Sport-utility vehicles moved from the fringe to mainstream when Ford created the Bronco.
The success of the company’s off-roader also pushed General Motors and Chrysler into developing similar products and ultimately led to the popularity of this hot segment.
Before the Bronco, Jeep’s CJ was the reigning champion of the sport ute set. Its only rivals were few and far between and included the International Scout as well as a trickle of British Land Rovers that managed to make it to our shores. And with buyer interest focused on full-size sedans and pickups, there seemed to be very little interest in making vehicles that specialized in going where most buyers feared to tread.
Ford’s product planners, however, saw things a bit differently. They correctly surmised that a market existed for a small, lightweight and economical multi-purpose machine beyond the obvious commercial or military applications. With literally millions of farmers, ranchers and outdoor enthusiasts of every stripe to draw upon, four-wheel-drive remained an untapped area of sales and revenue.
To keep the price down and the versatility up, the truck they designed was not much larger than a Jeep, with a short (92-inch) wheelbase and generous ground clearance to help it navigate around — and over — tight spots.
The initial 1966 Bronco that arrived in August of 1965 (and was unveiled in dealer showrooms two months later) was similar to the Mustang in many respects. Other than their equine-derived names, both vehicles used mechanical components borrowed from Ford’s compact Falcon, which helped keep development costs down.
Although base prices were low (around $2,300), each tried to seduce buyers with a host of extra-cost options and features.
Originally, first-year Broncos were equipped with a tiny 170-cubic-inch inline six-cylinder engine that produced 105 horsepower. However, by mid-year, a 200-horsepower 289 cubic-inch V8 was added to the option sheet. Both were connected to a column-shifted three-speed standard transmission, a necessary feature that helped make the most of the base motor’s barely adequate power.
Each of the three body styles offered — wagon, half-cab (pickup) and open-top roadster — came with a two-speed transfer case that was engaged via a T-handled floor shifter.
A rear bench seat, secondary fuel tank and floor mats were optional on all models, as were an assortment of dealer-installed winches, air-lift springs, snow-plow kits and trailer hitches.
Encouraged by the more than 18,000 first-year Bronco sales, Ford added more optional goodies in 1967, including a chrome grille and a more car-like interior trim package.
In its first four years, the Bronco had the market pretty much to itself, with nary a peep from GM or Chrysler. That all changed in 1969 when the Chevy Blazer first appeared to challenge Ford’s exclusivity among the Big Three automakers. The pickup-based Chevy ute offered more power and features than the Bronco and quickly gained a strong foothold in what was becoming a rapidly growing category.
Still, the Bronco remained the class favorite, especially with fans of off-road competition. The highlight of this emerging form of motorsports was the Baja 1000, a punishing 1,000-mile journey across the the Mexican desert. Led by former stock car racer Bill Stroppe, a specially prepared factory-sponsored Bronco co-driven by Indycar driver Parnelli Jones took first place in the 1971 event.
That year, Ford dealers began taking orders for the Baja Bronco, a specially equipped model that came with a 302-cubic-inch V8, fourspeed gearbox, roll bar, dual front and rear shocks, fender flares and a distinctive paint scheme. During the next three years, about 650 of these tough-as-nails stallions were shipped from Bill Stroppe’s Long Beach, Calif. facility.
With nearly 26,000 wagons sold (the roadster and pickup styles had been discontinued earlier) in 1974, the summit had been reached. GM was experiencing even greater success with both it Chevrolet Blazer and GMC Jimmy sport utes growing in popularity. Chrysler also joined the fray that year with its Dodge Ramcharger, a rig similar in overall dimensions and power to the Blazer/Jimmy duo.
With size clearly becoming a factor with buyers, Ford ended production of its original Bronco in 1977 to launch an all-new version based on the company’s popular F-150 pickup.
Today, the few remaining first-generation Broncos are sought-after by collectors who appreciate its clean and simple lines and rugged demeanor.
That’s high praise for this pioneering little truck that helped to bring sport-utility vehicles out of the automotive wilderness and into our driveways.
Malcolm Gunn is Wheelbase Communications’ historic writer. Wheelbase is a world-wide supplier of automobile news, reviews and features.