Ford Broncos Through the Years: A Complete HistoryLast Updated June 13, 2023 | Meghan Drummond
For an SUV that was only on the market for thirty years (1966-1996) the Ford Bronco developed a legacy that has made many eager for the Bronco’s scheduled 2021 return.
As we prepare for what’s next for the Bronco, it seems like a good time to reflect on how we first got this iconic SUV, why it stopped being produced, and why it continues to be so loved.
Bronco First Generation 1966-1977
Donald Frey and Lee Iacocca, the same great minds who designed the Ford Mustang, designed the Bronco as an off-road vehicle that could compete with the Jeep CJ. Originally the Bronco was very small, much like the CJ, though it came in three different body styles. You could get a station wagon, a half-cab, or a roadster.
One of these became immediately more popular than the others. The roadster’s fun look couldn’t make up for its impracticality. The roadster was taken out of the market in 1968.
The half-cab was an innovative design, but it wasn’t well received. It looked like a baby pickup, and the half-cab was taken out in 1972. After that, the only body style was the wagon that’s become the iconic style we all know as the Bronco.
The three-door wagon was the clear winner in terms of body styles. With four-wheel drive, the Bronco was designed to tackle any terrain. It quickly became a serious competitor to Jeep despite a late entry into the market.
The first Bronco didn’t come with many comfort features. It had a spartan inside that spoke to the rugged personality Ford wanted the Bronco to embody. You could purchase a variety of accessories for early Broncos, including a snowplow, a winch, and a posthole digger. It was the do-it-all go-anywhere vehicle.
The Bronco was initially very successful. In its first year alone the Bronco sold nearly 24 thousand units, but that wasn’t even the most popular year. The most popular year of Bronco was 1974, when the Bronco sold nearly 26 thousand units.
Unfortunately, shortly after that sales began to taper off.
Ford wasn’t the only automaker who wanted an answer to the Jeep. Chevy’s Blazer (or the GMC Jimmy) entered the SUV market in 1969. As the latest contestant to enter an increasingly competitive market, the first couple years of the Blazer’s life were marked by light sales, but that quickly changed.
Chevy’s stunning innovation was to use a shortened version of their pickup truck in order to decrease production costs. This allowed Chevy to offer a large range of engine options at little additional cost because they were essentially making the same truck they already had been. It also meant they had more luxury options and transmission options. Including an automatic transmission, which the Bronco didn't gain until 1973.
Bronco Second Generation 1978-1979
The second generation of Bronco was significantly larger. Though it was intended for a 1974 launch, the fuel crisis led Ford to believe that the thirsty SUV they touted as “The Total Package” wouldn’t be well received.
Copying a page from Chevy’s playbook, Bronco’s second generation was essentially a shortened F-100 with a removable hardtop. Every Bronco from 1978-1979 came with a V8, which made it powerful, but also expensive to operate.
Though this was a short-lived generation of Bronco that received a lukewarm reaction from drivers, the Bronco did gain several of the features that it has since become known for and lost a few as well. The second generation was the last one with a solid front axle, and in 1979 Ford ditched the round headlights for squared ones.
The rear window that lowered into the door was added during this generation though, and quickly became one of its best features. This rear window design allowed the tailgate to fold out like a pickup. It also had a lift-off top.
Bronco Third Generation 1980 -1986
Ford addressed the concerns of the public quickly and ditched the second generation Ford Bronco in favor of a slightly smaller and lighter Bronco. Though the third generation of Ford Bronco was smaller than the second generation, they kept it as a full-size SUV.
Ford also expanded the Bronco engine line to provide a six-cylinder option in addition to the V8s. People who wanted a sporty SUV but who were concerned about the cost of gasoline could get a Bronco. While the second generation of Bronco used the F-100 as a base, the third generation used an F-150.
The solid front axle was lost as well, replaced by an independent front suspension that made the Bronco more comfortable for those who wanted to use it as their daily driver and take it onto the highway in addition to off-road.
The Sad Saga of the Bronco II 1984-1990
It was during this time that the Bronco II was introduced. The Bronco II was meant to provide a smaller alternative for young couples and single people. Significantly smaller than the Bronco, the Bronco II was proportioned more like the first generation of Bronco. This compact SUV used the Ford Ranger as its base in much the same way that the Bronco used the F-series as its basis.
The Bronco II was discontinued within six years due to safety concerns. Due to its proportions and weight, the Bronco II would roll over for just no reason at all. By 1995 Ford had lost 113 million dollars to settle 334 lawsuits.
Though it’s clear the Bronco II was innocent in many of these cases (one person was driving while intoxicated when his vehicle rolled) there was something legitimately wrong with the balancing of the off-roader. 1 in 500 Bronco IIs was involved in a fatal rollover.
Bronco Fourth Generation 1987-1991
Since the F-series trucks provided the basis for the Bronco, its evolution became tied to the popular Ford pickups. When Ford updated the F-series pickup in 1987, the Bronco came along for the ride. In addition to gaining the popular aero body style, the Bronco also was upgraded with electronic fuel injection.
Safety features, like rear anti-lock brakes, were added around this time.
By the late '80s, the Bronco had secured its place as a popular SUV and variant editions came out, like the Eddie Bauer edition, a Nite option package, and a Silver Anniversary Edition to commemorate 25 years of production.
Until just recently Ford’s Eddie Bauer trim package was one of the more popular ones. Two-tone paint, cloth bucket seats, and wood burl trim are the features that defined an Eddie Bauer edition. These were ubiquitous in the ’90s and you can still find many of them around today.
The Nite option was available in 1991 and 1992 for Broncos and F-150s. Nite edition vehicles came in Raven Black. For the interior, you could either pick Dark Charcoal, Scarlet Red, or Crystal Blue. On the inside, the glove box had "Nite" emblazoned on it. These are still very popular with collectors.
Of all of the trim packages though, the one that was most focused on luxury and power was the 1991 Silver Anniversary Ford Bronco. The V8 engine gave the SUV an absurd amount of towing capacity (7,500 pounds). By today’s standards, the luxury features of the Silver Anniversary Bronco are almost quaint, but at the time the cassette radio deck was a major selling point.
Bronco Fifth Generation 1992-1996
The fifth and final generation of Bronco attained infamy when O.J. Simpson led the police on a car chase through L.A. Before that though, the three-door, hardtop SUV was geared more towards safety than previous generations of Bronco had been.
The fifth generation was given substantial safety increases. From front crumple zones and three-point seatbelts to a driver-side airbag. Perhaps the most confusing of these safety features though was the decision to remove any reference to the removable top from the owner's manual.
Though the fifth generation of Bronco was designed with a removable top in mind, it was no longer legal due to the seatbelts and brake lights. Since it was too late for a redesign, Ford simply removed all references to the removable top from the user manual and then used tamper-proof bolts to secure it. With the proper tool though, the top of the Bronco was still, for all intents and purposes, removable.
O.J. isn’t responsible for killing the Ford Bronco at least, sales actually increased after his police chase.
The actual reason the Bronco died is fairly mundane compared to the persistent rumors that O.J. Simpson was involved. Ford has since come out multiple times to say that the Bronco’s demise had nothing to do with the chase and was instead related to fewer people being interested in purchasing two-door, two-row sport utility vehicles. People wanted four-door SUVs, and Ford needed something to compete. They began to produce the Expedition.
Bronco Sixth Generation 2021-?
Have enough years passed for the Bronco to make its successful return? Ford thinks so and judging by the public’s response they might be right.
We’re excited about the next generation of Bronco, and we hope that you are, too.