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A Look at How SUV Trends Have Affected the Ford Bronco Through the Years

A Look at How SUV Trends Have Affected the Ford Bronco Through the Years

Trends in automotive styling and features are ever-changing. What were once considered luxuries eventually become “must-haves”. Performance that seemed exhilarating at one time becomes mediocre with the advent of new technology — with some notable historical exceptions, as we’ll examine later. A vehicle’s overall length that at one time might have seemed off-putting becomes an outright selling point.

Let’s take a look at how some marked trends in the SUV sector have affected the Ford Bronco over the years, focusing on both its original 30-year tenure, as well as its recent re-emergence.

Trend #1: Circa the Mid-’60s, Buyers Want SUVs that Are More Easily Drivable

By their very nature, most SUVs carry a military heritage of sorts. When we think of the simple but rugged vehicles that were brought in to serve our armed forces — often during active combat — we tend to think, first and foremost, of Jeep. But Ford’s ties to military production are substantial in their own right.

Ford Motor Company of Canada built more than 300,000 vehicles for military use in WWII. Some were passenger cars, while others were labeled “universal carriers”, which looked nothing like SUVs — nor anything else, for that matter — but included in that number were also quite a few CMPs (Canadian Military Pattern) vehicles, which bear an undeniable resemblance to many of today’s SUVs.

Jeep was the prevailing military brand, nonetheless, so when both WWII and the Korean War were over, many who served in the military sought out Jeeps upon returning home to the U.S., as a sort of vehicular homage to their time overseas. At the same time, roads here were getting both more extensive and better paved, and the networks of highways throughout the country were expanding rapidly. This made more frequent road trips, as well as daily commuting, more viable, and Ford’s own extensive research showed that drivers wanted more comfort while doing so.

This research played a large part in the formative years of the Ford Bronco, which was designed in part to remedy the shortcomings that drivers of competing brands — namely, International Harvester and Jeep — found so annoying. Most of these complaints centered on a lackluster driving experience, including vague, unresponsive steering, excessive interior noise and a harsh ride. So Ford gave the Bronco its own chassis, adding radius arms to a twin I-beam configuration to provide a noticeably tighter turning radius and more “car-like” steering and it also focused on efficiently insulating the interior.

Since SUVs were still far from glorified grocery getters at the time, and were also expected to perform plenty of rugged duty in the public sector, Ford equipped many Broncos accordingly, installing CB radios and fence post diggers, among other options.

Trend #2: By the late ’60s, The “Ideal” SUV Is Getting Markedly Bigger

Ford’s thorough research and careful planning led to the Bronco being an unqualified success, but in the years following its release, the SUV landscape had changed quite a bit. Take one look at an International Harvester Scout from the late ’60s and you’ll notice right away how big and stout it was. Three of the Bronco’s other direct competitors —Chevy’s K5 Blazer, Jeep’s Cherokee and Dodge’s Charger — also made the Bronco seem almost slight in comparison.

Ford was forced to rethink just what the Bronco should be upon launching its second generation. The company took what had become a comparatively modest-sized SUV and made a big change in 1978 which, due to the oil crisis and a couple of other factors, was a full four years later than it had intended to introduce the new generation.

The Bronco now featured a shortened F-100 truck chassis as its underpinning — repurposing its F-series truck chassis would become a practice that would continue through to the end of the model’s original tenure. In the process, the Bronco got a lot bigger to better compete with its rivals, adding 12 inches of wheelbase, more than two feet of length, 11 inches of width and more than a half-ton of curb weight over the preceding generation.

Trend #3: By the Late ’70s, More Stringent Emission Standards Curtail Power Outputs, So Manufacturers Are Forced to Put Style Over Substance

By late 1978, two separate oil embargos had already gripped the country, driving up gas prices and, in some cases, making fuel inaccessible at any price. Add to that a series of tightening limits on automotive pollution and you had a prescription for substantial change.

Ford had already delayed its second generation of Broncos for a full four years past its intended introduction date and when that generation did arrive, it brought with it engine options that, putting it diplomatically, weren’t likely to excite many would-be Bronco buyers.

