Cars & Gadgets
What Makes the Ford Bronco a Preppy Icon?
In 30 years, the Bronco became an automotive icon, and its 20-year absence has only made enthusiasts' hearts grow fonder.
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In the mid-1960s, the Ford Motor Company was a pioneer of affordable, youthful, and muscular machines. The Mustang created an all-new genre of sports car when it galloped into dealerships in 1964 to great acclaim. But the man responsible for the Mustang, Ford general manager Donald Frey, decided his newest creation needed a stablemate, a tough SUV with four-wheel drive.

After 30 years and over five major model updates, the Bronco crawled over rocks, slogged through muddy trails, and remained Ford's most capable 4x4.

The last truck to wear the Bronco nameplate rolled off the assembly line in 1996, due to the increasing demand for four-door SUVs (and Ford began selling the Expedition the very next year.) But now the name is in the news more than ever. Earlier this month, Ford announced that the Bronco would finally return to dealerships in 2020. Although thin on details, the news was the highlight of the entire show simply because the Bronco is one of the coolest and most hardcore sport utility vehicles in history. So much so that it's become an icon in the automotive world. Here's why.

CLASSIC DESIGN

The early Bronco's shape reflects how uncomplicated four-wheel drive vehicles were in the 1960s. Like the International Harvester Scout, which debuted years before in 1961, there was a purposeful honesty to the Bronco's shape.

"I think there is a nice simplicity to the design—there's nothing frivolous about it," says Ford's vice president of design Moray Callum, who also owns a 1976 Bronco. "There's a friendliness to the Bronco that I think people are attracted to."

Jonathan Ward, CEO, designer, and founder of a small-batch vehicle builder Icon 4x4, reimagines and re-engineers early Broncos, which can fetch $200,000 or more.

"Everything you lay your hand upon serves a specific intent or purpose," says Ward. "The amount of metal used in the first-generation models makes them more trustworthy, easier to restore, and more appealing on a deeper level than the newer ones. It recalls an era of long-lasting craftsmanship in vehicles."

It also helped that throughout its history, that early Bronco design rarely changed, which only contributed to its popularity.

"When you look at that first generation, that sheetmetal lasted for 11 years," says Callum. "The only changes we made were for regulations. I think the Bronco remained quite endearing as a result."

GREAT ON THE ROADAND OFF

Early sport-utility vehicles promised adventure and ruggedness. The Jeep CJ had defined the genre for close to 20 years. But because the Jeep was a military vehicle adapted for civilian life, there were lots of compromises. For one, it was somewhat underpowered and since Jeeps were small they couldn't haul much. Jeeps also didn't offer full metal doors or a metal hardtop, and a minuscule body also meant knee-aching leg room.

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"The CJ's ergonomics are limiting," says Ward. "It's difficult to climb into and it's very small once inside."

Ford made sure the Bronco addressed these design limitations and offered serious technical innovation, too. The 1966 Bronco was available in three configurations: a pickup, wagon, and roadster. All three models rode on a 92-inch wheelbase, a foot longer than the Jeep, allowing much more room inside for people and cargo. The Bronco was specifically engineered to handle that higher payload.

The Bronco's added length meant its stable platform could deliver a supple ride—on the road and off. Back in the '60s, just about every four-wheel drive vehicle used solid axles with a leaf spring suspension at each corner. Leaf packs are simple and effective, but typically deliver a rough ride. Flouting four-wheel tradition, the Bronco used a smoother-riding coil-spring suspension that located the front axle with a three-link setup. That axle used a new open knuckle design (using U-joints instead of sealed CVs), offering more steering angle and a tight turning circle. The Bronco was also rare amongst its peers because of an option for limited slip differentials in both axles for serious off-road traction.

1966 Ford Bronco with a six-cylinder engine

"The Bronco certainly needed to be a legitimate vehicle for it to succeed in terms of its off-road capability," says Callum. "It couldn't be a fake off-roader."

