Mackenzie Burgett saw a rickety old Ford Bronco sitting in a driveway outside St. Louis and asked her dad if they could take a cross-country summer trip in one just like it.
He immediately agreed to the idea, realizing time with a teenager is rare. Seth Burgett found an orange 1973 Bronco and hit the road for five weeks---driving from Walden Pond to Niagara Falls to Glacier National Park to the Pacific Coast Highway. And they loved that vintage Bronco. But it didn't love them back.
Just one headache after another.
They wondered, what if you could take the original Ford Bronco and keep its classic look while changing up all the guts so that the SUV drove safely and dependably? What if the old car kept its classic look but had all the amenities of today?
And that's how a little family started a boutique company that creates reimagined versions of the iconic early Broncos.
"We've kept the essence of the vintage Bronco and gotten rid of the bad behavior," said Burgett, 50, a husband and father of three from Glen Carbon, IL.
It is an idea he called “audacious.”
Now Ford Bronco fans who have everything, including exceptional taste and a few extra dollars, are placing orders for model year SUVs 1966 to 1977---and transforming the old original vehicles into newer, better versions of themselves for an average of $200,000 each. And there's a waiting list.
Burgett is CEO of Gateway Bronco in Hamel, IL, the world's first approved manufacturer of the early Ford Bronco. He is licensed through Ford yet independent. His team builds handcrafted SUVs in a small Illinois town on Route 66.
After that 2016 road trip, Burgett talked to another company that does modern restoration about building him a Bronco. But the wait was too long and he was unimpressed.
So that's how a mechanical engineer who invented a heart surgery robot company (and sold it) and the Yurbuds sport headphone company for athletes (and sold it) ended up making cars. He points to his training at Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla, MO.
He planned to sit back and have family time. Now he's filling orders. The quality control required to manufacture low volume medical devices is now used to build Broncos.
Buyers have submitted about 130 orders since he opened his business in 2016. He has delivered about 65 vehicles so far to clients in the U.S., Canada and Spain. Orders have come in from New York, Florida, Texas, Michigan, Arizona, Colorado and California.
About 80% of the buyers are men and the vast majority of clients are 45 to 55 years old, and they are people who want vintage car experiences without vintage car repair bills and drama.
One in three buyers is the CEO of a public company while most of the rest are in private equity, real estate investment and venture capital. Money, basically.
While the pandemic shut down the company temporarily, as happened with companies around the country, orders have returned to an average of four a month with a production period of nine to 12 months.
That doesn't include the man who just called Burgett and asked if he could place an order in mid-October and have the Bronco delivered to their home in Hawaii to surprise his wife on Christmas morning.
"We can do that," Burgett told the Free Press with a smile during a visit to Detroit on Oct. 14, saying special orders come at a cost but just about anything is possible.
"What we do is modernize the 1966 to 1977 Ford Broncos with a modern powertrain and bring everything up to modern standards for reliability and safety," he said. "We installed a power retractable step, so when you open the door the step drops down and you can climb in easier. There's a backup camera; a 10-speed automatic instead of just a three-speed automatic; heated and cooled seats, and a Bluetooth sound system. We have power disc brakes and things to make it all safer, like collapsible steering columns, three-point seat belts, brakes that really do work."
The vehicle has a three-, five- or seven-year bumper-to-bumper warranty.
"Clients we're seeing today obviously have the means and want to spend time with their families," he said. "They're buying a vehicle to spend at their vacation home or to pick kids up from soccer or use on sunny days and just enjoy. People are spending more time at their vacation homes now, rather than doing global travel."
This collection of vintage Broncos is reengineered and redesigned to accommodate modern standards and expectations. So, for example, the old-fashioned manual window cranks are there for display only. Windows are electric. Yet the cars retain their original Vehicle Identification Numbers. Burgett has 40 or so patents pending or granted.
His purpose in life, he said, is improving the quality of life for others. The surgery technology saved lives. The headphones, designed around the physiology of the ear for use by extreme athletes, inspired people to exercise and be healthy.
And now the Broncos are about celebrating and savoring life with those you love, said Burgett, an Ironman triathlete who competes in one-day events that include a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride and a 26.22-mile run.
As soon as he finishes his training, the phone rings with questions from customers eager to check the status of their vehicle or possibly place an order.
A mother of three from Saint Johns, MI, started driving her "like new" 1973 Ford Bronco in September. She put 1,500 miles on the SUV within two weeks while driving her three boys ages 2, 3 and 4 to preschool and running errands.
"My dad had a '70s Bronco and I remember seeing pictures as a little girl," said Molly Bancroft, 31, during her sons' naptime. "I was a daddy's girl so I think that just stuck."
The gift from her husband delights her boys, who wave to people from their car seats while driving through town, "which is the coolest thing ever," the mom said.
When winter begins, and the road is salted, they'll switch to their 2013 Ford F-250 Super Duty and wait until the sunshine returns.
Sean Tracey, 55, of Houston, TX, spends summers in Glen Arbor. He was mostly driving a 2020 Cadillac Escalade until he took delivery of the 1968 Bronco in the spring.
"Growing up in Detroit, I was a Ford sort of fanatic," said the Southfield Lathrup High School graduate. "A Mustang, Bronco guy growing up. When I left Detroit in '84, I came to Houston to go to college and stayed. But I never lost the kind of Detroit-manufacturing Americana bug."
Tracey, a trial lawyer, essentially had his Bronco rebuilt from scratch "engineering out all the 50-year-old problems," but it looks vintage.
