The Bronco At 50: A History Of Ford’s Trail Pony
It’s been 50 years since Ford introduced the Bronco and 30 years since they last used the nameplate on a production 4x4.
It’s been 50 years since Ford introduced the Bronco and 30 years since they last used the nameplate on a production 4x4. It’s nowhere close to being a forgotten model. Just the opposite! The five generations of Bronco have reached iconic status and are one of the hottest parts of the truck collector market. Thank You International Harvester
The success of International’s Scout in 1961 got the attention of the entire auto industry, Ford Motor Company included, because it was a more people-friendly and daily driver friendly variation on the Jeep theme. The exact motivational details are unclear, but as they worked on the soon-to-be-iconic Mustang, Ford started work on a compact 4x4 utility vehicle in the same class as the Scout. Construction of clay models began in mid-1963, indicating some design work was done prior, with final program approval coming in February 1964.
Most sources list Donald Frey (1923-2010), Ford Division general manager, as the prime mover of the Bronco project, even as his other “baby,” the Mustang, was in the final stages of development. The Bronco had a strong “spiritual” connection with the Mustang, and both shared a mandate to use as much existing Ford engineering as possible. While Ford had a useful array of previously developed mechanical hardware for the Bronco, it was much more a chassis-up development than the Mustang, which used the Falcon platform as a starting point. A major part of Bronco chassis development was the coil-spring, three-link “monobeam” front suspension, developed concurrently with a system for the new F-100 pickup also scheduled to debut for 1966.
Ford engineer Paul Axelrad (1919-1984) has been credited for most of the Bronco’s chassis development. He worked under Light Truck Vehicle Design Manager George H. Muller (1917-2005) and that department was largely responsible for the monobeam system. Originally, a Dana 27 closed knuckle axle was chosen for the Bronco but when Ford engineers learned a beefier Dana 30 was on the horizon, they called dibs. The Dana 30 boasted an increase in tube diameter and wall thickness over the Dana 27 (2.5-inch-diameter, 0.375-inch-wall versus 2.25-inch-diameter, 0.219-inch-wall). Dana was also developing an open-knuckle Dana 30, which increased the steering angles from 29 to 37 degrees. Eventually, this innovation would take over the industry, but the Ford Bronco was the first 4x4 to have it, which gave it a best-in-class turning circle. According to Axelrad, ten wheelbases were considered for the Bronco, whose overall length was set at 152 inches. They finally settled on 92 inches and a 57.4-inch track as delivering the optimal combination of trail clearances, drivability, and maneuverability.
One of the first public hints of a new compact Ford utility came in the May 4, 1964, Ward's Auto Reports, a longtime auto industry trade news publication. This was not long after the Mustang announcement in April. It was not called “Bronco” in that report, but it mentioned the new unit was designed to face down the Scout. It’s unclear exactly when the Bronco name was applied, but the new Bronco officially debuted on August 11, 1965, with some early reports appearing about a month before. According to release documents, Broncos were to arrive at Ford showrooms in September, about the time long-lead magazine coverage normally came out.
While the Bronco was not as big a splash as the Mustang, it moved the compact utility market way ahead. Jeep had once ruled this market, but Scout had stolen a big hunk of mojo in 1961. Now Ford was jumping in and taking another lion-sized share. Jeep had nothing to counter it directly, though the Jeepster Commando C101 would shortly make a valiant attempt. News of the Bronco put International’s marketing department in a tizzy. It had been easy to take market share from Jeep, but Ford had upped the ante so much that International was forced to scramble way ahead of their planned refresh timeline to keep the Scout competitive.
The Bronco engine options had competitors reeling the most. Yes, it debuted with only a modest 170ci six. Even that trumped Scout’s four and, initially, Jeep’s four-banger-only lineup. Jeep would soon debut their 225ci Dauntless V-6 option, but it was common knowledge that Bronco would get a 200hp 289ci V-8. International would bust-butt to equal the V-8 benchmark by early 1967, but Jeep didn't match it until 1972.
The First Generation: 1966-1977
The Bronco debuted in three forms: the base U130 Roadster ($2,337), the U140 Sports Utility pickup ($2,480), and the U150 Wagon ($2,551). A vast array of options added fun, functionality, and flair, as well as comfort, in amounts appropriate to the era. In these early days, rigs with people-friendly options and daily driver capability moved ahead in the new utility market, and that’s just what the first Bronco offered.
