Since 2001, Ford has named its most luxurious pickups with the “King Ranch” brand, in a partnership with one of the most famous cattle ranches in America. King Ranch and the auto industry have partnered since the end of World War II, but it wasn’t always trucks, and it wasn’t always Fords.
So what is “King Ranch,” anyway? It’s a cattle ranch in what’s now called Kingsville, Texas that consumes 825,000 acres, 1,289 square miles, or just a bit more surface area than the state of Rhode Island. King Ranch was founded in 1853 by Richard King, and would go on to become one of the most famous ranches in all of the American West.
When you’re the heir to one of the largest personally owned pieces of property in the contiguous United States, you have a lot of time on your hands. Richard Mifflin Kleberg, Sr. may have been a busy guy, what with his responsibilities as the seven-term U.S. Representative from the 14th Congressional District of Texas, but he had plenty of time to roam around the massive ranch, shooting at whatever moved. You can do that from a horse, but it’s a whole lot more comfortable doing it from a mechanical conveyance.
The first car to bear the King Ranch name was a heavily modified 1946 Ford that sat on a lifted suspension, and could extricate itself with a P.T.O.-driven winch. Spare wheels hung off the back, and the fenders featured game forks and a gun well. It looked pretty much like what it was, though: A home-built attempt at building an SUV.
After the close of World War II hostilities, and as automotive production ramped up again, Kleberg recognized the limitations of his current ranch car and he pulled out all the stops to have one that was designed from the ground up. If there was anything a seven-term Representative had, it was connections, and he reached the design staff at Buick under the direction of Harley Earl. Kleberg’s next ranch car was designed in a joint effort between Buick and the GM Styling Section.
A Styling Section representative arrived at the ranch in 1949, and Kleberg took him out in the Ford. “He and the GM man took off across the mesquite, hog wallows and dry washes at 60 mph” read a seven-page article in Popular Science. “The visitor got his teeth jolted.” To get over sand dunes, Kleberg aired down the Ford’s tires, and reinflated them with a carbon monoxide fire extinguisher. Today, he’d tackle the ranch in a crew cab F-250 bearing his ranch’s name and brand, but in 1949, no such vehicle existed. Buick set out to build it.
The car they returned with had everything Kleberg’s home-built car had, and then some. It was based on a 1949 Buick Eight, but aside from the 152-hp Fireball straight eight and Dynaflow transmission, there wasn’t anything that the Buick team didn’t put its hands on in a mission to build the finest ranch car ever produced.
The frame of a 1949 Roadmaster dropped 5 1/2 inches, but the overall length grew four inches due to the storage space in the rear. Height and ground clearance increased, too, and the car’s overall weight grew by 900 pounds.
Every mechanical component was designed for the most extreme duty. Nickel chrome moly, shot-peened steel made up the steering and suspension components. The 32 quart cooling system nearly doubled the capacity of a standard Roadmaster. What would’ve been a decorative escutcheon around the hood’s emblem in lesser cars became a massive air intake, forcing air into the oil bath air cleaner.
The rear quarters were constructed of 20-gauge steel for strength and durability. The one nod to weight-savings (something current Ford truck owners should be interested in) is that the hood, doors and decklid were all made of aluminum. Of course, it was .064 inches thick to avoid dents, ignoring any weight savings in favor of durability.
Hunting accessories bristled inside and out. Game forks allowed deer to rest on the fenders, and chrome tiedowns on the bumpers and running boards kept them secure. Three rifle cases slid home in specially-designed holsters on each fender. The windshield folded down like a Jeep’s so passengers could target game from the comfort of the front seat. More adventurous hunters could perch on a seat on the front fender, the only seating position accompanied by a seat belt. Each fender hid a spring-loaded compartment, lighted inside, to store everything from ammunition to fuel cans, to a full first aid kit with everything from Band Aids to hypodermic needles.
The interior was just as elaborate. Chrome grab rails kept passengers in seats upholstered in brown leather, not unlike the brown leather in a current King Ranch edition F-Series pickup. Both the door panels and aluminum tumblers in a specially constructed traveling bar carried the Running W brand that still appears on the seats of the F-Series. In place of a carpet? A painted pony-skin rug.
Where today would be a GPS and an inclinometer, Kleberg’s Buick had a compass, an altimeter and a tachometer. Under the dash, he had access to the winch control, and a pistol holster, should he stumble into some bad hombres on the trail. To conduct official House of Representative business, Buick installed a radio-telephone.
The cost? “Well, nobody around the big Buick plant at Flint, Mich., or at the GM general offices in Detroit seems inclined to talk about it,” reads the text in Popular Science. “But you do get the impression that if you would like to have a dream car built to your specifications, it would help if you started off owning a million-acre ranch or a share in the U.S. Mint.”
The King Ranch Buick is still around. It’s on display at the King Ranch Museum in Kingsville, Texas.