Story by Brian Earnest
Photos by Janet Werner
The way Jeff Leslie figured it, if he was going to take on a challenge as ominous as fully restoring an elusive and obscure 1966 Ford Bronco roadster, he was going to go all the way. If there were NOS parts available somewhere on the globe, he would find them. If there were original pieces hanging on some old Ford in a boneyard somewhere, he would ferret them out.
For two-plus years, obsession became Jeff Leslie’s friend.
“Once I got it and started working on it with a friend, stripping it all down, I thought, ‘You know what, I’m going to try to make this thing perfect,” Leslie said. “‘I want it to be right, and I want to get as many NOS pieces as I can find. I want to make it the absolute best I can.’”
Two years later, with his unusual Bronco finally finished, Leslie can confidently declare his mission accomplished. The before and after pictures tell the tale. What was once an almost comically abused, beaten, untitled and “customized” stump-jumping hunting buggy has been transformed into what its owner believes is the finest first-year Model U-13 topless Bronco in existence. First-generation Bronco fans — lovers of the 1966-’68 debut Broncos — are a notoriously zealous bunch, and Leslie has heard it straight from some of the country’s foremost Bronco buffs that his Ford is among the best, if not the best, around.
“I’ve been told this may be the best restoration of any Bronco, especially a ’66 Bronco,” he said. “I found so many pieces for this truck. I’ve just seen no other trucks like this, and neither have any of my buddies who have been in the business for a long time.”
Ford’s new 1966 four-wheel drive Bronco roadster was distinctive due to its lack of roof or doors and its very boxy styling. Standard features included a three-speed fully synchronized transmission, a Mono-Beam front suspension, a through-drive two-speed transfer case, 11 x 2-in. front brakes and a folding windshield.
All early-’66 Broncos had the 170-cid, 105-hp six. In mid-March, an optional 289-cid V-8 with 200 hp became available. A three-speed column shift was mated to a Dana 20 transfer case.
The silver-gray vinyl upholstery was unique to the ’66 Bronco. Matching optional sun visors were available. Radios and antennas were optional, as were cigarette lighters and emergency flashers. “Delete” interiors — those ordered without heater, lighters, flashers or radio, were common.
The unique door openings included fiberglass inserts, and vinyl doors and convertible tops were both available as dealer options. Hard doors were also available.
To be sure, there are probably few vehicles from the same era any tougher to find and put back together than the ’66 Bronco roadster. For starters, only 4,090 first-year roadsters were built. Its sibling, the sport utility, was slightly more popular with 6,930 trucks built for ’66, but it was the wagon, with a production run of 12,756, that was the most popular 43 years ago — and far more common today.
Then there was the vehicle’s intended use: With no top or doors, and very few creature comforts, it was a little truck that was designed to be used and abused, and its buyers normally obliged and beat them into submission.
And finally, there was the obvious strike against the vehicle’s longevity: With no top and protection from the elements, there was nothing to slow down the ravages of rust and Mother Nature. For the most part, they were driven hard, put away wet and died young.
“People got them and used them as plow trucks. They used them on their ranches — it was a great ranching truck,” Leslie said. “My brother knew a guy in Texas whose family had one, and they used it to tow oil well stuff out into the fields.
“So many wound up as hunting trucks. Mine was a deer lease. It was not even registered in Texas when I got it.”
It was actually one of his brothers that inadvertently started Leslie’s Bronco obsession. After helping his older sibling restore his Bronco, Jeff bought his own ’72, and it wasn’t long before he was hooked. He soon acquired a parts truck that a fellow Bronco buff identified as a roadster. “The car had been all hodge-podged together — that’s what happened to so many of the roadsters — and he checked it out and said, ‘Yeah, this looks like it might have been a roadster.’ I said, ‘What’s a roadster.” And from that point on I made it my mission to find a roadster, because I found out they were so rare.”
Leslie eventually spotted one on eBay for sale in Forth Worth, Texas. He had his brother from Dallas drive over to see the truck, wound up buying it, and saddled up for a wild Bronco ride.
