For those that reside in or around the numerous small beach communities of the West Central, Gulf Coast of Florida, it is not an uncommon sight to see something like this: guys wearing board shorts, tank tops, shades, and flip flops cruising the beach in a high riding, knobby tired, four-wheel drive beast of some sort.
These beach cruisers are easily distinguished from the thousands of tourists that frequent the white sand beaches of the Gulf Coast. The tourists are limited to what’s available in the rental kiosks: small cars, scooters, or neon orange bicycles with oversized tires that won’t sink in the sand. On the flip side, the local cruiser can be found driving a four-wheel-drive vehicle, with either a bikini top or no top at all. A cooler, beach chairs, and a boogie board tend to be stuffed in the back; some may even have a paddle board strapped on top of the roll bars, and almost always, there is a very attractive, bikini-clad young lady riding shotgun.
Most of the vehicles you see on the beach are very recognizable. Most, as you might expect, are the CJ model Jeeps, with the occasional older four-wheel Cherokees mixed in. There are also a variety of pickup trucks, some mostly stock, some looking like a monster truck in training.
There are a few vehicles, however, that cause even the most seasoned beach cruiser to stop and take notice. Most notably is a super sweet 1975 white and blue Ford Bronco owned by third-generation automotive enthusiast and former professional water skier Chris Forte.
Forte, born, raised, and schooled in Saint Petersburg, Florida, still resides within the municipal limits of the aptly nicknamed “city of sunshine,” due to its average of 361 days of sunshine per year. He is married to his lovely wife Renee, and as of this writing, both are eagerly awaiting the arrival of their first child. Both Forte and his wife are former professional water skiers. They still enjoy just about anything related to water sports including the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico, and the beautiful white sand beaches just a few short minutes from their front door. “We can jump in the Bronco and be on the beach in twenty minutes,” Forte says.
Forte earns a living as a certified auto mechanic. He applies his trade at the family’s business, Forte’s Classic Garage, in nearby Largo, Florida. Forte’s grandfather, Dominick Forte, founded the business in 1956 as a full service repair center.
After retiring in 1977, Dominick handed the reins down to his son, Dom. Naturally, next on the list of succession will be his sons, Chris and Tony.
Over the years the business has evolved from a full service repair center to a shop dedicated to the maintenance, repair and restoration of classic and vintage vehicles. The shop proudly specializes in all makes and models of American made Muscle Cars. The Bronco is an example of the craftsmanship that rolls out the door at Forte’s Classic Garage.
Father Dom came across the Bronco early in 2001. “I saw the truck early in 2001 and was thinking it would make a great father-son project for Chris and me,” Dom recalled. The Bronco was in pretty rough condition, but it was all there.
Both father and son planned a full frame off restoration, for this first generation Bronco with the ultimate goal of producing a combination show vehicle and beach cruiser. “When I bought the truck, I bought it because it was something different,” Dom stated. Dom’s instincts were spot-on.
Most often seen on the beaches were the typical CJ model Jeeps, the older Jeep Cherokee, and jacked up, large-tired pickup trucks. A Ford Bronco would be a rarity and would certainly fit the bill as distinctive.
When Ford redesigned the Bronco to a shortened, F-100 pickup based chassis late in the 1978 model year, the first-gen compact Bronco almost overnight became very collectable. With each passing year, the 1966-1977 Bronco was growing in popularity and getting harder to find.
After Dom purchased the truck and brought it back to the family’s garage, the father-son project got off to a slow start. At the time, Chris was still attending high school and was consumed with all the things normally associated with those years. His studies took first priority, followed closely by his involvement with high school athletics, and of course, there was time devoted to the pursuit of the opposite sex. However, whenever possible, Chris would be in the family garage honing his mechanical skills by working side by side with his dad on both the Bronco and customer’s vehicles as well.
After completing his schooling, Chris had more time to devote to the family’s business and the restoration of his Bronco. Father and son agreed the Bronco should remain in a mostly stock configuration, with a few exceptions geared towards reliability, economy, and repairability of what was planned to be a daily driver when completed. Like any frame-off restoration, the Bronco was taken down to the bare bones, and father and son began to rebuild their beach cruiser from the ground up.
