Judging by their ubiquity, banality, and occasional absurdity, you might say sport-utility vehicles have jumped the shark. In fact, if we’re using Happy Days as a metric, you might say Arthur Fonzarelli has grown fat and old in the Cunninghams’ garage apartment and has traded in his motorcycle for a Nissan Murano CrossCabriolet.
There was a time when SUVs were cool, not just practical. Just look at the simple, highly capable, first-generation Ford Bronco. The Bronco wasn’t the first vehicle of its kind, but it was the first to hint that the segment — which in the mid-1960s was quite small — had a lot of potential. The main players, the International Harvester Scout and the Jeep CJ, accounted for about 35,000 sales annually. Ford, hot off its success creating the pony car, saw the glimmer of a new niche. Engineer and executive Donald Frey, one of the key people behind the grand slam that was the Mustang, envisioned “neither a conventional car nor a truck but . . . a vehicle which combines the best of both worlds.”
The Bronco, when it debuted for 1966, was a rather rudimentary first draft of Frey’s vision. The $2400 base “roadster” model didn’t even have doors or a roof. Still, it was a clear break from the sort of work trucks that Ford and its major competitors typically built. The Bronco’s ninety-two-inch wheelbase, too short
for serious towing, was ideal for both off-road rock crawling and around-town maneuvering. Unlike the CJ or the
Scout, the Bronco rode on coil springs up front rather than more common leaf springs, and it could be ordered with V-8 power (International swiftly responded with an eight-cylinder model of its own).
If the Bronco was smart, its marketing was brilliant. Ford touted the Bronco not merely as an off-roader or a utility vehicle but also as a “new kind of sports car with 4-wheel drive.” It handed over the new Bronco to racer/builder Bill Stroppe, who had successfully campaigned Lincolns in the Carrera Panamericana races of the 1950s. Stroppe focused on a new race called the Mexican 1000 Rally — later known as the Baja 1000 — and soon became a dominant force (with some help from a driver named Parnelli Jones). By the early 1970s, the Bronco had become a popular platform for the growing crowd of recreational off-roaders, who appreciated (and continue to appreciate) the Bronco’s toughness, not to mention the plentiful supply of Ford parts. At the same time, Ford emphasized that the Bronco could fit any lifestyle. Sales literature showed it splashing along the seashore, hauling camping gear, and, in hardtop form, serving as a stylish family station wagon.
Photographer A. J. Mueller is the archetypal SUV buyer — a young family man and all-around cool guy who lives on a lake and needs a truck both for work and play. Naturally, he’s a huge fan of the first-generation Bronco. He already owned a 1969 Bronco when he spotted this rust-free ’76 example while on vacation in Alaska. After touring the state for a week — “I couldn’t make the trip about the car because my wife would have killed me,” he says — he doubled back and bought the Ford. He wasted no time taking his new/old ride on an adventure, using it to climb Hatcher Pass before having it shipped home to Michigan. With a bit of work, namely ripping out the awful smog-era emissions controls, he has the thirty-seven-year-old truck running smoothly.
The Bronco is surprisingly fun to drive. The 302-cubic-inch V-8 is easily a match for modern traffic and doesn’t feel like it needs more than its three gears. Riding on fresh radial tires, the Bronco handles predictably. The dynamic sins — slack in the steering wheel, slop in the column-shifted manual gearbox — aren’t that much worse than you’ll find in American cars from the same period. By the end of this generation, Ford had started domesticating the Bronco with amenities such as power steering, power brakes, and electronic ignition. Still, the Bronco’s charm comes from its purposeful simplicity. It’s small — about two feet shorter in length and half a foot narrower than a 2014 Ford Escape — yet sits relatively high on its fifteen-inch wheels (owners commonly cut the fenders to clear big off-road tires). The no-nonsense, boxy styling barely changed throughout the truck’s run. The interior looks as if it’s assembled with parts from the local hardware store. One must engage four-wheel drive manually from outside the vehicle. When we venture onto a gravel road, rocks ping loudly against the underbody. The Bronco feels as if it were engineered for something other than puttering around town, even though it’s perfectly adept at doing just that.
The Bronco sold respectably, at close to 20,000 copies a year for most of its run, and it helped plant a seed — the notion of a truck you want rather than need — that would truly take off after production ended in 1977. The larger, next-generation Bronco found hundreds of thousands of buyers (including, infamously, O. J. Simpson). These days, Ford — not to mention carmakers ranging from Kia to Porsche — moves millions of SUVs and crossovers based on the premise that they’re somehow more distinct and more capable than cars. It’s a rather silly premise but one that the Bronco appealingly embodies.
2.8L (170 cu in) OHV I-6, 82–89 hp (net) to 100–105 hp (gross), 131–146 lb-ft (n) to 156–158 lb-ft (g)
3.3L (200 cu in) OHV I-6, 84–89 hp (n), 131–156 lb-ft (n)
4.7L (289 cu in) OHV V-8, 150 hp (n) to 200 hp (g), 242 lb-ft (n) to 282 lb-ft (g)
4.9L (302 cu in) OHV V-8, 125–158 hp (n) to 205 hp (g), 218–242 lb-ft (n) to 300 lb-ft (g)
Drive Rear- and 4-wheel
Front Suspension Live axle, coil springs
Rear Suspension Live axle, leaf springs
Brakes F/R Drums/drums or discs/drums
Weight 2750–3500 lb
225,585 including 5000 roadsters, 18,569 pickups, and 202,016 wagons
$2404/$2480/$2625 (roadster/pickup/wagon, 1966) $5078 (1976)
$15,000-$25,000 (Roadsters are worth the most, pickups the least.)
It’s a capable off-roader that will also draw stares when you drive it to the ice-cream stand. Beware of modifications to the body and rust (the former often leads to the latter). However, thanks to great factory and aftermarket support (including new body shells), even a completely trashed Bronco can be rebuilt.