Ford Bronco History (1965 - 1996)
During the last 100 years of the automotive age, car companies produced hundreds of millions of vehicles. Most of them were just ordinary, everyday machines, designed to provide owners with basic transportation. The cars we bought, used, and then discarded after their expiration dates. However, few models became icons of the industry and well-known even to non-car people among countless vehicles produced. Those cars transcendent the car world's limits and became cultural icons and one of the symbols of their time.
Ford Bronco is one of such models. From its modest beginnings in mid 20th century over to being décor of the greatest television stunt of the '90s to its triumphant return in 2021, the Bronco had traveled a long way. It even disappeared from the market for 25 years. But it never left the enthusiast's hearts and always remained fondly remembered as one of the best American SUVs of all time. In order to fully explain this phenomenon, we have to take a look at its great history.
People tend to forget, but Ford was heavily involved with the first mass-produced 4x4 in automotive history. Back in the early '40s, when America was getting ready to enter WWII, famous Willys MB (Jeep Willys) was born. The production was divided between Willys, and Ford and almost half of all military Jeeps were produced in Dearborn under the name Ford GPW.
After the war, Ford didn't continue the development and turned to civilian vehicles; however, in 1959, it introduced one of the first full-size pickup trucks with a factory four-wheel-drive option. This revolutionary model and its success showed Ford that there is a demand for capable all-terrain vehicles, not just for work purposes but also for buyers who wanted to use it in their spare time.
The early '60s marked the beginning of change for Ford Motor Company. The expensive failure of the Edsel project proved that the market wanted new products, innovative concepts, and fresh design. The Ford Mustangs' colossal success showed what can happen if a conservative company like Ford dares to take chances. All of that was perfectly clear to Donald N. Fray, Ford's product manager, and Paul G. Axelrad, chief engineer. They realized that there is an emerging market for a small, all-wheel-drive utility vehicle. Something affordable, smaller than the full-size truck, highly capable off-road, and offered with a lot of options. Basically, a lifestyle vehicle which will be at home on the beaches of Southern California as well as on a farm in Kentucky or snowy mountain roads of Colorado.
Since those two gentlemen were responsible for the immensely successful Mustang project, they had more than enough credibility to get the project approved by legendary Ford's boss, Lee Iacocca. Interestingly, in the final stages of the project, the name "Wrangler" was seriously considered, but Ford's marketing team decided to go with the "Bronco" instead.
The First Generation (1965 – 1977)
Ford Bronco debuted in August of 1965 as a 1966 model and was immediately met with praises from the motoring press and interest from the buying public. It was a brave step for Ford, which had a successful pickup truck line, but never made an SUV before. Back in the mid-'60s, Jeep CJ-5 and International Scout were only such offerings dominating the market, so the appearance of similar Ford product was immensely interesting.
Bronco had unique chassis architecture, standard permanent all-wheel-drive, and was sold in three distinct body styles – Wagon, Half Cab, and Roadster. The wagon was sold with a removable hardtop and proved to be most popular with the customers. Half Cab was an attractive pickup model with two front seats and a small truck bed behind the driver. However, the rarest of the three was the Roadster. Sold between 1966 and 1968, it was an open-top version without doors and with minimal convenience options. It was designed as pure beach runabout, and due to the fact it had limited appeal to the average customer, Ford only made 4090 examples.
Under the hood, Bronco received a lineup of standard Ford's engines starting with a small 170 cid, followed with 200 cid six-cylinder with 105 and 120 hp respectably. Interestingly, the V8 option wasn't available right from the start, and in March of 1966, Bronco buyers could get a venerable 289 V8 with 200 hp. All models were equipped with tough Dana transfer cases and heavy-duty Ford's 9-inch differentials.
The first-generation Bronco proved to be smashing success and stayed in production for 11 years, until 1977. Not only did it started the SUV class in America, but it also inspired Ford's competitors to offer similar models. The Chevrolet Blazer and the Dodge Ramcharger, along with Jeep and International, started the trend which lasts till today.
