Stroppe Racing Broncos: The Birth of "Big Oly" by Todd Zuercher
As a rule, off road racers have generally assigned odd names to their
vehicles. In today's lexicon, names like "Truggy" and "Arnold" roll
off peoples' tongues without a second thought and most enthusiasts
immediately know the vehicles being described. Perhaps it's the odd
conglomeration of parts and pieces on these mechanical beasts that
elicit such creativity when their names are generated.
This naming convention is not a recent phenomenon. In the early days of
desert racing, odd-looking vehicles with names like Wampuskitty, Bollweevil,
and the Baja Boot bounced through the wilds of Baja in search of adventure
at a much slower pace than today's fire-breathing mechanical monsters.
In 1970, the first "funny car" of off-road racing, the vehicle which would
become known as "Big Oly", was unleashed at the Mexican 1000 off road race
and the field of competition was changed forever.
Parnelli Jones and Bill Stroppe first rode together in a Ford Bronco in
1968. Jones drove one of Stroppe's Mercury stock cars for several years
in the mid-'60s and the familiar red, white, and blue Stroppe colors
became a common sight in victory lane with the hard-charging Jones
behind the wheel. Legend has it that Stroppe made a comment at Hot
Rod publisher Roy Brock's Christmas party one year that he thought
Jones wasn't man enough to race off road. This, of course, was Bill's
way of provoking Parnelli in trying his hand behind the wheel of one
of Stroppe's Broncos. Now the early Broncos were tough vehicles, but
Jones drove the wheels off them, literally. The 4WD versions of the
trucks frequently left wheels, hubs, axles, and other drivetrain parts
on the course when Jones climbed into the driver's seat. The trucks'
heavy front axles, the extra weight of the transfer case, and
relatively high center of gravity did not blend with Jones'
let-it-all hang out driving technique.
Temporary salvation came came in the form of a truck known as the
"Pony". Simon "Bunkie" Knudsen's short tenure at Ford had produced,
in addition to the Boss 429 Mustang, a 2WD Bronco study project with
a lowered body, a Twin-I-Beam front end and an automatic transmission.
Knudsen wanted to study the feasibility of selling a 2WD Bronco,
but the project was scrapped and Stroppe ended up with the
vehicle. According to Jones, he spied the vehicle sitting in
the corner of Stroppe's shop and suggested they build it into an
off road race vehicle. Stroppe complied and shortly after the
vehicle's debut, Stroppe and Jones won the 1970 Baja 500 in the
red and white Bronco. Parnelli liked the Pony but wanted more.
The Pony still used a Bronco frame and Jones wanted a tube frame
"truck" built to his specifications-faster, stronger, and
lighter-something to "beat the bikes", he once said.
According to Parnelli, he approached Stroppe about building
such a beast, but Stroppe resisted because the vehicle really
wasn't a Bronco anymore and he thought the vehicle should stay
true to the production Bronco to keep Ford happy.
Parnelli took Dick Russell, a Stroppe employee and ace fabricator, to
lunch and found a willing partner to design and construct the vehicle.
They sketched out the designs for the tube-frame chassis on napkins
and came up with ideas they wanted to incorporate. Russell started
working on the truck at his home, away from the eyes and ears of
Stroppe. Bill soon caught wind of what was happening though, and
demanded to know what was going on. Though Bill felt like Parnelli
had gone behind his back in building the truck, things were soon
smoothed over and the construction of the project moved to
Stroppe's Long Beach facility(where the accompanying photos
were taken). With all differences aside, the build-up was
finished at Stroppe's shop with only one casualty:
Parnelli's checkbook! Holman-Moody-Stroppe charged much
higher labor rates than Dick Russell did in his garage!
"Big Oly" was not the original name of this tube-frame wonder.
The definitive book on Bill Stroppe, Boss, by Tom Madigan
(an excellent piece), implies that "Crazy Colt" and "Big Oly"
were two different vehicles, when in fact they were the same
truck. "Crazy Colt" was the original name of the truck, as
evidenced by the nameplate under the windshield area in the
early photos. "Crazy Colt" wore Johnny Lightning(one of
Jones' Indy sponsors) graphics at its first races. The
truck underwent several graphics changes throughout its
life but became "Big Oly" with the Olympia beer sponsorship
within the first year of being constructed. The racing
exploits of Big Oly are well-documented and recounted in
many published works over the years. The photos shown here
document the build process and shed some light on what was
an incredibly high-tech vehicle thirty years ago.
The backbone of Big Oly is a TIG-welded 4130 chrome-moly frame.
