The Ford Bronco’s Place in the Ever-Shifting SUV Segment - The Formative Years
We’ve noted on many occasions just how pivotal the original Ford Bronco was in shaping the SUV segment in its early years — even going back so far that the SUV term wasn’t even widely used yet. And while that’s true, the automotive marketplace has always been an ever-shifting landscape.
There were already precursors to the SUV on the market when the Bronco debuted — namely the trusty Jeep CJ5 and the International Harvester Scout — so when Ford product manager Donald Frey conceptualized the Bronco while seeing it as a figurative stablemate to the already ultra-popular Mustang that had been released not long before it, he also had to keep in mind that the Bronco needed to arrive with an obvious comparative advantage over its soon to be rivals.
(It’s worth noting that upon the Bronco’s arrival in August of 1965, the Chevrolet Blazer was still three model years off and the Dodge Ramcharger, the Bronco’s other eventual rival, wouldn’t hit the market until 1974. As it would turn out, the Blazer would provide the most compelling battle with Ford’s SUV through the years, until both models reached their eventual hiatus.)
When the Ford Bronco finally did hit the market for the 1966 model year, it was obvious that Ford saw that comparative advantage to be the Bronco’s more car-like ride and easy maneuverability. Though sturdily constructed, using a scratch-built chassis as a foundation, the first generation Bronco was a modestly sized vehicle, riding on a 92-inch wheelbase and weighing in the neighborhood of 3,000lbs.
Building on its own extensive market research, Ford equipped the Bronco with more responsive steering than its rivals —especially Jeep — and the Bronco’s tight, 34-foot turning radius made it easy to navigate commonly encountered everyday driving conditions. When Ford added enhanced power in the form of a 289 cubic inch V8 to the equation, it widened the Bronco’s comparative advantage even further.
Interestingly, despite the fact that you rarely hear the International Harvester brand brought up anymore in conversations centering on the automotive industry, it was the Scout that was, in several ways, the rival that was best equipped to compete with the Bronco. The Scout already offered optional bucket seats, an upgraded, more “car-like” instrumental panel and dashboard, and even the added option of a rear seat.
International Harvester may have been a brand more closely associated with the agricultural sector —“Harvester” is right there in its name, after all — but it was a surprisingly adventurous brand in this era. The manufacturer even offered a turbocharged engine in its Scout for some time, and then introduced its own 266-cubic inch V8 in 1967 — likely in response to the Bronco’s V8 option that was introduced a year earlier, though the Scout’s V8 powerplant gave up 46 horsepower to the Bronco in its V8 form.
Meanwhile Jeep held tight to its military heritage — a strategy that had served the brand well over the years. The manufacturer was forced to make some advancements to keep up with the times, however. For example, mounting complaints centered on the Jeep CJ5 being substantially underpowered when equipped with its original Willys carryover 4-cylinder were well-founded — the engine only produced a meager 75 horsepower at this time.
Jeep sought to bridge at least some of the power gap by buying the license to use Buick’s Dauntless 6-cylinder engine, which offered 155 horses. Because CJ5s were substantially smaller than even the first generation Bronco — CJs rode on a compact 85-inch wheelbase — this power upgrade made a noticeable difference, and by 1968 the Dauntless V6 was by far the preferred CJ engine.
One might ask where Chevrolet was in all of this. After all, the company had never been seen as a laggard before and had taken prompt, decisive action in the burgeoning muscle car segment just a few years earlier. As a result, Chevy already had both its Nova and Chevelle well-positioned on the market when the first Mustang arrived in mid-1964 for the 1965 model year, though Ford’s ultra-popular pony car would end up stealing a lot of the limelight. And when Ford enlarged the Mustang to allow it to carry a larger engine, Chevy was ready and waiting with the introduction of its new Camaro.
Probably as much to save critical time as to provide a new take on the SUV segment, Chevy got the Blazer to market by shaving some steps off the normal development process. Instead of creating an entirely new model from the ground up, Chevy instead repurposed one of its truck chassis by shortening it substantially, then building the Blazer on top of it.
Chevy then added some elements of choice that simply weren’t offered by Ford. Whereas the Bronco was initially available with only full-time 4-wheel drive, Chevy marketed two distinct versions of the Blazer — a 2-wheel drive and a 4-wheel drive. In doing so, the company broadened the Blazer’s potential appeal by designing each variation with a markedly different anticipated end use, even to the extent that Chevy equipped each variation of the model with its own suspension. The 2-wheel drive Blazer sported an independent front suspension for a more refined ride, in contrast to the off-road proven, solid axle and front and rear leaf springs found in the 4-wheel drive version.
Further, while the Ford Bronco was available with either a 170 cubic inch 6-cylinder or Ford’s new 302 cubic inch V8 — essentially its popular 289 engine with a slightly longer stroke — Chevy initially offered three engine choices, including both its well-regarded 307-cubic inch and 350-cubic inch V8s, and would soon expand that selection to four.
In the interest of keeping costs down, Ford limited the Bronco to just a single transmission option — a 3-speed, column-shifted manual transmission — and wouldn’t even offer an automatic transmission until a surprising seven model years later, when Ford could no longer ignore the demand for it. By contrast, the Blazer debuted with no less than three available transmissions, including Chevy’s thoroughly time-tested TH350 automatic, as well as a 4-speed manual Synchromesh transmission with an ultra-low ratio granny gear.
It may have stemmed from expedience and cost-cutting, but Chevy’s abbreviated approach to its new SUV paid off more completely than it ever could have imagined. The Blazer’s stout dimensions were a decided selling point and made the Bronco look small by comparison. The Blazer’s 104-inch wheelbase was a foot longer than the Bronco’s and, at 177.5 inches from bumper to bumper, it was more than 20 inches longer than the Bronco, along with also being 10 inches wider.
By 1970, the Blazer was far more popular than its rivals and by 1972 it outsold the Bronco by about 2 to 1. Not long after that, Chevy’s shortened pickup formula would also prove to be influential in Dodge’s creation of the Ramcharger, which would join the SUV ranks in 1974.
Meanwhile Ford, the company that had been the SUV sector’s pacesetter just a year earlier — the 1969 Bronco outsold its Chevy rival by more than 15,000 units and a 4 to 1 margin — now found itself having to respond from the middle of the pack. It would take Ford until 1978, with its release of the Bronco’s second generation, to finally hop on board the trend for bigger, more robust SUVs.
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