The quest for off-road driving adventure, the one that the 1966-1977 Ford Bronco would help bring to new markets, began shortly after World War II when returning GIs made ex-military Jeeps as much a part of the American scene as Coca-Colas and Lucky Strikes.
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Throughout the 1950S, exploring in four-wheel-drive vehicles -- mostly by Jeep -- was pretty much an unorganized affair. By the early 1960S, its momentum spawned a support system of aftermarket industries, magazines, clubs, and well-organized events.
These factors brought more makes to compete with the Jeep, but none of the Big Three was tempted to take the plunge into this new market until Lee Iacocca and a few others at Ford saw its potential.
Early off-roading was limited primarily to weekend exploration in groups. Then, in 1965, one Brian Chuchua organized the first off-road races held on a dry riverbed near Riverside, California. His Riverside Grand Prix, which pitted two vehicles at a time against each other, was an instant success.
But now there was a two-pronged market for 4x4s emerging. Pure off-road use was already strong and growing. Spinning off from it was a new market that wanted four-wheelers more for suburban status than flying dust.
It was in this environment that Ford introduced the Bronco in August 1965 as a 1966 model. The Bronco came in part as an answer to the growing popularity of off-road vehicles and in part to tap the new market beyond the back country.
Before introducing the Bronco, Ford talked with members of 300 off-road clubs, thousands of off-road vehicle owners, plus thousands of others who had never ridden in a 4x4. Ford discovered that many seasoned owners no longer wanted the motorized buckboard of the post-World War II era, and the non-initiated might buy one if it was made more civilized.
Women were an increasing part of the market, too. Everybody surveyed wanted faster acceleration, comfortable highway cruising, quiet, and all manner of creature comforts and conveniences. While backroad adventure was the key factor, such a vehicle now had to provide status as well.
The Bronco debuted with big, soft, and comfortable optional bucket seats; easy-on-the-rider suspension; and light, nimble handling both off-road and on.
The Bronco was Ford's enlightened response to the International Scout, Toyota Land Cruiser, Kaiser Jeep, and the Land Rover, all of which had their peculiarities and were not nearly as well suited to Saturday shopping and Sunday at the beach as to exploring Arizona's Superstition Mountains or the purple hills "somewhere west of Laramie."
The Bronco broke a lot of new ground, offering the best of both freeway and off-road driving, opening up the big country to Americans who had seldom adventured beyond shopping malls and interstate highway rest areas.
Find mechanical information on the 1966 Ford Bronco in the next section.
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The four-wheel-drive 1966 Ford Bronco came on a 92-inch wheelbase and was 152.1 inches long overall. It was powered by a solid-lifter version of Ford's proven 170-cubic-inch overhead-valve six-cylinder engine that developed 105 horsepower at 4,400 rpm.
It was the same basic engine that had been used in Falcons and Econolines, but in the Bronco, there was a different single-barrel carburetor and heavier-duty fuel pump. (In March 1966, the 289-cubic-inch V-8 was made optional.)
While the Bronco was not Falcon-derived in the same sense as the Mustang, it relied heavily on Falcon mechanical components. Ford's reasoning behind using the six was to stress economy and keep the base price down, but at an average of 14 mpg, the Bronco was hardly an economy vehicle.
The sole transmission was a steering column-mounted, fully synchronized three-speed. (An automatic was not available until 1973, and then only with a 302-cubic-inch V-8.) The three-speed's quick shifting and smooth operation were benefits that had not previously been available in four-wheel-drive vehicles.
The transmission tunnel carried a second lever (with a T-handle) that operated the transfer case. The transfer case drove both front and rear axles through constant-velocity, double-cardan universal joints.
This resulted in a higher mounting position and greater ground clearance. A button on the T-handle had to be depressed for the lever to move.
Prior to the introduction of the automatic transmission, one notch back from neutral engaged two-wheel drive, and a second notch further back set the Bronco in four-wheel drive high. A notch forward of neutral selected four-wheel-drive low range, which could only be engaged when fully stopped.
Underpinning the Bronco was a box-section frame with front coil-spring suspension and semi-elliptic rear springs with outboard shock absorbers. Up front, a "Mono-Beam" tubular beam axle was located by two forged-steel radius rods plus a track bar.
Shocks were mounted on radius arms. Frame and suspension were engineered specifically to the Bronco, giving very good ground clearance, a short 34-foot turning radius, and excellent anti-dive characteristics.
The half-ton Ford Bronco was offered in three body types -- a rough and ready roadster with no top, open-sided fairings in place of doors, and fold-down windshield at $2,404; a pickup-like "sports utility" model at $2,480; and a steel-topped wagon at $2,625.
