COAL: 1988 Ford Bronco II – The Busting Bronco


The first big purchase as a couple can be a bit of a gamble. Differing expectations, desires and budgets are all potential conflict points. Best of luck if you are the one responsible for a poor choice. The first vehicle my wife (then fiance) and I bought together was the replacement for her very unreliable 1990 Dodge Shadow, but it turned out to be only marginally more trustworthy.

Dodge Shadow

Her Shadow had been a good car for her father and for her for a couple more years, but all of a sudden it just started falling apart. There were a number of electrical issues that ranged from annoying, like headlights that had to have their wires jiggled a bit to being coaxed into working; to dangerous, like wipers that only sporadically worked. The window washer fluid spray was at least consistent in not functioning and I can recall many times stopping at the side of the highway to smear snow over the windshield in an attempt to clean it.

Built in an era when Chrysler as well as others had been struggling to adjust to more environmentally friendly paints, the blue paint flaked off leaving random patches of primer showing. The engine would have many fits of overheating even more worryingly it would die at seemingly random times. Some sort of electrical gremlin was no doubt responsible as it would start like nothing was wrong hours or sometimes days later. Fortunately we had an AMA membership with roadside assistance. Unfortunately, after a few months they told us we had used up all of our “unlimited” free tows. Time for a new set of wheels.

We had two thousand dollars, give or take, to buy a replacement. Being young and ignorant we didn’t keep back any of that amount for such mundane things like repairs or tires but went looking for something at the maximum end of our budget. As any man in a relationship knows there are some compromises one has to make. I wanted to buy from a private seller to get more bang for our buck but she felt comfort in buying from a dealer. So we, of course, went to check some dealers. The pickings in our price range were pretty slim as two grand at a dealer does not go very far. She had an odd passion for late eighties and early nineties Cavaliers at the time but after attempting to test drive a particularly horrid example I managed to dodge that bullet. After managing to strike old Cavaliers from the list I wanted something a bit sporty and she was enamored with a commanding view offered by a truck or SUV. A local Honda dealership, oddly enough, had a something for each of us both in Ford flavor and late 80s vintage.

Taurus SHO

The one that caught my eye was a matte black 1989 Ford Taurus SHO with a slightly beat up leather interior and five speed manual gearbox. Having grown up in small, dull, economical cars the big and brash SHO drew me in. It didn’t hurt either that the 225hp Yamaha V6 engine has one of the world’s most beautiful intake manifolds under the hood. Unfortunately my wife was quite down on the car, mostly, because of a few tears in the front seats. I offered up the idea of slapping on a couple seat covers but this only further insulted her aesthetic sensibilities.

The other candidate was a 1988 Ford Bronco II in white dotted with (many) surface rust spots. How rust covering the body like acne spots on a teenager’s face is more visually acceptable than a few cuts in the seats I’m not sure, but somehow it was for her. Inside instead of the leather in the SHO, there was loads of velour in that oh-so-eighties shade of whorehouse red. With the exception of the heating vents being full of leaves, the interior was actually in relatively immaculate shape. I was still pushing for the SHO but again a “compromise” was called for, so after a (too) short test drive we determined that it drove well enough and each chipped in a thousand dollars to make our first big joint purchase.


Our time with the Bronco got off to a bit of a rocky start and while I’d like to say it got better from there, I’m not sure I can. The day after taking the Bronco home I had to pick up my wife from the university. Sitting in the parking lot which had a bit of a downhill slope I suddenly noticed a rather large black puddle coming out from under the truck. Alarmingly it was getting bigger by the second. Oh dear. I quickly shut off the motor and called the dealership. The sight of our vehicle on the end of a tow truck was familiar, but at least this time it was a different vehicle. The dealer never did tell us the root cause of the issue but I suspect the technician who had done the oil change only finger tightened the oil pan drain plug.

Ford Bronco II 2.9L V6

Because ours was a 1988 model it had the fuel injected 2.9L V6 rather than the earlier 2.8L carburetor equipped unit. A Mitsubishi 2.3L diesel was also offered in 1986 but I’d imagine they are quite rare. The 2.9L engine put out a decent 140hp and coupled with a five-speed manual gearbox, gave reasonable performance. While certainly not as responsive as the 2.5L four cylinder and five-speed in her Dodge Shadow, both shared an occasional overheating issue. Apparently these early 2.9L engines are known for overheating and cracking their heads. The flaw was fixed in later 2.9L V6 production years with a new head, but only after the little Bronco II was out of production. I would not be surprised if ours had those issues and more because if you left it idling or got stuck in traffic for too long it would start getting rather warm and making some extremely loud knocking noises (banging, really). Fellow drivers would stare in disbelief. I don’t believe it ever stranded us again after the first day but I could never trust it.


By reputation, the Bronco II is a fine off-roader but overheating is not generally a desirable attribute in an off-road capable vehicle. While I had a desire to try out an off road adventure there was an additional reason I didn’t venture onto any trails with the Bronco. The transfer case shifted into four wheel drive just fine. You could even go into high range four wheel drive on the fly at low speeds. Shifting to low range required coming to a stop but even then it shifted nicely. Shifting out of 4L (four wheel drive low range) required shifting to to 2H (two wheel drive) then backing up a little to unlock the hubs. This didn’t work quite as smoothly as I found out. We were scheduled to drive to up to Calgary which was a good two and a half hour drive with some friends. I thought I’d show them my spiffy 4×4 vehicle by popping it into 4L and climbing a small mound of dirt. That was fine until it came time to head out and I couldn’t get it back into two wheel drive. About ten minutes of shifting and backing up I was finally able to unlock two wheel drive (and highway speeds) but that little bit of showing off sure backfired that day.

Rollover Bronco

We did a lot of highway driving at the time and the overheating issue generally didn’t rear its ugly head on the open road, but we did have a big scare in it. To set the stage I will mention that we live in one of the most windy places in North America and that the wind is quite consistent going from west to east. The Bronco II is a tall, short vehicle and as such, susceptible to cross winds. My wife was driving and we were heading south at the time. We’d come up behind a slow moving semi and just as she was finishing passing it, a great gust of wind blew across the front of our car (the rear being shielded from the wind by the semi likely made the situation worse). While it certainly felt like we tipped onto two wheels, we likely weren’t but there was still definitely that sick feeling of being out of control for several seconds before she manged to get the Bronco back under control. There was an investigation into Bronco II rollovers in 1989 but it concluded rollover rates were similar to other SUVs of the era. I can’t recall how long we owned it after that but it could not have been long.

1984 ad

Overall the Bronco was a bit of a mixed bag. It was our first big purchase together, giving us six months or so of somewhat reliable transportation, and without costing too much to own. On the negative side, it could be rather embarrassing with its loud knocking and I could never trust it enough to take its tires off road. In fact every time I drove it, I mentally prepared myself to call the scrapyard to haul it away and walk home. There is also the nagging regret for me on the SHO road not taken. It likely wouldn’t have worked out much better on the reliability front but I bet it would have been a lot more fun. We drove my Z28 for the next few summer months then upped the budget considerably when we bought our next joint vehicle.