Curbside Classic: 1978 Ford Bronco – Free Wheelin’!

(first posted 2/16/2014)     As much as the 70s was the era of malaise when it came to cars, it was a much better period for American trucks.  The big pickups, particularly Chevys and Fords, were considered some of the best ever made up to that point in time, and in many ways much better than those that followed.  This was also the era that brought us the Biggest Bronco ever.

The original Bronco had been a vehicle unique to the Big 3 when it arrived in Ford showrooms for 1966.  The original Bronk was aimed not so much at the Jeep CJ as at the International Scout and the Jeepster – vehicles that, with varying success, mated the CJ’s offroad capability with at least some of the creature comforts that most people came to expect by the mid 60s.  The first Bronco was certainly the biggest seller of the early attempts to civilize the Jeep.  But by the early 70s, the market was moving.

1970 K5 Blazer

The1969 K5 Blazer was a new concept.  Rather than a unique vehicle, Chevrolet simply shortened the existing pickup.  This provided a larger, more comfortable vehicle that provided substantial savings in the use of common parts.

1971 Scout II

Then in 1971, International Harvester introduced the Scout II.  A bit smaller than the Blazer, it still made the Bronco seem crude by comparison.

The Blazer’s and Scout’s success was not lost on Ford.  The company had a new F series truck in the oven for 1973, and work was begun on a shortened variant to replace the old Bronco, which had gone largely unchanged since 1966.  The plan was for a new F series-based Bronco for 1974.  However, the 1973 Arab oil embargo and the resulting fuel shortages and price spikes caused Ford to shelve the big Bronco.  Instead, the company continued to sell the old one.

By 1976-77, the 1973 “energy crisis” seemed like a distant memory and the big stuff was selling again.  The companies had some more efficient designs coming, but they were not quite ready.   At Ford, a lighter weight F series was in development for 1980 that would include a Bronco variant.  But in the meantime, Ford was doing very well with its current F series, which many Ford truck guys consider the best that Ford ever offered.  Ford was also a leader with its then-new E series vans.  But the old Bronco was getting its head kicked in by the Blazer and even the Scout.  So even though there was only two years left in the model cycle, Ford dusted off the proposed 74 Bronco and introduced it as a 1978.

By the 70s, trucks and vans had moved way beyond the limited market of farmers, ranchers and tradesmen which had been the primary customers of these vehicles through the 60s.  By the late 70s, trucks were becoming “lifestyle vehicles”.   It should be no wonder that when compared to the bloated, toothless cars of the era, trucks became a mainstream alternative for the young and hip.  And finally, Ford offered a Bronco that could not only take you off road, but could do so in air conditioned, power steeringed, power windowed, c b radio jabbering, woodgrained comfort.

It was into this atmosphere that Ford created the Free Wheelin’ Ford Trucks.  The Free Wheelin’ option was largely a stripe and graphics package with some blackout trim and unique wheels.  Variants of the package adorned pickups, vans and our CC Bronco.  Free Wheelin’ and otherwise, the 78 Bronco was a big hit, outselling the 77 little Bronco by a wide margin.   Even my Uncle Bob, no offroader he, had an orange and white 78 Bronco.

If we ignore its size and look at sheer capability, the big Bronk is hailed by offroaders as the only full sized Broncos with a solid axle and the torquey 400 cid V8.  From 1980 onward (the O. J. Broncos?) the solid differential was replaced by a different design which the die hards consider inferior to the 78-79 models.  Add this to the fact that the 78-79 Bronco is based on what many fans of the blue oval consider Ford’s toughest pickup ever, it is no wonder that these have a following.  And that they can still be found doing their thing.

When I found the subject of today’s CC, I had no idea how rare it was.  It hit me that I had not seen one of the Big Bronks in quite awhile.  If I had ever known it, I had forgotten that this vehicle was offered only in 1978 and 79.  Paul loves cars with patina, and this Bronk has loads of it.  In Indiana, we have another word for patina – rust.  But still, it is not bad for its age in this climate.  The Free Wheelin’ Bronco strikes me as the hard-partying little brother of the F 250.  Even so, this particular unit is still able to get up in the morning and do a full days work.

These big Broncos bring out strong opinions.  To some, they are signs of the bloated, oversized 70s that nearly sunk Detroit in the early 80s.  To me, though, they represent Ford’s attempt to give us everything we wanted (at least in 1978):  size, comfort, looks, durability and genuine go-anywhere capability.  That it came with a pop-off rear roof is just a bonus.  Actually, as I think about it, did Ford division make anything in 1978 that I would rather have today?  A Fairmont wagon comes closest, but isn’t it awfully – well- practical?  This car fairly screams “1970s”.  Not the Brougham 70s, but the Keep On Truckin’ 70s.  So maybe this lifelong midwesterner will add one of these to the list of cars to own before I die.  Then waddya say we pick up some beer and head to the beach for some volleyball?