There were many ongoing changes to Bronco and these only hit the highlights. The first big addition was the 289ci V-8, first available in March 1966. For ’67, the Sport Package debuted. Late in the ’68 model year, the 289 was replaced by the more powerful 302ci V-8. The slow-selling Roadster model was eliminated after ’68, and the fold-down windshield option was eliminated after it was gone. One of the Bronco’s biggest upgrades came for ’71, when the Dana 44 front axle replaced the Dana 30. For ’72, the GVWs were upgraded, the base rising to 4,300 pounds, with optional ratings up to 4,900 pounds.
In ’73, the sports utility model (often called “halfcab” by the Bronco community) was eliminated and the better-appointed Ranger package appeared. The C4 automatic transmission first appeared for ’73 and the 170ci six was replaced by the 200ci six. For ’75, the six was eliminated and non-power disc brakes came for ’76, with a concurrent rear brake upgrade. In the final 1977 year of production, the Bronco got power brakes, Dura-Spark electronic ignition, and fuel filler cap doors. A total of 225,585 first-generation Broncos were built, according to the best available figures, made up of 203,544 wagons, 17,262 sports utility pickups, and 5,000 roadsters.
The Second Generation: 1978-1979
Had it not been for the gas crisis, this larger Bronco might have appeared for the ’74 or ’75 model year. When the Chevy Blazer hit the market in 1969, it became the new benchmark for a vehicle class that was just beginning to be called “sport utility.” It was the “just right” size, and everyone was scrambling to match it. Ford began development of fullsized SUVs based on their F-series pickups in ’72.
According to George Peterson, onetime product design engineer at Ford, there was a relatively large budget devoted to the project. He described four concepts: Shorthorn (a two-door fullsize on a 105-inch wheelbase), Longhorn (a four-door fullsize on a standard 1/2-ton wheelbase with an extended rear overhang), Midhorn (a Longhorn without the extended tail), and the Widehorn (an extended-width version of the Longhorn). According to Peterson, the only running prototype was the Shorthorn, which was built in 1973 from a shortened ’72 F-100 truck.
The 1973 gas crunch and a general business downturn slowed the Shorthorn project. According to Peterson, manufacturing the body was not as simple as it had first appeared and given a scheduled refresh for the ’78 model year was upcoming, management decided to save tooling costs by coordinating the big Bronco with that facelift. By the time it was introduced for ’78, only the two-door Shorthorn idea was produced with the Bronco nameplate. The development of a four-door SUV was deemed too risky at the time.
The ’78 and ’79 Broncos used the U150 base model code, sat on a 104-inch wheelbase, and were offered in four GVWs: 6,010 pounds (Model U153), 6,100 pounds (U150), 6,400 pounds (U151), and 6,550 pounds (U152). The standard was the Custom (base price for a ’78 was $7,444), and the upgrade was the Ranger XLT (add $637). A Free Wheeling Package ($557 for the Custom and $503 for the XLT) added RWL tires on white spokers, chrome mirrors, and stripes. The fiberglass hardtop was available in black or white and was color-keyed to the body color, unless you ordered it differently.
The ’78 and ’79s were the only Broncos not to offer a six-cylinder option. The base engine was a 135hp 5.8L (351M) two-barrel in the modified Cleveland “335” engine family. The upgrade was a long-stroke version, the 6.6L (400M), also with a two-barrel, making 149 hp. The standard transmission was the four-speed NP435 with an NP205 behind it. Optional was a C6 automatic and the NP203 full-time system was optional with the automatic only. The rear axle was a 9-inch, and the front was a Dana 44. Standard axle ratios were 3.50:1, with 4.11:1 optional.
The big Bronco was a huge success. The published production for ’78 is listed at 77,817 for both models. For ’79, it looks like 48,274 Customs and 55,764 Ranger XLTs were built. Ford was very happy with those numbers because they greased the skids for the next-generation Bronco.
