Where Bronco began…
During the Second World War, the Ford Motor Company built tens of thousands of Willys Jeeps under licence for the war effort, yet it was almost twenty years from the cessation of hostilities before Dearborn created an offroad lifestyle vehicle of their own, one which has more recently undergone something of a re-birth.
During the early ’60s, and somewhat belatedly spotting a potential market for a vehicle equally adept on, or off-road, the blue oval surveyed Jeep and International Harvester Scout customers. The revelation that these rivals suffered from “poor comfort and ride with harsh noise and vibration problems” led to a product planning committee memo dating from October 1963, code named Bronco. Seven days later, another memo, this time entitled GOAT (Goes Over Any Terrain), was distributed, leading those in the know to initiate a product whose buzz still resonates today.
McKinley Thompson was a noted Ford designer, working at the time within styling chief, Alex Tremulis’ advanced studio. Prior to those memos landing, Thompson had rendered a boxy, two-door, two headlight utility prototype. With a green for go, he spent a further year refining this “does anything, goes anywhere” vehicle. Launched by Vice President, Don Frey on 11 August 1965, Bronco arrived either as a Roadster (open air), Wagon (two doors, roof and tailgate – the most popular seller) or Sports Utility, the latter having a pick-up bed. Curiously, that latter term was not deemed acceptable at the time, Half-Cab becoming the adopted nomenclature.
With upgrading packages and lucrative options galore, Bronco came with standard all wheel drive, a three-speed stick shift, and 105 bhp from its six cylinder 170 cubic inch (2.8 litre) engine. From the 2 March 1966, the 289 ci (4.7 litre) V8 came on stream. The suspension was coil springs up front with additional radius arms on a box section, with body on frame construction. All glass was flat, the doors symmetrical, the bumpers straight. Simple.
Minimal upgrades occurred over seven long years when finally an automatic transmission became part of the Bronco revolution. This revision also included the 302 ci V8 (5 litre), or for those more frugal minded adventurers, a 200 ci (3.3 litre) six. The name of that gear train? SelectShift Cruise-O-Matic. Very go-getting, 1960s style.
Redesigned for 1974 (codenamed Shorthorn), delays occurred due to the previous year’s fuel crisis. Bronco was never one to be called economical, yet sales buoyed nicely. New for 1978 saw Bronco built on the F-series platform with two flavours of V8 – the sixes, for a time being discarded. One new addition was much-needed power steering which may, or may not have assisted Ford in shifting 180,000 Broncos in just two years.
The following year, three of those chassis were removed from the Kentucky line and treated to heavy modification. Painted Wimbledon White, with Wedgewood Blue interiors, they were readied for Pope John-Paul II’s week long tour of the United States in October 1979; the Secret Service taking control of these Popemobile Broncos.
Folk less attuned to the divine had to make do with a Bronco more rectangular than boxy in appearance; gone too, the circular headlights. During this timeline, yet more powerful engines made their way under the bonnet, while interior luxuries began their stealthy encroach, and the options list burgeoned – would madam prefer white or yellow wheels to adorn that chunky rubber?
As befitting the decade that was in it, Broncos of the third generation (1980-86) went on a diet to the tune of some five hundred pounds, yet still managed a beefier deportment. Resolutely remaining a two-door, more balanced looks tied in nicely with independent front suspension combining twin traction beams to smooth out the handling. A six was reintroduced along with an updated 302 ci V8 with EFI – further improving driveability.
One connection which endured longer than anticipated was a tie-up with Eddie Bauer, the outdoor enthusiast’s supplier. These special edition Broncos were equipped with two-tone paint, special velour upholstery and even branded luggage. Bronco Eddie Bauer editions also introduced the slightly smaller Bronco II model. Fitted with one of four V6 mills in an attempt to placate fuel mileage zealots, production lasted only six years before Dearborn introduced the Explorer into the segment.
For Bronco’s 25th anniversary, one could subscribe to a Currant Red exterior with charcoal leather. A very limited Nite Edition (just 383 made) was, to nobody’s surprise all black but body stripes were available – Aegean Blue and Azelea Pink. Oddly, given that it was the Bronco’s Silver anniversary, that external colour was not offered, your rewards primarily being plush velour, key fob, bag and jacket.
A four year swan-song was hosted between 1992-96 which Ford advertised as the “Smartest Bronco Ever”. Enthusiasts termed this the OBS (Original Body Style), a respectful, thirty years rearward-looking nod, augmented by driver’s airbag, three point seat belts and on-trend CFC-free air conditioning, cup holders, more colours, posher leather, fancier gauges, premium (finally!) sound system, auto dimming rear view mirror alongside those Eddie Bauer connections.
A darker episode in the Bronco’s iconography however took place during a mid-July Friday afternoon in 1993 – one preordained with the phrase ‘ there’s no such thing as bad publicity.’ With what must have had some Ford executives whooping with joy, we of course are referring to the slow-motion police chase of a white Bronco XLT containing former American football star, turned actor, O.J. Simpson in his vain attempt at avoiding arrest. Estimated at 95 million live viewers, questions regarding enhanced Bronco sales remain unanswerable, but prevail in conversation even now.
Over 31 years of production, Bronco totalled 1,148,926 cars. By 1996 however, customer priorities had changed, with demand shifting towards bigger SUV vehicles with four doors. Bronco nevertheless maintained a hold within the American psyche as cultural icon, a means for heading off the beaten track, regardless of whether your gear was sourced from Eddie Bauer or elsewhere.
