“KING RANCH: The name is embroidered in the tapestry of Texas, rising from the sun-baked coastal plains in the infancy of the state itself. King Ranch is the inspiration of legends and speculation, tradition and history. Rawhide-tough through drought, Indian attacks, Civil War, and the Great Depression among other trials, King Ranch is the star of Texas.”
—Bill Benson in Bob and Helen Kleberg of King Ranch by Helen Kleberg Groves
I was fortunate to grow up in the orbit of descendants of Robert and Helen Kleberg. Like their legendary grandparents, the extended King/Kleberg family continues the tradition of ranching, generosity, and hospitality at their spectacular ranch in South Texas. Over the years I have been blessed to spend an occasional week in February or March at the Norias division of the King Ranch. Some of the best memories of my life are fishing, quail shooting, and feasting on Nilgai sausages with friends at Norias. The scenery, people, and camaraderie are unparalleled. There is so much to love about South Texas, but nothing compares to the expansive beauty of the King Ranch.
For passionate car aficionados, one of the most interesting phenomena of South Texas is the evolution of the “South Texas Hunting Car.” At Norias, I fondly call them “War Wagons.” The name is derived from the license plate that adorns one of the Jeep Wagoneer-based hunting cars at Norias.
In the 20’s, 30’s and 40’s, South Texas ranch owners would “cut down” sedans and trucks and specially outfit them for hunting. It was Robert Kleberg who was an early pioneer in creating these custom built hunting cars. The process included removing the roofs and adding seating and gun racks. Even today, the configuration of these vehicles makes them perfect for taking groups out to hunt quail and big game across the rugged terrain of South Texas. Their unique open design allows for quick and easy egress. Side mounted scabbards put guns within close reach. An early Kleberg Buick is on display at the King Ranch Museum in Kingsville.
“To take their friends hunting on the ranch, Daddy and Uncle Tom designed special hunting cars. The earlier ones carried bird dogs in boxes on the running boards and had loose leather scabbards for rifles and shotguns tied on the sides. Over time, the cars became more elaborate, with compartments for food and drink, coats, and ammunition, but no dogs. Uncle Dick had Buick build a hunting car to his specifications. It was a masterpiece and is currently in the King Ranch Museum in Kingsville.” —Helen Kleberg Groves
Today, this proud tradition continues. The term “coach builder” may be a little aggressive, however, there exist specialty companies that do nothing but convert and build South Texas hunting vehicles. Companies like Performance Top Drive and South Texas Outfitters have made a business out of creating specialized hunting vehicles. The process usually begins with the platform of a decade-old Chevrolet Tahoe or a Ford pickup. In the case of the King Ranch, the construction of War Wagons is not outsourced to some third party. Rather, they are carefully built on site at Norias with certain modifications performed by local machine shops and specialists. The process of building a South Texas Hunting Car is actually quite complex and time-consuming.
I recently interviewed Hector Munoz, manager of the King Ranch’s Norias Division. Hector has built many a War Wagon during his decades-long tenure at the ranch.
“Don’t get me wrong, it takes a lot to make one.“ -Hector Munoz, Manager of Norias
Below is a transcript of my discussion with Hector:
Turtle Garage: Hector, tell us about the process of building a War Wagon.
Hector: What you do is get the electric saws and carefully remove the roof and the doors. We then send it off to a nearby specialty welding shop to fabricate the front and rear bumpers. The rear bumper is designed with extra length so we can add the wood storage boxes in the back. We also put a metal bar with a bracket holder to attach a spare tire. The wood bolts directly to the metal and it all must align perfectly. It’s all part of an integrated design. The wood box has to fit precisely within the bumper. The front bumpers are a work of art.
Turtle Garage: Hector, can you tell us about the various trades involved in building a War Wagon?
Hector: We use an expert woodworker in Kingsville and it’s all made by hand out of oak because it has to last. The sun and rain down here are tough on everything. The wood is cut to exacting standards and carefully glued together. We then take the car to the body shop and the welder makes the metal scabbards. Once they are fabricated we take the whole car to the leather shop and he will make leather liners for the scabbards. Our preferred welder is out of Raymond Texas but most of the work happens in Kingsville and right here at the ranch. The seats get removed and the leather guy recovers them and creates the convertible top. He works with the metal worker to make the frame for the convertible top and the folding windshield. Then we have a mechanic who wires the wiper motors for the windshield wipers. He will also wire the front and rear bumpers on the front and the back. The winch is removable and we have receiver hitches in front and rear and we can move it where we need it. We also add a large water cooler to all War Wagons and proper mounting of these is critical.
Turtle Garage: Hector, what is the best car to start with when building a modern War Wagon?
