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Big Oly is headed to auction—and could be the most valuable vintage SUV, ever

by Colin Comer
18 March 2021 4 min read
Photo by Mecum

Parnelli Jones’s legendary Big Oly Bronco is heading to auction—and it promises to be the world’s first seven-figure vintage SUV.

Even at 87 years old, Parnelli Jones remains a household name to anyone remotely interested in motorsports. Which, of course, is completely understandable for a racer who retired with countless wins and championships on a résumé that includes everything from Midgets, Pikes Peak, NASCAR, Trans-Am, USAC, and over 20 Hall of Fame inductions throughout the sport. 

For the past 51 years, Jones has also owned the world’s most famous Ford Bronco, “Big Oly,” the Baja-winning racer he built in 1970 and took to numerous off-road racing wins with Bill Stroppe.

Any first-generation Ford Bronco is a hot commodity these days, regularly selling in the six-figure range at auction, but when Jones rolls Big Oly onto the Mecum auction block this May, I have no doubt it will become the first Bronco—and yes, the first vintage SUV—to bring seven figures. 

Setting records is nothing new for Jones and Big Oly. It all came together in the late 1960s after Jones, who had already proved his worth on paved tracks as well as his share of dirt tracks, like Pikes Peak, turned down an opportunity to run with Stroppe in the Mexican 1000, claiming he was done with eating dirt. After that, Stroppe told some friends at a party in late 1967 that “Jones wasn’t man enough for off-road racing.” 

Consider what Bullitt might have been worth if it were the only one ever built and if McQueen had designed it, built it from scratch, raced it with enormous success, retained it for the next 50-plus years, kept it in flawless condition, and was on the auction block ready to hand the keys to its second owner.

“It was like showing a red cape to a bull,” according to Jones. And as the saying goes, sometimes when you mess with the bull, you get the horns. Mind you, Stroppe and Jones already had a long history together in racing. In 1964, Jones won eight races driving for Stroppe on his way to a USAC Stock Car title and captured back-to-back stock car wins at the Pikes Peak Hill Climb in 1963 and 1964. 

Stroppe’s taunt worked. Jones told him to get a Bronco ready and he’d drive it. The first race was the 1968 Mint 400 in a mostly stock Stroppe-prepared Bronco, a run that ended in a mechanical DNF after Jones nosed the truck into a wash that wiped out the front end. This less-than-P.J. luck lingered through more off-road racing until Jones and Stroppe emerged victorious at the 1970 Baja 500 in the 2WD Bronco named “Pony.” That win only showed Jones that he needed to build the ultimate Bronco race truck from scratch. 

Mecum

The result was Big Oly, the truck that would change off-road racing forever and become perhaps the most legendary race truck of all time. 

Big Oly may resemble an early Bronco, but it is anything but. It features a full 4130 chrome-moly tube-frame chassis, aluminum inner panels, fiberglass body, a setback 351W engine, four-wheel disc brakes, a Trans-Am-spec full-floating rear axle, a Lotus Indy-car-inspired windshield “air curtain” to keep dust out of the cab, built-in Thermos drinking systems for driver and co-driver, and a heavily modified Twin I-Beam front suspension, among other innovations. Stroppe’s ingenuity included a backlit device containing a hand-operated scroll of maps meticulously drawn by Stroppe after pre-race runs of the course—essentially an analog GPS system. It was just one of the advantages hidden in the 2600-pound, 390-hp off-road weapon. But Big Oly’s true party trick is its roof, which is, in actuality, a cockpit-adjustable wing to keep the truck planted to the dirt at high speed. 

Mecum

It all worked, and combined with Jones’s ability to take to dirt like a penguin takes to icy water, Big Oly was unbeatable. Although a broken rear axle kept it from taking the 1970 Mexican 1000, at the same event a year later, it set a record time of 14 hours and 59 minutes—beating the former record by a whopping 1 hour and 8 minutes. It was this win that cemented Big Oly’s reputation, along the way elevating the street cred of basically every Bronco built before and since. Big Oly continued to race, winning the 1972 Mexican 1000 and both the Baja 500 and Mint 400 in 1973, before being retired in 1975.

But here’s the amazing part about Big Oly coming to market: Unlike most old race trucks, Big Oly was never sold off and raced into extinction by a series of owners. Rather, it was retained and cherished by Jones for its faithful service and significance to not only the sport but clearly also for the special bond between this legendary man and his legendary machine. 

When Big Oly isn’t residing at the Vel’s Parnelli Jones Racing shop, it has been generously lent out by Jones to share its story with the world, from Dearborn to the Petersen Museum and even on the lawn at Amelia Island. Even former Mexican President Vicente Fox Quesada once sat in Big Oly, noting just how important the vehicle is in the country where it scored its greatest triumphs.

Make no mistake: This iconic truck, owned since new by one of the greatest legends of motorsports, is a very big deal. I expect people to allow their wallets to fight fiercely for the chance to be handed the keys by Jones and become its second owner.  

Mecum

One could draw a comparison to Steve McQueen’s Bullitt Mustang, which Mecum sold for $3.74 million in January 2020. Both are movie stars (Big Oly had a supporting role, along with Parnelli, in the original 1974 Gone in 60 Seconds) and were driven by larger-than-life figures. But consider what Bullitt might have been worth if it were the only one ever built and if McQueen had designed it, built it from scratch, raced it with enormous success, retained it for the next 50-plus years, kept it in flawless condition, and was on the auction block ready to hand the keys to its second owner. Hard to comprehend, but would that have made Bullitt a $6M vehicle? 

As we all know, competition history with big names attached is often a tremendous determining factor in value, as is originality and something being in as-raced condition. Big Oly has all that in spades, along with that little bit about Jones owning it for its entire life to date. 

No matter what method one uses to establish a price for Big Oly, it is certainly safe to say it promises to soon be not only the most famous but also the most expensive Bronco in existence, and rightfully so. I feel very confident in predicting it will be the first seven-figure sale of a vintage off-roader, and I don’t see a worthy challenger to that crown any time soon—much like Big Oly’s 1970–1973 race record, and the lifetime of achievements of the man responsible for its existence, the one and only Rufus “Parnelli” Jones. 

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Comments

  • Glenn Roberts says:

    so after reading the article, it fails to say which auction it is headed to? Wow!

  • Salvatore A Frasca says:

    what auction is it going to

  • chrlsful says:

    folks have heard here my ideas on provenance and so I will bow out of this one (entirely provenance) As there’s no Bronco left here, much like the ICON company currently produces. It is a fantastic rig, tho~
    Look to Baja this pre-Thanksgiving. Celebrate it as Indiginious People’s Day w/a short wave listen
    https://www.race-dezert.com/forum/threads/2016-baja-communications.124054/page-2

  • Maestro1 says:

    Colin, thank you, but all this does is support overheated prices in values. The reason I never participate in auctions is that I have watched the herd lust when it comes to a specific car, and then the motoring press makes a big deal out of the price, and all values rise (rising tides lift all boats). The cars I have owned and own now were/are bought off the street, resting (!) in garages or carports, and I know some Attorneys who advise me about Estate Sales. I’ve been around cars and loved them since I was 10 years old working with my Father who was a car nut in our garage in Massachusetts. I’m now 83 and although I can’t wrench anymore because of a Stroke I ‘m still active in the Hobby. And I know what I’m looking at. So I have no need for Auctions. And I think they artificially inflate prices.
    One last thing: I remember watching Parnelli drive either at Atlanta or Charlotte, my memory sometimes doesn’t serve, and I know I had an exciting day even though I’m not a NASCAR fan.

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