The frame was built without any of the CAD programs, finite
element analysis tools or other electronic blueprints common
in today's vehicle construction. Aluminum body panels form
the interior body shell of the truck. Look closely at the
interior in the pictures and you'll see a stock Bronco glove
box door in front of the passenger. The fiberglass outer body
shell is a replica of a Bronco body that has been sectioned
three inches and narrowed three inches. For about the first
two years, the truck had a chrome Bronco grill with the
letters "PJ" centered just under the hoodline. Later, a
cleaner design, which held 4 off-road lights, was added,
along with a tubular pushbar.
The front end is a Twin-I-Beam front suspension, narrowed
either 6 inches, or half an inch(depending on the source) from
a production pickup front end. The fore/aft locating members
are markedly different from production pieces though. While
stock Ford Twin-I-Beam front ends use radius arms that attach
to the frame behind the axle beams, Big Oly uses trailing arms
that attach at the front of the tube frame and run rearward
to the axle beams. This design would appear to allow a more
natural deflection of the wheels when encountering obstacles.
The front end is directed with the help of a Thunderbird
steering box controlled by one of Stroppe's trademark
padded Bronco steering wheels. The rear suspension is
a four link design with a transverse panhard rod for
lateral location of the axle. Each link has rubber
bushings at each end. The rear axle is a full-floating 9"
design, with 4.11 gears and a Detroit Locker differential.
Hurst/Airheart disc brakes are used at each corner.
The chassis is suspended by a coil spring at each corner
with a Gabriel shock absorber located in the center of each
coil spring along with an Gabriel additional shock at each
wheel. The front suspension boasts about 10-12" of suspension
travel with the rear contributing about 8-10" of travel.
An additional note on suspension travel, Big Oly originally
had Bostrom suspension seats in it, which had about 3"of
spring travel in them for added comfort. At some point
they were replaced by modern Taylor seats like those used
in off road racing vehicles today. Rolling stock consists
of alloy wheels with 9-15 Firestones up with front and
9.50-16 Firestones throwing rocks out the rear.
Compared to the fire-breathing 700-800 hp of today's typical Trophy
Truck, Big Oly made do with the "miserly" 350-400 hp output of its
well-tuned and reliable 351 Windsor V8. Breathing begins up top
with a Holley 650 double pumper on a Ford Cobra high rise single
plane aluminum manifold. Isky's finest bumps open the valves and
Jerry Belanger crafted headers to carry the spent exhaust gases.
Behind the healthy Windsor, Jones ran a truck C4 3-speed automatic
transmission in the early races but later switched to a stronger
C6, which still resides in the truck today. Both transmissions
were shifted by a Hurst shifter in a custom-made console between
the seats that also houses all the vehicle's Stewart Warner
gauges and electrical switches. The oil and transmission
coolers were originally from Harrison but switched quickly to
Rapid Cool. Filtration is handled by Purolator products and
Autolite wiring provides spark for all electrical functions.
Handling the fuel containment duties are two 22 gallon
Firestone fuel cells. One is mounted directly behind the
passenger compartment and the other resides low in the rear
of the vehicle behind the rear axle, to aid in weight
distribution. The higher mounted cell feeds the lower
cell with the aid of gravity. An electric fuel pump moves the
fuel to the engine through braided stainless lines.
As an item of interest, Big Oly, in its Crazy Colt incarnation,
ran at least its first race under propane power. Stroppe
experimented with propane power in several of his rigs in the
early '70s. Along with the vehicle's fuel, liquid refreshment
for the drivers is provided for the driver and co-driver from
two Coleman jugs mounted behind the seats.
The most unique feature of Big Oly is of course the large
aluminum wing mounted atop the passenger compartment. The wing
came from Parnelli's feeling that the rear end of the Pony was a
bit loose and that perhaps a wing would give more "bite" at higher
speeds. The wing has a range of 40 degrees of adjustability
and is adjustable in 10 degree increments from a lever in the
cab. Some stories claim that the wing generated enough force
to rip a person's arm off at top speed if someone was so
inclined to extend a limb in that general area. When questioned
about it, Jones said he doubted that was possible, but did
feel it helped in the handling department.
Parnelli Jones and Bill Stroppe raced Crazy Colt/Big Oly for four short
years from 1970-1974 and in the process built a legendary partnership
that is unparalleled in off-road racing history. Big Oly became probably
the most famous off-road racing vehicle to ever touch the Baja soil and
even today draws crowds whenever it is brought out for display. Parnelli
Jones still owns Big Oly, along with his other racing vehicles from over
the years. The legendary truck is often on display at the Fabulous Fords
Forever show in Buena Park, California.
Parnelli Jones. Conversations with the author: September 2000, April 2001.
Boss: The Bill Stroppe Story. Tom Madigan. Darwin Publications. 1984.
Hot Rod Magazine. August 1971.
Off Road Vehicles Magazine. January/February 1971.
Dune Buggy Magazine. December 1970.
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