Leslie’s truck could be a poster child for the way the little roadsters were treated as they got older. The interior was completed gutted. The body, although still intact, had been slathered with camouflage paint. Two seats had been mounted on a plank in the back, reminiscent of pedestal seats on a bass fishing boat. The front end had a large, triangular brace/mount on it, and the hood was adorned with a longhorn steer skull.
But Leslie was willing to take a chance.
“I paid the guy in cash. I didn’t buy it on eBay,” he said. “I had it shipped up to Cleveland, and started on it, I thought, ‘This is worth doing. This is more than a parts truck.’
“The tailgate wasn’t a ’66 tailgate, so I got a ’66 tailgate for it. It had the ‘eyebrow’ grille on it, which is hard to find. It was only used for the first six months. I replaced the fenders and hood with aftermarket [pieces], but I was able to salvage most of the key components. I had to get a new interior and seats, obviously, and probably what helped save [the body] was it had a ton of paint on it. In some places the paint had to be a quarter-inch inch thick. It had camouflage and house paint, you name it. It was just a hunting truck, so whoever had it didn’t care … They put big homemade bumpers on it, but all that stuff probably helped save it, though.”
The truck had about 67,000 miles on the odometer, and the engine and running gear were all very salvageable, but Leslie’s biggest challenge was scouring the country for all the other pieces he needed for his reclamation project. Reproduction parts for the roadsters were nonexistent, and NOS pieces were few and far between. Leslie figures he put in about 1,000 hours on the phone and Internet trying to hunt down a long list of pieces. Parts like the steering wheel, shifter boot, rear armrest, and floor mats were among the hardest to find, but only the tip of the iceberg.
“They had so many of the special one- and two-month parts that people don’t know about. These early Broncos had so many one-year-only parts and special pieces on them,” he said. “Just the floor mats alone — I only found two in existence. One guy wouldn’t get back to me, and the other guy absolutely wouldn’t sell his. I told him, ‘Name your price,’ and he still wouldn’t sell it to me.
“Then one day out of the blue he called me and said he needed the money and would sell it to me, and he had a shifter boot, too. Turns out, he had been taking the floor mat out of the box every month or two for all these years and rubbing it down with oil and conditioning it! All that time, he had been planning to use it on his own restoration. The floor mat was like brand-new. I mean, what are the chances of me finding something like that?”
Even the title turned out to be a big challenge. Leslie’s sister helped him do a VIN search in Texas, and from what the siblings could gather, the truck had not been registered since 1983. “The last person to register the vehicle was woman in Huntsville, Texas,” he said. “We searched on the Internet for people with her name … And I picked out the first name on the list and sent her a nice letter, with my name, address and what I was doing. I mean, I didn’t even know if it was the right lady, or if the lady was even still alive after all this time. And it was about four days after I sent it, the phone rang, and it was this little old lady named Bertha on the other end. It sounded like I was talking to a little old grandma. I got lucky and found the lady that had it on my first try!”
The woman applied for a lost title and forwarded the new title on to Leslie. “So I have the real title for it,” he said. “I wanted a real Texas title, not a bonded title, or a salvage title.”
After finishing the bodywork — much of which he did himself — Leslie had a friend and painter, Derek Whitehair, finish things off with factory correct Carribean Turquoise paint. Today, it’s hard to find any resemblance between the gleaming museum-quality off-road roadster in Leslie’s garage and the beat-up bushwhacker it had been in a former life.
At this point, Leslie isn’t sure what he will do with his shiny little Ford. It’s a good bet that the Bronco’s days of chasing deer and living under the stars are long gone, however.
“People ask me, ‘What’s it worth?’ I don’t know,” says Leslie with a laugh. “I mean, I don’t know if it can be done again – to restore a truck this way, with this many NOS parts. It might be the last one that can be done like this.
“I just got done with it in the last month, and the weather has [gotten bad]. I haven’t even really had it out. I finally got this thing done after two years, and I can’t drive it!
“But I think it’s definitely going to be heavily babied.”
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