Hector: Today there are but a few options on platform “donor” vehicles. We used to use predominantly use Jeep Wagoneers. Suburbans are just too long so we use the Tahoe platform. The last one we built was off a 2005 platform. We usually get about ten to fifteen years out of each vehicle. Right now the Norias fleet of War Wagons includes a 1975 Wagoneer and 1998, 2001, and 2005 Tahoes. The Tahoe’s are great but we really like the old Wagoneers because they are so durable—they sure don’t make em’ like they used to!
Turtle Garage: Hector, can you give us a glimpse into the technical detail and process of building a War Wagon?
Hector: Every tradesman that touches our War Wagons finish their part exactly the way I want it. As I’ve said, we have a lot of skilled people involved in building the finished product. It all needs to be orchestrated and timed correctly. There is a method to the madness and it’s a process. We want it all to fit together properly and that means converting the vehicle the right way and in the right order or operations. If you forget things or cut corners it gets expensive and the final product can be negatively impacted. It’s hard to undo mistakes.
Turtle Garage: What is the timetable to build a War Wagon?
“I’m not going to lie, it takes a whole year to build a War Wagon.” —Hector Munoz
Hector: You can’t really rush building a War Wagon. You have to start at the body shop. Then go to the welding shop and make the front and rear bumpers and convertible top. You have to have an old hunting car to compare it to so you don’t miss things or make mistakes. These cars are generational and are all somewhat related to each other. It takes craftsmanship. Every car is different. It takes over a year to build one. Once you remove all the doors and roof there is a ton of electrical things that get affected. We don’t need an air conditioner or heater or a CD player but we actually keep all that functional.
Turtle Garage: Hector do you have any other closing thoughts?”
Hector: I’ve been very fortunate to be around these hunting cars. They are very rare, and I know that. Everybody likes them because they are so easy to get in and out of. They are very convenient. When it’s cold you are cold, and when it’s hot they are hot, but these cars are really effective and useful vehicles. We use them for every type of hunting—Deer, quail, Nilgai, Javelina, etc. and their design gives us this versatility.
Turtle Garage: Hector, thank you for your time and I appreciate your insight into these special cars!
Hector: Come on down next spring!
Here are some photos that profile the features and design of the War Wagons of Norias:
The King Ranch is one of the most special places on earth. Here are some photos that I have taken over the years:
The King Ranch brand is an iconic American symbol of success and hard work. Today you can option a Ford F150, F-Series Super Duty, or Expedition with the premium King Ranch luxury package. The package makes a strong statement that “you’ve arrived” and it includes special wheels, unique interior and exterior trim, and enhanced standard equipment. The King Ranch editions also make liberal use of the legendary “Running W” logo on the wheels, exterior, and interior.
For those readers wanting a little more history on the King Ranch you can read the excellent summary below compiled by Nanette Watson in Houses that Tell a Story:
The Old West still exist deep in the heart of Texas on the sprawling King Ranch where it remains a symbol of power, wealth and true grit. The 825,000 acres historic ranch is bigger than the state of Rhode Island and at one point was more than a million acres. This is the place where Texas legend and lore were born. King ranch is named for its name sake, Richard King, The King of Texas. Richard began life as a runaway orphan who first made his fortune running American soldiers up and down the Rio Grande River during the Mexican War.
During the Civil War, he put Mexican flags on his river boats to run Confederate cotton past Union naval blockades. It was his best friend, Robert E. Lee, who told King to keep buying up barren south Texas land. The desert of the dead was what the Mexicans called it, desert in the sense there was nothing there.
King first saw the land that would become King Ranch in April 1852 as he traveled north from Brownsville to attend the Lone Star Fair in Corpus Christi, a four day trip by horseback. After the grueling ride, King sighted the Santa Gertrudis Creek, which was the first stream he had passed in the Wild Horse Desert.
The land was shaded by large mesquite trees and was so impressive that when he arrived at the fair, King and a friend, Texas Ranger Captain Gideon K. “Legs” Lewis, agreed then and there to make it their ranch. The ranch brand LK is still in use today and stands for partners Lewis and King. Later King bought his partner out and began one of the largest private land expansions in history.
King Ranch is tied to cowboys and cattle. It begins with the loyal Kinenos, the ranch workers. King not only brought cattle up from Mexico but an entire village of Mexican cowboys who would become his fiercely loyal kinenos, the king’s men.
When he was out riding with his kinenos and carbines on horseback, King was the law unto himself, in a place he owned, ran and carved out of a harsh world. He was a man who would settle things with his fists. Pictures of him show a bull neck, enormous shoulders, and huge arms. King was a man who could settle things on his own.
In the 19th century, the ranch was visited by many weary wayfarers that found the ranch a well-run operation, but it also had an oasis of gentility at the ranch along with good warm hospitality provided by King’s new wife, Henrietta. While King was away on business, Henrietta ran the daily activities on the ranch.
