Ford's Wayne Assembly Plant Comes Full Circle with the Return of the Bronco
It hasn’t been without plenty of setbacks, many of which have centered on the havoc Covid has wrought, but the Ford Bronco Sport has been patrolling the asphalt of US streets for a little while now and its stouter siblings — the 2-door and 4-door Broncos — will be gracing dealer showrooms in a matter of months.
While the Bronco Sport has been manufactured down South in Hermosillo, Mexico since the beginning of its production, the more sizable iterations of the nameplate will be rolling off the assembly line in Wayne, Michigan. This is more than fitting, considering that this facility had once been turning out Broncos for a nearly 30-year stretch, beginning not long after Ford first conceived of the model, which itself dates all the way back to the early-’60s.
Ford’s Wayne facility, also known now as its Michigan Assembly Plant, has quite a storied history in its own right and has likely seen more retooling twists and turns than nearly any other facility of its kind. When its lights first came on in 1957, the plant was dedicated solely to the production of Mercury station wagons — very substantial vehicles that loyally performed their duties of transporting countless families on daily outings and an occasional vacation or two.
Keeping Up With Changes in the Automotive Market
At the time, the country’s taste in vehicles was already evolving, and it was only seven years later, in 1964, that the Wayne plant would be thoroughly retooled to produce a notable ancestor of the Bronco — the F-100. The sturdy pickup caught on immediately, and it took only a year for the 100,000th specimen of the model to roll off the line. By this time, the Ford Bronco had been developed from a mere concept created by product manager Donald Frey — who, considering he also helped conceive the Ford Mustang, had quite a track record — to a full-blown production model that would now take its place right beside Ford’s trusty F-100 pickup inside the assembly factory.
With the instantly popular Bronco and its workhorse stablemate truck now being produced in sizable numbers, things really began humming along at the Wayne plant, and it wasn’t long before Ford felt the need to up its production capabilities with a series of major upgrades and expansions, the first of which took place in 1968, followed by two more in 1974 and 1991.
The End of the Line for the Bronco (Until Now)
But booms don’t generally last, and the Bronco’s success going into the early ’90s was no exception. By this time, families had begun to see SUVs more as successors to the noble station wagon than as bona fide off-road vehicles, and many wanted more ease of access and room than the Ford Bronco’s stout and compact 2-door configuration would allow. So when Ford again expanded the Wayne plant in 1996, it had already announced that there wouldn’t be any more Broncos rolling off the assembly line. Instead, its well-regarded but more sedate descendant, the Expedition, would now take its place.
Over the years, production strategy gradually veered about as far from the assembly plant’s roots as you could imagine, and a series of further modifications eventually saw Wayne churning out what would be considered by most as the polar opposites of the Bronco — relatively small, fuel-efficient vehicles like the Ford Focus and C-Max hybrid. But as we well know, the desires of the car-buying public are ever-changing and the demand for domestic vehicles of this type also began to ebb before long — in part because of the ever-increasing popularity of SUVs, albeit largely in their “citified”, softer form.
Meanwhile, throughout the years following its departure, hope for the rekindling of the Bronco nameplate remained alive, due in large part to an intrepid bunch of Ford employees who were also devout Bronco enthusiasts, known as the Bronco Underground. Members of this group lent their considerable production and design expertise to this pursuit, even going so far as to negotiate behind the scenes for much needed floor space to help create production mockups along the way.
There was a definite opportunity now emerging for Ford to take advantage of. For a long, long stretch, the Jeep Wrangler enjoyed unfettered success as the “go-to” SUV for true off-road enthusiasts. While it wasn’t literally the only SUV option, its open wheel design, substantial ground clearance and compact wheelbase put it in a practical class by itself. By contrast, most of the other SUV choices, especially of the domestic variety, were relatively soft and even the Bronco’s successor, the Expedition, carried with it a long wheelbase and substantial curb weight that made it far better suited to the asphalt.
Ford Makes a REALLY Big Announcement
When the 2017 North American Auto Show opened in Detroit, Ford not only announced the return of the Bronco — which created quite an enthusiastic response — but also of the Ford Ranger, which had been discontinued a number of years earlier. Even better, both would be produced in Wayne, Michigan — meaning that things had come full-circle for the assembly plant, as well as these two respected models. The Bronco’s historical link to Wayne is obvious — it had been produced there for its entire, approximately three-decade lifespan in its first incarnation. But the Ranger has ties to Wayne as well, not only as a direct descendant of the F-100 pickups that had rolled off the line alongside the Bronco, but also as a featured trim level when the fifth generation of F-100s was unveiled in 1967.
Retooling a facility like Wayne is no small undertaking. About a year after Ford first announced the return of both the Bronco and the Ranger, approximately 2,000 workers were put on semi-paid leave as the plant was retooled for the re-emerging models at an estimated cost of more than $850 million. Add to that an additional expenditure to upgrade its engine plant in neighboring Romeo, MI and Ford’s gamble on the success of the Bronco hits the $1 billion mark.
From all indications, it’s a bold move that looks to be paying off. The response to the 2021 Bronco has been about as enthusiastic as Ford could have expected, with reservations nearing the 200,000 mark and actual orders pushing the Bronco into “sold out” status until the 2022 model year. All of this comes, of course, before the first of the 2-door and 4-door Broncos have even arrived. But with Covid-related complications hopefully now in the past and the path set for the first Broncos to arrive at dealer showrooms before too long, it looks like plenty of bright days are ahead for both this eagerly anticipated model and the storied assembly plant that will once again build it.