Ford kick-started the sports utility vehicle class 50 years ago with the Bronco. Julian Balme reviews the rugged off-roader that excelled on the Baja 500.
The impact of the Ford Mustang on the American car buying public in the mid-’60s has been well documented: its launch started a stampede that culminated in an all-out pony war between the industry’s big four. But another vehicle launched by the same firm two years later in ’66 would have a much more lasting effect on US consumers. Like the Mustang, it had equine connotations. Initially regarded as a Johnny-come-lately in the small, off-road jeep market, the Bronco turned out to be at the fore-front of a new genre – the sports-utility vehicle.
Before the Bronco, these vehicles were used solely by macho military types or rugged Marlboro Men, hard hats and Stetsons a speciality. In the world of all-terrain, the Jeep reigned supreme. Boxy, underpowered and with a bone-annihilating ride on proper roads, 600,000 CJs were sold from 1955 to ’83. The Land-Rover fared slightly better where style was concerned but speed still wasn’t on the list of options. Doing a better job than both of them was Toyota’s iconic FJ40 Land Cruiser, the Japanese firm’s first foray into the export market. All three, though, were uncompromising, utilitarian trucks where extras such as air conditioning meant opening the windows – if indeed they had any.
By the early ’60s, off-roading was a growing hobby in the USA. With acres to play in, charging around deserts or up rock faces in small, modified 4x4s had begun to capture the public’s imagination. At the dawn of the recreational truck, only farm equipment brand International Harvester had a vehicle that owners could drive to the wilderness, take off-road and come home again in relative civility. Launched in 1961 and finished in moderately brighter colours, the Scout was box-like in shape with a high wing line but, like its forefathers, was initially powered by a weedy four-cylinder 86hp motor. International, whether due to a lack of marketing confidence or simply because it didn’t have the showroom infrastructure, never lit up the cash registers. Ford, on the other hand, had more self-belief and dealerships than you could shake a stick at. As the ad campaign said ‘Ford has a better idea’, even if it wasn’t totally original.
It also has to be remembered that, at the time, the Dearborn colossus was hot. Achievements on the track led to huge sales on the street and it had outpaced the opposition in most areas, particularly the youth markets, so a funky 4x4 that would appeal to both cowboys and surfers alike was pretty much a sure-fire hit. The company also had experience of off-roaders having done more than its share for the war effort by producing, among an array of vehicles, its version of the American Bantam-designed Jeep. Ironically the other manufacturer involved in the Jeep, Willys Overland, launched a more civilian-friendly car in the ’50s – the Jeepster – that in hindsight could also be seen as a prototype to the Bronco concept.
Unveiled in autumn ’65, the Bronco came in three body styles, designated by the factory as U13, U14 and U15 but more recognisable as a roadster, half-cab pick-up and a full-length cabin roof. Their square-line looks gave more than a passing nod to the Scout but, because of the Bronco’s smaller size and lower belt line they appeared more approachable, even cute – particularly when finished in the same array of colours reserved for the Mustang. Since when were the cattle rounded up with a fire engine red off-roader? Underneath was a welded box-section chassis providing a neat 92in wheelbase and 68.8in width, which by all accounts gave it more stability than the venerable CJ. Suspended from this frame were two live axles, the front by coils, the rear by semi-elliptic leaf springs. Drive was normally via the rear, but a two-speed Dana transfer case enabled the would-be adventurer to use all four wheels once the front hubs were engaged.
The Bronco was powered by the base six-cylinder 170cu in motor used in the Falcon mated to a three-speed manual gearbox but, by March 1966, the infamous 289cu in V8 was also available. The 4.7-litre engine gave the car a good turn of speed for its class which, coupled with nimble handling, earned the Bronco encouraging praise. Motor Trend reckoned: ‘The chassis design deserves credit; it provides an acceptable degree of creature comfort without any sacrifice in ruggedness.’ Car Life simply proclaimed: ‘Even a dude will holler Eeeeeaaaayyyhhooo!’ Pricing was competitive too, base models starting at $2355 for the roadster to $2570 for the wagon. Though not quite the runaway sales success of the Mustang, the Bronco’s debut was more than satisfactory for Ford management, not least because once again it had caught GM napping. Its fiercest rival took three years to catch up, with the Chevy Blazer.
Of the three models, the roadster is now the rarest. The body style, discontinued after just three years, features a shallow glassfibre insert where the door should be, a fold-flat screen and drop-down tailgate. The roof is detachable from the wagon and the pick-up, revealing the same features with the obvious exception of doors and a rear bulkhead on the latter. The dash is simplicity itself with a full-width flat panel painted body colour, interrupted by a single large dial and, like the steering wheel, the switchgear will be familiar to Falcon owners.
With standard gearing of 4.11:1, highway cruising is sensible at about 55mph. Any prolonged outings in excess of the speed limit will mean either headphones or an engine rebuild. So perfect for around town then? It’s sad, but a short amount of time in the company of an early Bronco and that unsavoury notion becomes even more appealing. There’s nothing to steal, it’ll fit into the same gaps as a Focus – turning circle is a best-in-class 34ft – and it would hold its own in any fender-bending competition. The later, metallic brown ’73 wagon, seen here with its groovy checked seats and 302cu in motor, would be the envy of the more fashion-conscious ladies of Kensington and Chelsea.
Of course Bronco enthusiasts would rightfully pour scorn on such thoughts. Fans, such as grizzled rocker Ted Nugent, who bought his first Bronco in ’71 and has owned about 10, like nothing better than to get off the beaten track with their little ponies. All the owners we encountered seemed to mutter a universal mantra – “wanna climb the mountain?”. As a result, originality and beauty pageants aren’t really their thing. CB radios, gun racks, huge floodlights, great big wheels and tyres – now you’re talking.
The first generation of Broncos lasted 11 years, in which time it had been instrumental in showing Americans parts of their country they didn’t know even existed as well as forging the country’s trend for SUVs. Had they remained nimble ponies and not bloated into gas-guzzling cart horses, then the sports-utility concept might be looked upon more favourably today.
As a footnote, two interesting items emerged while delving into the world of Broncos. The first was Ford’s third-time unlucky attempt to repeat its success of marrying a horsey name in the hopes of repelling the invasion of foreign imports at the end of the ’60 with the less than spectacular Pinto. And, secondly, the amazingly astute Car and Driver magazine which summed up its fledgling SUV group test of 1967 with the line: ‘Much of the recent demand for off-the-road vehicles comes from people who don’t really need them.’ Nearly 40 years later and there’s not been an iota of change. ■
This article was originally published in the December 2006 issue of Classic & Sports Car magazine, which retains the copyright to all words and images.
Words: Julian Balme; pictures: James Mann