By Brian Earnest
There are plenty of old cars around that seem to defy time and defy the odds. Then there are vehicles like Willie Lenz’s 1970 Ford Bronco Sport that seem to simply defy all logic.
It just doesn’t seem possible that the rugged little Ford has paid its dues as a daily driver, work truck, steel pipe hauler, camping rig, beach comber and deer chaser — basically serving the Lenz clan in every role imaginable — yet still looks so good. It might be a “20-footer” — you can still see the paint chips and age spots when you get up close — but the Bronco looks for all the world like it must have been restored somewhere along the way.
Even though Willie Lenz has been around the Bronco for all of its life, from the moment it rolled off the car carrier at the dealership, even he’s at a bit of a loss when trying to explain how the beautiful Reef Aqua Ford with the Wimbledon White top has managed to remain so nearly perfect.
“That Bronco has been places I was amazed it could get,” says the resident of Grandview, Wash. “We’ve been in some canyons and climbing around in the edges of wheat fields — the places we’ve been would just amaze you, looking at that truck today. It’s never had a dent, never been painted, nothing. It’s 100 percent original, except for a few maintenance things like water pumps and starters.”
For much of its life, the Bronco Sport has hauled various Lenz family members around and through most of the states west of the Mississippi River, from Nebraska to Nevada. The family has camped in it, vacationed in it and, quite often, hunted with it, but somehow the Bronco has managed to avoid the fate that befell so many of its contemporaries that were driven hard and put away wet all their lives. Lenz figures part of it is luck, and part of it is the arid, metal-friendly northern Oregon weather. Mostly though, the credit belongs to Bill Lenz, Willie’s dad and the Bronco’s original owner, who was fanatical about the care and maintenance the Ford got from the first day it arrived.
“Dad is kind of one of those guys who gets something and never lets go of it,” Lenz says. “He had a ’67 Chevelle just as nice that he finally got rid of a few years ago. He’s just very meticulous and he always kept it clean and nice. It was his daily driver for at least the first 10 years. Then he got an El Camino and that was kind of his transition going from the Bronco to a little bit of a pickup.”
The family Bronco may well have been the family Chevrolet Blazer, however, if circumstances had been different. Bill Lenz had his heart set on a Blazer, but he had trouble getting his hands on one. “He wanted to order a Blazer, but at the time GM had been on strike, I guess, and they told him it would be six to eight weeks to get one, I think,” Willie said. “It was only going to take three or four weeks to get a Bronco, so he got the Bronco instead.”
The Bronco was ordered in Reef Aqua blue with the Sport Package, which was the top trim level on the Broncos of the era. That meant it received special emblems, door trim panels, bright work around the windows and lights, an Argent silver painted grille, chrome bumpers and bumper guards and a few other goodies. The senior Lenz also chose the optional 302-cid V-8 for motivation instead of the standard 170-cid six-cylinder. He also went for the optional oil bath air cleaner and a dealer-installed Ford tachometer.
Other standard features on the Bronco Sports included a vinyl full-width seat, fresh air heater and defroster, locking glove compartment, padded instrument panel, sun visors, floor mat, floor-mounted T-bar transfer case control, mono-beam suspension, self-adjusting brakes and three-speed manual transmission. “And he ordered it with the 3.55 gears,” Lenz added. "Everybody was trying to push him into the lower gears, the 4.10s. Those were the choices at the time, but he went with the 3.55 gears.”
The Bronco nameplate had already established a loyal following by the time the 1970 models arrived. The Bronco was first unveiled in 1966 as Ford’s competition to the Jeep CJ and the International Scout in the growing off-road-vehicle category. The four-wheel-drive Bronco was Ford’s debut compact SUV, and its first generation — often referred to as the “early Broncos” — ran from 1966-’77.
Changes from year to year in the “early Broncos” were subtle, and for 1970 there were only a few minor styling tweaks, including new designs for the side marker lamps. In general, though, the Bronco’s shape didn’t change much in the early years. Flat glass, a squarish profile and a simple box-section ladder frame all favored substance and utility over style. The big news for the 1970 model year was the Bronco’s optional new “Traction-Lock” limited-slip rear differential.
