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Retrospective: Ford Bronco through the ages

The Bronco is back with styling and removable doors clearly inspired by the original. Let's take a look at how the off-roader found its way back to the start.

4 months ago
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Why the EcoBoost V6 Bronco bodes well for Australia
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Derek Fung
Journalist

The Bronco is back! Reformatted as a Jeep Wrangler competitor, the new car is a fresh twist on a classic name.

And then there’s the Bronco Sport, a smaller and softer iteration based on the Ford Escape.

Outside of the States the Bronco is most closely associated with OJ Simpson’s mad dash for freedom, but the car’s lineage goes back way longer than that.


First generation: 1965-1977

Built on a unique platform, the original Bronco was available as either a three-door wagon, two-door ute, or a doorless roadster.

Slow sales meant the ute and roadster were withdrawn from production part way through this model’s lifecycle. The spirit of the roadster lives on in the revived Bronco, though, which is available with removable doors.

The first Bronco had a minimalist design with a flat windscreen, blocky sides and symmetrical doors to keep costs down.

At launch the Bronco was available with 2.8-litre straight-six with just 105 ponies (78kW). Later on a V8 and larger six were added to the range. A column-shift three-speed manual was standard.

As with today’s revived model, off-roading was the Bronco’s raison d’être, and the car was available with a Dana front axle and had standard four-wheel drive.

Measuring just 3.85 metres from bumper to bumper, the Bronco was small in an era when US family sedans were typically five metres or longer.


Retrospective: Ford Bronco through the ages

Second generation: 1977-1979

The short-lived second-generation grew significantly to 4.5 metres in length as the Bronco had to fight for sales with competitors, such as the Chevrolet K5 Blazer, Jeep Cherokee, and Dodge Ramcharger, which were at least that long.

Like the Chevy, the new Bronco was based on the company’s contemporary pickup.

The Bronco’s connection to the F-100 is clear, as both vehicles share the same front end and overall design.

Two V8 engines were offered, both making around 115kW. Four-wheel drive, and solid front and rear axles were standard.


Retrospective: Ford Bronco through the ages

Third generation: 1979-1986

With the third generation model, Ford confirmed the Bronco’s future was closely tied to the F-Series pickup.

From 1982 to 1987 this generation was sold built and sold in Australia with either a 4.1-litre straight-six or a 5.8-litre V8.

Buyers could opt between a four-speed manual or a three-speed automatic, but four-wheel drive was standard.

Although the third-generation Bronco was sold only as a three-door wagon, Ford did make a one-off version with an open back for the Pope’s visit to the States in 1979.

Unlike modern Popemobiles, there’s no see-through bulletproof shelter for the pontiff. Instead he and his entourage travelled alfresco.


Retrospective: Ford Bronco through the ages

Ford Bronco II: 1983-1988

Not intended as a replacement for the “full-size” Bronco, the Bronco II was designed to go toe-to-toe with the Chevrolet S-10 Blazer, and was based on the smaller Ranger pickup truck.

Measuring just over 4.0m long, the Bronco II was only a little bigger than the original Bronco. Power came from either a 2.8- or 2.9-litre V6 engine, although a 2.3-litre four-cylinder turbo-diesel from Mitsubishi was added late in the car’s cycle.

When production of the Bronco II ceased production, it was replaced by the first-generation Explorer, which was around 4.4m in length.


Retrospective: Ford Bronco through the ages

Fourth generation: 1986-1991

The Bronco received an update in line with the F-Series range. Again it shared its front end and squarer design with the F-150 truck.

Improvements included new push-button controls for the four-wheel drive system, and the addition of fuel injection to the straight-six and V8 engines.

Part way through this generation a five-speed manual replaced the old four-speed unit, and a four-speed automatic was subbed in for the three-speed box.


Retrospective: Ford Bronco through the ages

Fifth generation: 1991-1996

This is the one that went famous for all the wrong reasons when police chased a white Bronco down a Los Angeles interstate highway with film star and former NFL footballer OJ Simpson in the passenger seat.

Simpson had failed to surrender himself as agreed in relation to the murder of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman.

The pursuit, which lasted over one-and-a-half hours, was broadcast live around the world. Said to have outrated that year’s NFL Super Bowl, the pursuit forced NBC to broadcast an NBA finals game in a small box in the corner of the screen.

As for the Bronco itself, this revision was all about safety with crumple zones and, later, a driver’s airbag being made standard equipment. The removable hardtop was also fixed in place.

The Explorer has the distinction of replacing a Bronco-badged model twice.

This time in 1996, when the Bronco was retired, it effectively replaced in Ford’s US range by the similarly sized three-door Explorer, which was already available in showrooms. A longer and more practical five-door Explorer was also available.


Retrospective: Ford Bronco through the ages

2004 Concept

Today’s Bronco isn’t the first time Ford tried to bring back the classic nameplate.

At the 2004 Detroit motor show, Ford whipped the covers off a retro take on the original Bronco, but using the platform from the Escape soft-roader.

Under the bonnet the concept featured a 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo-diesel with 95kW and 330Nm. The oil-burner was hooked up to a six-speed dual-clutch transmission and the Escape’s all-wheel drive system.

With two Fast & Furious movies already percolating through the public consciousness, Ford said the concept was also fitted with a nitrous system capable of giving a 37kW boost.

The system was claimed to cut the Bronco’s quarter mile (400m) time by three seconds, and improve its top speed by around 24km/h.


Sixth generation: 2020-

Fast forward to today, and Ford has launched new two- and four-door Bronco models, which you can read about here. With its retro styling and Ranger underpinnings, it can be seen as honouring both the original Bronco and the later Bronco II.

There’s also a Bronco Sport with upgraded Escape mechanicals for lighter off-roading action.

These new models could be the right models at the right time due to COVID-19-related restrictions.

Thanks to international travel bans and the closure of many traditional recreation locations, Americans are showing a much larger interest in exploring the great outdoors.

Socially responsible adventures have seen sales of camping-related equipment skyrocket by around 800 per cent, and sales of RVs have also gone through the roof.

These new outdoor-flavoured Fords could ride the wave all the way to the bank, and — maybe, just maybe — secure CEO Jim Hackett’s legacy at the Blue Oval.


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