Built for 30 years beginning in 1966 — a rather short run for icons of the auto industry — the Ford Bronco gained a loyal following that continues to this day. Now the excitement around this iconic SUV gains momentum again as Ford prepares to bring a new Bronco back to the U.S. market. As preparations unfold for this Bronco debut, we thought it would be fun to take a quick look at the SUV’s beginnings, how it changed over the years and what led to its 25-year hiatus before making its current comeback.
On August 11, 1965, Ford introduced an all-new rugged off-road vehicle called the Bronco. With a body-on-frame design, short overhangs, a short wheelbase and high ground clearance, the new model was designed to be fun and agile off-road while delivering a more civilized alternative to the Jeep CJ5, Toyota FJ40 and International Harvester Scout. At launch Ford referred to the Bronco as “a completely new line of sports-utility vehicles” — the first use of the term SUV by an American auto manufacturer. Back then Ford introduced the Bronco as a family of vehicles that included a roadster, a half cab and a station wagon. An interesting bit of history repeating itself: The all-new Bronco arriving later this year will also be introduced as a family of vehicles.
When we think of the original classic Bronco, the wagon comes to mind. The 2-door 4-wheel-drive wagon features seating for for or five as well as a full-length roof with upper body sides attached with a rear hatch and tailgate. The top and upper body could be unbolted and removed — a feature that became a hallmark of the Bronco. The windshield could be folded down on all Bronco models, and doors could be removed as well.
With no roof or doors, the Bronco Roadster looks like it would be the most fun — similar to a classic dune buggy. Doors could be added as an option as well as a vinyl convertible top. However, the Roadster wasn’t the most practical vehicle and was subsequently dropped from the lineup in 1968. During the first year of sales buyers preferred the wagon over the roadster by a 3 to 1 margin, and ultimately only 5,000 roadsters were built. One of the rarest of the classic Broncos, the roadster still isn’t the most sought-after Bronco, according to experts at Hagerty Insurance.
The unique Bronco Sports Utility is basically a tiny pickup truck. It features a small bed and removable roof with bucket or bench seats. While it offered a certain level of utility, it was not a big hit — production of the Sports Utility ended in 1972, leaving only the wagon, which is the style that continued through the rest of Bronco’s initial existence.
Initially the Ford Bronco was offered with two engine choices: a 170-cubic-inch (2.8-liter) inline 6-cylinder powerplant producing about 105 horsepower, or a 289-cid (4.7-liter) V8 rated at 200 horsepower. A few years into production a 302-cid V8 engine replaced the 289, bumping power to 210 and torque to 300 lb-ft. A 3-speed manual gearbox with a steering-column shifter was the only transmission option until Ford introduced an optional automatic transmission in 1973.
In 1969 off-road racing legends Rod Hall and Larry Minor drove a Ford Bronco to overall victory in the Baja 1000. It was the first time a production 4WD vehicle had ever won the grueling race, and to this day Bronco is the only production 4-wheel-drive vehicle to ever win the Baja 1000 overall. Broncos have had considerable off-road-racing success over the years, and even today vintage Broncos still compete. (Ford has plans to continue racing with the all-new Bronco — stay tuned.)
The Bronco remained primarily unchanged until the next generation arrived in 1978; however, the first-gen Bronco did get several updates along the way. The SUV received power steering In 1973 as well as an optional automatic transmission. That same year a larger 200 cid inline 6-cylinder engine became the standard powerplant. New trim levels and upgraded interiors also appeared throughout the first-generation’s lifetime; however, the Bronco remained primarily unchanged until 1977. By this time the SUV market had grown competitive with the introduction of the Chevrolet Blazer / GMC Jimmy in 1969.
Bronco moved into its second generation for the 1978 model year — a generation that only lasted two years. Ford had intended for the new Bronco to reach the market in 1974, but with the Arab Oil Embargo of 1973 and subsequent fuel crisis in full force the introduction of a fuel-thirsty SUV did not make much sense at the time, so the second-gen Bronco ended up having a shortened run.
The new Bronco was much larger than the outgoing model — a full 10 inches wider and almost 30 inches longer — built on a shortened F-Series pickup chassis. Part-time 4-wheel drive was standard; however, buyers could upgrade to a new permanent 4-wheel-drive system. Unlike the first generation, the new Bronco was available in one body style.
One of the most valued innovations in the new Bronco was the power rear window that retracted into the tailgate, removing the need for a window attached to the roof. The roof was still removable; however, only the section behind the B-pillar — the roof over the front occupants remained.
This new, larger Bronco was available exclusively with V8 power — a choice of either a 351 cid or 400 cid. Both generated about the same 156 horsepower, but the larger engine provided more torque. A 4-speed manual gearbox was standard at the time, but there was also an available 3-speed automatic. The larger Bronco was better equipped than its predecessor, resulting in much higher sales.
The new generations of Bronco were tied to those of the F-150 since they shared a platform for the rest of the full-size SUV’s run. Slightly smaller and lighter than the previous version, the 1980 Bronco received fresh styling inside and out. The roofline was also modified to provide a better seal for the removable roof.
A major update for this generation occurred for the front axle and suspension. This new generation Bronco featured a Dana 44 front axle with independent front suspension, making the Bronco more comfortable as an everyday driver. The new platform also made it possible to offer a wider range of engine options, including a 300-cid inline six cylinder in addition to V8 options.
Ford made Bronco available in a range of trim levels that mimicked those of the F-150, including XL and XLT. In 1985 Ford added the Eddie Bauer package, which stood out with its two-tone exterior and outdoors-themed interior trim.
