Post-World War II America saw a rising demand for vehicles like the Jeep CJ-5 and the International Harvester Scout – rugged, high-riding machines that could go just about anywhere and feasibly double as a daily driver. Keen to capitalize on this new market, and at the behest of Ford product manager Donald N. Frey, the company began designing its own version of the sport-utility vehicle in the early 1960s.
Those efforts would result in the launch of the Bronco in 1966, Ford’s first SUV. Its production run would last three decades, and the vehicle’s success over that time would earn it both endearment as well as a dose of infamy within popular culture. Here we’ll look back at how the Bronco took shape, its evolution over that 30-year production run, and how the nameplate will live on in the 21st century.
Originally designed to take on basic, all-terrain focused vehicles like the Jeep, the first-generation Bronco focused on the fundamentals of simplicity, durability, and off-road capability. (Photo Credit: Ford Motor Company)
First shown to the public in the summer of 1965, the Bronco was in many ways a more radical and risky endeavor than bringing the Falcon-based Mustang to market. Unlike Ford’s would-be pony car juggernaut, the Bronco’s platform was bespoke – its frame, suspension components, and bodywork weren’t sourced from another vehicle in the FoMoCo roster.
As it was a utility vehicle, the Bronco’s feature set was fairly spartan when it was introduced to the motoring public.
Of course to keep costs down and development time to a reasonable minimum, Ford used off-the-shelf parts where it could. The axles and brake system were pulled from the F-100 pickup, along with the 2.8-liter inline six-cylinder engine, which could be found in a number of the companies passenger cars. An optional 289ci V8 would appear later in the 1966 model year.
The Bronco was initially offered in three different configurations: hardtop, pickup, and a roadster. The drop top would not prove to be a strong seller, and was eliminated from the roster early on.
The Bronco’s six-pot mill was modified; utilizing solid lifters, a heavy-duty fuel pump and off-road focused components like a carburetor with a float bowl which compensated against issues that might arise from vehicle tilting in the dirt. Also, part of its all-terrain design was a Dana 20 transfer-case with a low range ratio of 2.46:1 and locking hubs. Gear selection was of the row-your-own variety by way of Ford’s three-speed manual transmission.
As it was a utility vehicle, the Bronco’s feature set was fairly spartan when it was introduced to the motoring public, though options like a rear bench seat, an auxiliary gas tank and heavy-duty suspension could be specified, as could accessories that included trailer hitches, winches and snow-plow kits. The Bronco was initially offered in three distinct configurations as well – a standard wagon-style hard top, a pickup and an open-roof roadster. Ford would move nearly 24,000 examples of the Bronco in its inaugural year on sale.
In its inaugural year, the Bronco was offered with Ford's 170 cubic-inch inline six-cylinder engine paired with a three-speed manual transmission on the column. By the middle of 1966, Ford’s 289-cube small-block V8 joined the option list. (Photo Credit: Mecum Auctions)
Throughout the late ’60s and into the ’70s, the Bronco evolved in small increments that added more capability and a wider range of creature comforts like power-assisted steering and two-speed windshield wipers. 1967 brought the Sport package into the fold, which added more brightwork as well as a few interior amenities, and the 1969 model year would see the optional 289ci V8 replaced by a 200-horsepower version of Ford’s 302ci V8.
Though incrementally updated throughout its lifespan, the first generation Bronco largely stuck to the original script throughout its 12-year production run. Competition from Chevrolet’s full-sized Blazer, introduced in 1969, would convince Ford to up the Bronco’s capability and eventually, its size as well.
While the Bronco continued to sell in steady numbers, pressure was mounting from Chevrolet, who introduced the Blazer in 1969. Unlike the Bronco, the Blazer was derived from the company’s full-sized pickup line. As such, it offered a much wider array of options – including an automatic gearbox – as well as a larger, 350ci V8 engine. With sales on the decline by the mid-1970s, Ford knew it needed to step up its game.
