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A Look Back at the Ford Bronco

Ford recently revealed the new version of the legendary Bronco. Here’s a look back at the roots of Ford’s new headline-grabbing SUV.

Ford Builds a Legend

The Bronco first appeared in 1966, aimed squarely at the open-air off-road-ready Jeep CJ, as well as International Harvester’s Scout. Too small to be considered a heavy-duty work truck, the Bronco appealed to younger buyers looking to go off-road, to the beach or anywhere off the beaten path. Three versions were offered: a full-cab wagon, a half cab and a convertible roadster. Power for the Bronco was supplied by a 170-cubic-inches straight-six rated at 105 horsepower. A 3-speed column shift was the only transmission option, while standard 4-wheel drive came with a Bronco-specific Dana 20 transfer case. Sitting on its own unique frame, the Bronco borrowed only the front and rear axles from the F-100 pickup truck. Unlike the F-100, two forged-steel front radius arms and rear coil springs allowed the Bronco to perform better off-road and in snow, giving the little truck a very tight turning radius. In its first year, Ford sold nearly 24,000 Broncos.

The following year, Ford introduced a sport package option for the Bronco. They also added a 289-cubic-inch V8 to the powertrain lineup. Unlike Jeep or International, however, Ford offered more options on its rugged little SUV. Buyers could choose between bucket or bench seats, an auxiliary gas tank, a snowplow, a winch, power booms and even a post-hole digger. The roadster was dropped in 1968, although the full cab’s hardtop could still be removed. For the first time, locking front hubs were offered. One year later, the Chevrolet Blazer was introduced, giving the Bronco a larger and more powerful competitor.

Major changes came in 1969. The 289-cubic-inch was dropped in favor of the 302-cubic-inch V8, and vacuum lines powering the windshield wipers were replaced by a 2-speed electric motor. The Bronco’s steering and suspension were improved, and a new steering stabilizer added. In 1970, the Sport package became its own trim, and there was a reduction in fuel-tank capacity thanks to the addition of a new evaporative emissions-recovery system. The 1971 Bronco received a more durable Dana 44 front axle as well as more options, including a limited production Baja Bronco created by veteran racing specialists Bill Stroppe & Associates. The Baja Bronco included a roll bar, dual shocks, power steering, an automatic transmission, and larger wheels and tires under flared wheel arches. This would mark the first time an automatic transmission appeared in any Bronco. In 1974, the automaker brought a new 200-cubic-inch V6 and also made revisions to the transfer case’s J-handle shifter mechanism after Ford received numerous complaints about it being difficult to engage. A catalytic converter was added in 1975, and in 1976 power front disc brakes and improved steering and suspension settings were added. In 1977, Ford released the final first-generation Bronco, with sales hovering just over 14,500 units.

The Bronco Gets Bigger

Both 1978 and 1979 marked major evolutions for the Bronco. Although short-lived, the second-generation Ford Bronco was now based on a shortened F-Series pickup platform and, as such, became larger, more powerful and more comfortable. It also became an even match for the Chevy Blazer and was larger than the Jeep CJ. The 351-cubic-inch V8 was standard, with a 400-cubic-inch V8 offered as an option. The second-generation model would be the only full-size Bronco ever built with a solid front axle, and it was the first to use a 1-piece rear gate with a power retractable window. This Bronco was also far more luxurious than in the past, offering such features as a tilt wheel, cruise control, a CB radio, air conditioning, plush captain’s-chair seating and even delayed wipers. The second generation is considered a classic and is highly desired by collectors and off-road enthusiasts alike. In keeping with the open-air feel of the original, a removable fiberglass roof cap would remain part of the Bronco’s DNA right up until the last model rolled off the assembly line in 1991.

A More Civilized Ride

The third-generation Bronco debuted in 1980 alongside the all-new F-150 pickup. Beyond refreshed styling, changes included a new standard inline 6-cylinder engine and the removal of the big 400-cubic-inch V8 from the options list. Also gone was the solid front axle, replaced by Ford’s Twin-Traction Beam suspension. Many felt this setup made the Bronco too soft for real off-road adventures, but sales nevertheless remained strong. The Bronco continued in this form through the 1986 model year. Along the way, it saw various options and packages added, while emissions control and tighter Environmental Protection Agency regulations saw its hp ratings decline. Midway through 1982, the beloved 351M V8 was switched for the 351W V8, which included a high-output version. In 1984, fuel injection was introduced on the smaller 302-cubic-inch V8.

The fourth-generation Bronco debuted in 1987, with more aerodynamic styling and standard fuel injection. A 300-cubic-inch V6 was the base engine, with the 302-cubic-inch and 351-cubic-inch V8s optional. A 5-speed manual transmission was offered for the first time.

The Bronco’s fifth and final generation spanned the time frame from 1992-1996. These years saw more safety features added, including rear shoulder belts and a driver’s-side airbag. Although the Bronco’s top could technically still be removed, federal laws made it illegal, prompting Ford to make no mention of it in the sales literature or owners’ manual, but buyers knew better. A dizzying number of special trims and color choices were offered during this period.

All New Bronco for 2021

After a lengthy absence, the Ford Bronco returns for 2021. With a heavy dose of retro style and some serious off-road hardware, the new Bronco gives Wrangler and 4Runner shoppers an alternative when shopping for a cool new 4×4.

There are three distinct flavors of Bronco, a 2-door, a 4-door (both with removable tops) and a smaller Bronco Sport. Does the Bronco have what it takes? Executive Editor, Brian Moody says “The Bronco looks legit. The designers, planners, engineers, and assembly workers got it exactly right. Some die-hard Bronco fans may be disappointed with a few of the engine choice but this is just the beginning for the revived Ford Bronco. Look for more variety and increasingly special and aggressive versions in the years to come.”

With removable doors and roof, powerful turbo engines, and bold color choices, the new 2021 Ford Bronco will keep the name alive for decades to come. Read the full Autotrader review to see if it’s the right SUV for you. 

Joe Tralongo
Joe Tralongo
Joe Tralongo is a longtime contributor who started in the industry writing competitive comparison books for a number of manufacturers, before moving on in 2002 to become a freelance automotive journalist. He’s well regarded for his keen eye for detail, as well as his ability to translate complex mechanical terminology into user-friendly explanations. Joe has worked for a number of outlets as... Read More about Joe Tralongo

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