Lifted Expectations – The Rising Popularity of Vintage Overland Vehicles and 4x4s
Look around a Goodguys event and you’re sure to see a steady stream of street rods, ’50s and ’60s cruisers and customs, muscle cars, and classic trucks. You’re increasingly seeing something else rising above the crowd, too: vintage four-wheel drives and SUVs.
The classic overland and off-road truck trend has been growing for at least a decade and has certainly accelerated in recent years. First-generation Broncos were the early hot ticket and remain extremely popular, but ’67-’72 K5 Blazers have recently come on strong. The same goes for square-body Blazers, Jeeps, International Scouts, Toyota Land Cruisers, and other SUVs, as well as four-wheel-drive pickups. You could say that vintage off roaders are on the rise.
Sign of the Times
The trend should really come as no surprise. After all, new trucks and SUVs have been outselling cars for years, a sure sign that Americans love their trucks. It also doesn’t hurt that millions of Generation Xers came of age in the ’80s riding around in the back of dad’s Jeep Grand Wagoneer – or having adventures in friends’ older Blazers and Broncos – and want to revisit some of that fun from their youth.
“Trucks are relatable,” says Mike Keller, who owns Big Creek Restoration in Ellis, Kansas, and recently started a new branch of the business called Badger Worx devoted to building and marketing updated K5 Blazer packages. The Badger Worx idea took hold as Mike rebuilt his own Blazer and realized what a people magnet it was.
“I drive my Blazer everywhere – it’s just an attention-getter,” Keller says. “People come right up on it. They want to get in.”
Dave Hall, owner of Restore a Muscle Car in Lincoln, Nebraska, has also found a niche in building, selling, and working on K5 Blazers the past few years. He sees the crossover interest between muscle cars and vintage off-roaders as a natural extension of his automotive experiences coming of age in the 1980s. “My big thing growing up was if I didn’t have a Trans Am, I was driving a K5,” Hall says.
Seth Burgett founded Gateway Bronco in 2016 to build production-line-style vintage restomod Broncos after finding shortcomings with both OEM-spec vehicles and existing custom offerings. He feels the popularity of vintage off-road vehicles stems from a broader desire people have for getting out and enjoying the world. “You’ve got this outdoor movement that was happening before Covid,” Burgett says, and that movement has simple accelerated this year as people find ways to spend more time outside. “They want something cool to drive around in.”
The relatability and popularity of these vehicles have not escaped notice among other premier builders in our hobby. CAL Auto Creations crafted a bitchin’ ’68 Bronco for customer Rich Gochanour that was a finalist for the Goodguys LMC Truck of the Year Late back in 2016. Ringbrothers unveiled their first four-wheel drive build – a ’71 K5 Blazer – at the 2018 SEMA Show, and recently finished another one for rapper Future. Earlier this year, HS Customs nailed a spot as a Goodguys 2020/2021 LMC Truck of the Year Late finalist with Cody Veibell’s ’81 Chevy K2500.
Beyond the high-end, pro-built rides, we’re seeing plenty of lifted trucks and SUVs across the enthusiast spectrum, from rough-around-the-edges survivors, to restored stockers, to all-out custom creations.
More Than Show
As pro-built hot rods, customs, pro-touring machines, and other specialty vehicles get more elaborate and expensive, they also get less practical. Many enthusiasts get so much money wrapped up in them that the only use the vehicles get is idling around at car shows.
Part of the appeal with vintage trucks and four-wheel drives is the expectation of use – they can be a little less perfect. Chassis and paint jobs don’t need to be overdone. “People like to see them used,” Keller says. “I take mine to Home Depot. I use it.”
Another key to vintage SUV popularity is how they’re perceived by other members of the household – specifically wives. “It’s a family thing,” Keller says, noting that owners of classic Blazers or Wagoneers seem much more likely to load up the family to go get ice cream – or maybe even go camping. That notion gets spouses on board with the purchase, especially when you contrast it to, say, a Model A roadster or vintage Corvette, which may be viewed strictly as “dad’s car” that only gets used to go to shows.
