"Buckin' Broncos"

Updated: Jul 21, 2020

Ford considered an array of names before settling with Bronco. Donald Frey, former Ford VP and General Manager, was keen on the equine theme and ultimately stuck with the vehicle’s original code name, but this list of would-be names is tantalizing - Bravo, Caballero, Custom, Explorer, Gaucho, Rustler, Sprint, Trail Blazer, and even Wrangler! Let’s dive into the conceptual history of how the Bronco arose. I find this especially interesting to learn, because the 2021 Ford Bronco is right around the corner!

July, 1963: Ford completes an internal study on market and product plans for several long-haul trucks, including everything from highway tractors to half-ton pickups and Econoline. Sitting on page 10 of this report, titled “Light Utility Vehicles,” we see the first seeds of the Bronco beginning to germinate. Ford spoke to Jeep CJ and IH Scout owners for their feedback, learning about the customers they need to convert for a potential competitor. “Both the Scout and Jeep lack adequate performance and have poor comfort, ride, and vibration qualities,” reads the transcript. “The majority of the Scout and Jeep owners questioned in small group research discussions indicated that four-wheel drive conventional trucks are too large to suit their needs for, generally, a combination of business and pleasure.”

October, 1963: Then, Lee Iacocca sent an executive notice (called “blue letters”) to Ford product planning committee members. The subject: Four-Wheel Drive Vehicles (0–10,000 GVW) and “...Code-named Bronco.” Iacocca’s instructions for the Bronco were clear and effective for several reasons. The Bronco would be a similar building experience Ford’s WW2 M-151 “Mutt”, they would save money by repurposing F-100 parts, and the design would lead to a jack-of-all-trades vehicle.

November, 1963: Clay model feasibility reviews began and sketches resembled the soon-to-be Bronco.

February, 1964: Ford had authorized expenditures of $300,000 ($2.5 million USD now) to continue development of the Bronco.

August, 1965: Then, the Bronco took the off-road market by storm when it launched for the ’66 model year. To quote Donald Frey, Ford VP and General Manager, “Another pony joins the stable.” He very much envisioned the Bronco as a sibling to the Mustang. (Donald Frey posing with the '66 Ford Bronco. Photo by Ford.)

1966: Ford showed off the funky “Dune Duster” Bronco concept at the 1966 Detroit auto show. None other than George Barris (of Batmobile fame and other wild customs) handled this build! Direct your attention to the: angled door sills, bed cover, NHRA-approved roll bar, convertible top, walnut-trimmed control knobs and steering wheel, suede- and leather seats, rear jump seats, and spectacular chrome. Two years, it was repainted with an “on-brand-for-1969" multicolored flower petal theme. ('66 Ford Bronco Dune Duster. Photo by Ford.)

1970s: The 2nd gen Bronco moved away from its initial design and began resembling the F-Series truck. Economically, this choice allowed for greater parts sharing and economies of scale to meet demand. The original plan, dubbed “Project Shorthorn,” was scrapped amidst the '70s oil crisis. The vehicle didn’t launch until 1978, just two years before the 3rd gen model launched in 1980. (The ’74 Bronco that never was. Photo by Ford.)

1977: Hot air balloonist Karl Thomas, planned a promotional campaign with Ford called the “Limited Edition Sail,” to break the coast-to-coast ballooning record, in under 41 days. The 18-person ground crew was supervised by veteran Bronco racer Bill Stroppe. Naturally, the handful of Limited Edition Sail Ford vehicles under Stroppe’s command included two Broncos, one being a medical rig known as the "Balloon Chase Ambulance". Unfortunately, technicalities prevented the team from earning a Guinness record despite completing the trip in 18 days. Zuercher notes, “Unfortunately, no evidence exists that the sail affected vehicle sales.” (An almost beaten record. Photo by VPO.)

1980: Ford researched, but never executed, a cross-promotional Bronco for the 1980 Winter Olympics. This Bronco would have tied in with international festivities hosted in Lake Placid, New York, that year. Ford seems to have ultimately decided against the collaboration. (What a beauty. Photo by Ford.)

October, 1979: Ford was tasked to supply the Secret Service with as many as three Bronco-based Popemobiles, according to the Chicago Sun Times. In September ’79, Ford announced that His Holiness would ride in one such 1980 Bronco, which would be “open in the rear so that the Pope may stand and greet his friends and followers.” The Bronco Popemobile was painted Wimbledon White with Wedgewood Blue interior. Although the archives contain these two renderings of the project, we have not been able to locate any real-life images of the Vatican-approved Bronco in Chicago. This shot of John Paul II at Yankee Stadium, appears to show him standing in a Bronco that matches the renderings. (Pope & Bronco. Photo by Thomas J. O'Halloran.)

This article just scratched the surface. There’s a mass of information stocked away in the archives, including old color swatches, fabric samplers, dealer brochures, period advertisements, accessory catalogues, and more. There are so many old chapter of Ford to explore. Still, a new page is turning and Ford’s 2021 Bronco is the new chapter.