The wagon proved to be the most popular of the three, selling 1,736 more units than the other two models combined in the first year.
Standard equipment included front and rear bumpers, front bench seat with seat belts, roll-up side windows on the wagon and pickup, padded instrument panel, rubber floor mat, locking liftgate on the wagon, fold down windshield on all models, turn signals, and dual vacuum windshield wipers with washer.
Bronco instrumentation consisted of speedometer, odometer, fuel gauge, oil pressure gauge, ammeter, and temperature gauge.
Options included a heater/defroster, 11-gallon auxiliary fuel tank, free-running front hubs, front bucket seats, rear seat for the roadster and wagon, wheel covers, horn ring, front armrests for the sports utility and wagon, padded sun visors, a herd of heavy-duty items, heavy-duty clutch, cooling package, limited-slip front and rear axles, tailgate mounted spare tire carrier, front bumper guards, chromed bumpers, front and rear power takeoffs, citizen's band radio, snowplow, trailer hitch, winch, tachometer, and tow hooks.
Roadsters could be outfitted with a vinyl convertible top or steel doors, the latter with a choice of frameless glass or plastic windows. The 1966 Bronco was offered with five exterior colors and six interior colors.
A Bronco could be ordered as a mini fire truck or auto wrecker. Dealers promoted mowers, power booms, posthole diggers, sprayers and trenchers, and rotary brooms.
It seems Ford was not only competing with Jeep and International but with Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward, too.
A steel bulkhead separated the driver's compartment from the 55.2 x 61-inch cargo area; the spare was bolted to the back of the bulkhead. On wagons and roadsters with the rear seat option, the bulkhead was omitted and the spare was mounted inside the tailgate. The pickup and wagon featured bolt-on steel roofs.
In all models the top, doors, and extra seats were designed for quick removal, so even the pickup and wagon could easily be stripped down for weekend action. The side and tailgate windows in the wagon remained stationary throughout the life of the first-generation Bronco, but aftermarket sliding windows were available.
To find out what the critics thought of the 1966 Ford Bronco, keep reading on the next page.
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In their 1966 Ford Bronco reviews, automotive magazines largely agreed that the vehicle was best suited for off-road use.
Motor Trend found that in two-wheel drive, the Bronco "leaped to 30 mph in 5.5 seconds, passed 45 mph in 11.5 seconds, and hit 60 in 21.2 seconds, crossing the finish line (of the quarter-mile strip at Ford's proving ground test track) in 21.5 seconds, with our fifth-wheel electric speedometer reading an accurate 62 mph." Top speed was approximately 80 mph.
MT described the Bronco's hill climbing ability this way: "Ford's test track has a steep, paved hill for various testing procedures. It's about 50-60 feet high and has steep grassy slopes on each side. The Bronco cantered right up the slopes without a whinny in low-range first, but we were even more impressed when it did it in third after a quick shift from first.
"A shift into reverse at the top allowed us to make a leisurely withdrawal in complete control with some help from the brakes. Backing up the hill was just as easy -- from the driver's seat it looked straight down."
Car Life's test, made in California, not Michigan, put the Bronco in a real-world environment. "A tour of Southern California freeways immediately demonstrated the low-geared Bronco should best be given its head in back country," said the magazine.
"A comfortable highway cruise for this particular Bronco was 55 mph -- slow by the majority of freeway standards. A speed of 60 mph created tight winding of the smallish engine and audible workings of transmission and transfer cases; 74 mph, absolutely the upper limit of Bronco progress, was difficult to maintain, wearing and probably battered the engine unnecessarily.
"Thus it was that the Bronco was taken to an area more suitable for assessment of its capabilities -- the mountainous spine of California, a land of steep canyons and draws, boulders, brush and pine, wet and splattered with patches of melting snow and ice along the sun-scarce northern sides of sharp hogback ridges."
Here, Car Life concluded, "The Bronco's suspension . . . provides a ride that is stiff, to say the least, but not objectively harsh. Steering is very positive and effortless, though the overall ratio of 24:1 is sometimes too slow for some of the quick boulder-dodging maneuvers required of the off-the-road driver. . . . The Bronco is fine for hombres who don't care for horses, but who want to hit the horse trails.
"The Bronco can tote grub from the general store or pack the young 'uns off to the schoolhouse. In a pinch the Bronco can help with the spring plowing. Best of all about the Bronco is that West of the Pecos rodeo aura that makes a driver shout, 'Eeeeeaaaaayyhhooo!' as he plows four-wheel full tilt through a mountain stream or breaks airborne over a mountain top."
