Every now and then, a rumor ripples through the automotive world that just won’t die. No matter how many disavowals, contradictory moves, and hard evidence otherwise, these rumors just have legs. Case in point is the 2004 Ford Bronco concept. Introduced eight years after the last Bronco rolled off the assembly line, its boxy profile, four-wheel drive powertrain, and no-nonsense interior was a timely throwback to the original 1966-’77 off-roader. And seemingly every year since, a new wave of fans become convinced that the concept is just months away from hitting showrooms – thanks in no small part to Four Wheeler’s convincing 2014 April Fool’s Day joke. But now, because of the recent U.A.W.-Ford contract, a new Bronco (and Ranger pickup) is seemingly just around the corner. Set to give the venerable Jeep Wrangler some long overdue competition, it could return Ford to the top of the 4×4 heap.
Introduced 50 years ago, the Bronco played a major role in ushering in the SUV segment. Just 30 years later, the segment itself would work destroy the nameplate. And while the Bronco left the market in a cloud of infamy, history has been kind to the nameplate, and today the first-generation trucks are quickly becoming one of the most collectible 4x4s in history.
In the early 1960s, the SUV market was dominated by the independents. Kaiser Jeep had its CJ-5, and International Harvester had the Scout, but none of the Big Three felt it was necessary to field a compact, four-wheel drive, body-on-frame vehicle to compete in this utilitarian segment. Chevy’s had its El Camino, and Ford’s Ranchero already combined a car-like ride with truck utility – but good luck taking them off-road. By mid-decade, however, things began to change, and Ford found itself at the center of it all.
In more ways than one, the Bronco was the flip-side to Ford’s industry-changing Mustang. Introduced in 1964, the Mustang was sporty, modern, and affordable enough for almost everybody. It was also deceptively simple; riding on a compact platform borrowed from a Ford Falcon, its powertrain choices were cribbed from the Falcon and Galaxie. And while the Mustang epitomized the growing baby boomer market in most of the country, another “youth trend” began to emerge that the Mustang just couldn’t tap.
In the early 1960s, a new automotive counterculture began to emerge: Off-roading. With the ubiquity of surplus army Jeeps, the aforementioned CJ-5 and Scout, cottage industry vehicles like the Myers Manx dune buggy, and imports like the Land Rover and Toyota Land Cruiser, this new off-roading culture was booming across the West, from Moab in Utah to Baja California. It was growing so big and so fast, in fact, that over in Detroit, Ford began to take notice.
The Bronco was the first post-Mustang project for masterminds Lee Iacocca and Donald Frey, who were eager to lock down this growing number of drivers looking for a compact truck they could commute in during the week, then take rock crawling on weekends. Iacocca and Frey had Ford fan out across the West and talk with over 300 members of off-road clubs to see what they wanted from a factory-stock truck. Word came back that these enthusiasts wanted a 4×4 slightly more civilized than the available indies and imports — one that was both rugged and modern. Ford was all too happy to oblige.
Like the Mustang, Ford’s off-roader borrowed heavily from the company parts bin, including the 170-cubic inch inline-six from the Falcon, and the axles and brakes from the F-100 pickup. But unlike most Fords, the Bronco had a body, frame, and suspension all its own. It was available in three body styles: A hardtop “wagon,” a capped pickup with a short bed, and a “roadster,” a doorless ragtop meant to compete directly with the Jeep CJ-5. The Bronco appeared in August 1965 as a ’66 model, and while it didn’t have the broad appeal of the Mustang, it hit just as the 4×4 market began to explode.
With the Roadster starting at $2,404 (roughly the same as a Mustang), and the Wagon starting from $2,625, Ford sold a respectable 23,766 Broncos its first year. It was a drop in the bucket compared to the 607,568 Mustangs it sold, but the Bronco instantly gave Ford credibility off-road. After an in-depth test in the hills of southern California, Car Life concluded:
The Bronco can tote grub from the general store or pack the young ‘uns off to the schoolhouse. In a pinch the Bronco can help with the spring plowing. Best of all about the Bronco is that West of the Pecos rodeo aura that makes a driver shout, ‘Eeeeeaaaaayyhhooo!’ as he plows four-wheel full tilt through a mountain stream or breaks airborne over a mountain top.
