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Back in the mid-1960s, Ford needed another blockbuster hit following the success of the wildly popular Mustang. Ford’s research showed that many people were buying surplus World War II jeeps, but the company figured that buyers wanted more creature comforts than the crude military vehicles provided. Hence, the Bronco was created—a pioneering model that the company referred to as a “sports-utility vehicle.”
The goal for the Bronco was to deliver a better combination of on- and off-road performance, as well as a more civilized ride, compared with the military vehicles, including the company’s own M-51 (aka military utility vehicle or Mutt). Indeed, Ford’s press materials at the time said the new Bronco was “equally at home on rugged mountain grades or on a run to the shopping center.” That description evokes the internal project name G.O.A.T., an acronym for “Goes Over Any Terrain.”
Ford saw “the market for utility vehicles [growing] from slightly more than 11,000 in 1960 to more than 40,000 [in 1965].” The company predicted that expansion to reach “70,000 by 1970.” Now, SUVs sell in the millions and have a bigger piece of the market than cars.
These early SUVs were so spartan that some models didn’t have a heater or radio.
From the first model in 1966 to its final production run at the end of 1996, the Bronco grew in size, horsepower, and sophistication. And while the mainstream acceptance of SUVs as daily drivers didn’t fully come online until the late 1990s, Ford (and a few other companies) were definitely ahead of the game envisioning the broad appeal of these vehicles.
As we’re on the cusp of the debut of an all-new Bronco, we reflect back on the history of this storied nameplate, complete with highlights from past CR road tests.
First-Generation Bronco: 1966-1977
Debuting in 1966, the compact, two-door Bronco competed with the Jeep CJ-5 and International Harvester Scout as the beginnings of what would become a wave of mainstream sport utility vehicles. The Bronco came with part-time four-wheel drive and was offered in hardtop, convertible, and pickup body styles. Far from a hulking truck, the Bronco’s wheelbase was just 92 inches—compared with a 1966 F-Series truck’s wheelbase range of 115-129 inches—and the standard six-cylinder engine produced just 105 horsepower. The lone transmission was a three-speed manual. These original Broncos command a premium on the resale market today thanks to their nostalgic value.
The convertible model was the most basic, and came with no roof or doors and with a windshield that folded flat.
Ford marketed the Bronco as fulfilling both fun-in-the-sun playtime as well as work duties, including serving as a “snowplow, farm or civil defense vehicle.” Properly equipped, the Bronco could power tools “ranging from winches to snowplow blades, to posthole diggers and logging saws.”
A 200-hp, 289 cubic-inch V8 was offered beginning in 1969. It was later increased to 302 CI displacement, nudging up horsepower in the process.
Ford continued to offer the hardtop, convertible, and pickup body styles throughout the 1960s.
The Bronco enjoyed some success in off-road racing, chalking up an overall 4×4 win at the Baja 1000 in 1969.
A special edition “Baja Bronco” was produced for 1971 to celebrate Ford’s success in off-road racing. The limited-edition Bronco was outfitted with special paint, wider wheels and tires, and heavy-duty shock absorbers.
By 1973, only the wagon version was sold. An automatic transmission and power steering joined the options list for the first time.
The original Bronco design saw its final production run come to a close for 1977.
Consumer Reports Test: 1972 Ford Bronco
In CR’s tests of a 1972 model—alongside a Chevrolet Blazer, International Scout II, Jeep Commando, and Toyota Land Cruiser—we found that the Bronco’s lack of power steering caused the steering wheel to “[kick] strongly in our hands,” and that the truck “required far too much winding of the steering wheel.”
When it came to handling, the Bronco, “with its more severe wander and fairly unpredictable steering response, earned a poor-to-fair judgment for its normal handling.”
Braking also created challenges: “Though the Bronco’s drum brakes did not lose much of their effectiveness when wet, they too pulled strongly from side to side while drying.”
We thought the Bronco rode “atrociously,” adding that the truck’s “optional heavy-duty rear springs tossed its occupants sharply up and down and sideways.”
Keeping in mind that almost every engine was fed via carburetor during this era instead of the modern fuel-injection systems we see today, our driving impressions showed that the “302-cubic-inch V8 tended to flood with gas as the vehicle bounced along rocky New England trails or ascended a steep grade; it often stalled half-way up an incline or in the middle of a mud hole, just when we most needed to keep moving. Since we could find nothing amiss with the Bronco’s carburetor, we concluded that the problem involves design rather than maladjustment.”
As far as the quality of our tested Bronco, we noted that the “carburetor was defective and was replaced immediately, and its fuel tank was loose.”