The basic Bronco wagon weighed 3,025 pounds and carried an 800-pound payload. With the heavy-duty package, load capacity was about tripled.
Standard tires were 7.35 x 15 black sidewall tires, which were not up to even the basics of four-wheel-drive vehicle use. This was probably because Ford wanted to keep the price down and let salesmen move the buyer up to a wide choice of high-profit optional tires. (Car Life suggested that the Bronco buyer who wanted both highway and brush use should consider two sets of tires and wheels.)
Dealer-installed options included chrome-handhold rails, inside hand rail, luggage rack for wagons, overload air springs, and even a snow plow, but no air conditioning.
There was no explanation for giving the Bronco brakes that were borderline adequate. Neither was there an explanation as to why it was not offered with optional two-wheel drive since a portion of the market seemed to be suburbanites who wanted the Bronco for show rather than go.
First-year Bronco production came to 4,090 roadsters, 6,930 sports utilities, and 12,756 wagons.
Go to the next page to learn about changes for the 1967 and 1968 model years.
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The 1967 and 1968 Ford Bronco was little changed from the 1966 model. The standard engine in 1967 was still the 170-cubic-inch six, with the 289 V-8 as an option. The sports utility was renamed the pickup in 1967.
Improvements were the addition of variable-speed windshield wipers, dual master brake cylinder, self-adjusting brakes, and backup lights.
The options list expanded to include such items as bodyside and tailgate moldings, a fancier horn ring, and bright trim, for the instrument panel and headlight and taillight bezels. These features and more were included in the Sport Package, a $189 dress-up option for the pickup and wagon.
Still, 1967 production declined by more than 9,500 units to 14,230, including 698 roadsters, 2,602 pickups, and 10,930 wagons.
For 1968, a new spare tire carrier was located on the outside. Front bumpers had curved rather than squared ends, and -- as federal safety regulations began taking effect -- side marker lights were added to the front fenders, reflectors to the rear quarters. Revisions to interior door and window hardware made them safer for occupants.
Free-running front hubs now had better lubrication sealing and improved operation. Kingpins were upgraded for longer life. A heater and defroster were now standard.
The slow-selling roadster was dropped after the 1968 model year, meaning that the most basic of all Broncos is the rarest and one of the most collectible now.
Underscoring the popularity of the early Bronco were the Baja 500 and Mexican 1,000 races. The first Mexican 1,000 was held October 31, 1967. The field included motorcycles, cars, Jeeps, dune buggies, specialty vehicles, and Broncos on the run from Tijuana to La Paz, which actually worked out to about 900 miles.
One Bronco was built by Bill Stroppe, who had prepared the factory Lincolns for the 1952-1954 Mexican road races. (Stroppe had already campaigned Broncos at Riverside, California, and by now he was highly skilled at preparing them.)
The Baja Bronco had a full-cage roll bar, wide wheels with big tires, seat belts and harness, extra shocks, and rally lights for night driving. The engine was tweaked to the hilt.
Stroppe's Bronco was driven by Ray Harvick. He and Stroppe started out in the lead, but were soon mired in mud after helping competitors free their Jeep. Later, they flipped and sand worked its way into the timing chain. The chain gave out about 50 miles from La Paz, thus ending Stroppe's first Baja race.
Stroppe was undaunted, and Ford was a willing sponsor despite the Bronco's failure to finish. For the 1968 event, Stroppe had 1963 Indianapolis 500 champion Parnelli Jones as his driver.
Jones was not used to off-road racing; he treated Broncos like Indy cars and pushed them much too hard. He broke a wheel and spindle about 150 miles into the race.
This did not phase Ford, though, considering Ak Miller and Ray Brock won the two-wheel-drive production class in an F-100 pickup.
Off-road racing began catching on in 1969. A 500-miler was added to the Baja schedule. Meanwhile, in Nevada, there was the Mint 400, sponsored by the Mint Hotel in Las Vegas. Stroppe had Jones for the Mint 400, plus Al and Bobby Unser.
Find more details about the Ford Bronco's racing history on the next page.
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Ford Bronco racing results, using cars built by Bill Stroppe, were underwhelming in 1967 and 1968. But things were about to get worse, as the 1969 Mexican 1,000 was marred by tragedy.
Although not officially on the Stroppe team, a youth named Richard Smith drove a Bronco under the Stroppe banner. His co-pilot was Steve Smith, no relation to Richard Smith, but the son of Stroppe's close associate, Clay Smith, who was killed by a flying wheel while in the pits of an Illinois race track in 1954.