It may have been over the top, but Car Life’s take wasn’t that far off. The Bronco was more civilized than the Jeep and the Scout, but not by much. Amenities like doors (in the roadster), a back seat, heater, chrome bumpers, and radio were all options. As were snowplows, tow hooks, winches, posthole diggers, and lawnmowers. The Bronco could even be sold as fire truck and auto wrecker conversions, making it one of the most versatile trucks on the market. And with the Bronco’s relative success, the SUV market quickly began to grow.
The Bronco continued to sell respectably, but within a few years, Ford’s self-described ORV (off-road vehicle) proved to be too utilitarian for most shoppers, especially once Chevy’s Blazer hit the market in 1969. As Hemmings Classic Car put it:
The Blazer’s option sheet was dripping with creature comforts that the Bronco wasn’t delivering: power steering, power brakes, air conditioning, an automatic transmission and even a four-speed manual floor shift. The Blazer’s knockout blow was the available 255hp four-barrel 350-cu.in. V-8, which was an extra-cost option above the optional two-barrel 200hp 307-cu.in. V-8. The base engine in the Blazer was the 155hp 250-cu.in straight-six.
By 1973, the Bronco lineup was pared down to just the wagon, but it struggled to keep pace with larger and more comfortable rivals like the Blazer, the nearly-identical GMC Jimmy, and the Dodge Ramcharger. As Hemmings points out: “…near the end of the first-generation Bronco’s run in 1976, Chevrolet was selling 74,389 Blazers versus Ford’s 13,625 Broncos.” For 1978, Ford phased out the original truck and followed the lead of its rivals by basing the all-new Bronco on a shortened Ford F-100 platform.
Unsurprisingly, the bigger, more powerful (a 351 cubic inch V8 came standard), and more comfortable Bronco launched Ford into the thick of the growing SUV segment, selling 69,120 of the new model in 1978 alone. A comprehensive facelift came in 1980 and soldiered on until mid-decade. But by then, the SUV segment was beginning to fragment. In 1983, Ford released the Bronco II model, a compact SUV that roughly returned to the same proportions of the original truck while retaining the car-like ride of the full-size model. It was designed to compete with GM’s Chevy S-10 Blazer and the GMC S-15 Jimmy, as well as AMC Jeep’s new Cherokee, a unibody soft-roader that offered all-wheel drive durability with a car-like feel. By decade’s end, this type of soft-road SUV would come to dominate the market, making it synonymous with suburban families. In 1990, Ford had replaced the Bronco II with the Explorer, giving the company its biggest hit in decades. With each passing year, off-road ready full-size SUVs were beginning fade further into irrelevance.
The popular version of the Bronco’s demise is that it was axed in a reaction to O.J. Simpson and Al Cowlings’s leading the LAPD on the most infamous low-speed chase in history on June 17, 1994. But the truth of the matter is that the Bronco’s days were already numbered. Even before O.J., the Bronco had become something of an albatross for Ford dealers (illustrated by Jack Baruth’s excellent essay), selling under 30,000 units a year while the Explorer was cracking over 400,000. In a sign of the times, the Bronco was replaced for 1997 with the nine-passenger Ford Excursion. With that the SUV market had been seeded to the suburbs, and the Bronco name was consigned for history.
Almost immediately, there were murmurs from the faithful. It may have gotten lost in the sea of Explorers, Blazers, and Cherokees, but the Bronco had become an off-roading icon to thousands. The first generation truck’s tasteful lines and rock-solid simplicity made it a darling of the trailblazing set. In 2011, Los Angeles-based shop released the Icon BR, a modified, vintage Bronco built to withstand the harshest terrain on earth. Its cost? Roughly $150,000. Since then, the ’66-’77 Bronco’s experienced a renaissance in the collector market. With so many of the trucks ridden hard and put away wet, well-preserved models can easily fetch close to $50,000. In 2015, the mixture of rumors, enthusiast pressure, and the right conditions reached a breaking point – and it broke in the Bronco’s favor.
In the wake of the latest Ford-U.A.W. agreement, we can expect to see a 21st century Bronco before decade’s end. Since it’s slated to be based on a Ranger pickup, it’s likely to maintain some of the compact charm of the first-generation models. A lot has changed since the ’60s though, with Jeep now one of the fastest-growing brands in the world, and its venerable Wrangler the only game in town when it comes to factory-ready off-roading. Ford has a long, rocky road ahead of it if it wants to unseat the Jeep icon, but with the original Bronco as a template, it’s off to one hell of a start.
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