When the 2021 Ford Bronco finally, fully, and officially arrives tomorrow, America’s four-by-four rodeo will have two clear homegrown protagonists: the Bronco (defined as “a wild or half-tamed horse of the Western U.S.”), and the Jeep Wrangler (wrangler meaning “a person in charge of horses or other livestock on a ranch”). Both vehicles have kicked up a lot of dirt over the years, and it’s easy to understand the hubbub around Jeep getting a new competitor in a segment it has owned.
But Ford isn’t just challenging Jeep and renewing a rivalry. The Blue Oval is bringing back a nameplate left dormant since 1996 and aiming to turn it into a lifestyle brand. Shunning the small screens of an online-only reveal, the Bronco’s next chapter opens with Super Bowl-like choreography, airing on ABC, ESPN, National Geographic, and Hulu. Jimmy Chin, who won an Oscar for the movie Free Solo, directed three, three-minute Bronco films, one starring country singer Kip Moore to air on ABC, another starring Olympic-qualifying rock climber Brooke Raboutou for ESPN.
By inviting Disney’s networks to the party, Ford suggests the Bronco isn’t an automotive event, but a cultural one. The stacks of Bronco coverage in recent weeks reveals an appetite for news. It’s a lot for an SUV, isn’t it? What makes the Bronco a big deal?
Well, it wasn’t the first generation. The conversation around the Bronco revival has homed in on the original Bronco, built from 1966 to 1977, for good reason: the ur-Bronco was designed to joust with Jeep CJs, just like the two- and four-door Broncos debuting tomorrow will contend with the Wrangler. As Todd Zuercher writes in his book Ford Bronco: A History of Ford’s Legendary 4×4, “The young warriors who had driven the Jeeps in World War II were now in their 40s and 50s and wanted a tough vehicle that could do everything a Jeep could do but with more comfort and more interior room.”
The Bronco gave those late 1960s customers what they wanted, but the Jeep was a low bar for comfort and space. In addition to the brand name’s English meaning, the word has another definition in its original Spanish: rough, rude. Magazine reviewers were generally favorable to the first Bronco, but there’s a reason the truck became a rural workhorse with an accessories catalog full of snowplows and posthole diggers. What the Bronco lacked was creature comforts. Ford didn’t offer a radio or air conditioning until 1978. The Jeep CJ5 offered a radio in 1973, A/C in 1975.
Nor was the first-gen Bronco a crushing sales hit. Based on production numbers provided by Sam Fiorani at AutoForecast Solutions, during the first-gen Bronco’s 12-year production run, Ford built more Broncos than Jeep did CJ5s just three times, from 1969 to 1971. In 1974, the first Bronco’s best year, Ford built 25,824 units. Jeep built 43,087 CJ5s that year.
The Chevrolet K5 Blazer, which launched in 1969, was an even bigger issue in both size and sales. Starting in 1972, full-sized Blazer production numbers more than doubled those of the smaller Bronco. Ford postponed plans for an F-150-based Bronco in 1974 because of the Arab oil embargo. The Blazer proved buyers didn’t care. In 1977, Chevy built 86,848 Blazers compared to Ford’s 13,693 Broncos.
So, if not the first-gen Bronco, what earned its big reputation? A bigger Bronco. In 1978, the truck stepped up massively in size and weight, now underpinned by the Ford F-150 chassis and no longer competing with CJs. The full-size truck evolved through four generations until 1996, Ford building more than a million, nearly five times the total number of proto-Broncos. Big Bronco owners tricked them out and rode them hard. A not insignificant number of owners bought loaded Broncos as their daily drivers.
Petersen’s 4 Wheel and Off Road called the third-gen 1980 Bronco, “a well-designed, dual-purpose vehicle, matching the best features of a luxury street car with the rugged, go-anywhere capability of a standard 4×4.” That combination didn’t come cheap. In 1980, according to NADA Guides, a new Bronco started at $8392. The same year, a Mustang hatchback started at $5616, an F-150 Custom ½-ton LWB at $5782. When the Bronco quit the field in 1996, Ford charged roughly $7000 more for the SUV than the entry-level pony car or the pickup.
In 1984, Ford looked to capitalize on the Bronco’s popularity with the smaller Bronco II, which was based on the company’s mid-size Ranger pickup. Although it isn’t as revered as the mainstream Bronco, and it didn’t last very long, ending production in 1990.
Regardless of its size or generation, the Bronco’s lodged itself in the cultural imagination. In 1979, a Bronco helped carry Pope John Paul II when he visited the United States. The Internet Movie Cars Database tracks vehicle cameos in movies and on television. The Bronco, through all its generations (excluding Bronco II), counts 1,250 star turns so far, including the 1970s uber-cop show CHiPs, the jungle jumping Little Mule in 1984’s Romancing the Stone, cartoon runs in Beavis and Butt-Head and American Dad, a blow-up in 2001’s Zoolander, and a car chase in this year’s Invisible Man. Nor can we forget Bronco’s especially famous 1994 cameo in the most infamous run of O.J. Simpson’s life. That one was controversial enough 26 years later to cause yet another postponement of the truck’s debut.
The erstwhile Bronco remains a pop stalwart, inspiring this Spotify playlist compiled by Ford’s Bronco archivist, Ted Ryan. (And that playlist is missing a number of entries from artists like Ben Kweller, Kool Keith, and Public Enemy).
It’s the Big Bronco that made the Bronco brand a big deal and maintained its allure through its hiatus. Over 16 years, Big Broncos would simultaneously be a simple-yet-badass 4×4, work rig, a customizing canvas (Bronco Centurion, anyone?), muscle truck, and lifestyle play the same way an F-150 is today (save for that simple part). And which truck inaugurated the institution of Eddie Bauer Edition Fords? The 1984 Bronco, seven years before the now-cult-classic Eddie Bauer Explorer.
The 2021 Bronco will want to blend the little Bronco’s compact, open-air, go-anywhere, goat-like clambering with the Big Bronco’s brawn, luxury, and customizations. Considering the model’s run, it’s possible the biggest challenge Ford’s engineers and designers faced was the glut of historical possibilities. Arguably, the 2021 revival is closer in concept to the Bronco II than the late-’70s big Bronco. But with two- and four-door options, followed by the Bronco Sport a little later, Ford has a lot to work with.
After enduring repeated launch delays, Ford’s finally made it to the chute. We’re hours from the reveal and the moment fans can put their money down on a horse. Jeep decided Saturday morning was the perfect time to release Bronco-baiting news, teasing V-8 power on the way for either the Wrangler or Gladiator. The rodeo doesn’t begin or end with Ford’s reveal, you see. It continues.
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