ford Motor Company’s newest Bronco obviously uses the original for inspiration, in much the same way the company routinely updates the Mustang while keeping the influence of the 1960s generation intact.

Another way to tell if a vehicle has become a true classic is if people are eager to learn about its origins. That’s where the 1966 Bronco pictured here comes in. Owned by Gateway Bronco CEO and founder Seth Burgett, it’s a pre-production prototype that has an interesting history. Research indicates it’s the very first Bronco. Equally interesting in this year of Shelby American’s 60th anniversary, is the fact it was once owned by Carroll Shelby.

 

Even for people like Burgett who are well-versed in Bronco lore, this prototype Bronco flew under the radar until an unexpected contact. Vinnie Yakubanski contacted Burgett looking to sell what he identified as the first Bronco. Burgett wasn’t sure what to make of the claim, at least at first.

 

But when Yakubanski sent him another text with a picture of the VIN plate, the first evidence Seth had seen, followed by a short message —“First Bronco, owned by Carroll Shelby. Want to talk?” — Burgett was ready.

 

That VIN plate told an undeniable story. There’s an S in the assembly plant position, which indicates the Bronco was built in Allen Park, Michigan, at a pilot plant where preproduction vehicles were assembled to test the various assembly jigs and tooling.  Production Broncos were built at the Michigan Truck Plant, triggering an L code. The build number, 732000, shows it was built in August, and predates the first run of production vehicles.

 

The Shelby angle entered the story from a very early date. After the Bronco was finished with its prototype and advertising duties, it was acquired by Shelby and registered under Hi Performance Motors, Inc., and shipped off to Shelby American’s Los Angeles facility. There, it was painted red and white along with a few other modifications. It was then sent to perform ranch work at Shelby’s Christmas Mountains Land & Cattle Company in Texas.

 

Yakubanski had purchased the Bronco from the Christmas Mountain ranch in 1977 for $100, minus wheels and tires and not knowing its background or famous owner. But eventually, he uncovered much of the story behind it.

The Bronco led an eventful life from the beginning. “The Bronco was used for all three configurations from Ford,” Burgett said. “It’s in the half-cab configuration now and it has been since ’77, we know that for a fact. But it also has the Roadster holes drilled in it, and it has the full hardtop mounting. You can see where all three configurations have been installed, and multiple paint jobs. Originally painted Teal Green, it appears that this was the red vehicle used in the TV commercial for the Bronco and for many of the print materials. A few experts in the Bronco industry have found that this Bronco was used in print ads all the way into the early 1970s when they continued to do recoloring of the ads.”

 

Burgett bought the Bronco from Yakubanski in 2016 and the history lessons haven’t stopped since. As a prototype, it has several features that set it apart from production Broncos. “From the lettering on the hood to the emblems and even the rockers, this vehicle is very unique,” Burgett said.

 

The F in the fourth position of the VIN plate shows that this Bronco was originally built with a 170 ci 6-cylinder engine, but along the way it picked up a 289 V8. A team of experts identified the engine as a 1963 Hi-Po 289, which is teamed with a manual “three on the tree” transmission.

 

“Exactly when that happened is a little cloudy,” explained Burgett. “Some said the conversion was done at Shelby American, but we found photos showing the vehicle with Ford product manager Donald Frey at a 1965 auto show, and the Bronco had a V8 in it at the time.”

Although the research into this Bronco continues, it already has substantial documentation. Burgett has the California registration card identifying Hi Performance Motors, Inc. in El Segundo as the owner, the check from Yakubanski for $100 made out to Christmas Mountain Land & Cattle Company, endorsed by Shelby’s business partner Dave Witts, the Texas title showing Christmas Mountain Land & Cattle Company in Alpine as the previous owner, and numerous photos of the Bronco over the years.

 

Yakubanski, for his part, had it painted in the current blue and gray color scheme, and drove it frequently on family trips. “First Bronco” is still a traveler today, accompanying Gateway Bronco at events across the country, most recently at the 2022 Monterey Car Week. There, it was on display at the Team Shelby VIP Dinner, where Edsel Ford and Aaron Shelby eagerly swapped Bronco stories with Burgett.

 

It is only fitting that First Bronco is still out on the road earning its keep. As the pioneer in a long line of classic SUVs, its work is never done. 

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