• Steve Martin

Tyler's '77 Bronco: Just Business, Also Personal


“I always gravitated toward the uncut. Part of it’s style. Part of it’s being more unique,” said Tyler. “It’s not like you can only have one flavor of Bronco that’s cool...But the old classic, untouched look is more rare. And that’s reflected in the values.”


Shakedown Drive

Tyler picked up his 1977 Ford Bronco Ranger from the Austin, TX mechanic’s shop where it received a new heart and guts. It had been a long day and was going to be a long night but getting back behind the two-spoke steering wheel of the classic 4x4 was taking some sting out of quitting his well-paying job, packing up his house, and moving his wife and two kids from Texas to Utah for a two-year MBA program. 

Drawn to that particular ‘77 because of its uncut, rust-free, first-generation body, Tyler could now enjoy some modern reliability and power from a “5-point-oh” 302 V-8 engine and 4-speed automatic transmission, donated from a 1998 Mercury Mountaineer. Fuel-injection? Check. Overdrive transmission? Check. Same lovely flat dash, flat glass, and straight bumpers. A tidy, classy off-roader now capable of lapping up freeway miles, just like the rest of the traffic around him. Just in time, too. With his dog in the bucket seat next to him and his wife and kids following in the van behind, Tyler pointed the nose of his Ford northward to a new life.

“Literally, [the mechanic] finished it, and that evening we started driving to Utah to go back to school,” said Tyler during a recent phone call with Cliff and I huddled around my speaker phone. “That was the shakedown drive…driving to New Mexico and then to Utah.”

That must have been scary. “Yeah, it was a little scary,” confirmed Tyler.

“We stopped somewhere, and I’d been driving,” he said. “I called (the mechanic), I’m like, ‘Hey man, I’m getting a burning smell. What should I be looking for?’”

“Uhhhnnnn,” Tyler recreated the vocal disquietude his mechanic friend made on the phone. “‘Hey Tyler, this makes me very uncomfortable that THIS is your shake down drive. I’m afraid something is going to happen, and I feel bad.” Tyler reassured the mechanic; he knew the risk was his own.

The burning smell turned out to be annoying, not catastrophic. A breather cap on top of one of the valve covers was missing and let oil spill out onto the headers, causing the burning smell. Not damaging, just distracting.  


“And that took me to Utah,” he said with a laugh.


Tyler

I first met Tyler during the orientation of our shared MBA program. More specifically, I met him during my favorite and most memorable orientation day at the Utah National Guard’s Camp Williams to run through the wet and dry challenges of the Leadership Reaction Course. 

The LRC at Camp Williams was set up like a row of giant storage units without doors or ceilings. These different bays all had 3 cinder block walls surrounding varying layouts of rocks, dirt, and man-made features, such as platforms, bridges, walls, and pools of water. MBA staff and alumni and other people in military fatigues, whom I assume were Utah’s National Guard, surveyed the wet and dry goings-on from a network of catwalks above the concrete walls, all of it and all of us exposed to the August desert swelter. 

Without knowing each other, we were thrown into a 10-person team and told to complete these American Ninja Warrior team-oriented puzzles. We knew we had limited time for each one, and we knew we’d have to work together to succeed.

Out of the ten eager and nervous first years in our team, I remember Tyler was mostly quiet, though he spoke up when he had a good suggestion for solving the challenges. He was intelligent and very likable. A bright blue LA Dodgers hat, a symbol of his pre-MBA life, sat atop his closely buzzed hair. He had even brighter blue eyes, and, since then, I’ve rarely ever seen him without a smile on his face.

I remember he laughed at me when I fell backwards into a pool of water during one of the obstacles. To be fair, everyone laughed, including me. After finishing the challenges, under some shade by the snacks and drinks, Tyler and I talked about favorite neighborhoods in The City of Angels, his business life before the MBA program, and cars, of course. While inhaling one of several packages of Welch’s Fruit Snacks, I found out he had a classic Bronco, and just like that I knew we were going to be friends. It also didn’t hurt that our joint team ended up being announced the winners of Camp Williams that year.

Tyler was at b-school swinging for the entrepreneurship fences. After several years in banking and fintech, he wanted to either start or acquire a business. One of the characteristics I admire most about Tyler is his discipline, and he has it in spades. He’s optimistic and willing to help others: a good friend to have.  Tyler was an avid promoter of an official MBA club where students got together and ate hamburgers, and I rode with Tyler to the “meetings” in his Bronco a couple of times. Cliff and I invited him to be part of the first iteration of Deft Auto during the New Venture Launchpad class we took.