With competition coming in two directions from General Motors with both the Blazer and the GMC Jimmy, Bronco production numbers dropped slightly for 1970 to 16,750 wagons and 1,700 for the less-popular Bronco pickups. Those that lived in northern climates frequently rusted away long before they gave out mechanically. Many others were simply driven until they fell apart, leaving today’s collectors and Bronco fans with a shortage of vehicles to fight over.
Willie Lenz received the keys to his father’s Bronco permanently about a year ago. “My dad is  now and could not justify keeping it around to drive it only a couple times a year, so he offered it to me for a price I could not refuse,” he says. “I always thought I’d end up with it one way or another.”
It was certainly fitting that senior eventually sold the Bronco Sport to junior, since the son was a big fan of the truck from the beginning. He knew something when he was just 9 years old and Dad was bringing home brochures from the Ford dealer, and he was there with his father when the Bronco arrived on the lot. “We had a ’47 Willys Jeep before the Bronco and I was saddened that we were selling the old Willys,” he recalled. “I couldn’t see the big picture back then. Then I remember the dealer called and said, ‘Your Bronco just showed up,’” and I saw them unloading it off the transport truck. I was ecstatic from that point on.”
Bill Lenz was a machinist and skilled metal craftsman who soon began adding his own clever touches to the Bronco. He fashioned his own winch, which is still hidden behind the front bumper, and designed his own racks that he used to haul everything from metal pipes to deer. He also installed an air-conditioning unit. “He was very creative in his endeavors, I guess you could say,” Willie noted. “I grew up with the man, and he still amazes me. He was very skilled, and very creative. He came up with a lot of amazing things.”
Lenz has been on more weekend adventures than he can recall in the Bronco, and the Ford got dirty plenty of times. It always got a thorough cleaning when it got home, however, and always seemed to dodge trouble, on the road or off.
“Dad is just meticulous,” Lenz said. “There were so many times we’d drive over to Long Beach, which is 220, 230 miles away … and we’d come back and he’d wash that thing, every little nook and cranny. We’d always drive it on the beach and get it all full of sand, and he’d come back and wash ever little crack and crevice.
“We’ve hunted all over in it … and for years we pulled a camper behind it — a little travel trailer. And we’d take off and go into southern Oregon and hang out in the desert and hunt arrowheads. Dad is a real desert dweller. We’ve been down in Nevada … We were all over the place in that thing.”
Lenz said he could only recall one time when the 155,000-mile Bronco let the family down mechanically, although it still managed to get everybody home that time, too. “Dad and I were out in the middle of nowhere in a little desert town and the seals for the starter went out,” he remembered. “We were about 400 miles from home … All the way home, if we had to stop, we’d stop on a hill and to get it running, we’d roll down the hill and pop the clutch.”
The early Broncos have a notoriously loyal fan base and there are plenty of restorers around who are eager to rebuild them. Lenz isn’t one of them, however. He has no plans to do anything to his family Bronco Sport, other than preserve it and keep it as original as he can. “I thought just recently about freshening up the engine, but it runs so good,” he said. “I kid you not, it’s all stock exhaust. It’s just so quiet and so smooth.... The only thing we’ve ever had done to it was a timing chain. It’s the original engine and it’s never been apart. I’ve restored a lot of cars … I did muscle cars for five or six years — I’m a big Mopar muscle car guy … and I did a lot of restored ones, but I like the original ones. I’m a real fanatic and I always want things put back to stock. This one is going to stay the way it is. I have three boys and they’ll be fighting over it some day.”
Ironically, the little truck that refused to die or be driven into the ground is now being treated with kid gloves. Its days of pulling campers and dragging deer home are long gone. It gets driven “probably once a month,” and for only a few miles at a time. And the only way it will be leaving the state is if there is a big car show or Bronco enthusiasts gathering somewhere.
“You see a few of these around, but they’re usually restored ones,” Lenz noted. “I’ve had guys who are restoring them reference this one to see how things were done. Most of the original ones are beaten down so severely. This one is a true survivor … it worries me to drive it now. If somebody blows a stop sign, you know, things happen. It’s only original once. I’m just really careful driving it now.”
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