In response to the 1979 gas crisis, Ford set about creating a smaller, more fuel-efficient SUV — the Bronco II. Based on the Ford Ranger pickup, the Bronco II was considerably smaller than the standard Bronco with proportions more like the original. The competition also adopted the notion of a fuel-efficient SUV — Chevrolet and Jeep joined the Bronco II when premiering the Chevrolet S10 Blazer and Jeep Cherokee.
Like the Bronco, all Bronco IIs were 4-wheel drive until 1986, when Ford began offering the smaller SUV with 2WD. Power came from a 2.8-liter V6 engine at launch, with a more powerful V6 arriving in 1986. A 2.3-liter turbodiesel 86-horsepower Mitsubishi engine was also available that year, but sales of this low-powered motor were never significant.
Restyled in 1989, the Bronco II matched the updated looks of the Ranger pickup, but sales of the smaller Bronco would end the following year when it was ultimately replaced by the new Explorer. Some say that the Bronco II’s stability issues — especially rear-wheel-drive versions — was one of the reasons it did not continue. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found that the fatality rate in Bronco II rollover accidents was three times higher than that of the notorious Suzuki Samurai, resulting in dozens of lawsuits against Ford.
In 1987 the Bronco took on more aerodynamic styling, coinciding with the introduction of the eighth-generation F-150 pickup truck. This new look included composite headlights, a reshaped hood and a new grille. In addition to the new exterior styling, the Bronco received an updated interior with better front seats as well as a new steering wheel. Several upgrades under the skin came along with this new generation, including rear anti-lock brakes, pushbutton 4-wheel drive and a range of updated engines — all featuring electronic fuel injection.
To celebrate its 25th anniversary, for the 1991 Bronco Ford offered a limited-production Silver Anniversary edition. This unique model stood out with Currant Red paint and gray leather trim (the first time Bronco had been offered with leather), as well as a cassette player — a major selling point in 1991. This special edition also had a 5.8-liter “High-Output” V8 engine with a 4-speed automatic transmission, giving it a healthy 7,500-pound towing capacity.
With the introduction of the ninth-generation F-150 pickup, Bronco received the same styling updates as the truck when it moved into its final generation. This included a larger grille, wraparound composite headlights and a larger front bumper. Inside was a new dashboard and instrument panel, and the Bronco offered remote keyless entry.
Ford added a slew of new safety features to the fifth-gen Bronco including crumple zones, driver-side airbags, a top-mounted third brake light and shoulder safety belts for rear-seat passengers. Because the third brake light and shoulder belts were integrated into the roof, the top could no longer be removed legally. However, the removable top had already been designed into this updated Bronco, so Ford’s solution was to remove any reference to the removable roof from the Bronco owner’s manual, as well as to install tamper-proof bolts to make roof removal more difficult. For those who wanted to put in the effort, the Bronco roof could still be removed like the original.
Ford sold several special-edition Broncos throughout the SUV’s first life, including the monochrome Nite edition, XLT Sport and the outdoor-themed Eddie Bauer edition.
As demand for 2-door SUVs began to wane, the final Bronco came off the Wayne Assembly Plant in Detroit in 1996. The next year it would be replaced by the brand-new 4-door Expedition.
At the 2004 Detroit Auto Show, Ford gave Bronco enthusiasts a bit of hope with the debut of the Bronco Concept. The concept had the look and proportion of the original 1960s Bronco with its boxy shape, squared-off roof and short wheelbase. And in keeping with former Broncos, the rear portion of the roof could be removed.
Inside, the Bronco Concept features brushed-aluminum accents that complement the orange-brown suede seat trim. A fuel-efficient turbodiesel engine could be bolted under the hood, with the added bonus of a nitrous-oxide boost system. Bronco fans hoped this concept was a sign of Ford readying the return of the Bronco, but — as we now know — that wouldn’t happen for several more years.
Celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Bronco’s Baja 1000 victory in 1969, Ford took a Bronco R prototype back to Baja to compete once again. Designed with style and proportions of the upcoming new Bronco, the Bronco R provided a first glimpse at what buyers of thew new model could expect. But this was more than simply a tease — engineers built the Bronco R on the upcoming 2021 Bronco chassis and powertrain. Although the Bronco R did not finish the race, engineers and designers gathered valuable data during the process. Ford plans to continue building on Bronco’s off-road-racing accomplishments in the future.
More than 50 years after the introduction of the original Bronco family, a new family of vehicles will wear the Bronco name. Bronco will become a new brand under Ford and will be the only domestic brand of SUVs to be offered exclusively with 4WD. The new family of “Built Wild” SUVs will include a 2-door, 4-door and smaller Sport model.
“Bronco gave rise to the fun and versatile off-road SUV in 1966, becoming the first enjoyable sport utility vehicle for those who wanted to live, work and play outdoors,” said Jim Farley, Ford chief operating officer. “Like the original, the all-new Bronco family is engineered to take you to epic places, with capability to deliver confidence on any type of terrain,” Farley eagerly noted.
With Bronco becoming its own brand, the name represents more than a few new vehicles. Adding to the overall Bronco experience will be Bronco Off-Roadeos. These off-roading outdoor adventure playgrounds will be built for all skill levels, providing experiences designed to create off-road confidence in potential customers as they experience the new Bronco line. These destinations start opening next year. Of course, there will also be an entire product line of Bronco merchandise.
Ford will unveil the all-new Bronco models at 8:00 p.m. EDT on July 13, at which time customers will be able to reserve a new Bronco with a mere $100 refundable deposit.