The Lost Generation - The Greatest "What If?" in Bronco History
In the history of every legendary vehicle, there are always a few "what if?" moments that its fans tend to puzzle over -- even decades later. What if the company had expanded the lineup, introduced specific tech, or had decided to change the model's direction?
Would it have changed the model's history, had a long-lasting effect on the brand, and thereby made the car better or more popular?
In the case of the Ford Bronco, that specific "what if?" moment happened in 1971.
Back in the early 70s, Ford was justifiably proud of the success of its first-generation Bronco, but at the same time had begun to grow a little concerned about it. There was a good reason for this. Just a couple of years prior, Chevrolet had introduced the K5 Blazer, which by 1970 had outsold both of its direct competitors – the Bronco and International Scout. All of a sudden, the Bronco was no longer a segment leader, and the newly formed class of SUV buyers were flocking to Chevrolet dealerships.
Whether the Blazer was a better car than Bronco is up for debate, but the fact is that Blazer was bigger, featured a few more engine choices, and even offered some upscale features which weren't available on the Bronco.
Chevrolet wanted to compete in the growing SUV segment of the late '60s but didn't want to invest in the development of unique platforms and chassis architecture, like Ford did. They instead just took their standard pickup chassis, shortened it a bit, and used as many truck components as possible in creating the first Bow Tie SUV model. This principle was straightforward, but effective and resulted in a competent vehicle that was even priced at $100 less than the Bronco.
By 1972, Bronco had spent six years on the market, and Ford had done little in terms of its improvement and evolution during that time. Now motivated to take a more actively role in improving the model, Ford assembled a team of engineers and designers in Dearborn and tasked it with the making of a second-generation Bronco while using Chevrolet's Blazer formula.
Their work was started in 1971 and was rushed along by management, since Chevrolet announced the second generation Blazer for 1973, while Dodge and Plymouth were planning to introduce their SUV models in the form of Ramcharger and Trailduster in 1974.
Since Ford already had a successful lineup of pickup trucks with optional 4x4 drivetrains, its engineers simply repurposed their existing components and very soon had three fully-functioning, full-size prototypes. The model's development was set in three distinct directions.
The first one was exemplified by the Bronco Shorthorn, which was the prototype of a compact-size second-gen Bronco built with existing mechanical components and already available engines, combined with a more modern design that featured some components from Ford's truck and van lineup.
The Shorthorn was scheduled to appear in 1974 with a fixed roof, since Ford came to realize that most of its customers wanted closed vehicles -- a realization that was reinforced by the open-air Bronco Roadster proving to be a tough sell. However, even though it looked great and contemporary, Ford ditched this proposition entirely, since the result couldn't quite be seen as a competitor to the Blazer. It was still a markedly smaller vehicle than the Chevrolet, so Ford wasn't sure that it would be a sale success.
Ford's next step was to create another Shorthorn concept in 1973, which was actually nothing more than an F-150 with a roof and an extra pair of seats in the back. This model was a running prototype that used all the components and design features from Ford's existing truck line.
Ultimately, Ford decided not to build this model either, since its introduction could potentially damage F-Series sales, and the new F-150 was already set for its 1974 debut. Some sources say that there was no funding in place to undertake the making of a Bronco that looked less like an F-Series SUV, which was a factor in the description to scrap this take on the model.
The second exciting prototype was the Bronco Widehorn. Unfortunately, there aren't any available photographs of this seemingly outstanding vehicle. It was based on an F-100 4x4 platform, but was a full six inches wider (hence the name) and was designed as a dedicated off-road runner.
Apparently, it was the Bronco's racing heritage that influenced designers to create a vehicle like this, since the early 70s also marked the rise in popularity of the sport of off-road racing. As with all unsuccessful concept and prototype vehicles, examples of the Widehorn were destroyed as soon as the project was canceled. We sure would have liked to see some photos, but there just aren't any -- even in the Ford media archives.
The third vehicle in Ford's early 70's Bronco prototype lineup was the very interesting Bronco Midhorn. This vehicle was also based on the F-150 chassis and had an easily recognizable front-end design. It also had four doors and was the spiritual predecessor of models like the Ford Expedition and Excursion, despite arriving some 25 years before the first of these vehicles was officially introduced.
The Midhorn was a full-size SUV that offered generous amounts of space, along with that unique, 4-door congifuration. It was only recently that Ford officially introduced a four-door Bronco as a 2021 model -- all previous Broncos had strictly been two-doors.
However, if you really wanted a four-door Bronco, you could order one from some small coachbuilding companies throughout the 80s and 90s.
We believe that, in canceling the Midhorn project, Ford made an enormous mistake, simply because we're convinced that it would have been an instant success -- it would have appeared simultaneously with the 1973 Suburban, which turned out to be one of the best-selling SUVs of all time and stayed in production for almost 20 years.
If Ford had offered a four-door Bronco with similar dimensions, engine options, and features as the Suburban, we doubt that Chevrolet would have remained so dominant in the market. However, by late 1974, all Bronco prototypes (Midhorn, Shorthorn, and Widehorn) were canceled, with the resulting cars being destroyed, and the engineers assigned to other projects.
The official reason for killing the project was attributed to the fuel crisis of the early '70s, as Ford management feared that big vehicles with thirsty engines would not be able to find buyers. The success of the Ford Maverick and Mustang II showed that small cars had become increasingly popular with customers.
However, the success of other, more substantial SUV models, like the Blazer, Suburban, International Travelall and Dodge Ramcharger, showed that Ford made what was among the industry's biggest mistakes of the '70s by not finishing the development of these prototypes.
As we know, Ford eventually did introduce the second generation Bronco in 1978, using the Blazer doctrine of making an SUV as a passenger version of the manufacturer's full-size pickup. Additional proof that Ford made a big mistake in 1974 was the fact that the second-gen Bronco was an enormous sales success with over 181,000 units sold in just two years.
If this generation had been introduced earlier, Bronco would have enjoyed substantially higher sales numbers. Still, Ford decided to keep the existing first generation around until 1977, at which point it had become very apparent that this legendary SUV was pretty outdated.
What's really fascinating -- while also showing quite a bit of foresight on Ford's part -- was the fact that Ford, way back in the early '70s, had begun to envision a full lineup of Bronco models, just as it has today. The Bronco Shorthorn would have been an entry-level model, similar to the Bronco II from the '80s. The Bronco Midhorn would have been a full-size SUV, directly aimed at the Chevrolet Suburban and International Travelall. The mystical Bronco Widehorn could be considered a predecessor of the F-150 Raptor or, even better, the eagerly anticipated 2023 Bronco Warthog, as an extreme off-road model for real enthusiasts.
Such advanced thinking would have resulted in the first comprehensive SUV lineup that covered all aspects of the segment, from small runarounds to serious off-road machines. Not only would it have definitely resulted in outstanding sales, but it would also have given Ford a chance to beat its main rivals and establish domination of the emerging SUV market.
But instead, Ford decided to play it safe. Interestingly, the Shorthorn-Midhorn-Widehorn concepts proved to be so influential that today, almost 50 years later, we now have their descendants in the form of the Bronco Sport, two and four-door Bronco, and the upcoming Bronco Warthog. I
It just goes to show that great ideas and forward-thinking will eventually be recognized and appreciated, even if they had been misunderstood or underappreciated in the past.