How the Bronco Got Its Style
The runaway success of the soon to arrive 2021 Bronco provides unquestionable proof that its bold, retro-futuristic design has captured the interest of the buying public. Like its more modestly-sized stablemate, the Bronco Sport, both the 2 and 4-door Broncos look absolutely nothing like anything else found on American roads.
Considering that so many automotive models — certainly a majority of them — end up bearing almost no resemblance to their original prototypes, a look into the design process of this sixth generation of Broncos provides some interesting insight into just how this iteration of the Ford model ended up being so evocative of its classic era while at the same time garnering such a rousing response among Ford fans and off-road aficionados in general.
You might suspect that arriving at such a distinctive result would require a distinctive approach and you’d be right. While it’s common practice for new automotive concepts, including re-introductions of previously released models, to get their start on paper in the form of ambitious, ultra-dramatic renderings that are invariably brought back to earth as the production process draws near, the Bronco design team — helmed by Ford design veteran Paul Wraith — embarked on a decidedly different path.
Wraith is a 20-year design veteran, who first joined the Blue Oval crew when he was back in his native England at the very turn of the millennium. He, along with his design team (which consisted of about 15 immediate members), knew all too well that modern automotive manufacturing decisions tend to lean far too heavily on academic research, resulting in fairly functional but “safe” finished models. They had only to look at the Chevrolet Blazer, once a direct competitor to the early offerings of the Bronco, to see the results of such a process. Over the years, the Blazer had been transformed from a capable, rugged off-roader to a much softer, modern day take on the station wagon that was best suited for the safety of the asphalt.
So, they decided to reverse the process. Instead of beginning with a fanciful rendering of the Bronco that would need plenty of “taming”, they began their efforts by focusing on the model’s groundbreaking roots. Team member Moray Callum, an ardent Bronco fan who proudly owned two classic specimens of the model, trotted out his own ’76 Bronco to a workspace at the Ford Product Development Center in Dearborn, Michigan — the very site where nearly every Ford model had gotten its start since 1955. (As an aside, this hallowed space has given ground for a new, state of the art research center that will be tasked not only with future automotive designs, but also the development of other forms of transportation, including electric bikes, scooters and shuttle systems. )
Ford's Design Campus, Currently in Development
Carefully observing every aesthetic feature of the car, the design team set about determining just what made it so special and so distinct from anything else offered at the time its first-generation Bronco cohorts rolled off of showroom floors and onto the streets. The process started with the innate design features of the Bronco. In an interview with Hagerty’s a while back, Wraith put it simply, “What makes a Bronco? . . . a short overhang, flat body side, level beltline, very upright windshield, very upright rear end.”
1976 Ford Bronco, photo via AutoTrader Classics
Despite the notion that such an informal approach would lead to plenty of dissent, there was surprisingly little disagreement as the design process moved forward. As it would turn out, the updating of the iconic Bronco logo would be at the center of most of it — the first renderings of the logo were suitably striking, but had the fabled running horse inclined in such a way as to make it seem like it was running in the air and was later re-adjusted to put its hooves more in line with the imaginary ground below.
Among the aesthetic elements the team readily agreed on — in addition to Wraith’s observations about the signature look of the model, of course — was the design of the doors. Featuring an appearance evocative of the Broncos of the mid-’60s, they would be made readily removable by Bronco owners and easily stowed in back, with frameless glass teaming with an also removable roof to create an exhilarating open air driving experience. Hinting at the Bronco’s readiness for adventurous off-road exploits, the front edge of its fenders would feature raised brackets that would not only aid in guiding the Bronco through tight spots, but also function as tiedowns for extra accessories.
The opportunity to reimagine such an iconic model, essentially from the ground up, also allowed for some subtle touches, such as the inclusion of quite a number of specially engraved bolts that not only provide a hand-crafted feel to the Bronco, but also have a more utilitarian purpose. Noted Wraith of the bolts, “Each one of these little Bronco bolts is an invitation to do something with the vehicle. This is a little bit of a giveaway. Where they exist, we've set the vehicle up to have things attached to it. Whether they're lights, or racks or mounts for all sorts of things . . . we have those on the grab handles, on the instrument panel and on the console, as well. It's an invitation to add things, take things off, play, invent, create things."
Of course, there was quite a bit more to the design process than mimicking the cues of the Bronco forefathers. Harkening back to the classic era of the model would ultimately prove to be a winning strategy, as it had been for a number of musclecar nameplates, but this journey back in time had to take place with eyes forward to the future. Consumers tend to love nostalgia, but not at the cost of sacrificing modern technology and capability, after all.
In order to make the new Bronco well-suited to customer needs, Wraith’s team even went so far as to conduct their own weekly customer-centric groupthinks. In an interview with SixtySixmag.com, Wraith noted, "We had to ask ourselves, ‘What are we trying to solve with this vehicle? Why bring it back? What’s the problem?’ We started looking very, very deeply at our customers and really working out what was going on in their lives."
The effort to reincarnate the Bronco certainly didn’t begin with any momentum of its own. The model’s departure in 1996 was intended to be no mere hiatus — Ford not only had no plans to reintroduce it anytime soon, but actually was opposed to the idea, to the point of actively squelching the collective enthusiasm of the Bronco Underground, an intrepid group of Bronco fans who also happened to be Ford employees. Observed Mark Grueber of the Ford SUV marketing team and a member of the Bronco Underground, who witnessed the initial pushback the manufacturer exhibited with the idea of reintroducing the Bronco, “Leadership literally told us to stop using the B Word. They just didn’t want to hear it anymore.”
Members of the Bronco Underground
The Underground’s own continued efforts pushed the development process along at a strong pace and a convergence of fortunate events would open a door of opportunity. When Ford announced in early 2016 that it was moving production of the Focus to Mexico — before scrapping that project entirely not long after — it left a gaping hole in its Wayne, Michigan assembly line bandwidth. Ford would go on to hint that the void would be filled by the production of “two very important products” without providing further details.
As it would turn out, those “important products” would be the Ford Ranger, followed by the new Bronco, whose dimensions and body-on-frame construction made it the perfect assembly line companion for Ford’s relatively compact pickup, as it rode on the very same platform. Ford would keep the secrecy surrounding their plans for quite a while, before making a very well-received surprise announcement of the Bronco’s resurgence in conjunction with the 2017 North American International Auto Show in Detroit.
Because of Covid-related delays, it will still be a few months until we see the full-size Broncos hit the streets and, of course, the automotive press will be weighing in with their own test drives and observations — they haven’t yet been afforded the opportunity to get behind the wheel, but have ridden as passengers, such as in the case of this impressively positive review.
But as far as aesthetics are concerned, we can already declare the new Bronco a resounding success — astronomic sales figures leading to a “sold out” status until 2022 just don’t lie.