Ford Bronco Technology : Then and Now
From the time there were previous automotive generations to even look back on, classic cars have held substantial appeal for many of us. Some of that appeal comes from their ability to take us back to simpler, more worry-free times and, of course, even more of it stems from the timeless aesthetics so many classics featured.
But the old saying, “They just don’t make ’em like they used to” can be a double-edged sword. Where aesthetics are concerned, it’s often a valid lament, but as far as engineering, it’s almost always a good thing that technology has marched on, bringing countless improvements in both safety and performance.
The new Ford Bronco is a great example of combining classic appeal with modern technology. The Bronco’s retro-futuristic styling has garnered plenty of attention from off-road aficionados, while its state of the art engineering features have won over most of the notoriously hard to please automotive press.
So, let’s take a look at how the Ford Bronco evolved, as far as its engineering is concerned. We’ll start with its first generation, contrasting its drivetrain, suspension and braking systems with the Broncos of the present.
First Generation Bronco
To be fair here, the original Bronco was conceived with lots of emphasis on the “utility” portion of its SUV designation, despite the term not really being in wide circulation when the Bronco first debuted. As such, it was a modestly sized vehicle intended from the start to be a sure-footed workhorse, so rapid acceleration wasn’t high on the list of its attributes. It’s not that Ford didn’t know how to create substantial horsepower in the mid-’60s — its partnership with Carroll Shelby was at its zenith at this point — it’s just that straight ahead performance wasn’t a priority for Ford’s non-muscle cars.
The first-generation Bronco got its engine from the noble Falcon, which only a couple of years before had provided a large part of the ultra-successful Mustang’s foundation. Its 170 cubic inch inline 6 was good for about 105 horsepower, which was nothing to brag about even back then. Ford added a bigger oil pan for improved oil circulation, along with a carburetor float to minimize the chances of fuel starvation should Bronco find itself on a tilt while navigating rugged terrain.
Just seven months later, Ford would answer the call for more power by offering its trusty 289 cubic inch V8 as an option, affording the Bronco the chance to nearly double its horsepower.
As far as the first-generation Bronco transmission was concerned, Ford really must have put a high premium on keeping production costs down. Since a growing percentage of Bronco owners were also using their rides for day-to-day transportation, the demand for an automatic transmission grew as this same group sought to make stop and go driving more tolerable. Ford wouldn’t acquiesce on this demand until 1973 — seven model years after the first Bronco rolled out — when it finally added an automatic transmission as an option.
The New Bronco
As evidence of just how far drivetrain engineering has come, we need look no further than the sixth generation Bronco’s smallest engine offering. Its 4-cylinder powerplant carries just 2.3 liters of displacement, which is substantially less than the original Bronco engine that was borrowed from the Falcon. And yet, despite its modest size, it’s good for 300 horsepower and 325lb-ft of torque with the use of premium fuel — an incredible three times the capability of that circa-1965 inline six.
Featuring an aluminum block and excellent oil circulation, it’s a very light but durable engine. And with the aid of its twin scroll turbocharger, it delivers its power quickly, with very little of the lag we often associate with turbocharged engines.
Step up to Ford’s 2.7-liter twin turbo, 6-cylinder Ecoboost and the numbers get even better – 330 horsepower and 415lb-ft of torque — again, with the use of premium fuel.
The Bronco’s prospects for even greater power in the future include a number of potential options — in addition to the very capable Bronco hybrid that’s expected to debut soon, a fully-electric variant seems a near certainty at this point, and the prospect of the Bronco potentially being powered by the same 5.2-liter Predator V8 that equips Ford’s Mustang Shelby GT500 with a whopping 760 horses has many people justifiably excited.
Whereas, in configuring the original Bronco, the transmission seemed to be almost an afterthought, fast forward to 2021 and it has clearly become a priority, so the new Bronco’s transmission technology is light years ahead of its forefather. Opt for the engine-specific 7-speed manual that can only be paired with Ford’s 4-cylinder and you get a super low crawler gear that can really come in handy while off-roading and yet the transmission also performs well under everyday driving conditions.