Bronco Goes Big
Though the Bronco had held its own throughout the early ’70s, by the middle of the decade pressure was mounting from both Chevrolet and Chrysler, the latter of which having introduced the full-sized Ramcharger in 1974.
Designed by Dick Nesbitt and originally slated for launch four years prior – the oil crisis of 1973 was largely responsible for the delay – the second generation Bronco would hit showrooms in 1978 as a full-sized SUV derived from the sixth-generation F-100 pickup, and rode on a shortened 104-inch wheelbase.
In 1978, Ford followed the strategy established by Chevrolet Blazer and Dodge Ramcharger when it decided to move the Bronco off its bespoke, compact platform and onto one derived from their full-sized pickup line. Along with lower development costs, this move allowed Ford to equip the Bronco will the same heavy-duty hardware available on the F-Series trucks.
A coil-sprung Dana 44 axle was outfitted up front, while a leaf-sprung Ford 9-inch solid-rear-axle was utilized at the rear.
The Bronco II
Introduced in 1985 for a six-year production run, the Bronco II provided a smaller, Ranger-based alternative to the full-sized Bronco. Available with both V6 and four-cylinder turbodiesel power, the Bronco II’s 94-inch wheelbase made it a relatively agile and a sure-footed off-roader. All 1985 models were outfitted with four-wheel drive as standard. Similar to the full-sized Bronco’s fate later in the decade, the Bronco II would bow out in 1990 to make room for the new Explorer in Ford’s truck lineup.
Part-time four-wheel drive was standard, as was big-cube displacement – Ford’s 351M (based on the Cleveland) small-block V8 and the 400ci big-block were the only engines available, and they could be paired with either a four-speed manual transmission or a three-speed automatic.
Like its mechanical elements, the full-sized Bronco’s aesthetic largely followed in step with Ford’s full-size, light-duty pickup line – though its removable hardtop and folding rear seat gave the Bronco unique appeal.
Just two years after the introduction of the full-sized SUV, Ford would give the Bronco a number of revisions; outfitting the front-end with Ford’s Twin Traction Beam independent-front-suspension, overhauling the design inside and out and expanding the engine lineup. The full-sized Bronco would continue production more or less in lockstep with Ford’s full sized pickup line for more than a decade and a half.
Retirement and Revival
After 30 years of production, Ford discontinued the Bronco in 1996 to make way for the upcoming four-door Expedition SUV. The late 1990s and early 2000s would see the decline and eventual demise of the full-sized, V8-powered two-door sport utility vehicle in favor of larger four-door vehicles like the aforementioned Expedition, the Chevrolet Tahoe and the Dodge Durango, vehicles which remain in production today.
After three decades of production and hundreds of thousands of examples built, production of the Bronco came to an end in 1996, clearing a path for its successor, the Ford Expedition. More luxuriously appointed and in four-door configuration as standard, the Expedition continued to move Ford’s full-sized SUVs away from their original design as a purpose-built off-roader and into their new role as a family hauler.
However, after years of speculation, rumor, and even a concept version that was shown at the 2004 Detroit Auto Show, Ford has officially announced that the Bronco nameplate will make its return for the 2020 model year after a hiatus that lasted nearly two and a half decades.
The information unveiled thus far does point to a different animal than the vehicle which last held the name though, as the new Bronco is said to be based on the four-door Ford Everest, which is currently sold in international markets and itself based on the Ford Ranger.
The Ranger-based Everest, seen here, will serve as the platform for the Bronco's revival. Though test mules seen in and around Detroit have shown Bronco prototypes that look similar to the vehicle shown here, Ford says the new Bronco will be a unique vehicle rather than simply a rebadged Everest. Time will tell.
Ford remains tight-lipped on powertrain information, but it is expected to be similar to the Ranger, which will also make its return to the American market soon. That makes four- and six-cylinder turbocharged mills likely, but V8-power less so.
However, Raj Nair, Ford’s former Chief Technical Officer, told Road & Track in an interview: “We have an idea of what a Bronco should be, and we’re going to be looking forward to bringing that to our customers.”
Sounds like we’ll just have to wait and see how it all shakes out.