"I don't think I've ever parked it where someone hasn't come up to me to share their Bronco story. It doesn't matter what city I'm in. Sometimes I'm like, 'Look, I gotta go.' Motorheads will crawl under the car and start looking around."
His mom was a divorced social worker raising three kids, and "money was tight growing up," he said. "My wife saw me looking at these Broncos for a long time and I kept threatening to buy one and finally, at some point, she said, 'You don't really have any other vices right now. Why don't you get yourself one and forget about it?'"
In recent days, the Bronco was filled with sand from a trip to the beach with grandkids.
Tracey spared nothing when ordering his new Bronco.
Its interior includes leather used in the Porsche 911R and treated barn wood on the backseat floor. A Ford Coyote engine allows a driver to go 0 to 60 in 4.6 seconds.
Pushing a button to lower the back half of the top, called a power convertible soft top, is new for the Bronco. Burgett has a patent pending of the astonishing design inspired by the Porsche Targa, which allows an owner to keep the front part of the roof over the driver and have the back seat exposed. It's quieter for passengers who want to talk or listen to music.
A sound system is hidden in a giant console, which also protects it from mud and dirt while off-roading. All parts used in the vehicle are new.
The lowest price for a reimagined Bronco is $150,000 with basic options. But the monthly range of orders usually spans in cost from $185,000 to $320,000 for more personalized versions.
While a handful of vehicles are built new, the vast majority are restored from original vehicles purchased from owners around the country. Some customers find the vehicle themselves. The states provide an all-new reproduction VIN for a built-from-scratch "vintage" Bronco.
"Each vehicle is test driven 500 miles or so to make sure everything is flawless before it's delivered to a buyer, Burgett said. "It climbs a mountain like a billy goat. You can flip a switch and have four wheel drive. That's the same technology as the Ford Raptor, too."
A handful of clients have ordered battery-electric Broncos with a 200-mile range for about $300,000, Burgett said. Five are in production now for clients in Hawaii, Missouri, Illinois and California.
The primary competitor for these vehicles seems to be the Range Rover, he said.
Clients match interior thread color to exterior paint color. Clients have created special paint colors. They order interior cloth from Bentley or pair with home design.
"Every one of our clients is at the top of their game," he said. "They have high expectations. They have achieved things and this is their reward system. A man in Indiana called about having three built for his grandchildren, something they would have forever."
All the classic Broncos are two-door only, much smaller than the modern four-door SUVs that families have become accustomed to.
These days, Bronco is the most sought after vintage SUV ever made, said Jonathan Klinger, vice president at Traverse City, MI-based Hagerty, the world's largest insurer of collector vehicles. "It just looks cool"---simple yet rugged.
"This is reimagining something beyond what it ever was," he said. "Now people don't have to sacrifice anything driving them."
Gateway Bronco, as well as companies that aren't sanctioned by Ford, have created a secondary market of keeping the vintage look by reengineering how they drive, with better suspension and better brakes, Klinger said.
"There's a difference between modifying the vehicle and doing it from a very artistic, intense attention to detail to re-create what is a work of art that is much better than when it left the factory," he said. "It has perfect body alignment. This is reimagining something beyond what it ever was."
From 1966 to 1977, an estimated 225,000 Broncos were built. All two-door.
Now it's a resurrection.
For those seeking a more affordable Bronco option, the two-door 2021 Bronco begins at $29,995 for the base model, including destination fees. The four-door 2021 Bronco begins at $34,695, including fees. They will be built at the Michigan Assembly Plant in Wayne for the first time since 1996, and reservations have poured in.
Preproduction models rolled off the assembly line in September. Deliveries are targeted to begin in June 2021.
In 2016, as he was planning to launch his company, Burgett went to Texas with his dog, Bronco, to close a deal on the very first Ford Bronco ever built from the second owner.
Vinnie Yakubanski, 75, is a retired geologist who owned a logging company and part of a Ford dealership. He lives in Sportsman's World on Possum Kingdom Lake in Palo Pinto County, TX, and talks about buying the original Ford Bronco for just $100 in 1978. He won't reveal how much Burgett paid for it in 2016.
"It was just a utility vehicle used to do ranch work, like putting in pipelines and fixing windmills," Yakubanski told the Free Press. "[Racing legend] Carroll Shelby owned a ranch and that Bronco was down south of Alpine, TX. They used it on that ranch and wore it out."
Bronco VIN 000 was in the repair shop so much that Yakubanski offered to buy it.
"I was a partner in the dealership. We were repairing it once a month or more. They were beating the hell out of it. And it was getting wore out," he said. "I told the ranch foreman it was time to get a new vehicle. I had a brand new 1978 Ford Bronco sitting on the showroom floor."
So Yakubanski put the first Bronco in his garage and rebuilt it. It needed a lot of TLC.
"I put quite a lot of money and time in," he said. "A drive shaft at the time was $300 and it needed two. There's a lot of engineering in that simple-looking machine that made it robust."
Looking back, Yakubanski recalled, "They were having a parade along Main Street in little town of Alpine. Carroll Shelby and a county judge rode up and down in that Bronco. Carroll Shelby was talking about that Bronco, I think it was about 1980, and he said, 'This is one we might not should’ve let get away.'"
Mackenzie Burgett, 21, is attending college classes now and looking forward to her post-pandemic summer trip in 2021. The old Bronco started a family tradition.
"I loved that old school look and wanted something durable," she said. "Traveling with my dad has brought us closer. I'm grateful to have that stronger relationship and experience so many beautiful places."