O.J. Simpson and the Sad Last Years of the Ford Bronco
To put it mildly, 2016 has been a dramatic year. But now as it draws to an end, it’s time for people like us to put together our “Best of” lists. And if you watched any TV this year, you probably would’ve noticed the unlikely comeback of O.J. Simpson. February saw the launch of The People vs. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, a miniseries that took home nine Emmys. In June ABC aired the ESPN documentary O.J.: Made in America, a sprawling, nearly eight-hour look into the life of Simpson and the role of race in American culture. As of this writing, it could become the first TV documentary to be nominated for an Oscar.
So in 2016, when the line between news and entertainment is more blurred than ever before, we stepped back and relived that first moment when the two began to overlap. Simpson, of course, was the 1968 Heisman Trophy winner, the first round draft pick out of USC, named to five Pro Bowls, an NFL MVP, and a Hall of Famer. He was also one of the most high-profile TV pitchmen for the better part of 25 years, and acted in Hollywood films like the Naked Gun trilogy. And on June 17, 1994, he became the most famous fugitive in the world.
Simpson was the prime suspect in the murder of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman. Failing to turn himself in as evidence mounted against him, he led police on a history-making low-speed chase that was captured on live television. But while Simpson sat crouched behind the front seats of his friend Al Cowlings’ car with a gun to his head (he safely surrendered), he inadvertently created a pop culture icon. After nearly 30 years in production, the Ford Bronco had become the most infamous car in the world in a matter of hours. Less than two years later, the venerable nameplate was gone.
We’ve written at length about the Bronco’s history here, but we’ve never touched on its sad last days. Ford’s rugged, compact 4×4 was redesigned in 1978 as a full-size, two-door with a removable rear hardtop. The F-Series based SUV was still a capable off-roader, but with a more spacious, luxurious interior, it became more competitive with the popular Chevy K-Series Blazer and Dodge Ramcharger. That year, O.J. Simpson was traded to the San Francisco 49ers.
In 1980, the Bronco entered its third generation as the F-150 saw a comprehensive redesign. It was a popular offering for Ford, and while demand for SUVs was starting to increase, it was becoming clear that Americans wanted something other than what the Bronco offered. 1983 saw the introduction of the compact Ranger pickup-based Bronco II, designed to compete with the new Chevy S-10 Blazer, GMC S-15 Jimmy, and Jeep Cherokee. This new generation of compact SUVs struck a chord with buyers, and they quickly began outselling their larger rivals.
In 1987 (as O.J. was filming the first Naked Gun movie), the Bronco entered its fourth generation, getting new sheetmetal from the A pillars forward from the F-150. Sales were already dipping, and all production shifted to Ford’s Valencia Assembly plant in Venezuela. In 1990, Ford introduced the compact, four-door Explorer, which became a massive hit, almost instantly redefining the American automotive landscape. The Bronco entered its fifth generation in 1992, but the writing was on the wall, and the Bronco’s days already seemed numbered.
Then came June 12, 1994. After finding the bodies of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman outside her home, police went to inform O.J. at his Brentwood, California home, finding blood on and inside his white 1993 Ford Bronco, and a trail leading into his house, along with other incriminating evidence. The truck was impounded as he was named the prime suspect, and was already in possession of the Los Angeles police before he disappeared.
Despite the white Bronco millions of people saw on TV on June 17, “O.J.’s Bronco” wasn’t O.J.’s. It belonged to Al Cowlings, a former USC and NFL teammate of his, and one of his closest friends. Cowlings’ Bronco was identical to O.J.’s: a white XLT model with a gray vinyl interior and a 302 cubic inch V8. It was built in March 1993, and one of 32,000 to roll out of the Valencia plant — in contrast, Ford sold nearly 302,000 Explorers.
The chase reached over 95 million households. ABC, NBC, CBS, and CNN all interrupted regular programming — including Game 5 of the NBA finals — to cover the chase. For over an hour, America watched as a white Bronco containing a suicidal Simpson led police on a 40 mile per hour chase down the 405 during rush hour before ending in a heart-stopping climax at Simpson’s house. The next morning, Ford had free advertising for its struggling full-size SUV on the front page of every newspaper in America.
Cowlings was arrested for aiding and abetting a fugitive. Once he was released, he wanted to get rid of the white Bronco as quickly as possible. He sold it in January 1995 for a reported $200,000 — $180,000 over the sticker price. The owner, adult film producer Michael Pawler, hoped to raffle it off, but instead it sat in an underground parking garage in Los Angeles until 2012.
That year, as Simpson was serving year three of a 33-year sentence for armed robbery in Nevada’s Lovelock Correctional Center, the Bronco was thrust back into the spotlight outside of the Luxor hotel on the Vegas Strip. It spent six months there, before appearing as part of an art installation in Greenwich, Connecticut. Since then, it’s been sold again, to a group including O.J.’s former manager, Mike Gilbert.
Due to a horribly compromised investigation, Simpson was acquitted on October 3, 1995. Shortly after the trial, his white Bronco was destroyed by the LAPD along with other evidence. By then, Ford had already announced that there wasn’t much time left for the Bronco nameplate. Explorer sales were now pushing 400,000 units a year, Broncos were dipping to below 30,000, and Americans were hungry for more quiet, comfortable, (and most importantly) four-door SUVs to replace their minivans and station wagons. In 1997, Ford launched the four-door Expedition to fill the Bronco’s spot in its lineup. In its first year, it sold over 260,000 units.
The O.J. connection didn’t kill off the Bronco, but it didn’t do it any good either. In his excellent essay about trying to sell Ford’s big SUV in 1995 (the year of the Simpson trial), Jack Baruth says the Bronco wasn’t poisoned by its tabloid collection — it already had a tarnished reputation:
Instead, they were sales poison and my dealership refused to stock them. Why? It’s this simple: Broncos, despite their high-profile endorsement by a friend of OJ Simpson in the Nineties, had a reputation as being trucks for white trash. To own a Bronco was to define one’s self as some sort of Florida hick who liked muddin’. While the Suburban quietly gained a reputation as a horse-trailer superstar and the oh-so-Grand Wagoneer ascended into the Hamptonian aether, the Bronco couldn’t escape its association with the Deliverance crowd. This continued to be the case even as ownership of a full-sized pickup gained social acceptance outside country-music circles.
But O.J.’s Bronco lives on in popular culture, and will likely continue to after returning to the spotlight this year. Owner Gilbert claims: “After the limo that JFK was shot in, this is the second-most-viewed car in American history.” And in the book Crimes of the Century: From Leopold and Loeb to O.J. Simpson, author Gilbert Geis refers to the chase as “the most famous ride on American shores since Paul Revere.” Neither are far from the truth.
Now 20 years after the Bronco’s demise and 21 since the end of the O.J. trial, a vocal group of gearheads are clamoring for a rebooted version of Ford’s rugged 4×4. A new Bronco is on the way for 2018, but it remains to be seen if it has any of the previous truck’s DNA, or if it will be just another SUV. All these years later, it’s clear that the Ford Bronco and O.J. Simpson aren’t completely intertwined anymore. But if you’re in the market for a new Bronco once they hit dealerships, you might want to avoid buying one in white.