As the MBA embers were going out for our class, Tyler purchased an ecommerce business with his brother and moved to the East Coast. He put his eggs in his own basket and burned the ships in North Carolina. But just like the rest of us, he had zero idea a global pandemic would dropkick normalcy. Unfortunately, Tyler and his family are feeling financial strain as their business was highly dependent on celebrating school graduations, which were all cancelled. Now, Tyler might need to sell his Bronco, that primo Prunus drupe of sport utility standards.


Cherry, Uncut

The first time Tyler saw a Bronco, he was just a kid growing up in Southern California. The truck belonged to someone at his church. “I’m guessing I was like 8 or 9,” said Tyler. “It was just cherry. It was perfect. Fully restored. And it was his daily driver. I was around that Bronco for a number of years, and I just loved it.”

Concomitantly, Tyler came face-to-face with several ‘60s and ‘70s four-by-fours during his growing-up years, a foundation of formative experiences as he became more and more enamored with classic cars and trucks. His family had a Suburban. His cousin had a “cherry” Toyota FJ. His brother bought a ‘72 Chevrolet Blazer with massive axles and tires. The owner of a gas station where Tyler worked as a youth owned a Jeep CJ5. But something about that first Bronco at his church embedded itself deep within Tyler. The button labeled “Unfulfilled Need” in his thalamus had been pushed.

“I always gravitated toward the uncut. Part of it’s style. Part of it’s being more unique,” said Tyler. “It’s not like you can only have one flavor of Bronco that’s cool...But the old classic, untouched look is more rare. And that’s reflected in the values.”

Tyler wouldn’t get his Bronco until 2014, after his first time in college, after getting married and starting a family, after getting a job in finance and after a few bonuses, after lurking on Bronco forums for years, after driving to St. Louis with a trailer to buy one only to pass on it due to the amount of rust. When Tyler found the Bronco he’d buy, he and his wife liked what they saw, but felt indecisive. So, they outsourced their decision to a coin flip. Heads, they’d buy it. Tails, they’d pass. The coin landed on heads

A 1977 Ranger, Tyler’s Bronco is the bookend of the first generation; his has zero rust and is uncut. ‘Uncut’ means the wheel wells are as they were from the factory. The holes in the side of the body for the rear wheels are smaller than the holes in the side of the body for the front wheels. Some Bronco owners cut larger rear wheel wells to fit larger wheels and tires. Lifted, Uncut, Broncos or LUBRs as they are known among the Bronco faithful are some of the most sought after, like the C2 Corvette Stingrays with the split rear window or the early 911s with air-cooled engines.

The Ford Bronco was the Blue Oval’s mid-‘60s off-road answer to the Jeep CJ and International Harvester Scout. Built on its own dedicated chassis that was smaller than Ford’s F-series pickup, the first-generation Bronco was one of the first ever vehicles to offer ‘sport utility’ in the same package. A do-everything way ahead of its time, the first-gen Bronco featured not only standard four-wheel drive and the transfer case and locking hubs that meant business but also either 2 or 4 doors, a choice of a removable roof, and looks that still turn heads.

Donald Frey and Lee Iacocca—who also worked on the original Mustang together—developed the Bronco with multiple uses in mind. “We think of the Bronco as neither a conventional car nor a truck, but as a vehicle which combines the best of both worlds,” said Frey. “It can serve as a family sedan, a sports roadster, a snow plow, or a farm or civil defense vehicle. It has been designed to go anywhere and do nearly anything.”

At the end of the 70s, the Bronco moved to the larger F-series platform, becoming more truck. But declining demand for trucks in the ‘90s forced Ford to mothball the Bronco, and the brand was slowly forgotten by all but the enthusiasts, even inside Ford. In fact, the automaker almost lost the trademark in 2013, but a faithful group of engineers affixed the bucking Bronco badge to a tradeshow special edition of the Explorer in order to keep it alive.

Things change. Trucks and SUVs became more refined and more efficient. A whole generation of people who grew up in the backs of SUVs (like Tyler) became adults, got jobs, rediscovered the outdoors, and needed rides for themselves, their friends, and all their gear. SUVs and trucks now account for 80% of all new vehicles sold in the United States. So, in 2021 Ford is bringing back the Bronco with sporty looks and actual utility, just like the original. More than 165,000 people have placed fully refundable reservations for the new Bronco, which is more Broncos than Ford sold in the first 8 years of manufacturing the first-generation, like Tyler’s.

When asked why Tyler liked driving his original Bronco as opposed to a newer SUV, such as his Lexus GX, he said he liked the analog nature. “When I’m driving and I’m feeling bumps and cracks, [I’m] feeling something different,” said Tyler. “Those sensations are those things I take note of: the smells, the sounds. I don’t have a stereo. So, I just listen to my car....To see the flat dash in front of me and I’m bouncing all over the place.”

