pencil sketh drawing of historic bronco

The Ford Bronco

Bronco - the world's first Sport-Utility Vehicle.

On August 11, 1965, Don Frey, the Ford Motor Company Vice President and Ford Division General Manager introduced the Ford Bronco by noting the company had added another pony to the stable to join its big brother, the Mustang.  The Ford Bronco became the first automobile called out specifically as a “Sports-Utility Vehicle,” and an American classic was born.

Why and how did Ford develop the Bronco? For that story, we need to return to World War II.  In addition to its other war-time production, Ford was one of three companies which worked to develop the Jeep.  During the war, Ford produced more than 250,00 Jeeps and were renowned for their quality.  After the war, surplus Jeeps were the choice of returning veterans and outdoor enthusiasts.  However, with the improving highway system and demand for a more comfortable driving environment, even on the trails, Ford saw the chance to design and develop a best of class utility vehicle that could also serve as a sports vehicle.  We already had experience building the Jeep, and during the late 1950s and early 1960s Ford designed and built the MUTT, a troop utility vehicle.

In 1962, Ford began to extensively survey Jeep and International Harvester Scout owners to see what they liked and disliked about their vehicles.  These findings were summarized in an internal memo on July 11, 1963 noting that both vehicles had “poor comfort, ride, noise and vibration qualities” and that the size and power of both were also unsatisfactory.  These findings, indicating a gap in the market, went to the Product Planning Committee on October, 23, 1963 with the recommendation for “funds for further development of a Ford utility vehicle, code named Bronco.” A fascinating memo a week later had the subject line “1966 G.O.A.T” as it heading.  The G.O.A.T. terminology was indicative of the desire to develop a Goes Over All Terrain vehicle while the document itself describes the drivability of the car.

Image of 1966 Ford Bronco

The earliest sketches for the Bronco, dated July 24, 1963 were developed by designer McKinley Thompson, and show the now familiar box shaped vehicle with the recognizable round headlights and two door layout. The one jarring feature of the early design documents was the placement of the spare tire inside the vehicle’s rear storage space! McKinley Thompson, was part of the larger team working on the Bronco, but stands out because he was the first African American automobile designer working for Ford.

The vehicle underwent constant revisions over the next year as its features were molded, so as Don Frey described it was “neither a conventional car nor a truck, but as a vehicle which combines the best of both worlds. It can serve as a family sedan, as sports roadster, as snow plow, or as a farm or civil defense vehicle. It has been designed to go nearly anywhere and do nearly anything.” 

Image of 1966 Ford Bronco with top off

Initially, the Bronco was offered in three body styles, the Roadster (open air model,) Sports Utility (with pickup bed,) and Wagon (two doors, tailgate, full top.) The Roadster was the most basic and least expensive of the three with doors and roof as options! The Sports Utility featured a short top, seating for two or three with a bench seat and a pickup style bed. Over time, the Sports Utility was known as the “half-cab.” The most popular model was the Wagon with a full-length hardtop roof and seating for up to five people with rear bench seat. While there were a tremendous number of optional packages, all three models came with standard four-wheel drive, a 3-speed manual transmission, and a 105 horsepower 170-cubic inch six cylinder engine. On March 2, 1966, the 289-V-8 was offered as an upgrade and the Bronco’s horsepower and torque rating increased to the top of the sports-utility field.

While those were the basic specifications, Don Frey also signaled the available customization of the vehicle by noting “like its older brother, the Mustang, it will be offered with a wide range of options and accessories that will permit it to be the many things to many people.” The accessory catalogs for the first-generation Broncos reads like an outdoorsman’s dream with equipment like snowplows, front mounted winch, tow hooks, locking hubs, power take off and even two-way radios. The early advertising for Bronco reflect its outdoor use, and the customization and accessorizing of the vehicle.  In essence, the Bronco became a palette that each owner could, and did, modify for their lifestyle. In its basic configuration, the Bronco was as comfortable on the highway as the trailhead, but with some modification, could win at Baja.

The Bronco was an immediate favorite for outdoor off-road racing. Bill Stroppe was given a Bronco before its public release and prepared it for competition. That six-cylinder Bronco was the overall winner at the 1967 Riverside Four-Wheel Drive Grand Prix. The Stroppe Broncos also racked up victories in 1968 at Riverside, the Mint 400, and Baja 1000, where Larry Minor and Jack Bayer drove a stock Bronco to victory in its class.  In 1969 Minor and Rod Hall took the class and overall victory as their Bronco was the first vehicle of any kind to cross the finish line setting a new record. The off-road racing scene also attracted a number of celebrities who wanted to try their hand at racing Broncos.  Actor James Garner and band leader Ray Coniff were just two who joined the Ford team. Possibly the most famous driver was Indianapolis 500 winner Parnelli Jones, who joined the Stroppe team as a driver. Their modified 1970 “Big Oly” Bronco soon became the talk of the Bronco community and is still arguably one of the best known off-road racing vehicles of all time. Winner of the 1971 and 1972 Mexican 1000 Race, the Parnelli Jones Bill Stroppe driving partnership cemented the legends of both men.

Image of 1966 Ford Bronco with trailer

While upgrades were made to the Bronco after its introduction in 1966, the vehicle remained essentially unchanged until 1973. That year the long awaited power steering and automatic transmission were introduced as part of a “Bronco Revolution.” When the 302 V-8 was selected buyers were able to choose the SelectShift Cruise-O-Matic 3-speed transmission. Additionally, a new 200-cubic inch six replaced the 170-cubic inch six that had been standard since the introduction. 