The Bronco was more maneuverable, smoother-riding, and could carry a heavier load compared to the competition. But it's what Ford engineers planned under the hood that really set the Bronco apart from competitors.

As a true brother to Ford's newest Mustang, the original Bronco came bucking off the assembly line with an optional 289 CID V8—just like the Mustang. This engine choice was revolutionary because no other manufacturer had a V8 in their small 4x4s.

A RACING LEGEND

But the Mustang and Bronco had more in common than just their engine size and equestrian heritage—they were also incredible race machines.

In 1965, two early examples of the Bronco were delivered to Long Beach, California, at racecar builder Bill Stroppe's shop, who was a legend for his success fabricating race machines of all types.

"Bill Stroppe was very much like the Carroll Shelby of the Bronco world," says Bronco historian Todd Zuercher, who also owns an original Stroppe racing Bronco.

Bill Stroppe

In the mid-1960s, off-road racing was in its infancy. Before most Americans had ever seen a Bronco, Bill Stroppe had won at an off-road race in Riverside, California and campaigned the Bronco in the very first Baja NORRA Mexican 1000 in 1967.

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But it was when Stroppe teamed up with his old friend, famed driver and veteran Indy 500 racer Parnelli Jones, that Ford began to dominate off-road racing with the Bronco.

"I think the Bronco's stout drivetrain really lent itself to the rigors of off-road racing," says Zuercher. "I'd much rather race down the Baja peninsula in a Bronco than a Jeep CJ-5 just from a ride and handling standpoint."

The first Broncos Stroppe built and raced with Jones were nearly stock, but Jones' aggressive driving style was rough on the Broncos and he needed something lighter and faster to withstand the rigors of Baja. And so, Big Oly was born.

Big Oly (named for sponsor Olympia Beer) was a pure chrome tube-frame race machine with far more suspension travel than a stock Bronco. Under the hood was a 351 cid V8 with almost 400 horsepower. The Big Oly Bronco was a radical departure for off-road racing vehicles, and it influenced the direction of the sport for years to come. Stroppe and Jones campaigned the truck from 1970-1974 and took the overall win Baja 1000 in 1971 and 1972.

The Bronco's success in off-road racing inspired Ford to produced around 400 Baja Broncos from 1971-1975, each one painted to match Stroppe's flashy red, white, and blue race team colors. Today, Baja Broncos are the most desirable of all Bronco models.

A COLLECTOR'S DREAM

The Bronco has long been valued by enthusiasts as a rugged off-roader. But today, thanks to a rise in popularity for classic 4x4s, the early Bronco is appealing to a far wider audience.

McKeel Hagerty is a classic car market expert and the CEO of Hagerty Insurance, the largest provider of classic car insurance and publisher of the Hagerty Price Guide.

"Early Broncos have a minimal, utilitarian appeal much like early Land Rovers, Land Cruisers, and Jeeps," says Hagerty. "A lot of older buyers have a fond memory of these, and a lot of younger buyers see them as a cool and unique predecessor to the SUVs they grew up with."

Jeep produced versions of the CJ, and later the Wrangler, continuously since 1944, but a new Bronco hasn't been made for 20 years.

"It's that romantic nostalgia that's kept the Bronco in people's minds," says Ward. "The fact that there's no related contemporary version available has kept it dominant in that collector market."

Though some meticulously restored Broncos have touched six figures at auctions, even prices on trucks in relatively ordinary condition have climbed. Hagerty Price Guide values a clean driver-quality early Bronco at just under $30,000 up from $14,500 just five years ago. Ford's announcement of an all-new Bronco will only drive prices and enthusiasm higher.

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"There's a lot of interest inside the company for Bronco, and the pent-up demand is certainly there," says Callum. "We better not screw it up."

From: Popular Mechanics

This story originally appeared on Townandcountrymag.com.
* Minor edits have been made by the Townandcountry.ph editors.

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