Early in the race, the Smiths hit a dune buggy and flipped. Richard Smith was killed instantly; Steve Smith died in the hospital a few hours later.
Stroppe was so devastated, he pulled out of the race. He felt a degree of responsibility because the car was not equipped with a steel mesh plate roof. But since the car was not officially on his team, he could not require this equipment.
Back home in Long Beach, California, Stroppe developed a two-wheel-drive Bronco with much Ford pickup running gear. The rationale for this design was Parnelli Jones's driving style: The Indy-driver-turned-Baja-racer drove the Broncos so hard that the four-wheel-drive front ends couldn't take the beating.
At the same time, Ford introduced a similar Bronco in kit form. Somehow, though, the project was stopped and the one completed kit turned over to Stroppe. It was a 50/50 combination of Bronco and pickup with lots of plastic parts and all-out race-car engineering.
Stroppe called this car "Crazy Colt." He built a second one called "Pony." With Jones driving, Stroppe won the 1970 Baja 500 with the Pony in a record time of 11 hours, 55 minutes.
Jones won the 1971 Mexican 1,000 in a machine that looked like a Bronco but wasn't. His "Big Oly" had an all-tube chassis, plastic body, and advanced suspension.
When the 1972 Baja 500 rolled around, Stroppe entered no fewer than 15 Broncos, F-Series pickups, and compact Courier pickups. Jones finished third with Big Oly, but successfully defended his Mexican 1,000 championship in the same vehicle.
Big Oly won the 1973 Baja 500 but was wrecked in the process. Stroppe and Jones won the Mint 400 in another vehicle.
In the 1974 Baja International (a renamed Baja 500), Stroppe and Jones entered the rebuilt Big Oly. Somehow, a spectator aboard a motorcycle entered the course going the wrong way. There was a terrible collision with Big Oly and the motorcyclist was killed.
After that, Jones eventually drifted over to the Chevy Blazer and Stroppe never rode with him again. However, Stroppe went on preparing Fords -- Broncos, F-Series pickups, and Couriers -- and making impressive showings down on the Mexican peninsula.
The Bronco's desert racing success came home to the streets in a run of Broncos modified by Stroppe. First offered to the public in 1971, the "Baja Bronco" came with a special roll bar; heavy-duty dual shock absorbers at all four wheels; stronger rear springs; heavier rear axle; special tires mounted on chrome-plated wheels; fender flares; trailer hitch; 302-cubic-inch V-8; an orange, blue, and white paint scheme; and more. (A four-barrel carburetted engine was optional.)
About 650 Baja Broncos were built through 1974.
To learn about the civilian models of the 1969-1973 Ford Bronco, check out the next page.
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Arguably, the 1969 model was the most changed of all Broncos through 1977, but it couldn't prevent a gradual decline in popularity for the 1969-1973 Ford Bronco.
There were considerable body changes to the pickup and wagon in 1969. For example, the windshield and cowl area were improved to reduce road noise and the doors were changed. (The fold-down windshield was discontinued, but roofs remained removable.)
The wagon body had a beefier look, especially the door frames, rocker panels, and roof. All of these changes were made to strengthen the vehicle. Parking light lenses, which had previously been clear, were now amber.
The optional 289-cubic-inch V-8 was replaced by a 302-cubic-inch unit. Electric windshield wipers replaced vacuum-operated blades as a running change during the model year. Production was 2,317 pickups and 18,639 wagons.
For 1970, there were only minor styling changes. Side marker lights and reflectors were reshaped and moved higher up on the body. Broncos with Sport Package equipment were now considered to be separate models.
Important new options were G78 x 15B fiberglass tires, "Traction-Lock" limited-slip rear differential, and shoulder harnesses. (Through 1977, Bronco remained the only four-wheeler in its class with limited-slip differentials available both front and rear.) As in nearly every year, the list of exterior colors was expanded.
Competition in the 4x4 sport-utility field was heating up, with Chevrolet's Blazer and GMC's Jimmy -- both built on shortened pickup truck platforms -- having arrived since mid 1969. Orders for 1970 Broncos declined to 1,700 pickups and 16,750 wagons.
About the only changes for 1971 were a new heavy-duty front axle and 12.7-gallon fuel tank. (The fuel tank had first been used in 1970 on those Broncos equipped with evaporative emissions recovery systems.)
Standard tire size was now E78 x 15. During the model year, front bucket seats became standard equipment. The number of bright-trim accessories again increased.