Even with the upgrades, the first generation Bronco was reaching the end of its viability. Initially slated for introduction during the 1974 model year, the redesign (codenamed Shorthorn) was delayed because of the 1973/74 oil embargo and resulting economic downturn. The 1978 Bronco was entirely redesigned to offer the 4x4 market a tremendous off-road vehicle with equal highway performance. The new Bronco was based on the F-Series platform, which increased the length and width of the vehicle, offering a smoother ride and more passenger comfort. The 1978 model offered two V-8 engines and for the first time did not have a V-6 option. 

The interior of the new 1978 model was completely redone as well, offering more space and more comfortable buckets seats in the front and, with a new recessed footwell, much more leg room for the passengers in the rear seats.  The new model also had two first time features, air conditioning and AM/FM radios were offered as options.  One popular carryover option was the recognizable swing-away tire carrier. The redesigned Bronco was a sales hit with more than 180,000 sold the first two years.

Image of 1970s Ford Bronco

Three of those 180,000 second generation Broncos underwent quite a transformation.  The Broncos were to be modified for use by Pope John Paul II during his visit to the United States between October 1 and October 7, 1979.  The Bronco “Pope Mobiles” were open in the back so he could stand and be seen.  The exteriors were painted Wimbledon White while the interior was done in Wedgewood blue. After the modifications were complete, the three Broncos were turned over to the US Secret Service for their special passenger.

The 1980 to 1986 generation Bronco became smaller, lighter, more aerodynamic and fuel efficient.  The Bronco was based on the shorter F-150 platform and featured both V-6 and V-8 engines.  The timing for the new generation was providential as the second oil crisis had seen gas prices climbing astronomically. Additionally, this generation Bronco was the first to offer independent front suspension replacing the monobeam front end. Work on the independent front suspension for front wheel drive vehicles had been researched since the early 1970s and Ford was awarded a patent on the system in 1976.  The new axel required a frame change, so its implementation was delayed until the 1980 release.  The increased fuel efficiency and new suspension were heavily touted in in advertising and were well received by the buying pubic and automotive press.

The Bronco II was introduced in March 1983 as a 1984 model.  The smaller brother to the Bronco, the Bronco II was built from 1984 through 1990. As the Bronco was based on the F-Series frame, the Bronco II was based on the Ranger platform and both were manufactured at the Louisville, KY plant.  The vehicle came with four V-6 engine options. While first introduced with the 1984 Bronco II, the 1985 Bronco was the first to feature the Eddie Bauer trim package. Advertising touted the rugged toughness of the Bronco and Eddie Bauer gear.  The distinctive Tu-Tone paint treatment and accent stripes were easy to spot! After 1990, the Bronco II was discontinued as the new Ford Explorer was introduced in that segment.

Image of 1986 Ford Bronco

The 1987 to 1991 generation Bronco received an aerodynamically redesigned front end and a variety of modernized features.  This generation saw the introduction of electronic fuel injection, rear anti-lock brakes and, after 1988 two 5-speed manual transmissions.  A few of the custom trim packages are worth noting.  The special 25th anniversary edition offered a special Currant Red color and charcoal leather seating.  For the Nite edition, the top and body were painted Raven Black and all the body trim was blacked out.  A body side tape stripe ran the length of the body and was only available in Aegean Blue and Azalea Pink.

The final generation of the Bronco was between 1992 and 1996 and was the last lap for the venerable two door off-road utility vehicle.  The changes to the body and styling were minimal but the vehicle was enhanced with a number of safety and utility features.  Ford advertised the 1992 Bronco as the “Smartest Bronco ever.” This generation was the first to feature driver’s side airbags, three point seat belt systems and, by 1994, an air conditioning system that used a refrigerant that was free of chlorofluorocarbons (CFC’s). The Eddie Bauer and Nite editions were continued with this generation.

If the 1979 Bronco had a notable passenger when Pope John Paul II used it as his PopeMobile, a 1993 Bronco had one of the more notorious passengers ever, O.J. Simpson. When asked to turn himself in as a suspect in the death of his wife Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman, O.J. instead fled the police.  After eluding authorities for most of the day on Friday, July 17, he was spotted late in the day by the police near I-5 in Orange County as a passenger in Al Cowling’s white 1993 Bronco.  The resulting two-hour slow speed chase around the city was televised around the world with an estimated 95 million viewers.  A.C. had purchased a white 1996 Bronco to match O.J.’s own white Bronco that was later confiscated as evidence. Al Cowlings and O.J. eventually pulled into O.J.’s Brentwood driveway where both gave themselves up to authorities.

Image of 1996 Ford Bronco

The last Bronco rolled off the assembly line on June 12, 1996 at the Michigan Truck Plant. The taste of the American consumers was changing, and the stalwart two-door sport utility vehicle was being replaced in the Ford lineup by the four-door Expedition. During its 31-year run, 1,148,926 Broncos were built, but even more important than the number, the Bronco became ingrained in the imagination of the public.  From enthusiast clubs in Iceland (where a large number of the 1st generation Broncos were sold,) to off-road groups across the US, to numerous appearances in movies and songs, the Bronco became a cult classic.  Some Broncos were painstakingly restored to their original condition while others were modified like “Big Oly” had been 50 years before.  In many ways, the Bronco became a way for the owner to express their personality and style, but at the core, the Bronco remained a go anywhere, do anything off-road favorite for owners who wanted to live on the wild side.