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