The Ford Bronco Was Groundbreaking in a Lesser Known Way
Many aficionados of classic SUVs might already be aware that the original Ford Bronco represented a lot of firsts and had a significant impact on the automotive industry. For starters, it was the first true SUV ever released and its then-revolutionary design was a real game-changer. Sure, the Jeep CJ5 was already in circulation in 1964 — almost two years before the Bronco debuted — but with its no-nonsense, heavy military influence, the CJ5 was fairly primitive and more of an off-road novelty than an actual viable commuter vehicle.
Jeeps had forged a strong post WWII identity as the vehicle of choice for returning veterans and adventure-seekers, but with an improved highway system rapidly being created, commuting a fair distance to work during the week was becoming an increasingly common practice, and car buyers were beginning to seek a more refined, comfortable experience from behind the wheel. The Bronco got its start as a response to this demand.
Seizing on an Opportunity in the Industry
The Bronco was also one of the first car models released after gleaning an extensive amount of input from owners of its competitors. Ford’s epic failure with the Edsel likely made the company somewhat gun-shy about going out on a limb with anything else that could be considered overly adventurous so, before embarking on the Bronco’s initial design phase, Ford surveyed a sizable sampling of Jeep CJ and Harvester Scout owners, a group that almost universally pointed to their cars’ lack of overall comfort, sub-par ride quality, lackluster power and excessive cabin noise as definite drawbacks.
As you’d expect, Ford paid special attention to this input, and saw a definite opportunity to remedy these shortcomings. The survey results were sent to Ford’s Product Planning Committee in late 1963, accompanied by a request to further develop a Ford utility vehicle. Interestingly, this vehicle was initially already named “Bronco” at this point, but just a week later an internal memo carried a subject line of “1966 G.O.A.T.” The acronym, as we know now, stood for Goes Over Any Terrain.
The project successfully merged the ruggedness and off-road agility of military based vehicles with a level of driver and passenger comfort that had been missing from this new automotive niche. When initial commercials for the Bronco even went so far as to refer to it as “the first 4-wheel drive sports car” there wasn’t any pushback from new owners, who were apparently satisfied with the purchases.
An Automotive Industry Groundbreaker
But Ford’s iconic SUV represented another, lesser-known “first”. The Bronco holds the distinction of being the first car model shaped extensively by an African American automotive designer, McKinley Thompson, who also held pivotal roles in the creation of a couple of other game-changing models: the Ford Mustang and the third and fourth generation Thunderbird. He also contributed some key drawings for one of Ford’s light-duty, cab forward pickups, as well for the legendary GT40.
Like many stellar achievers, Thompson found his calling at a young age. He spied a silver DeSoto Airflow when he was about 12 years old and knew right away that he wanted to design cars. A stint in the military as a draftsman and engineering layout coordinator during World War II didn’t diminish his initial enthusiasm and in the early ’50s Thompson entered an automotive design contest sponsored by Motor Trend. At stake was a scholarship to the Pasadena, CA-based Art Center College of Design and Thompson took top honors with his revolutionary design for a turbine-powered car that featured a lightweight, plastic body. Thompson was the first black designer ever to attend the school.
Thompson’s winning design wouldn’t be the only time he pushed automotive boundaries. He also had a hand in creating the ultra-revolutionary Ford Gyron, a futuristic two-wheeler that debuted at the 1961 Detroit Auto Show. The Gyron project, which yielded a result that played an unmistakable part in shaping a number of today’s two-wheel alternative vehicles, was helmed by iconic automotive designer Alex Tremulis, who was a true luminary in the field.
It would only be two years later, July of 1963, that Thompson would put the finishing touches on his design sketches for the Ford Bronco. He was a member of a team that included lead engineer Paul Axelrad, and Thompson’s drawings had a profound influence on the finished model. The Bronco project was helmed by renowned project manager, Donald Frey, who also held the distinction of wearing that same title while conceptualizing the Ford Mustang in the early ’60s, which is arguably one of the most influential automotive models of all time.
With so much talent assembled, it’s no surprise that the project gained immediate traction. The clay model shown just below was created only a short time later. Obviously motivated by the momentum he was seeing, Ford Executive VP Lee Iacocca quickly approved the final model for production in early 1964. By any automotive standards, that’s an unusually blistering pace from concept to creation.
As you can see from those drawings just below, which were originally entitled “Package Proposal #5 for Bronco”, quite a number of the Bronco’s final design features are unmistakable — the shape of the cutout-style door openings, and the way the wheel openings are noticeably smaller in back, for example. In positioning the wheels very close to the corners of the body, Thompson created a confident, rugged stance for the pivotal SUV and the quarter panel end caps are almost identical to those featured on the original 1966 Bronco as it emerged from the assembly line. The tailgate in those drawings is a near mirror image for its production counterpart as well.
Even after retiring from Ford in 1984, 18 model years after the first Bronco rolled out, Thompson continued to make an impact on the automotive industry. He had originally conceptualized a small, two-wheel, lightweight vehicle that held some similarities to the design that got him his scholarship and saw the vehicle’s development and eventual export as a way to improve the lives of people in less-privileged countries. When Ford ultimately declined to greenlight the project, Thompson took matters into his own hands, building a running prototype that was clad in Royalex plastic in a rented garage almost entirely on his own. That’s a pretty impressive display of initiative.
The re-introduction of the Ford Bronco was at least partly responsible for shedding light on Thompson’s substantial achievements. As the creation of the original Bronco took place in the early and mid-’60s —long before digital archives were in use, the survival of key artifacts was by no means a given. Many priceless automotive designs and prototypes have disappeared or been irreparably damaged by fire or water damage over the years.
"We found the very first design of the Bronco, and it was signed," said Ted Ryan, Ford's archivist and heritage brand manager. "We started Googling and we were like, wait, this is a McKinley Thompson. It was a discovery. He was not the lead designer of the Bronco but he worked on the very first sketches. He was groundbreaking in his passion for design. He went on to work on the Mustang, Bronco, Ford trucks and the T-Bird."