Burgett says many Gateway Bronco customers are buying vehicles for their mountain or beach retreats. “People want to use these vehicles as a vacation home vehicle,” he says. “They’re spending time with their families.”
Dave Hall says the customers he has buying Blazers and four-wheel drives are a similar demographic to his muscle car clients. “We recently had a ’69 Camaro traded in on a Jimmy,” Hall says. “He just was ready for something completely different.
“I think the thing they like about a truck is that it’s not as susceptible to damage,” Hall continues. “They can have fun and not be as worried about it.” Trucks and SUVs can be used a little more year-round, too, Hall says. They’re great beach cruisers, as well. “We’re getting guys from the coast who are interested in having a removable-top SUV,” he says.
Hall’s business runs the gamut from buying and reselling survivor trucks and older restorations, to making upgrades and repairs on customers’ existing vehicles, to complete ground-up builds. There seems to be no shortage of buyers for each of those categories. The shop sold two Blazers at Barrett-Jackson last year and has a new one in the works featuring one of Roadster Shop’s first custom K5 RS4 chassis and power coming from an LT4 with a 10-speed transmission.
Built to Order
The popularity of vintage SUVs and overland trucks has led to a cottage industry of boutique builders turning out turnkey vehicles to order. Los Angeles-based ICON was likely the first to take this approach. The company has more than two decades of experience building classic 4x4s like Toyota Land Cruisers and established itself a decade ago by building updated production-style versions of its Land Cruisers and Broncos. The company helped pioneer the idea of customers being able to shop, configure, and order a specialty-built classic online, much like a new car, with ICON FJ (Toyota) and ICON BR (Bronco) models starting just below $200,000.
Other businesses are taking a similar approach, including Gateway Bronco. The company builds restomod Broncos in a 60,000sq. ft. production facility in Illinois, with three basic models ranging from $150,000-$300,000, each built to order with a number of options available. “I’ve brought the assembly line mentality and approach to building vintage vehicles,” Burgett says. “You end up with a highly specialized team that delivers a higher quality product.”
Gateway takes the OEM approach a step further by offering three- to five-year warranties on its vehicles and by incorporating requested modern conveniences like USB ports and rearview cameras with display screens integrated into the rearview mirror. The company has even developed an electric version of the classic Bronco using an Electric GT engine and Tesla battery.
Florida’s Velocity Restorations is another shop that has found a niche in restoring and rebuilding early Broncos, as well as International Scouts. They have Bronco restoration packages starting around $170,000, and also offer parts ranging from bumpers and bare frames, to complete rolling chassis-and-drivetrain packages set up with new Coyote V8s.
That’s not to say the DIY guy is out in the cold. The aftermarket is overflowing with parts to help hands-on enthusiasts restore, rebuild, and upgrade these vehicles. Several companies make new Bronco frames, including Roadster Shop, which has an expanding line of RS4 and RS4R four-wheel-drive chassis not only for Broncos, but also for K5 Blazers and 1963-91 Jeep Wagoneers. There are even reproduction Bronco bodies out there in the market. That’s not to mention the thousands of smaller reproduction parts and upgrade components available to help resurrect or improve these classic off-roaders.
The parts and ideas are there to create any sort of restomod you can imagine, though the cost of entry for a project vehicle doesn’t seem to be declining. Prices for vintage Broncos continue to rise – and the same can be said for most vintage SUVs and trucks. “Blazers are red hot right now,” Keller says, with rusty project vehicles often selling in the teens and clean drivers sometimes fetching more than $30,000.
Hall agrees. “Right now, the ’69-’72s are still extremely popular,” he says. “It costs a little bit more to buy a nicer rig now than it did at the beginning of the summer.”
That doesn’t seem to be slowing down the trend at all. With a combination of classic appeal and versatility, vintage overland vehicles and 4x4s are seen as a four-wheeled investment you can actually use, which seems to help people justify the cost. It’s difficult to say where the long-term road will lead for this market, but there’s a strong prospect of fun adventures down the rutted lanes along the way.
Photos courtesy Goodguys Archives, Travis Scanlon, Griot’s Garage, Gateway Bronco, and Restore A Muscle Car