The pattern of falling pickup sales and rising wagon sales continued; 1,503 pickups were produced compared to 18,281 wagons. Base prices were $3,535 and $3,638, respectively.
The 1972 Ford Bronco gained larger brakes front and rear. In mid 1972, a new Ranger package was offered. This consisted of special exterior colors with accent striping, argent grille, carpeting, deluxe wheel covers, deluxe cloth-insert bucket seats, swing-away spare with a tire cover, woodgrain door panels, and fiberboard headliner.
Due to smog restrictions, horsepower of the six-cylinder engine dropped from 100 to 82. In California, the 302 V-8 became the only engine normally available, with the six a special-order item only.
The declining popularity of the Bronco pickup finally took its toll in 1973, when only the wagon was offered. Ford's veteran 200-cubic-inch six was newly installed as the standard engine; rated horsepower was only 84.
The tide of competition in the growing SUV field was rising and Ford attempted to keep the Bronco in the hunt with more comfort and convenience features. A three-speed automatic transmission, the C-4, was available for models equipped with the V-8.
This transmission had both fully automatic and manual control. With it came a new J-handle transfer case shifter setup that was quite a bit different than the old T-handle setup. (In 1973, it was still possible to get a standard transmission with either the T-handle shifter or the new J-shifter for the transfer case.)
Also, power steering was offered for the first time, again only with the V-8. Even with only one body style left, production was a healthier 21,894 Broncos.
The 1974-1977 Broncos marked the end of the run for this generation. Find out about those models on the next page.
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The little boom in Bronco demand seen in 1973 wouldn't last, and the 1974-1977 Ford Bronco models would mark the end for the car-based Bronco.
For model-year 1974 (which began under the cloud of the first OPEC oil embargo), production was 18,786. Subsequent years would see further declines.
Then, too, there was very little new. The automatic transmission quadrant was now lighted. The six and optional 4.11 final-drive gear were no longer available in California, where emissions standards were stringent.
The J-shifter was the only setup, even with the manual transmission. The only interior trim color available was parchment.
The 1975 Ford Bronco had a revised exhaust system, stronger rear axle, and a higher ride height. The only engine offered was the 302-cubic-inch V-8, rated at 125 horsepower.
The manual transmission became a special-order item. The six was discontinued due to smog regulations. Anti-smog equipment became standard across the board. (California-bound Broncos came with a required catalytic converter.)
Sports and Rangers were given an F-Series truck steering wheel, and an engine-block heater joined the options list. Production was down to 11,273; base price went up to $4,979.
Improvements for the 1976 Ford Bronco were increased front axle capacity, an optional front stabilizer bar, optional power front disc brakes, and faster-ratio power steering. Solid-state ignition was introduced during the 1976 model run, as was a Special Decor Group with a blacked-out grille, wide bodyside tape stripes, and other trim accents. Bronco production improved to 13,625.
For the 1977 Ford Bronco, the Ranger package was changed to include a "sports bar," which was a newly styled roll bar. Disc brakes became standard.
The 302-cubic-inch V-8 had a redesigned combustion chamber and new pistons. The intake manifold was improved for better cooling. Horsepower was rated at 133.
The front passenger seat and padded dash, formerly standard items, were moved to the options list. Production fell by a few hundred units to 13,335.
Time and tastes were passing the Bronco by in the late 1970s. When it was introduced, the Bronco had upped the antes in power and comfort compared to its targeted rivals, the Jeep and the Scout. It drew more motorists into the growing sport-utility vehicle market, but it also attracted new rivals of its own.
Vehicles like the Blazer and Jimmy looked like quick fixes at first, but their truck-based designs did include lots of interior space, the ability to carry big engines, and a host of available comfort and convenience features. After a slow start, Blazer production shot up to more than 47,000 for 1972 and kept growing.
When Chrysler entered the SUV field in 1974, it did so with cut-down trucks, the Dodge Ramcharger and related Plymouth Trail Duster. The same year, Jeep released the Cherokee, a detrimmed two-door version of its 4x4 Wagoneer station wagon.
Ford (which had rejected a truck-based design when first planning the Bronco) couldn't ignore the direction the off-road vehicle market was heading. A whole new era arrived in 1978 with the debut of a bigger Bronco derived from the F-Series truck and powered by a standard 351-cubic-inch V-8 engine.
Production soared to more than 70,000 vehicles. But almost overnight, the compact, simple, early Bronco became collectible, and its collectibility has grown with each passing year.
Find information about clubs for fans of the 1966-1977 Bronco on the next page.