5 Interesting Facts About the Ford Bronco
With the new Ford Bronco making the news quite a bit -- for both good reasons (outstanding sales numbers, critical acclaim) and less-than-good reasons (production delays, some fit and finish issues) it seems like a good time to take a look back at the history of the Bronco and point out a few things you might or might not already know about the model.
1) The Bronco’s chief creator deserves some serious automotive industry props.
Donald Frey may not qualify as a household name for the public at large, but for classic car aficionados, especially those with an affinity for Fords, he was an absolutely pivotal figure. As a product manager for Ford in the early ’60s, he not only played an instrumental role in the development and release of the Ford Bronco, but was also just as involved with bringing the iconic Ford Mustang to fruition.
Frey not only came up with the idea of creating an off-road counterpart for the Mustang, but he was the chief driving force in making that idea a reality. Ford’s diligent research in the early ’60s showed that there was an opportunity to be mined by producing what was then known as an “off road vehicle” — the term “SUV” was not yet widely used — that not only had the ability to navigate rough terrain but could also offer a more refined driving experience than its competitors.
Those competitors — namely the Jeep CJ5, International Harvester Scout and Toyota Land Cruiser — were no newcomers, but were already established models with loyal followings. The Jeep in particular held a decided initial advantage. Because of its strong link with military use, it came to be the vehicle of choice for veterans returning home after both WWII and the Korean War. The main drawbacks with each of the Bronco’s competitors centered on the primitive driving experience they offered.
While rugged dependability and surefootedness were by far the chief priorities for military use, once America began improving its paved roads and highway systems, commuting to work and weekend excursions became more commonplace and even the loyal owners of these brands wanted a vehicle that offered a better ride, more precise steering and less interior noise.
The Bronco gave it to them, while its Ford stablemate, the Mustang, had earlier heralded the arrival of the Pony Car, which at the time was essentially a sports car with a backseat to improve its practicality and widen the model’s appeal. Donald Frey was at the forefront of both the Bronco and Mustang efforts, and Lee Iacocca had the wisdom to greenlight both projects.
2) The original Ford Bronco might not have had many available options, but it did offer some you sure don’t see much of anymore.
Upon its initial release, the Bronco was offered with a less than extensive set of factory options. Since a V8 powerplant wouldn’t be in the offing until March of 1966, some 7 months after it debuted, customers were at first limited to an 170 cubic inch inline 6 that offered a fairly modest 105 horsepower. As far as the accompanying transmission was concerned, the variety was equally limited, with a 3-speed, column-mounted manual transmission being the only choice. Surprisingly, this would remain the case until 1973, when Ford finally gave in to a growing demand for automatics.
But in addition to its role as a revolutionary off-roader that offered more comfort than its competitors, the first generation Bronco would see a lot of commercial use as well. Ford sought to accommodate both customer segments by not only offering CB radios and auxiliary gas tanks — in the mid-’60s CBs were often the only means of communication for drivers navigating less populated areas and there was often a great deal of distance between service stations — but also factory installed winches and post-hole diggers.
3) There was an incredibly long delay between the intended release date of the Bronco’s second generation and when it actually hit the market.
Ford didn’t raise the curtain on the Bronco’s second generation until 1978, but the manufacturer originally had no intentions of keeping the first generation around for a full 13 model years, especially considering that the SUV landscape was changing markedly during that time.
Ford’s competitors in the SUV segment included the K5 Chevy Blazer by 1969 and the trend was moving quickly toward large, beefier SUVs, all of which featured truck-based chassis to enhance durability while reducing production costs. In its first-generation form, the Bronco was a modestly sized vehicle, and it started to look downright tiny when contrasted to the other SUV offerings of the time. Yet, by the early ’70s, the first of what would be two major oil embargos would cause a temporarily crippling gas shortage.
The uncertainty that the embargo caused, combined with increasingly stringent fuel emission standards, made the early to mid-’70s a difficult time to release the Bronco’s next generation, so its arrival was held up until 1978. This delay was so substantial that, by the time this generation did see the light of day, Ford was already putting the finishing touches on its third generation, while slating its release for only two years later.
4) In light of conditions at the time, the second generation Bronco’s finished appearance was a surprise — a BIG surprise, actually.
Conventional automotive wisdom would have dictated that the logical way to deal with increasing fuel prices, combined with a sporadically scarce supply, would be to release a smaller, lighter version of the Bronco that would therefore be more fuel efficient. Ford was having none of that.
Not only did the Bronco’s second generation see it increasing in size, but that increase proved to be of a nearly unprecedented magnitude. With Ford’s F-100 pickup chassis serving as its underpinning, second generation Broncos featured a wheelbase that was a full foot longer than its predecessor, as well as an overall length that was more than two feet greater than the first generation.
In the process, the Bronco also added more than a half-ton of curb weight.
Interestingly, neither the second-generation Bronco’s lengthy delay nor its substantial size had any negative impact on its success. On the contrary, sales figures for the generation’s two-year tenure were outstanding, outpacing even the best years of the first generation by multiples.
5) The trajectory of the Ford Bronco closely mirrored that of the Ford Mustang in a few ways.
As we noted, Donald Frey was the project manager for both the Bronco and the Mustang and was therefore a key force in the initial success of both models. At the same time, Lee Iacocca will forever hold the distinction of giving the “thumbs up” to both of these iconic vehicles. And of course, even before it had its actual name, the Bronco was intended as a running mate to the iconic Mustang.
In addition, both of these models navigated changing economic conditions in similar ways, albeit with some years separating the two.
Over the years since its original 1964 release for the 1965 model year, the Mustang continually grew in size and by 1973, it was more than a foot longer, half a foot wider and about 750lbs heavier than in its original incarnation. Because of its delay, the second-generation Bronco wouldn’t arrive until five years later but when it did, it was also far more substantially proportioned than its predecessor.
The increasing demand for a more fuel-efficient and less unwieldy Mustang would give rise to the Mustang II’s introduction in September of 1973 for the 1974 model year. A decade later, Ford debuted the dramatically downsized Bronco II for buyers looking for a modestly sized SUV, although in contrast to the Mustang, the manufacturer would also end up keeping the full size Bronco in circulation.
As it would turn out, both cars were eventually maligned, though only one of them for a sound reason. In Ford’s haste to bring out the Bronco II, it purposely ignored growing fears that the mini-SUV’s narrow wheelbase and relatively high-center of gravity made it a serious rollover risk. This would be a fear that would regrettably bear out during real world use.
By contrast, while some still snicker at the Mustang II and even go so far as to say it was an embarrassment to the Mustang name, in reality it wasn’t really a bad car at all. Its engineering even proved so sound that the Mustang II’s front end design still serves as the foundation for quite a few aftermarket components, such as Heidts’s line of independent front suspensions.
Sure, without a V8 option, nor the technology in place at the time to make up for displacement — something that the new Ford Bronco certainly benefits from — the Mustang II was far from a performance monster, but the car was, at least in its early years, a definite success, both commercially and critically. In 1974 alone, Ford sold more than 386,000 units — the most Mustang sales since 1967 — while Motor Trend named it 1974 Car of the Year.