Henrietta King, the queen of King Ranch, married Richard King on December 10, 1854. They had five children and in 1854 established their home on the Santa Gertrudis ranch. Not only was Henrietta King a wife and mother, but she also was the supervisor of housing and education for the families of Mexican-American ranch hands. During the Civil War the ranch was an official receiving station for cotton that was ferried to Mexican ports and then on to England.
When King left the ranch to escape capture by Union forces in 1863, a pregnant Henrietta remained. After the house was plundered she moved the family to San Antonio until they could safely return home. Upon her husband’s death in 1885 Mrs. King assumed full ownership of his estate, consisting chiefly of 500,000 acres of ranchland between Corpus Christi and Brownsville and $500,000 in debts.
King became associated with Robert Kleberg during a lawsuit and later hired him as legal adviser on the ranch. Upon King’s death in 1885, Mrs. King retained Kleberg as ranch manager. He later married Alice King, their youngest daughter.
Under Henrietta King’s skillful supervision and with the help of her son-in-law, Robert Justus Kleberg, the King Ranch was freed of debt and increased in size. By 1895 the 650,000-acre ranch was engaged in experiments in cattle and horse breeding, range grasses and in dry and irrigated farming techniques. That year Mrs. King gave Kleberg her power of attorney and increased his ranch responsibilities. In turn, Kleberg grew the ranch to 1,173,000 acres.
Henrietta King died on March 31, 1925, on the King Ranch and was buried in Kingsville. At her funeral, an honor guard of 200 vaqueros, riding quarter horses branded with the ranch’s Running W, flanked the hearse. Each rider cantered once around the open grave.
After the death of Mrs. King, the ranch came under the control of King Ranch, Incorporated, with Robert Justus Kleberg, Jr. acting as manager and the King-Kleberg descendants as stockholders. One big reason the ranch prospered is because of what was discovered beneath the old desert of the dead. Water for one thing, but more importantly, oil.
During the first part of the twentieth century, the King Ranch became a diversified enterprise. While continuing to develop its cattle activities centered on the Santa Gertrudis breed, the ranch derived sizable income from horse breeding and racing, oil and gas production and timber.
From then on the King Ranch wasn’t just about ranching. It was one of the biggest oil fields found in Texas, where they eventually drilled 3,700 wells. The oil revenues to Exxon alone in the 1980’s were $600 million, of which the King Ranch received $100 million.
And it was Robert “Bob” Kleberg, Richard King’s grandson, a big-living, bigger-than-life character himself who turned the oil deal, negotiating the largest private oil lease in US history. Yet the ranch was never without turmoil and Robert J. Kleberg Jr., ”Uncle Bob’,’ died after ruling with an iron hand for more than half a century.
The King family became are the closest thing to royalty in Texas. Admired for their hard work and generosity, the family is expressly private and protective of their land. The ruling family’s tiered Mediterranean-style main house at the headquarters looms like a palace over the kingdom.After World War II, the ranch’s agricultural business was extended with acquisitions in Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Mississippi, West Texas and Florida. Management developed ranching operations overseas with land purchases in Argentina, Cuba, Brazil, Australia, Venezuela, Spain, and Morocco.
After World War II, the ranch’s agricultural business was extended with acquisitions in Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Mississippi, West Texas and Florida. Management developed ranching operations overseas with land purchases in Argentina, Cuba, Brazil, Australia, Venezuela, Spain, and Morocco.
The systematic and ambitious expansion of agriculture, energy and real estate created the business platform for the King Ranch of today. When Robert Kleberg died in 1974, James Clement became CEO and he retired in 1988. Darwin Smith took over and was the first head of King Ranch that was not related to founder Richard King by blood or marriage.
The family’s legacy is portrayed by the New York Times best seller Giant and later the movie starring Elizabeth Taylor, James Dean and Rock Hudson based on the Kleberg family whose lives were destined for greatness.
Whatever the future holds for this proud, noble family of Texans, the world Richard King created has become the stuff of legends and lore that still today shine brightly under the stars of Texas.
A short history from the King Ranch Website:
In 1853, Captain Richard King purchased a creek-fed oasis in the Wild Horse Desert of South Texas, sparking generations of integrity, preservation, and innovation.
King Ranch now covers 825,000 acres—more land than the state of Rhode Island. Over the course of over 160 years, King Ranch led some of the first cattle drives, developed the Santa Gertrudis and Santa Cruz breeds of cattle, bred the finest Quarter Horses, and produced champion Thoroughbreds—all under its iconic Running W® brand.
Today’s King Ranch is a major agribusiness with interests in cattle ranching, farming (citrus, cotton, grain, sugar cane, and turfgrass), luxury retail goods, and recreational hunting.
King Ranch continues to foster a culture of uncompromising quality, stewardship, and authenticity—a true testament to Captain King’s integrity and commitment to the land.