With examples approaching sixty years of age, clubs devoted to their restoration and use have sprung up from Galveston to Great Lakes. Be they uprated, cosseted or trashed, a gnawing hunger for adventure remained – an ache in the American soul that Jeep alone could not assuage. Had uncle Henry’s crystal ball been shinier, there may have been no need to close that stable door. For somewhere deep within Dearborn, there was a horse whisperer…
Data Sources: corporate.Ford.com, Ford.com/bronco
13 thoughts on “Untamed Soul”
Good morning, Andrew. Great reading material as usual. Living in Europe, these old Broncos have been largely absent from my life, apart from their occasional appearance on TV or the silver screen.
It is a significant vehicle for Ford and much loved by its fanbase. There are quite a few restomods out there, Zero Labs did an electric version, which is certainly interesting.
The current Bronco had a lot of hype around it, but I’m sure we read all about it in the sequel.
Morning Andrew. Another great article. I like the utilitarian original and the simple chassis and transmission layout. I love photos of the oily bits 🤣. Looking forward to the next instalment.
The end of the ‘OJ Simpson’ model Bronco and it’s replacement was the subject of a witty comment on the quite excellent comedy series ‘Arrested Development’. One of the characters is at the local Ford dealer…
David, that’s gold 😀
It is isn’t it? That is one of the best ever American TV comedy series.
Agreed David. Arrested Development was superb.
There was me thinking GOAT meant the Greatest Of All Time. What do I know?? Great article Andrew…
Just a note – the Bronco was not redesigned for 1974, it was built on the same platform through 1977. The “Shorthorn” prototype was part of a series of designs based on the F-series chassis but sadly were never built. The others in this series of prototypes included the “Longhorn” four-door, “Midhorn” that was modern-day Tahoe sized, and a six-inch winder “Widehorn”.
Much as you note, none of these came to fruition due to the price of oil.
Great piece, thank you Andrew. I saw a new Bronco yesterday (the ‘proper’ one, not the Sport) in this grey colour and it looked fantastic:
It’s definitely another contender for my fantasy garage.
Here’s an early promotional film – looks fun. It strikes me its purpose was very much in line with that of the original Land-Rover, with its emphasis on dual roles and bolt-on equipment, albeit in a more refined form. The design reminds me of the 1950s Ford Escort and Esquire estates from the UK.
I could not but be intrigued by the “twin traction beams” which facilitated the IFS of the 80-on Bronco. This is a good guide to the principles:
Undeniably clever, but there is a “down on the farm” feeling to the Ford/Dana engineering, probably in a good way, as the Hemmings article states:
“The TTB axle has taken its share of guff from hardcore off-roaders who prefer straight axles, but in stock form, it’s dirt reliable and simple to repair. Due to the sheer number of Ford trucks made with TTB from 1980-’97, parts are plentiful and cheap today, plus the knowledge base for this innovative design runs deep.”
The driver for the articulated axle seems to have been compatibility with the rather earlier Ford Twin I-beam independent front suspension arrangement, which took over from dead beam front axles on the Ford pick-ups.
Were there any 2WD Broncos? It doesn’t seem so, which is surprising since there were RWD Scouts, Blazers and Jeeps of most sorts.
It seems like the TTB would be worse than the twin I-beam for camber change with travel, particularly on the passenger side. An old truck driver I knew didn’t like the Ford front end because of that.
A friend has one of the early 80’s Broncos that was built from CKD in Australia, converted to diesel and he is now putting a turbo on it.
It says something about the little work needed to make the 1978 Bronco from the F-series that they would do so for just 2 years – but surprising that none of the Big 3 did a 4-door SUV to emulate the IH Traveller until the Tahoe in 1995.
Oh, the mighty Bronco! Back in 1995, in what now seems a previous life I was a wide-eye young engineer on my first job fresh out of college, at Ford Motor de Venezuela. One of the best assignments I had there was to help organize the Engineering Sign-Off road trip for the then new second-gen Ford Explorer, which was about to start assembly in Venezuela. The trip took some four days and involved several engineers from Detroit and some staff from Venezuela (engineering, marketing, production, etc.).
The trip involved the following cars: A 1996 pre-production Explorer, a 1993 first-gen Explorer, and on loan from the other friendly car manufacturers in Venezuela, a Chevrolet Blazer, Toyota Land Cruiser Station Wagon, and Jeep Grand Cherokee. As a support vehicle we had the engineering manager’s Ford Bronco, filled with tires, supplies, towing ropes, replacement parts, etc.
One of the days in the road trip involved a long, remote 4×4 trail into the mountains near the central coast of Venezuela. You have to remember this was back when SUVs still were expected to have some off-road credibility and the Detroit engineers were keen to see how their new pride and joy would hold up on real tropical 4×4 conditions. Anyway, in one particularly tight and rocky up-hill part of the trail, which turned first right and then left, the Chevy Blazer’s front transmission went out with a loud “pop” that left us onlookers suddenly very quiet, and which left the Blazer with only rear-wheel drive, hopelessly scrabbling for traction. Facing the possibility of having to leave a shiny new (albeit injured) SUV stranded in the middle of nowhere, someone suggested to tow it with the mighty Bronco until we could reach flat terrain. And so, after getting all the other cars out of the way, the Bronco heroically pulled the Blazer up. Its V8 roaring like a Tyrannosaurus Rex that had just stubbed its toe and the Bronco’s front tires and twin traction beam squirming and shimmering under the massive torque required to pull four tons of SUVs over a rocky trail, while all of us cheered and jumped up and down. I managed to record a video that was later asked to send a copy to Detroit so they could see with their own eyes the power of the mighty Bronco.