Bill Stroppe is known in the automotive world as a legendary builder of winning off-road vehicles. He built some of the strongest and fastest vehicles to ever race off-road for some of the best drivers and set an extremely high industry standard for quality control with his craftsmanship. Claude and Ada Stroppe welcomed their son Bill Stroppe into the world January 15, 1919 in Long Beach, California. The young Stroppe showed his mechanical interest at a young age. By age ten he wanted to know how the inner workings of the family dairy and its machines operated. He assisted his father with the maintenance of the machines and learned to drive the delivery trucks before he finished elementary school.
Stroppe truly began his lifetime involvement with vehicles while still in high school at the Long Beach Poly Auto Shop and while working a second job at a dismantling lot. Under the guidance of the wrecking yard owner, Floyd Henderson, Stroppe learned to build a vehicle from the ground up. Through the influence of his auto shop teacher Floyd Nelson, he became interested in building and racing fast cars. Nelson brought Stroppe on to join his team along with Bob Ware to build and race midget cars on California’s many tracks. By the time he graduate high school in 1938 Stroppe had begun racing the midgets himself as well as drag racing along dry lakes and racing speed boats. Stroppe’s love for racing was only matched by his desire to work on the race vehicles and forever looking for ways to mechanically improve them. Out of high school and already recognized for his extraordinary mechanical skills Stroppe began working with Lincoln and Mercury dealer Art Hall. However, trouble had begun brewing in Europe and in 1941 he enlisted with the Naval Air Reserve. In 1942 with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor all reserves came into active duty. As an Aircraft Mechanist Mate, Stroppe served under Captain Earl R. DeLong and accompanied him on the USS Casco in the Pacific. Aboard the Casco, Stroppe made two very important contributions to the war effort. He invented a smoke producing machine which shielded the aircraft carrier from enemy view and he devised a way to refuel the aircrafts in a substantially faster manner earning himself the Presidential Citation. Right before heading to sea Stroppe married his sweetheart, Helen Tavasti. It would be two and a half years before he would see her again and five years before he returned home from the military. Once home he began working again with Art Hall and the foundation to begin a working relationship with Ford Motor Company was laid by the two men. Hall determined that participating in the 1947 Henry Ford Memorial Regatta boat race would be a stellar opportunity for him and Stroppe to be noticed by the Ford Company. In the boat sponsored by Hall, with a once problematic Ford engine that Stroppe and Clay Smith had successfully re-worked, Stroppe won his class and beat all of the factory entries. The win and the engineering paid off and Ford Motor Company recognized their genius and talent. Stroppe would work with Ford as his client for the duration his career, working on a wide variety of vehicles, from Indy cars to trucks built for off-road racing in the desert. He started with building cars to drag race in California’s dry lakes in 1950. Later in the 50s, he and his team won the 2,200 mile Pan American Race three times and found great success with the Mobile Economy Runs, which were cross country races. With driver Tim Flock the team won the 1957 Daytona Beach 500 setting a convertible car record which still stands today. In 1964 he teamed up with Parnelli Jones and the two went on to win eight major races as well as the U.S.A.C. Championship’s for the Lincoln–Mercury Division before they even started their winning off-road partnership.
In August of 1965 Ford released their Bronco designed for off-road use. They sent two of the Bronco’s to Stroppe for testing. In 1966 he took one out to the one of the earliest off-road races at Riverside, California to see for himself the vehicles capabilities. Stroppe found racing the vehicle a new challenge and enjoyable. He took the vehicle back to Riverside a few weeks latter to show it to the press and to let them test drive it, the event was known as the Bronco Roundup. The event provided Ford with positive exposure and they encouraged Stroppe to continue to promote the Bronco. The perfect opportunity to promote the Bronco arose with the inaugural Baja 1000 in 1967. Stroppe entered a Bronco driven by Ray Harvick. Stroppe meticulously prepared the Bronco using his knowledge from Riverside. He and Harvick led the race until they stopped to help fellow racers Rod Hall and Larry Minor. After helping them the Bronco ended up getting stuck in the same hole unbeknownst to the Hall and Minor who went on to win their class. Stroppe and Harvick then suffered additional technical difficulties and had to pull out of the event. Despite not finishing the race Stroppe came out ahead with numerous ideas on how to improve off-road vehicles and to make Ford’s Bronco program successful.
Stroppe realized that a famous name would help promote the sport and Ford. A challenge made by Stroppe stating that his friend and accomplished road racer Parnelli Jones couldn’t handle off-road racing lead to an on-going partnership and some amazing results in the off-road racing world. Jones had sat at the wheel of the vehicles which Stroppe built for racing on pavement and then at the wheel of the Bronco. Stroppe sat in the co-drivers seat and urged Jones on to multiple victories. One of the most notable, being the capture of the overall win of the 1971 Baja NORRA Mexican 1000 in the Big Oly Bronco. The men led the race from start to finish and set a new course record of 14 hours and 59 minutes. They repeated the feat again at the 1972 race with a time of 16 hours and 42 minutes on a much longer course. That year Stroppe’s vehicles also took second place with Larry Minor and Jamie Martinez driving as well as third place in a Bronco driven by Bill Rush and Dan Shields.
Stroppe’s reputation for building quality vehicles led to some very high profile contracts. His services were in demand from the President of the United States to individual Bronco enthusiasts. In addition to building race vehicles for Jones to drive, Stroppe has built vehicles for a number of notable individuals. He built race vehicles for Larry Minor, Rodney Hall, James Garner and Walker Evans. Stroppe also built vehicles for actor and Hall of Fame Inductee Steve McQueen, musicians Ted Nugent and Ex-Beatle George Harrison. He even served heads of state. He built a vehicle for Mexico’s President Lopez Mateos. By the 1970s Stroppe had become so well recognized for his expertise as a vehicle builder the White House commissioned him and his son Willie Stroppe to maintain the Presidential Ford Bronco’s kept at the “Western White House.” The Stroppes undertook this task for President’s Nixon, Ford and for President Regan while he was still Governor of California. Ford saw that the demand for Stroppe’s talent reached to the general public as well the company began promoting Baja Broncos, a “limited production duplicate” of the team cars Stroppe built. Between 1971 and 1975 Stroppe’s shop modified around 650 vehicles for the Ford customers who ordered the model. Stroppe outfitted the Baja Broncos with his own brand of aftermarket parts including roll bars and shocks. The vehicles are collectors’ items today and no two are exactly alike.
Stroppe’s accomplishments did not stop with building first class vehicles. He also believed in helping others. There are numerous stories of him selflessly coming to the aid of others. In the 1980s he and Parnelli Jones worked tirelessly to see a health clinic established at the Rancho Santa Inez in Baja. Stroppe assisted with the physical building of the facility, approached his friends and associates to make financial donations and pushed the project forward until it became a reality.
Stroppe’s legacy lives on today and his son Willie still operates Bill Stroppe and Son, Inc. with Ford Motor Company still as one of the business’s major clients. Currently the company tests breaking systems for Ford and handles the Western Region Media Fleet. Stroppe and Son Inc. employs 19 full time and 15 part time individuals.
Sources: Author interview with Willy Stroppe, April 2006.
Fiolka, Marty. 2005. 1000 Miles to Glory, The History of the Baja 1000. Pheonix, AZ.: David Bull Publishing.
Madigan, Tom. 1984. Boss, The Bill Stroppe Story. Burbank, CA.: Darwin Publications.