The Third Generation: 1980-86
The all-new ’80 Ford trucks were a $700 million development to make them lighter, more modern, emissions-friendly, and fuel efficient. The biggest technical change was an independent front suspension called Twin-Traction Beam (TTB), and it made Ford the only American company offering an IFS 4x4 at the time. Ford had toyed with 4x4 IFS designs in the early ’60s, but the prototype TTB as we know it was first seen in 1972. A patent was filed in 1973 and granted in 1976, with Advanced Light Truck Engineering Supervisor Don Wheatley’s name on it. Dana worked with Ford on the TTB but, according to Wheatley, tried to get their innovative and bizarro “V-Drive” four-wheel system into the Bronco, but that's another story.
The powertrain options expanded to include the 4.9L I-6 as the base engine, the 302W V-8 (now called the 5.0L) as the midrange and the 351M (5.8L) V-8 engine carried over as the top dog into 1982, when the 351W V-8 began replacing it. The new 351W two-barrel engine (150 hp) gained a little power over the 351M and a four-barrel Windsor appeared as a midyear addition for 1984 making 210 hp. In ’85, the EFI 5.0L was introduced and made 190 hp. The 1986 engine lineup remained the same as in 1985.
The BorgWarner T-18 was the standard transmission for all engines, but a four-speed overdrive manual (M4OD) was added in ’81. The C6 was the only automatic until ’85, when the AOD was added for the 302 only. Gone was the NP205 part time and NP203 full-time cast-iron transfer cases, replaced by the NP208 chain drive, aluminum-cased unit with a nice 2.61:1 low range. Through the early part of the third-gen, the 9-inch dropout was the only Bronco rear axle but starting in ’83 you would see the new 8.8-inch integral Sterling axle, and it would shortly replace the 9-inch completely.
Cosmetically, there were a large number of changes, with much-improved interior features, but the basic two trim levels remained—Custom and Ranger XLT—along with two versions of the Free Wheeling package. For ’82, the XLT Lariat replaced the XLT Ranger, and a higher-end XLS package was added. The XLS left after ’83, and for ’84, the trim levels reverted to Custom and XLT. Available after December 1984 for the ’85 model year, the very popular Eddie Bauer Edition appeared as the full-boat trim level in three special colors and with a long list of included options, including the new 5.0L V-8 EFI engine. The ’80-’86 Bronco firmly established Ford in the growing SUV market, and around 325,000 were produced in this era, according to the best available numbers.
The Fourth Generation: 1987-1991
The 1987 model year would bring many changes to the Bronco, not the least of which was a front end restyle with a more aerodynamic look. On the tech front was EFI and cylinder head upgrades to the 4.9L six that would up power from 125 to 150 hp. While you could get the 4.9L EFI with the manual overdrive transmission, only the three-speed auto was available for it or the 5.8L engine. The first iteration of the electric-shift “Touch-Drive” four-wheel-drive system appeared but only with 5.0L/AOD-equipped powertrains
The ’88 model year brought many improvements, namely an EFI 5.8L engine (still 210 hp) and a five-speed transmission (Mazda M50DR2 for the 4.9L and ZF M50D-HD for the V-8s). The AOD still did not appear on either the 4.9L or the 5.8L. An overdrive automatic was finally offered on the 5.8L and 4.9L for 1990 in the form of the new E4OD. Trailer towing capacity had been gradually increasing, reaching a maximum of 7,700 pounds in this era, and it would hover in that ballpark for the rest of Bronco production.
Throughout the ’87-’91 era, trim choices remained static (Custom, XLT and Eddie Bauer). In the final year of this generation, a Silver Anniversary special was offered, and only 2,500 were made. Painted a special Currant Red, top included, they had a plush, one-off leather-appointed interior in silver gray with captain’s chairs. On the outside came 31x10.50-15 Goodyears on alloy rims. It was certainly the highlight of that generation. Just under 200,000 fourth-gen Broncos were built.
The Final Generation: 1992-1996
The final-generation Bronco started off in 1992 with a substantial cosmetic refresh that included a new front wrap and instrument panel. The trim lineup remained the perennial Custom/XLT/Eddie Bauer, but a “Nite” version of the XLT was added with a blacked-out appearance and special badging. Production numbers for the Nite Bronco are unknown, but they were relatively few in number.