Long gone were the days of exhilaratingly powerful engines, like Ford’s own Cobra Jet 428 V8 of the late ’60s, whose actual output has been gauged by many experts to have been in the 400-horsepower range while still in factory configuration. Ford, in an effort to keep insurance companies calm, downplayed the engine’s abilities and rated it at 335 horses, a figure that virtually no informed source took seriously.

Instead, Bronco buyers now had their choice of a pair of Ford’s still sizable V8s that were seriously hamstrung by more stringent emission standards — neither of the featured 352 cubic inch and 400 cubic inch engines could break the 160 horsepower mark and the more potent of the two topped out at just 277lb-ft of torque. Contrast this figure to that of Ford’s 390 cubic inch FE engine of about a decade before and its 425lb-ft and it seems particularly dismal.

Knowing full well that customers weren’t going to be able to secure bragging rights based on the Bronco’s power alone, Ford improvised and offered its Freewheelin’ package. This allowed buyers to drape the Bronco exterior — which actually did look pretty robust and impressive in its enlarged, truck-based, second generation form — in a choice of eye-catching graphics packages that were no doubt intended to draw focus away from the Bronco’s less than exciting performance capabilities.

The plan worked better than Ford could have possibly imagined. Sales numbers for the two-year tenure of the Bronco’s second generation far exceeded that of the model’s predecessor and stormed past the numbers of the competing Blazer and Ramcharger. In fact, when the generation was introduced, demand was so strong that Ford’s customers had to wait for months to actually take delivery of their Broncos.

Sound familiar?

Trend #4: Circa Mid-’80s, Manufacturers Begin to Offer Compact SUVs Alongside Their Full-Size Counterparts

A combination of often-spiking gas prices, along with a quest to broaden the appeal of the SUV sector, caused manufacturers to attempt to redefine the very term of the classification. Detroit, as well as overseas-based brands, reasoned that if they were to create scaled down versions of their existing SUVs that were easier to drive and park, and featured proportionately smaller wheelbases and engines for more acceptable fuel consumption, it would open the sector to a multitude of new buyers.

As a result, many compact SUVs hit the market over an approximately 8-year span to follow. A large percentage of them were seen as novelties — any Dodge Raider or Geo Tracker fans out there? A notable exception was Chevy’s S10 Blazer, which was generally well-regarded and stayed in the lineup alongside its full-size K5 counterpart until the early ’90s.

Not to be outdone, Ford released the Bronco II in 1984. In theory, it was a great move, as the scaled down SUV checked several important boxes. Based on the Ford Ranger pickup’s architecture, the Bronco II was small — about a foot shorter than Chevy’s competing S10 Blazer, in fact — but it had a capable, somewhat robust look to it. Ford marketed the new model as an SUV that was pretty much ideal for anyone, regardless of their interests.

In practice, the Bronco II was far less successful — some might even say it was nearly disastrous to the Ford brand. With its narrow wheelbase and relatively high center of gravity, the Bronco II turned out to be especially prone to rollovers — so much so that some insurance companies even stopped writing policies on the model.

Instead of dealing with the issue head on, Ford instead unwisely ignored it entirely and even “lost” a number of key documents when the company was dragged into court. Time magazine reported that Bronco II lawsuits had extracted a $2.4 billion toll on Ford by 1991.

Thankfully for the company, the Explorer was introduced that same year and enjoyed enthusiastic sales that helped right the ship.

Trend #5: By the Late ’80s, SUV Buyers Demand More Feature-Laden, “Softer” and Family-Centric Vehicles

When, in 1985, Ford introduced the Eddie Bauer version of the Bronco, the unexpectedly strong response probably clued the company into the fact that the tide of public preference was turning markedly. Dressed in a two-tone, color-keyed exterior package and offering features like adjustable leather seats and an overhead console, the Eddie Bauer Broncos definitely had aesthetics down, but the package offered no add-ons that would induce actual off-roaders. In fact, leather seats are generally seen as a big detriment to those planning to tackle rugged, often dirty terrain.

As the ’90s arrived, the trend toward more feature-packed, but less capable SUVs would escalate. Chevy’s Suburban, GMC’s Yukon and a number of other SUVs would step in to fill the demand — they were undeniably refined and spacious vehicles, but also very heavy. Even now, the descendants of these models offer only modest off-road usability in their stock forms. With limited ground clearance and no plating to protect vital components on their undersides, most can only navigate water obstacles no deeper than 12” — about the distance to mid-hub.