The rebuild started with the same simple box ladder frame that was under the truck when it left the factory in 1975. Suspension components and configuration are exactly to factory specifications.
The Dana 44 front axle carries the standard 3.5:1 gearing with manual locking hubs and is located with the factory stock radius arms and lateral track bar, coil springs, and stock, non-adjustable shock absorbers. The rear axle remains the famed, nine-inch Ford with a standard gear ratio of 3.54:1 mounted on the standard Ford leaf spring and non-adjustable shock absorber suspension.
The truck retains the original 92-inch wheelbase, and is equipped with 11-inch drum and shoe brakes on all four corners to provide the stopping power. The entire chassis assembly sports a beautiful gloss black polyurethane to complete the clean overall appearance of the undercarriage.
Windsor motor has been replaced with a more modern version designed for use in the 1986 GT Mustang. “The motor is an air density motor converted to mass air flow,” Forte stated. “Essentially, everything from the throttle body forward is late model Mustang.”The original, naturally aspirated, 302 cubic-inch
The entire idea behind this upgrade was to make the vehicle more repairable in the event of mechanical breakdown. “If you’re on the road somewhere and you break down, you can get parts at any Ford dealer or parts outlet wherever you might be,” Forte said.
The motor is coupled to a rebuilt, Ford C4 transmission with a 3,000 rpm stall convertor, external oil cooler and a floor mounted Turbo Action Cheetah shift kit and shifter. The original Dana 22 transfer case completes the powertrain.
The truck sits on Teflon coated ATX Series American Racing wheels wrapped with BF Goodrich 31×10.50R15 LT Radials, and the body is lifted two-inches to ensure the rubber remains inside the fender wells and retains its stock appearance.
The interior of this pretty little beach bouncer features a number of upgrades and improvements aimed at driver and passenger comfort, reliability, and ease of maintenance. The front high-backed bucket seats were originally in a 1970 Mach 1 Mustang. Forte completely reupholstered the seats and fabricated the mounts to accommodate the tighter confines of the 69-inch wide Bronco body.
The eight-point roll cage is powder coated to match the exterior blue trim, and is completely functional should the worst case scenario ever arise. The dash, instrument panel, and all instrumentation is original and true to the era. When new, this Bronco was equipped with the Ranger trim package, which included a rear seat, carpet, and chrome bumpers front and rear.
The optional “swing away” spare tire carrier was also included in the package. For this build, the rear seat and carpet have been eliminated to make cleaning the truck after a day on the beach as simple as just washing it down with a household garden hose.
Another unique feature included in the interior is the custom-fabricated steering column with tilt wheel (in 1975 there were no options available for a tilt wheel in the Bronco).
Over the years, many aftermarket products were developed that would easily bolt on to this particular vehicle. Thinking it would make a great learning experience for his son, the elder Forte went to the local scrap yard and located a steering column out of a late model Jeep Cherokee. This column required a good deal of fabrication to adapt to the standard Ford steering box, and the wiring was reconfigured to the already reworked Ford Wiring harness. When all was said and done, the tilt wheel functions as if it were intended to be there from the factory.
The Fortes also eliminated the auxiliary fuel tank located under the seat in favor of a more modern 23-gallon tank with an internal fuel pump. This upgrade was completed for obvious safety reasons.
Father and son spent the better part of ten years on this project, and like all projects of this sort there are still things they want to add or change. A new set of sway bars are scheduled for sometime in 2015, and Chris is thinking of adding a power booster to the brake system so his wife can feel more comfortable when driving the truck. There’s talk of maybe more horsepower down the road, or an upgrade to the audio system, but nothing’s set in stone.
If the Fortes parked this truck and never drove it again, this beautiful little Ford Bronco would still be a testament to the hard work and dedication of this father and son. The pride and craftsmanship displayed in this vehicle says volumes about these two men, and is a true example of why the service bays at Forte’s Classic Garage are always full.
Should you ever have opportunity to vacation on the beaches around Saint Petersburg or Clearwater Florida, keep an eye out for a guy wearing a tank top, sunglasses and board shorts, driving a pretty little white and blue, Ford Bronco, an attractive bikini clad lady riding shotgun, a cooler, beach chairs and boogie board protruding from the back, flag him down, and ask him about his beach cruiser, and tell him you saw his truck in Off Road Extreme.