For ’93, the long-running 4.9L six was deleted, and the 5.0L became the base engine with a standard five-speed and the E4OD optional. The EFI 5.8L was only available with the E4OD transmission. Four-channel ABS was added to the lineup. For ’94, the trim packages were brought into line with Ford trucks and XL replaced Custom. Air bags were made standard in the ’94 models, and the Bronco got a standard stainless steel exhaust system. Same-o for 1995, except that an XLT Sport package was introduced midyear with a monochromatic look and a few extra features.
The ’96 Bronco would change little from the ’95 version, but the writing was on the wall and new SUVs were coming. The four-door Explorer was dominating Ford’s SUV sales, and the only reason to keep the two-door Bronco around was for its towing capacity. It was made obsolete after 1996 when the more fuel efficient four-door Expedition introduced late in 1996 as a ’97 model. It would have the capabilities of the Bronco and then some, but its production ties to the new F-150 sealed the deal. The last Bronco rolled off the Michigan Truck Plant line on June 12, 1996, accompanied by a restored ’70 Bronco halfcab owned by Jeff Trapp, owner of Jeff's Bronco Graveyard. Just under 165,000 fifth-gen Broncos were built in four years.
The Bronco name has seldom been idle. In 2004, a Bronco concept vehicle was built for the auto show circuit, leaving glimmers of unrequited hope for a new Bronco. More recently, there have been rumors of a performance-oriented Bronco on one of the existing SUV platforms. Four Wheeler inquiries to Ford on the topic give us a typical, “As you know, we don’t speculate about future products.” Given the marketing power of the Bronco trademark, it's hard to imagine Ford not reviving it at some point.
The Stroppe Baja Bronco
Bill Stroppe was well known by Ford when he was given Broncos to play with in 1966. At this time, he was part of the Holman-Moody-Stroppe racing organization. Stroppe ran one of the Bronco mules in the ’66 Riverside Grand Prix, a fast off-road short course, and was hooked. Stroppe would eventually form his own race team and his efforts in Baja racing are legendary and too lengthy to cover here.
Stroppe’s Ford connections led to a special edition called the Baja Bronco sold through Ford dealers starting in 1971. Stroppe & Associates set up an assembly area to upgrade Broncos according to dealer orders. The Baja Bronco started with a special options package from Ford that included the Stroppe Red, White, and Blue racing colors on a Bronco Sport. Necessary options were the 302ci V-8, 4,700-pound GVW, extra cooling, dual fuel tanks, skidplates, and other small items. The Bronco cost around $5,000, depending on the year.
The Stroppe part of the $600 Baja Bronco package included a C4 automatic conversion or, less commonly, a four-speed Top Loader manual and a Saginaw power steering conversion. The power steering and automatic options would be offered by Ford for ’73 models but never the muscle car-sourced four-speed wide-ratio Top Loader. Stroppe added dual shocks front and rear; a rollbar; 10x15 Gates Commando tires (other tires available) on oversized painted or chrome steel wheels in ’71 and ’72 and slotted alloys were available in ’73; fender flares and enlarged rear wheel openings; a sport steering wheel; trailer hitch; Stroppe spare tire cover; and some special trim.
Other Baja Bronco options included a four-barrel carb and manifold (delivering 158 hp versus the stock 139 hp), dual exhaust, front and/or rear Detroit Lockers, air conditioning, tach, sliding side windows, a brush bar, racing harness, and full carpeting. With all the goodies, it was easy to get the total price near $8,000. The Stroppe shop was also known for custom work personalized according to individual requests. This is why few Stroppe Broncos are exactly alike. Stroppe abruptly stopped producing Baja Broncos late in 1974 due to financial problems and the departure of employees who started competing businesses. It isn’t known how many Baja Broncos were built, since Stroppe’s records were reported lost decades ago. Educated guesses run in the 450-650 range.
From the ashes of the Baja Bronco rose the Denver Broncos Special Edition. Stroppe’s exit had been so quick that Ford was left with a large number of ’75 model year Broncos with Stroppe paint. They were offered to dealers at special prices, and Golden Motors Ford snagged a bunch, adding Denver Broncos regalia and selling them as Denver Broncos Special Editions. The number produced is unclear but could be as many as 100.