The Second Generation (1977 – 1979)
Ford delayed the introduction of the second generation since 1974, but by the end of the '70s, it was clear that it has to move fast; otherwise, Bronco will lose its position on the market. The reason for the delay was the oil crisis, recession as well as tightening emission and safety laws, which caught the American car industry off guard. Compared to the late '60s, engines had the same displacement but far less power and poorer performance. Although this was the time of downsizing, 1977, Bronco grew drastically in size and displacement. It was built on shorten F-100 truck chassis and shared the mechanics, front end design, and interior. The idea of several body styles that made the first-generation model so famous was abandoned in favor of one body style – 3-door SUV with lift-off rear hardtop.
Since it used the F-Series truck chassis, Ford gave the Bronco the 351 V8 as a standard engine and 400 V8 as an option. Both engines had a similar power output of 156 and 158 hp. Once again, Ford used Dana 44 transfer cases and 9-inch differentials, which were proven on the first-generation model.
Although offered for just two years, the second-generation Bronco proved to be very successful and sold in over 170,000 examples for such a short period of time. The trim levels were similar to the F-Series truck, and the best known is the "Freewheelin" cosmetic package with bright graphics strips and add-ons.
The Third Generation (1980 – 1986)
Although retaining the same philosophy of the '77-'79 model, the third-gen Bronco was much improved and efficient. It also used F-Series chassis as a platform and had the same dimensions, but it was lighter, better constructed, and more efficient than the outgoing model. In order to lower the production costs, F-Series trucks and Bronco shared the front end design, some of the body panels, and mechanics. The significant improvement was the introduction of independent front suspension, which enhanced on-road capabilities and comfort. The live rear axle design was continued as well as the use of venerable 9-inch differentials.
The engine lineup was changed and modernized and featured a six-cylinder for the first time in years. The 300 straight-six was a base engine, and only one offered with the manual. The rest of the range consisted of 302 and 351 V8 motors. In 1985, Bronco 302 V8 received a vital update when electronic fuel injection was introduced. This raised the power to 190 hp, which was respectable by the standards of the day.
Ford Bronco II (1983 – 1990)
During the third-generation production cycle, Ford decided to introduce a completely new model under the Bronco moniker. Called the Bronco II, it was a significantly smaller and lighter SUV designed to fight increasing foreign competition in the segment. The Bronco II was built on a Ford Ranger platform and featured two-wheel-drive as standard and all-wheel-drive as an optional. As you might expect, the Bronco II was cheaper and easier to live with then the full-size Bronco, which resulted in strong sales during the mid-'80s.
From today's perspective, we can say that Bronco II was underpowered since it was offered with 2.8 and 2.9-liter V6 engines with 115 and 140 hp. Interestingly, Ford decided to introduce Mitsubishi's 2.3-liter diesel unit as an option, but it was soon withdrawn due to poor performance and slow sales.
The Fourth Generation (1987 – 1991)
Although Ford insists that in 1987 the new Bronco model debuted, the truth is that this was just a thorough restyling inside and out, not a brand new generation. With new front end design, modern interior, details, and trim packages, Bronco looked fresh, although the shortened F-100 platform architecture stayed the same. Also, engine offerings remained the same as before and started with 300 straight-six as a base engine, followed by 302 and 351 V8 as the top of the line engine choice.
During this period, Ford saw the increase in sales of the upscale trim levels, especially Eddie Bauer, which was introduced as an option in 1985. This marked the SUV class shift, and no longer the bare-bones models were in demand, buyers wanted the luxury trim similar to Jeep Grand Wagoneer or Range Rover.
The Fifth Generation (1991 – 1996)
Faced with slow sales as well as the enormous success of its own Ford Explorer SUV, Ford didn't want to invest in a brand new model for Bronco's fifth and final generation introduced in 1991. By the early '90s, SUVs had become a new trend, and customers wanted modern design, luxury features as well as the comfort of a passenger car. On the other hand, Bronco, despite looking contemporary, was an old school off-roader with the live rear axle, rugged mechanics, and driving dynamics. It is evident that its time was up.
The platform was the same as well as the engine choices, and the only changes were design and interior. Those late Broncos, especially in Eddie Bauer trim, were world-class off-roaders, big, powerful, and comfortable.
At that time, Bronco became a TV star by accident when it was featured as a "getaway" vehicle in the infamous O.J. Simpson chase. It was estimated that 95 million people watched it live on TV and saw white 1993 Bronco running down Interstate 405. However, even that enormous TV exposure couldn't help to keep it from retirement in 1996.