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How the Ford Bronco Aged Into An Icon

Road & Track logo Road & Track 7/12/2020 Fred Smith
a truck driving down a dirt road: The first-generation Bronco was no instant classic. How did it earn a place in the automotive canon? © The Enthusiast Network - Getty Images The first-generation Bronco was no instant classic. How did it earn a place in the automotive canon?

Tomorrow, Ford will reveal an entirely new line of trucks under the Bronco nameplate. Like their retro-styled predecessors in the Mustang and Thunderbird lines, these will all be styled after their progenitor, in this case the 1966 Bronco. Unlike those plays on instant classics, however, the Bronco won't be harkening back to a car widely beloved in its day and for decades after. The iconic Bronco as we know it was not always iconic, and its place in the automotive canon was hard-earned.

The Bronco line, seen earlier this week in a commercial before its official reveal, contains three cars, and the target for two is immediately clear from their sihlouettes alone. These are competitors for the very specific market space the Jeep Wrangler currently occupies, effectively the same target the original Bronco had in its sights in 1966.

Unlike the compact CJ-5, Jeep's predecessor to the Wrangler line that debuted in the mid-1980s, the 1966 Bronco was sizable. While it had Jeep's offerings in the crosshairs, the Bronco resembled another early Jeep competitor, the International Harvester Scout, far more in both size and shape. This is what gives the early Broncos their iconic combination of a rough-and-tumble, hyper-specialized function and then-modern form, a stylish take on the Jeep concept that adapted the enduring Jeep aesthetic into something immediately recognizable as part of a Ford line that would also include the iconic early fastback Mustang and the massive, aggressive Galaxie.

a car parked in front of a truck: 1967 Ford Bronco - Detroit Low Risers Car Club... © The Enthusiast Network - Getty Images 1967 Ford Bronco - Detroit Low Risers Car Club...

This combination of style, size, and substantial ability were the Bronco recipe, but Ford's confidence seemed misplaced. Over eleven years of production, the first-generation Bronco crossed 25,000 sales just once, less than a quarter of what the 1979 Bronco would accomplish in just one year. The Bronco was too rough and too tumble for Ford showrooms of 1966, outflanked on one end by even more industrial off-roaders like the CJ-5 and Toyota's Land Cruiser and on the other by Jeep's significantly larger and more luxurious SJ-generation Wagoneer.

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Ford's persistence with the early Bronco was not rewarded in 1969, when Chevrolet introduced a larger and more truck-like mass market competitor in the K5 Blazer. A hefty and imposing two-door, the massive and brutish Blazer appealed to what was becoming an increasingly less stylized and more aggressive American car market, outdoing the Bronco in its sole point of differentiation from Jeep's more popular offerings on either end of the SUV market.

The success of the Blazer forced the market to grow, however, and, by the time the next Bronco debuted in 1978, it had two new direct competitors in Dodge's Ramcharger and Jeep's Cherokee. This new Bronco followed the Blazer's pattern, growing larger in every dimension and setting the standard for the generations to follow. This, finally was a mass market hit for Ford, who sold 180,000 of the trucks in just two years of production, and set the stage for a Bronco sure that would last through the mid-90s.

The surge would end there, unfortunately, as already-waning sales left the two-door SUV space the Bronco had now grown into oversaturated even before the fifth-generation Bronco had its unfortunate day in the sun. The sunsetting of the Bronco line in favor of the family-oriented Explorer line was already inevitable by 1994, but the Bronco's most famous day was still to come.

a car driving down a busy highway: O.J. Simpson White Bronco Chase © Archive Photos - Getty Images O.J. Simpson White Bronco Chase

Yes, June 17th of that year marked OJ Simpson's infamous slow-speed chase through Los Angeles. The larger, more truck-like Bronco was an icon in its own right, but that icon is irreparably tied to Simpson, whose white fifth generation Bronco crawled across the 405 to mark the first of many impossible to ignore moments of the most public criminal case of the 1990s. The Bronco's legacy was sealed, and the vehicle itself ended production in 1996.

The bronco story doesn't end there, however. The stylish but simple first-generation Bronco was no match for market forces in the late 1960s, but its sleek, extremely of-the-era design made it a perfect candidate for starring roles as a set piece in nostalgic media. The Internet Movie Car Database, which tracks appearances of cars on screen, has recorded 13 "Four star" roles (Which they define as "Being used a lot by a main character or for a long time") for the first-generation Bronco, nine of which came after the turn of the milennium.

a man standing in front of a car: North American International Auto Show © Bill Pugliano - Getty Images North American International Auto Show

The truck-like Bronco that was a commercial hit may have faded to 90s history with the OJ case, but its predecessor has built a cult following of its own over time, and, by 2004, Ford had noticed. This concept car was just a styling exercise, meant to gauge interest in future Bronco production, but the design clearly evoked the rectangular, stylish Bronco of the late 60s.

The Bronco that will be revealed tomorrow will come with far more compromises than the 1966 model did on debut, but so have Jeep's CJ-5 successors. The two-door SUV market that made the second through fifth generation Broncos gave way to the family SUV market that destroyed them. Now, with that era fading in the shadow of family crossovers, the time is right for the Bronco to return to its roots. What comes next is a range of stylish designed for success in both rugged off-road work and their more likely calling, daily family hauling duty with a stylish flair. Can nostalgia for something that was never sucessful at the time alone drive the success of an entirely new line of trucks competing in what has become a viable and uncrowded space?

This is the question Ford's three new Broncos will have to answer.

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