(first posted 1/16/2013. revised/expanded 5/5/2017) “Horsey car!” Sometimes the past reappears for just a moment in all its perfect clarity, as if it just happened yesterday. You shake your head to make sure you’re not dreaming but yes, there it is– the exact car you brought home in the spring of 1984, in the same color and trim, and it still looks brand new. And suddenly the words of a certain verbally precocious one-and-a-half-year-old son shouting “horsey car” ring in your ear as fresh and clear as that day when he pointed at the spare tire cover and said it for the first time. To the best of my knowledge, his automotive awareness began right then and there.
And my awareness of the Bronco’s suspension design and its tendency to be tippy began right on the drive home from the dealer. This was the prequel to the Explorer’s roll-over issues to come.
Ted wasn’t the only one who was enthusiastic about the horsey car; Stephanie adored it too. Me? Not so much, by a long shot. It was my first deep lesson in the reality that women and men like different things in cars. Like handling: the Bronco didn’t. It always felt like it wanted to fall over, like the horses in a Western when they get shot. Or, to just buck you off like a wild little Bronco. Stephanie didn’t care; she loved sitting high in the nicely trimmed Eddie Bauer edition interior. Needless to say, her driving habits were substantially different than mine. I like to explore a car’s limits, or at least feel secure in knowing where they are, but the Bronco’s scared me off.
Keep in mind that we were stepping out of an ’83 Civic Wagon, which handled like stink for its time. That was a ball to hustle up Topanga Canyon for a Sunday hike when my Turbo Coupe stayed at home. But the Honda wasn’t ours; it was a long-term rental, as a company perk. So when a Ford dealer suggested trading any of his new cars for a six-month lease in exchange for advertising on the TV station, I bit. And Stephanie had her choice of anything on the lot…so I went down to Orange County and got into the Eddie Bauer Bronco and drove it home – and I almost turned around within a half-mile and took it back.
It literally felt like it was on stilts. The combination of a super short 94″ wheelbase and swing-axle front suspension was pretty dreadful. I remember driving down the near-empty boulevard by the dealer, and giving the steering wheel a couple of wags, just to confirm my suspicion. Yikes; I couldn’t believe Ford was actually selling a vehicle that felt so tippy and unstable.
I eventually got used to it, and it took us to some incredible places way up in the Sierras. But I was always on guard, especially when we had it jammed to the hilt with five adults and two kids. I built a little rear-facing seat out of plywood, foam and fabric, and rigged up some seat belts. When my parents and sister came to visit, all seven of us piled in for a quick day trip to Yosemite on winding Highway 120 over scenic Tioga Pass (they wanted to leave their rental in Mammoth and not have to drive) . The view out of those giant panoramic rear windows was like out of a sightseeing bus.
Ford’s original simple and rugged twin-beam front suspension, which first appeared in 1965, had many good qualities, but ultimately it was just a cleaver variation on the swing axle: two axle halves with a single joint each. The camber intrinsically changes with suspension travel, but because the swing pivots are so far apart, the camber change is quite minimal. On a full-size pickup with a long wheelbase it works quite well enough;my ’66 F-100 has it, and I’ve been very happy with it: a softer ride and better handling than the previous rigid axle, and I’ve never experienced any issues with uneven tire wear, although I hear others have.
But when Ford adapted the design for 4WD, with a something akin to what Mercedes did back in the 60s with their low-pivot rear swing axle,the pivot points are obviously not as far apart. And the Ranger and Bronco have a significantly narrower track. So on the super-short and tall Bronco II, it only added to the intrinsic instability of such a short, tall vehicle.
Consumer Reports was on it, and gave the Bronco II an “Avoid” rating. There were stories in The Wall Street Journal and other papers. Statistics showed that about 70 persons per year were getting killed in Bronco II rollovers, and that 88% of the vehicle fatalities in Bronos were the result of rollovers, by far the highest of any vehicle, including the Suzuki Samurai.
The NHTSA opened an investigation of the Bronco II and the Suzuki Samurai. The NHTSA decided they weren’t really significantly worse than other SUVs at the time, as it was written off as a price to pay for the privilege of riding in one of the first small SUVs. But Ford faced a flood (almost a billion dollars) of lawsuits, and most were eventually settled. Ford paid out at least $568 million in damages awarded by juries.
And within a few years, the longer Explorer took over from the Bronco II. Still the same front suspension, but the extra length helped–sort of–for a while. Obviously, the Explorer was no poster child for rollover resistance either, although the front suspension was replaced by a more conventional one fairly early in its life. Who knows; the twin-beam front suspension may not ever have been a significant factor.
After the six months on our “lease” were out, we bought our first new car, a 1985 Jeep Cherokee. I’ll never forget the test drive; it cornered so flat and secure-feeling after the Bronco II; the difference was like day and night. But the Eddie Bauer Bronco had a much nicer interior than the Cherokee, and generally felt better screwed together. But I felt much safer knowing my family was spending way too much time on the freeways of LA in the Jeep rather than in that bucking Bronco.
The Cologne 2.8 V6 ran decently and smoothy enough, considering its modest output (110 hp, I think). Obviously, fuel economy was barely half that of the Civic wagon. The price of sitting up on a throne.
I’m not trying to be all namby-pamby about the Bronco’s handling deficiencies. I’ve certainly driven worse things and survived. But for Ford to introduce this new Bronco II into the gale of the compact-SUV storm that was brewing seemed a bit odd. Certainly, in careful hands the Bronco was nimble, and had terrific off-road capabilities given its height and shortness, but realistically, most of them did end up in the hands of folks like…Stephanie. A sudden avoidance maneuver or flat tire at speed might well have turned ugly in the hands of someone not prepared for its vices.
I haven’t seen a green Eddie Bauer Bronco II like this in ages. The few old Bronco IIs are generally beaters in the hands of kids, waiting to be rolled over. This one appeared like a mirage, and was gone shortly later, never to be seen again. And it’s so fresh and almost like new. How and where did it spend its life? I’d be tempted to think the whole encounter was a figment of my imagination, but here it is, every bit as real as that first utterance of “horsey car!”