“It is man and machine,” he continued. “And [the Bronco and I] will work through some obstacles together, but then again driving it to New Mexico and then to Utah, that sucked. I had my dog with me the whole time and I felt bad for him; it was loud and terrible.”


Appreciating Value

One of the reasons Tyler owns his Bronco is because he’s a businessman and the Bronco is a desirable asset. In a 2017 Bloomberg Article by Hannah Elliott titled “Buy a Vintage Ford Bronco Now Before They Cost More Than $100,000,” Elliott predicted that early Bronco values would continue to increase due to millennials maturing parallel to SUV popularity. She wrote: “…It’s only natural that as time passes, that [millennials] proximity [to] and ensuing affinity [for SUVs] would translate into increased appetite for vintage SUVs—especially American ones, which are cheaper and more reliable than their European counterparts.” 1977 Ford Broncos are now worth on average $39k-ish, according to an Automobile article from July citing Hagerty’s valuations. Icon, a white-glove resto-mod house, will make you a jaw-dropping new old Bronco—with uncut rear wheel wells—starting at $190k. Tyler bought his rust-free, uncut first-gen for $14,000-ish.

“I was not a trend setter,” he confesses. “But I was into it earlier before the hockey stick. I get a lot of satisfaction out of that oddly enough.”

When Tyler looks at the world around him, he sees dollar signs. “It would be really hard for me to have a car that was going down in value and pump money into it. I see guys who buy new GXs and put wheels on it and go scratch it up. Ugh. You’re just losing money.”

In fact, one of the reasons Tyler felt comfortable buying an ecommerce business was because he created and ran an ecommerce site that sold vintage Bronco related merchandise, EB4X4.com (EB stands for ‘early Bronco’). And Tyler financed his engine/transmission swap by selling $8,000 worth of grille badges commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Bronco to other enthusiasts.

The Bronco then is the center of one of Tyler’s internal Venn diagrams, in one circle is ‘love for classic SUVs’ and in the other circle is ‘finance/business’. It satisfies the unfulfilled need that cherry Bronco at his childhood church created, without breaking the financial rules by which he lives his life. He’s made money off of his love for Broncos, and if he were to ever sell his vehicle, he would come out ahead.


Tyler says that owning an appreciating Bronco can also be frustrating. The more Bronco values go up, the more he thinks about selling it. But if he sells it, he won’t have it to enjoy and drive. However, the more expensive Broncos become, the more hesitant he is to use it as it was intended, even though he wants to use it as it was intended.

“I’ve wrestled a lot. I don’t want a garage queen. I guess I can still drive it on the pavement and some fire roads,” he said. “I know, I just know, that if I sell it, in 20 years I’ll be kicking myself. But when I open my garage and I see it there, behind bikes, it just bothers me. I’m not getting value out of my investment.” 


In Between a Rock and a Hard Place


Tyler said that if someone had told him a year ago what his entrepreneurship experience would have been like, he would have balked but still would have done it. “There is so much more I want to do than I have time for and part of me loves that,” said Tyler. “I’ve got good partners who are willing to take risks with me. If we survive Covid and all, I believe the upside is going to make it all well worth it. It is hard not get ahead of myself...but first things first.”

“Our family is in a tight spot financially,” said Tyler. “I’ve told my family and myself from day one, that if we needed money, we could sell [the Bronco]. But I’m waiting for the last minute.”

“I’m willing to sell it, if push comes to shove,” he reiterates. “I’m willing to do it, but I don’t want to do it. Maybe it’s just kicking the can down the road. Maybe business will turn around.” He starts to laugh.

There’s 2,000 miles between us. It’s late here in Utah, meaning it’s really late there in North Carolina. We can hear his kids in the background. Tyler wanted them in bed over an hour ago. You can hear in his voice that he’s trying to make everything work for them. And at this moment, they’re not listening to him. “Go take a melatonin,” we hear him say to his son. His Bronco doesn’t ever disobey, it’s already in bed, tucked away in the garage behind the bikes and tools and the other evidence of grown-up choices. It doesn’t have A/C, and it needs new paint. But it has a 302 and a transmission with overdrive. And uncut rear wheel wells. And zero rust.

“I don’t know what I’m going to do [about selling the Bronco]. It’s silly, it’s a car. But it’s emotional. It’s a dream fulfilled.” He knows we understand.

“If I can just wait until the 60th year, I can do more badges and get more money,” he jokes.




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