Ford’s response was, for the most part, a near non-response. Seeing the writing on the wall for the future of its iconic SUV, the company put very little effort into driving sales for the Bronco during this time and finally discontinued the model — temporarily, as it would turn out— in 1996. The bigger and heavier Expedition would take its place on the Michigan assembly line.

Trend #6: From the Mid-’90s to the Present, With the Bronco No Longer in the Picture, Jeep Dominates its Sector

With the Bronco having been shelved in 1996 and the Chevy Blazer bowing out a couple of years before that, the path to SUV market sector supremacy was left wide open for Jeep. Normally, a gap this obvious gets filled pretty quickly, but in this case, it didn’t. The more boutique Land Rover brand was passed around, first being acquired by BMW before being sold, ironically, to Ford. But with its substantially higher price, the Land Rover was considered more of a status symbol than a serious off-roader by most — even though in reality it has always been far more than capable in every respect.

Jeep, to its credit, stayed the course during this era. While its Cherokee wasn’t really much of a force on unforgiving terrain, the Wrangler has been a bona fide off-roader for decades and always featured an attainable price that made it all the more appealing. With virtually no competition in its segment, Jeep has enjoyed outstanding sales numbers for quite a while.

In the years following the Bronco’s departure, a group of dedicated Bronco fans known as the Bronco Underground — most of whom were Ford employees — kept the idea of reintroducing the model alive, using their own time to create updated renderings and even negotiating for much needed floor space at Ford’s Michigan Assembly Plant. Their unflagging efforts even led to the unveiling of a 2004 Concept Bronco at the New York Auto Show — a take on the model that very much resembles its current sixth generation.

When the 2017 North American Auto Show got under way in Detroit, Ford used the opportunity to announce the return of the Bronco to a very enthusiastic response, slating that return for 2020 and announcing the retooling of the same Michigan Assembly Plant that had always made the Bronco from its start.

Obviously, the delays in the Bronco’s reintroduction — mostly Covid-related — have been nearly unending, although a precious few units have reached their lucky owners’ garages. However, just as was the case when the Bronco’s second generation was introduced, demand for the model has far outstripped its supply and Ford isn’t likely to catch back up with its mountain of orders for some time yet.

Trend #7: The Quest for an Ever More Powerful SUV

Despite the fact that the Bronco was reintroduced without a V8 option, a decision that irked more than a few Bronco purists and other performance-centric SUV fans, the sixth generation Bronco is a very capable performer — even when equipped with its modestly-sized 4-cylinder EcoBoost engine.

The small but mighty engine’s power ratings of 300 horsepower and 325lb-ft of torque are more than enough to carry it through spirited off-roading, while the Bronco’s 6-cylinder twin turbo is good for 330 horsepower and 415lb-ft — numbers that would have elicited outright glee at one time. A number of current Bronco variants are capable of getting down to 0-60mph times in the low 6-second range.

By the same token, we seem to be in a sort of horsepower renaissance right now, and several Bronco competitors have debuted with substantially more powerful engines. Perhaps first and foremost is Jeep, whose Rubicon 392 features a hemi that puts out an impressive 470 horsepower and can propel the Rubicon to a 0-60mph time of just 4.5 seconds.

While Ford hasn’t taken decisive action just yet to battle its power deficit, it does have a number of options at its disposal. We’ve already reported on the eventual arrival of a Bronco Warthog, which would likely be propelled by a version of the twin turbo 3.0-liter Ecoboost that’s available in the Explorer ST and would up the Bronco to about 400 horsepower.

At the same time, the success of Ford’s all-electric Mustang Mach-E and its 480 horsepower and 634 lb-ft. in GT form gives rise to the possibility that a future Bronco could be similarly equipped, which — despite the acceleration it would provide (the Mach-E GT does 0-60mph in just 3.5 seconds) — would no doubt bring protests from gasoline-centric purists. To appease them, might Ford instead go to its Predator V8 and its 760 horsepower?

Only time will tell, and we probably won’t have to wait long. One thing is for certain — standing still in an ever-changing automotive landscape is not an option.

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