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The History of Ford's 4x4 Models Produced Before the 1966 Bronco

The History of Ford's 4x4 Models Produced Before the 1966 Bronco

Most fans of automotive will tell you that the first 4x4 SUV Ford ever created was the 1966 Bronco and that the company hadn't been involved with all-terrain vehicles before that. However, this simply isn't true -- the fact is that Ford had long since produced several very important models that served as trailblazers, not just for Blue Oval but also for the off-road market as a whole.

In fact, Ford produced SUVs before they were even a thing and helped win World War II in the process!


Although the 1966 Bronco was developed from scratch and used newly developed chassis and suspension, Ford had substantial experience with off-road vehicles even before its release. Their first in-house developed and designed 4x4 was the 1959 Ford F-100 truck, but the first all-wheel-drive Ford started appearing all the way back in the late '30s, when AWD technology was scarce, expensive, and widely considered unusual equipment.

Today, we'll tell you more about the 4x4 history of the Ford Motor Company and those models which led to the 1966 Bronco.

Marmon-Herrington 4x4 Ford Woodie

One of the most popular Ford utility models of the 1930s and 1940s was the iconic Woodie Wagon. Combining proven Flathead V8 power with lots of interior space and practicality, the Woodie was loved by big families and surfers, and has been prized by car collectors ever since it was introduced.

In its day, the only available drivetrain configuration was rear-wheel-drive. This changed when a small company from Indianapolis called Marmon-Herrington, started producing all-wheel-drive systems and installing them into passenger vehicles. 

Marmon-Herrington got its start as Marmon -- a manufacturer of luxury sedans. After the Great Depression, the company merged with Herrington and concentrated on the production of drivetrain components, truck conversions, and heavy equipment.

In the late '30s and early '40s, the company developed a kit for Ford models, which turned the ordinary Woodie Wagon into an extremely capable, 4x4 vehicle. We can even call the results of this conversion "the first SUV", since it was comfortable as a car but also capable as an all-terrain vehicle, which was unheard of at the time.

Unfortunately, the Marmon-Herrington conversions were very expensive and therefore rare (doubling the price of V8 Woodie) but showed that this approach has enormous potential.

Ford Pygmy

In 1940 it was apparent that the US wouldn't be able to stay out of World War II, so the Army issued a requirement for a "light reconnaissance and command car." Ford responded with a prototype called the Pygmy. It was a small, open, four-seat vehicle powered by a 2.0-liter Fordson tractor engine with around 45 hp. It featured a permanent all-wheel-drive system, which the Army required. 

It had a lot of parts borrowed from Ford's agricultural products, and even the wheels and tires were derived from their tractor. It was used as a test vehicle and evaluated by Army experts, but although it showed remarkable off-road capabilities, Bantam and Willys ended up securing the main contract from the Army, and the Pygmy program was abandoned. Interestingly, this highly original prototype still exists in the company's museum.

Ford GPW

The winning design for the new Army vehicle came from Bantam, and since it was a small company with no capacity or financial means to withstand enormous production demands, Army logistic experts decided to split the contract between few companies. So, in 1941 Ford started producing the Ford GPW, Ford's version of the military Willys Jeep. The GPW stands for G (Government contract), P (80-inch wheelbase), and W (Willys design).

There is no significant difference between the Jeeps produced in Ford's and Willys' factories, other than a few markings on the body and engines. The vehicles were otherwise identical, and since Ford had the capacity for mass production, by the end of World War II they had produced more than 277,000 of Willys-based Jeeps, which comprised around 1/3 of all military Jeeps made.

Ford F1 Ranger Marmon-Herrington

Even though the Jeep started with serial production of 4x4 vehicles right after the war, Ford decided to stick with standard drivetrain options and not pursue that market.

However, this didn't mean that you couldn't get a 4x4 if you wanted and could afford one. 

Based on the new F1 pickup chassis, but with Ranger trim and body panels, the Marmon-Herrington conversion was the best 4x4 SUV of the 1950s, even though very few people understand how advanced its concept really was.

With a spacious interior, unmatched driving abilities, and powerful (for the times) V8 engine with 4-speed manual transmission, the Marmon-Herrington F1 Ranger was the car to have, although not many were sold.

1959 Ford F-100 4x4

By the late 50's Ford realized that Jeep was dominating the 4x4 market as more and more customers were acknowledging the advantages of this drivetrain configuration. Their solution was to introduce the 4x4 as a regular production option, with in-house designed system that wouldn't depend on outside contractors like Marmon-Herrington. Since there were no SUV models currently offered, Ford decided to introduce it as a member of the venerable F-100 truck line.

The 1959 Ford F-100 4x4 was one of the first full-size, all-wheel-drive trucks available to general customers. It immediately proved to be a sales hit, even though it was considerably more expensive than the standard model. Paired with a 292 CID V8 engine with a solid 197 hp and combined with a 4-speed manual transmission, the 1959 F-100 4x4 was a very capable and desirable truck in its day and it's a valuable collector's item today.


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