1969 Ford Bronco pickup
1969 Ford Bronco pickup. Click image to enlarge

By Bill Vance

The Edsel failure aside, the Ford Motor Company has been pretty good at predicting trends and coming up with the right vehicles for the times. When the domestic Big Three automakers (GM, Ford and Chrysler) brought out their compacts in 1960, Ford’s Falcon was by far the most successful because Ford correctly predicted the market for a plain-Jane, simple, appliance car to counter the imports.

Chevrolet’s rear-engine, air-cooled Corvair, while novel, didn’t have mass appeal. And although Chrysler’s “European-styled” Valiant enjoyed better success, it couldn’t rival the Falcon.

Then in 1964 Ford showed the way again with its Mustang “Pony Car,” in the process creating a whole new class of automobile.

In more recent times, with the 1985 Ford Taurus/Mercury Sable, Ford proved to have the right instincts, this time on aero styling for the masses. It would turn out to be one of Ford’s most successful models ever.

Another area where Ford was prescient was in the four-wheel drive sport-utility field in 1965. Although still being sold in relatively small numbers at that time, Ford noted the increasing recreational popularity of the granddaddy of sport-utilities, the Jeep. There were also other players, such as Britain’s Land Rover, the International Harvester Scout, and minor Japanese involvement, but the Jeep predominated.

Ford decided to capitalize on what it saw as the rising affluence and leisure of the ’60s, which they anticipated would dramatically open up the market for these off-road recreational vehicles. Their answer to this changing lifestyle was the Ford Bronco.

Looking at it now, that first Bronco was little more than a metal box on wheels, but those were much simpler days. With a wheelbase of 2,337 mm (92 in.), its size fell between the Jeep at 2,057 mm (81 in.) and the Scout at (2,540 (100). But while its competitors could be had with two- or four-wheel drive, Ford gave the Bronco four-wheel drive only.

Perhaps because it arrived on the scene later, the upstart Bronco had some advantages over its major rivals. It was the only one, for example, with a coil-spring front suspension, although Jeep did use torsion bars in some of its trucks. The rear springs were leaf type and the axles were solid front and rear.

The front driving and braking loads were taken by two sturdy radius arms that extended rearward from the axle and were anchored to the frame’s midship cross member, thereby concentrating the forces in the middle of the vehicle. Lateral movement of the axle was controlled by a track bar.

Under the hood could be found a six-cylinder inline engine that was both smoother and more powerful than the fours in the Jeep, Scout and Land Rover. It was the seven-main-bearing, 2.8 litre (170 cu in.) overhead valve unit originally developed in 2.4 litre (140 cu in.) form for the Falcon. It produced 105 horsepower, compared with the Scout’s 93 and the Jeep’s 75.

Ford modified it somewhat for off-road use with such additions as a larger oil sump, an oil bath air cleaner and a heavy duty fuel pump. The transmission was an all-synchro, column-shifted three-speed manual. Behind it was mounted a two-speed transfer case controlled by a floor-mounted shift lever to select low or high range, or two-or four-wheel drive. Limited slip differentials were options for front and rear.

The Bronco came in three types: a basic roadster without roof or side curtains, although a vinyl top was optional; a pickup version, which was the roadster with a shorter cab and roll-up windows; and with a full-length metal top that made it into a station wagon. For those with a desire for real wind-in-the-face motoring, the windshield could be folded forward, a la the Jeep and early MG sports cars.

Many options of both the dress-up and utility nature were offered. Front and rear power take-offs, a snowplough, a tow bar and hooks, and a winch, were available for those planning agricultural or other heavy-duty uses. As a real throwback there was even a hand throttle on the instrument panel.

The Bronco proved to be very popular and, as can be seen today, Ford had been almost clairvoyant in its assessment of the future for four-wheel drive sports-utility vehicles. While the Jeep CJ stayed in its original small sport utility mode, the Bronco didn’t. Thus, that original Bronco looks small and unimposing beside today’s husky SUVs. It did, however, launch Ford into the very popular sport utility field.

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