The early 1970’s was a rough time in the auto industry. New emissions and safety regulations were quickly coming into effect. The economy wasn’t all that great and that meant slow sales for the Big Three automakers in Detroit. Poor labour relations and the rise in popularity of imports eroded market share. Worse yet the fuel crisis made big gas guzzling vehicles less and less appealing. Times were changing and the American automakers needed to leave their comfort zone and end producing inefficient land yachts and make the move to smaller fuel efficient vehicles.
So when Ford set out to redesign the Bronco to replace the rustic ‘60’s era model that had been in production for far too long, they did the exact opposite and up scaled the Bronco substantially. On the surface this might seem like a classic bone-headed decision by Ford. This was a company renowned for decisions of pure genius such as the Mustang or complete disasters, like the Edsel. During the 70’s Ford’s management brought us such horrific classics as the Pinto and Mustang II, proving over and over again that whatever they touched during this period often turned into a complete fiasco. But was it really a bad call up size and beef up the Bronco? As it turns out the bloating of the Bronco more than likely saved the vehicle from extinction.
The original 1966-1977 Bronco was never really a huge market success selling just over 230,000 units over a 12 year production run. Since it was smaller than any other truck offering from Ford the Bronco had an architecture, suspension and body panels that were unique. The lack of common parts shared with other vehicles in Ford’s line up raised production costs. That wouldn’t be as much of a problem if Ford was selling 230,000 units a year. If that was the case a dedicated line to produce the truck would be more palatable for the accountants perched up in their glass house in Dearborn. But with annual sales averaging just less than 20,000 units why bother with producing the Bronco? Heck the first Mustangs had flown off the lots at an annual rate of around 400,000-500,000 units and it was heavily based on the already popular Falcon making that car cheap to produce and immensely profitable. Something needed to be done.
Ford commenced the redesign process of the Bronco in 1972. Immediately management required that new Bronco be based on the all new 1973 Ford F-100 pick-up platform and for it to be ready for sale by the 1974 model year. This would allow Ford the economies of scale needed to make the new Bronco profitable. Using many common components from the F-100 such as suspension, chassis, hood, fenders, doors grills etc., allowed engineers to come up with a unique full size SUV to compete with the extremely popular Chevrolet Blazer within a tight budget. Although the new Bronco was built with many bits and pieces from the F-100 pick up, the styling from the doors rearward was unique to the Bronco. Perhaps the best feature of the new Bronco was the removable fiberglass top; a feature that remained with the Bronco until its demise in 1996, although by sometime in the 1990’s it wasn’t officially removable for safety considerations.
The 1974 model year came and went but Ford was still selling the previous generation small Bronco. Dealers and buyers had to be satisfied with the now archaic Bronco whose design dated back to 1966. The main reason for the delay was due to the energy crisis that reared its ugly head at the beginning of 1973. This lead to fuel rationing and long lines at gas pumps became the norm as people clamored to acquire precious gasoline. To make matters more unpleasant changes in the world financial system brought about a period of high inflation, making goods and services more expensive. The new full sized Bronco had become less of a palatable business case for Ford and the new vehicle had to be put on hold.
Eventually the economy stabilized, the energy crisis came to an end and by 1977 the outlook was positive and the executives at Ford Motor Company gave the green light for the new Bronco to go into production. Being delayed by almost 4 years meant that the Bronco was already outdated at the time of its introduction. Development of a new pickup truck to be rolled out for the 1980 model year was already well underway. Thankfully for Ford the full size Bronco was a sales success when it finally hit dealers’ showrooms in 1978. So once again there were plans to continue offering the Bronco after the 1979 model year but this time a new Bronco would be released at the same time as the pickup truck for 1980. The redesigned Bronco shared the same formula as the 1978-79 series using most components from the F-series trucks with Bronco specific quarter panels and the popular removable fiberglass top in the rear. With continual improvements and a couple of refreshes in 1987 and 1992 the Bronco soldiered on until the end of 1996 and its demise.
Although the original 1966-1977 Ford Bronco is smaller, nimbler and would seem to be a natural choice to be on my list, it is the full size big Bronco’s produced from 1978-1996 that I desire the most. My first real experience driving an SUV was at the age of sixteen. My uncle had a metallic brown with beige top ’79 Bronco Custom equipped with a 351M V8 and 4-speed manual transmission with an ultra low granny gear and not much else. That big bad brown Bronco not only looked cool but the thrum of the large V8 was even cooler. Better yet it could go anywhere, well just about anywhere since the only thing questionable about this Bronco was the tread depth of the tires. My uncle was never one to spend money on maintenance, if the tire held air for more than an hour and the brakes stopped the vehicle (eventually), everything was considered to be in fine working order. Even with less than stellar tires that old Bronco would go through just about anything with the exception of one off road excursion.
One holiday weekend just before a family BBQ my uncle took me out on the trails near my home to have some fun. Not long into our adventure the Bronco became mired in axel deep mud that the baldini’s made by Goodyear just couldn’t handle, worse yet we didn’t have a shovel, my uncle was never much of a boy scout. He always appeared to be perpetually ill prepared for any foreseeable situation. Armed with just our hands and whatever we could gather around us we eventually managed to coax the Bronco from its muddy trap by placing brush and bits of wood under the tires to aid traction. To this day I’m certain that any lesser SUV would still be trapped in that mud pit without the assistance of a tow truck.
If you have ever driven a Ford truck from the 1970’s through to the mid 1990’s you’ll have a pretty good idea of what the driving experience is like in the Bronco. The steering is slow and not terribly accurate, the gearing is tall and the engines are all about low end torque not ultimate horsepower. The only real difference with a regular Ford truck lies within the ride characteristics. The short wheelbase and tall, stiff suspension tends to make the Bronco pitch fore and aft constantly like a fishing boat in the Bering Strait when it’s driven on anything but the smoothest roads.
However these short comings on the tarmac allow the Bronco to be a sensational performer off road with enough torque to pull the vehicle up, over and out of any situation. The short wheel base and tall suspension allows the big SUV to crawl over or around just about any obstacle. And since the Bronco is so closely related to the ever popular F-series trucks, parts are plentiful and cheap. Best of all there are endless amounts of aftermarket parts and accessories to make the Bronco into a vehicle that is special and unique.
The Bronco may not be the most sophisticated SUV ever made but it has a personality all it own and can bring countless hours of fun on and off the beaten path.