Overall, compared with the Blazer, Jeep, Scout, and Land Cruiser, the Bronco only outpointed the Toyota. We noted that the Bronco “had good off-road maneuverability, thanks to its short wheelbase and short overall length. But its temperamental 302-cubic-inch V8 and erratic brakes dropped its ranking in this group.”
As-tested price: $4,125
Weight: 3,674 lb.
0-60 mph: 15.5 seconds
Fuel economy: 10-13 mpg
Second-Generation Bronco: 1978-1979
Ford brought out a much larger model for 1978—although still just two doors—and it was designed to compete with other full-sized SUVs like the Chevrolet Blazer and Dodge Ramcharger. The new Bronco was based on Ford’s F-Series pickup truck, and offered the choice of rear- or four-wheel drive. Like other models in the era, the Bronco came with a removable fiberglass hard top covering its rear seat and cargo area. There was seating for up to six adults, with “a more car-like interior and more option choices,” according to Ford. Two V8 engines were offered, and the wheelbase grew to 104 inches.
Third-Generation Bronco: 1980-1986
The 1980 model year brought a new, smaller and lighter design, but kept the same full-sized status. Six-cylinder engines and manual transmissions were still offered alongside the V8s. The new Bronco had a more aerodynamic design to make it more fuel-efficient, a concern due to rising fuel prices. The Bronco also got more modern features, such as an independent front suspension, designed to smooth out the ride.
Ford Bronco II: 1984-1990
A smaller model, dubbed Bronco II, came out for 1984, based on the Ranger pickup truck. The Bronco II was a less hulking version of the full-sized Bronco (and a lot closer in size to the original), offered V6 engines and the choice between rear- and four-wheel drive. Both manual and automatic transmissions were available. It was designed to compete against the new wave of compact SUVs, such as the Chevrolet S-10 Blazer and Jeep Cherokee.
Consumer Reports Test: 1984 Ford Bronco
The new Bronco II and other smaller SUVs were ushering in a new era: “Now there’s a new breed of sports/utility wagon,” we wrote, “that combines the advantages of large four-wheel-drive vehicles with many of the conveniences of conventional station wagons.”
We tested the upscale Eddie Bauer version, which included dual captain’s chairs, tilt steering wheel, and additional storage cubbies. Our review noted that model’s V6 “started and ran well” and was coupled to a three-speed automatic transmission that “shifted very smoothly.”
On-road testing showed that “[e]xpressway travel subjected occupants to almost constant jiggling and rocking. On secondary roads, the ride deteriorated quite a bit. At best, the ride was fatiguing; at worst, physically punishing.”
In terms of the quality of our test car, we observed that the “rear-window washer didn’t work. The jack rattled. The door window on the driver’s side slipped out of its channel, and wind whistled around the door seal on the passenger’s side.”
When compared with the also-tested Chevrolet S-10 Blazer and Jeep Cherokee, we wrote that the “Bronco II deserves consideration if your main interest is in driving off the road, because it’s the shortest of the three and has the smallest turning circle.”
As-tested price: $14,754
Weight: 3,270 lb.
0-60 mph: 16.3 seconds
Fuel economy: 13-23 mpg
The Bronco II was discontinued after 1990.
Fourth-Generation Bronco: 1987-1991
The 1987 model year saw the birth of the fourth-generation full-sized Bronco. It was still based on the F-Series truck, and new features included a rear antilock brake system and shift-on-the-fly four-wheel-drive capabilities.
Fifth-Generation Bronco: 1992-1996
This was the last redesign of the Bronco until 2021. This version offered more modern content, such as a driver’s side airbag. Ford sensed that the public was turning away from large, two-door SUVs, paving the way for the debut of the wildly popular four-door Explorer, and later even larger Expedition and Excursion.
We didn’t test this model, but noted in the 1994 April all-autos issue that the “elephantine Bronco weighs in solidly on the utility end of the sport-utility continuum, where it competes with the Chevrolet Blazer and GMC Yukon. This four-wheel-drive vehicle is a truck from the core outwards, but a truck that offers various levels of interior luxury appointments. It is designed for people who need to haul a lot of gear or tow a heavy trailer. Now available only with a V8 engine, the Bronco will sniff out every gas pump on its itinerary.”
All-New Ford Bronco and Bronco Sport
Ford is bringing back the storied “Bronco” nameplate for 2021 in a bid to compete with the Jeep Wrangler, a highly profitable, off-road-focused SUV that has fostered legions of fans and a robust aftermarket business for customization and modification parts. The Bronco will directly target the Wrangler with both two- and four-door configurations. The family launches late this year starting with a smaller Bronco Sport. The other Broncos launch in 2021.
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