Curbside Classic: 1969 Ford Bronco – The Mustang’s Bucking Sidekick

(first posted 11/5/2011)    The early-mid sixties were Ford’s golden era, capped by the mega-hit Mustang. Instead of trying to imitate GM like with the Edsel fiasco, finding (or creating) unexploited niches was the name of the new game. And what better way to capitalize on the Mustang’s success than with an off-roader, a category that GM hadn’t yet discovered yet. Sure, the Jeep was the original, and the Scout had already jumped in, but the water was warm; what could go wrong?

The Scout, which Ford clearly couldn’t avoid copying to a very substantial degree when they were designing their new-for 1966 Bronco, had appeared back in 1961. A rather hoary little beast, it was the first to bring a modern (boxy) look to the Jeep category. Even Jeep had to respond, with their Jeepster/Commando, but the CJ still ruled the roost.

Obviously, Ford had a bit more money to spend on the development of the Bronco than IH. The Scout had a few compromises, like its half-a-V8 four cylinder engine, and a ride that was pretty rude. The Bronco’s front suspension actually had coil springs, which gave it greater travel and better articulation than the stiff-legged leaf-spring front ends of the Jeep and Scout.

Ford sized the Bronco to be smaller and lighter than the Scout, with a petite 92″ wheelbase vs. the Scout’s 100 inches. The Bronco was decidedly compact, a decision that would come to haunt it. But then the Jeep was obviously in Ford’s gunsight, and Ford was riding a wave of success with its smaller cars.

To underscore the compact and Mustang-esqe feel, the Bronco base engine was the 170 cubic inch (2.8 L) six. I’ve always wondered about that choice, and why they didn’t put the beefier 200 inch six instead. The 170 worked just adequately enough in a Falcon, but it was anything but torquey. And off-road, that’s a decidedly desirable quality. In fact, it wasn’t until 1973 that the 170 was finally replace by the 200. Go figure.

But Ford’s fine little V8 was optional, and with that under the hood, the Bronco instantly leaped to the top of the 4×4 mountain. With the Bronco’s light weight and the light little 289 or 302 under the hood, the Bronco lived up to its name, and the association to the Mustang.

This one even sports a Sports Bronco badge, whatever that entails. Probably the extra chrome trim and bucket seats.

Which this one has. The transfer case has been cleverly disguised as a floor shifter. And the dashboard is a model of old-school 4×4 design, despite the padded top.

The reality is, it seems like about 95% of Broncos have had at least had their petite rear wheel openings enlarged. It’s almost obligatory plastic surgery on these, it seems. Of course, many have gone on to have even much more radical procedures. Original Broncos are not exactly commonplace.

Ford’s advertising from 1966 for the Bronco has a decidedly split-personality aspect to it. This shot clearly wants to convey how civilized the Bronco could be.

And how it can also let down its hair, as well as its windshield. Ah  yes, those were the days when these 4x4s could be partially disassembled and let their inner Jeep run free.

The Bronco got off to pretty good sales start, selling a 24k nits its first year. But it had to settle for second place behind the Jeep for the next couple of years, until Chevy redefined the SUV rules of the game.

Chevy took a different route to get into the nascent SUV game, by shortening a K10 4×4 pickup and giving it a removable top. The rest is history. But the little Bronco soldiered on, virtually unchanged through 1977, before it reappeared in a big-boy version too. Over the twelve years of its production life, the original Bronco sold some 230k units. Soon the most popular SUV models would be selling that many per year.

The Bronco may not have replicated the Mustang’s success, but it went on to become symbol of a time when SUVs were simple, rugged and cleanly styled; timeless qualities that have made the it both an icon and an ICON.