Despite some doubts about its ability to withstand the rigors of spirited off-roading, Ford’s 10R60, 10 speed automatic is a very evolved and smooth-shifting transmission. Moving up to 10 gears means you’re nearly always going to be turning the optimal RPMs to take advantage of the accompanying engine’s power band — as evidence, Ford’s 2021 Mustang GT is markedly faster in automatic configuration than with a 6-speed manual. Factor in up to eight of the Bronco’s revolutionary G.O.A.T. (Goes Over Any Terrain) modes that range from Normal for everyday driving to Rock Crawl for challenging climbing conditions and you have one very capable transmission.
First Generation Bronco
Building upon the marketing intelligence Ford got through surveying owners of competing brands — namely Jeep and International Harvester — the Bronco got its own chassis that improved upon the proven twin I-beam suspension featured in Ford’s already respected pickup trucks by adding radius arms to locate the front axle. This improvement resulted in a tighter turning radius than the Bronco’s competitors, as well as a more refined ride on the asphalt and increased wheel travel to help smooth out bumps in the road.
In back, Ford paired its ultra-sturdy 9-inch rear end — which is still considered a go-to component for restored classic Mustangs when there’s going to be some serious horsepower added to the equation — with a proven leaf spring suspension.
While there were a few cars sporting rack and pinion steering by the mid-’60s, the Bronco wasn’t one of them, and its steering box had plenty of play that necessitated the back and forth motion you often see on television when vintage cars are filmed from the front while being driven in real life conditions.
The New Bronco
Just as was the case when the model first debuted in the mid-’60s, the new Bronco was the result of plenty of competitive intelligence and it features a state of the art suspension — so it bridges the shortcomings featured by its rivals, especially as far as everyday driving is concerned.
When it was first introduced, the Bronco’s double Wishbone IFS rankled plenty of purists who felt that a solid front axle was the only real option for a rugged SUV, but Ford’s gamble in this area is definitely paying off. The Bronco has received great reviews, with most mentioning the refined everyday driving experience it offers, and yet vigorous testing of its off-road abilities has shown that the Bronco is very much on a par with its Jeep rival, which by contrast has often been maligned for its comparatively rough ride and vague steering response.
Ford went with a solid axle and coilover shocks in back, deviating from leaf springs for not only a smoother and quieter finished result, but also to provide an improved departure angle. Also, the Bronco’s electrically-assisted rack-and-pinion steering makes it a very precise-handling ride.
First Generation Bronco
As was pretty much the norm for nearly all cars when it debuted, the original Bronco featured drum brakes at all four corners. Those of us who have had the pleasure of driving a car with this technology (sarcasm intended) know all about its shortcomings. Pass over a puddle, put on the brakes and it’s anybody’s guess which way the car will pull, but you DO know it will pull.
The level of brake fade that will almost invariably come from a series of aggressive stops is also hard to predict during real world driving, but it results in a less than ideal driving experience. Small wonder that the addition of disc brakes — at least in front — is generally one of the first improvements most resto-modders will make. It’s a little hard to believe, but Ford itself didn’t go to front disc brakes until 1975 — a full nine years after the first Bronco was introduced.
The New Bronco
Anti-lock brakes have long since become the norm and of course the new Bronco is no exception. With 12.2” rotors up front and 12.1” in back to provide good heat dissipation, the Bronco stops promptly for a vehicle of its heft — Car and Driver recently found that a Bronco First Edition in its 2-door form can go from 70-0 mph in a very respectable 197 feet.
Upping the ante on technology, the Bronco’s One Pedal Driving feature will apply the brakes when you lift off the accelerator while negotiating ultra-challenging terrain in Off-Road mode, so that the Bronco can ease its way down from obstacles without dropping onto unyielding surfaces.