Back in the summer of 1965, tensions were on the rise as President Lyndon B. Johnson ordered an increase in the number of United States troops in South Vietnam to jump from 75,000 to 125,000, more than doubling the number of men drafted per month from 17,000 to 35,000. In his defense, a couple days later, he established Medicare and Medicaid, followed shortly thereafter by his signing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, thus making racial discrimination illegal during voting. Meanwhile, just a few days before that, the Beatles performed the first stadium concert in the history of music, and the first consumer-oriented 4X4 was launched in America amidst little fanfare, as the race riots in LA overshadowed any chance it had of stealing a headline.
This rugged little American off-road machine named the Ford Bronco may have not grabbed our attention from the get-go, but over the course of the next 30 years it made a home in our hearts, as it helped pave the way for what we commonly refer to as the SUV. While it may have started off small and under-powered by today’s standards (which is odd being that American cars in the 1960s were typically enormous), the cult following behind this vehicle is an astoundingly strong one, with everyone from Jay Leno to O.J. Simpson getting into one amid media blitzes.
However, the Bronco eventually fell on hard times, as the public’s interest in the vehicle subsided and a demand for larger SUVs caused consumers to opt for the roomier Explorer, and by the summer of 1996 the entire line was retired as Ford replaced the truck with the far larger four-door Expedition. But the Bronco had a pretty good run, with five redesigns and a ton of off-road credit to its name, the peppy little upstart became a household name and a true contender when it came to affordability and fun.
Originally designed to compete with the Jeep CJ-5 and the International Scout, the Bronco was first seen in these 1965 Ford commercials bouncing around in the desert, while an enthusiastic announcer introduces it as the “first four-wheel drive sports car.” This was a world where station wagons were the common family car in place of SUVs, minivans, and crossovers, and Ford saw where the market was going: It introduced various versions of the truck, with the “Bronco Wagon” being advertised as the “family carry-all.” This version in particular proved to be a hit for the Detroit-based automaker, but not in that families were buying them — it was outdoor-oriented men, who wanted a closed bed on a truck while maintaining the off-road ruggedness they needed.
However, as time went on it became apparent that Ford’s Bronco demographic didn’t care very much for all of the optional add-ons like the auxiliary gas tank, snowplow, or posthole digger. These guys wanted the available winch, tow bars, brush guards, and overdrive units for off-roading instead of farming. But with Chevy’s Blazer outmatching the Bronco in both power and refinement, the little Ford offering began to slowly slump into obscurity as Americans continued to prefer SUVs like the Jeep Cherokee, as it was far roomier and way less rustic feeling than its under-powered and undersized competition.
Since sales continued to wallow over the next dozen years, Ford’s budget for a re-imagined Bronco grew increasingly slim, and by 1978, when the next generation came into being (for just two short years) it was not much more than a slightly redesigned version of the F-100 pickup with a few customizable seating arrangements, a removable top, a choice of full-time four-wheel-drive, or a part-time system that utilized a gear-driven transfer case. While it was by no means a dog when it came to roughing it, the Bronco continued to be just a ho-hum option for car buyers, and its rust-prone, motor-melting rear power window did nothing to help its cause.
After another hasty redesign in 1980, the Bronco came into its third reincarnation as a smaller, boxier entity, with an inline-six engine that out-powered its V8 big brother, but remained chained to a single barrel carburetor and one seriously restrictive exhaust. Fortunately, by 1988 the fourth generation Broncos had become fuel injected, and while it was an upgrade over the previous model, owners found themselves rejoicing over the addition of a five-speed gearbox as well as the newer and lighter, electronically-controlled automatic transmission. At this point Ford thought it would be a grand idea to really start giving the four-door Chevy Suburban a run for its money, and in true Ford-fashion a Frankenstein four-door conversion of the F-series crew cab was built by now defunct Centurion Vehicles and was offered through Ford dealerships. Naturally, the product never quite caught on, and the Suburban continued to steamroll as king of the full-size four-door SUVs.
The Bronco’s final hurrah came in 1992 and lasted just four years. In that time it became safer, as it incorporated crumple zones, and it did away with the removable top, even though it was still possible to yank it off with the proper Torx bit and a couple of buddies. This generation of Bronco also received quite a few interior and exterior upgrades, with rounded edges balancing out some of the boxiness, and in 1995 it became one of the first vehicles to offer turn signal lamps in its side-view mirrors. While Americans did indeed like the redesigned Bronco, it remained a bit of slug compared to its far more utilitarian cousin, the Explorer, and once O.J. hopped inside one to escape from the cops, every American’s memory of the Bronco remains eternally linked to images of a white little SUV plodding down the freeway.
So fifty years after the first Bronco hit sales floors a lot has changed, and yet nothing has changed. The Vietnam War is over, and in its place a new ones have began. African Americans continue to march, protest, and riot over police brutality. The Beatles — well, Paul McCartney at least — is still selling out stadiums. And America still doesn’t know how it feels about the scrappy little Ford hardtop 4×4, and even on the anniversary of its birth, we wonder if now might be the time for its return. We think there’s a good case for it.