The Early Ford Bronco
The 1966 to 1977 Ford Bronco has long been an acknowledged classic and collectable 4x4, as well as a favored builder. When it was introduced in August 1965, the Bronco was an instant trendsetter that helped put FoMoCo on the 4x4 map.
Ford had not offered factory-built 4x4s long when the Bronco debuted. Factory-assembled four-wheel-drive Ford pickups first appeared in 1959. FoMoCo had previously relied on Marmon-Herrington to do conversions for the few customers who demanded a Blue Oval with all-wheel drive. With the upswing of recreational four-wheeling and outdoor hobbies in the early ’60s, Ford began to see the short wheelbase SUV market as a growth opportunity. The successful introduction of the International Harvester Scout for 1961 provided a role model and impetus. Other examples included the Jeep, Land Rover, Toyota Land Cruiser and Datsun Patrol. Ford reckoned to join a 4x4 market that was increasingly demanding more comfort and daily driving capabilities versus the traditional rough-and-tumble 4x4 utility.
The legendary Ford Mustang was well on its way to being a reality when Ford Product Manager Donald Frey convinced VP Lee Iacocca that Ford needed to be in the burgeoning SUV game. Henry Ford II eventually signed off with the stipulation that it be a minimum effort development utilizing the existing Ford parts bins as much as possible.
Development Engineer Paul Axelrad headed up the technical side of the project and managed to come up with some innovations that would later be heralded as leading a technical charge towards more comfortable and capable SUVs. That list is topped by the coil-spring front suspension, an industry first, which was developed concurrently for both the ’66 Bronco and ½-ton F-100 Ford trucks. It consisted of two forged steel radius arms to locate the Dana 30 front axle longitudinally and a track bar to locate the axle laterally. Weight was carried on a pair of tall coil springs and the shocks were attached to the radius arms. In back, the rear 9-inch dropout axle was located by a pair of long, supple leaf springs and the body was supported by no less than eight rubber mounts.
The Bronco was known for its good ride and handling, but also for a very tight 33-foot turning radius. This beat even the 81-inch wheelbase Jeep CJ-5. Part of this feat is correctly credited to the coil-spring suspension, which allowed more room for the tires, but it can also be credited to Dana, or rather the request Ford made of them to develop a tighter-turning axle. Another of the Bronco’s firsts was its open-knuckle front axle, which was the first to appear on an American 4x4. The open-knuckle allowed more steering angularity, as well as a reduction in weight from the old closed-knuckle styles. This was a trendsetting axle development that would finally take over by the early ’70s.
Along similar lines, Ford also requested that Dana develop a special version of its then-new Dana 20 transfer case. The Ford version featured a single-stick shifter as well as a unique 2.46:1 low-range gear (versus the standard Dana 20 2:1). The Dana 20 would live behind a Ford Model 303, “three-on-the-tree” manual transmission with a decent 3.4:1 First gear that came straight from the Ford parts bin.
Early on, Ford hinted at an available V-8, but when the Bronco debuted, only the Ford 170ci inline-six was available. With about 105 gross horsepower on tap, it was adequate for the job and on par with the primary competition. The March 1966 intro of the 289ci V-8 in the Bronco blew everyone out of the water. It was the first offering of a V-8 in an American short-wheelbase SUV, and that set another milestone for the Bronco. The V-8 would become a popular option.
The Bronco series was given the model designation U100, with each of the three basic body styles given a separate model number. The U130 Roadster was the bare-bones offering, sold without top or doors. The U140 was called the Sports Utility and used a bulkhead and half-cab to create a mini-pickup. The U150 was a fully enclosed Station Wagon. This range of body styles precisely mimicked the Scout and both vehicles offered the option for owners to interchange tops and doors. The Roadster had a fiberglass door insert that was screwed into place. A little known fact is that a Roadster could be ordered with doors (with or without glass) fitted from the factory. Just as IH discovered, the Roadster models would be the least popular and the Station Wagon the most. Both Ford and IH would quickly drop their Roadster models a few years into production
The press would be very kind to the ’66 Bronco, especially after the V-8 debuted. We published the results of our own two-month test in the March 1966 issue, and summed up with: “The new Ford back country machine is one which an off-the-road enthusiast can easily become friends with in short order.” In just the next issue, we announced the V-8 option and almost all the Broncos tested subsequently would be V-8 powered.
Initial Bronco sales were strong, nearly 24,000 units that first year, numbers that would slowly creep upwards and then drop back down. Stiff competition from the existing SUV makers would cut into sales. Jeep upgraded its model line to compete better, and IH refined the Scout and offered V-8 power. The biggest blow would come in 1969 with the intro of the Chevy Blazer. It didn’t help sales that Ford spent next to nothing further developing the Bronco. Power steering and brakes, factory A/C, disc brakes, all the stuff buyers clamored for, would all come late in the game for the Bronco. This seems incomprehensible until you know that by 1972, Ford had a Blazer-beating-big-Bronco in the works. That intro would be delayed by the gas crunch, but when the big Bronco debuted for 1978, sales would soar to over 70,000 units. That would set the trend for all the Broncos built to the end of the name in 1996. But that’s another story.
Little did Ford know that the early Bronco would take on iconic status not long after its demise. It is now almost universally known and often compared to the legendary Mustang. The comparison is apt. They were both developed by the same people to take a bold step into their market segments and slice out Ford’s customary large piece of the pie. It could be said that the Mustang was a larger commercial success, but both were trendsetters and equally well remembered in their genres.
From a technical standpoint, the ’66 Bronco is almost unique and this makes for a difficult restoration. That provides an interesting challenge that attracts some and repels others. For a long time, the ’66s were the unwanted stepchildren of the Bronco collecting world and prices were low. No more. Today, despite the challenges, they have become just as collectable as the original essence of Ford’s seminal 4x4 thinking nearly a half century ago.
At A Glance
Vehicles: 1966 U-130 Bronco Roadster, ’66 U150 Station Wagon
Owners: Tim Hulick, Bill Quarterman
Estimated value: $25,000-$45,000
Engine: 170ci I-6 (std), 289ci V-8 (opt)
Power (hp): 105 @ 4,400 (I-6), 200 @ 4,400 (V-8)
Torque (lb-ft): 158 @ 2,400 (I-6), 282 @ 2,400 (V-8 opt.)
Bore & stroke (in): 3.50 x 2.94 (I-6), 4.00 x 2.87 (V-8)
Comp. ratio: 9.1:1 (I-6), 9.3:1 (V-8)
Transmission: 3-spd manual, Ford 303
Transfer case: 2-spd, Spicer 20
Front axle: Dana 30, open knuckle
Rear axle: Ford 9-inch, 28-spline axles
Axle ratio: I-6: 4.11:1 (std), 4.57:1 (opt), V-8: 3.50:1 (std), 4.11:1 (opt)
Tires: 7.35-15 (8.15-15, others, opt)
L x W x H (in): 151.1x68.8x70.7
Wheelbase (in): 92
GVW (lbs): 3,900 (std), 4,700 (opt)
Curb weight (lbs): 3,160 (I-6, SW)
Fuel capacity (gal): 14.5 (12 aux opt)
Min grd clearance (in): 6.6
Approach angle (deg): 40.6
Departure angle (deg): 29.4
Ramp breakover (deg): 27.7