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Why the Bronco II Was One of Ford’s Epic Disasters

The engineers knew there was a problem—but Ford sold the Bucking Bronco, anyway.

Aaron GoldWriterManufacturerPhotographer

Ford's legendary 4x4 is back in the form of the 2021 Ford Bronco, and the Jeep competitor has made what appears to be a triumphant return—not just as a single vehicle but as an entire sub-brand. The Bronco name has been in use, on and off, for well more than 50 years, and most of the vehicles that wore the storied moniker have been great successes—but there was one Bronco variant that was an utter disaster. It's time for a little Ford Bronco II history.

Ford Bronco II History: At the Dawn of the SUV Age

To understand Ford Bronco II history, go back to 1983 when the SUV craze was still in its infancy. The Jeep "XJ" Cherokee, Toyota's ubiquitous 4Runner, and Chevrolet S-10 Blazer were brand-new models, the latter two only available as two-door vehicles. Ford was getting ready to join the fray with its own compact two-door off-roader, the 1984 Bronco II.

The idea behind the Bronco II was not to create a new family vehicle, but rather to downsize the traditional four-wheel-drive truck. Like the full-size Bronco, the Ford Bronco II was based on pickup truck bones (in this case, the newly introduced Ranger), and it was designed to be as rough-and-tumble as the original. No surprise, Ford chose to name the Bronco II after its bigger brother.

From the beginning, the Bronco II's future looked bright. Automobile, like the Nissan Pathfinder, was still nearly three years from launch, but our sister publication MotorTrend loved the Bronco II. It suggested the XLT trim level stood for "Xcellent Little Truck," and MT's first review (June 1983) praised the truck and went down in Ford Bronco II history for recognizing not just its off-road chops, easy-to-park size, and good-for-a-truck fuel economy, but also for its suitability as a vehicle for all purposes.

Except it wasn't—and Ford allegedly knew it.

Ford Bronco II History: The Bucking Bronco

Long before the Ford Bronco II went on sale, the manufacturer was aware of potential rollover issues. Engineers had calculated the Bronco II's stability index, a calculation based on the center of gravity and track width, and found it was significantly lower than the competing Chevy S-10 Blazer, and slightly lower than the Jeep CJ-7. Sure enough, Ford Bronco IIs had already started to go shiny-side-down in testing. So great was the concern that Ford eliminated certain maneuvers from the testing program in the name of its drivers' safety.

Engineers suggested fixes, most of which would have delayed the launch and cut into the Bronco II's profitability; they would have required extensive modifications to the Ranger platform to widen the track or lower the center of gravity. Nearly all options were vetoed. Ford was determined to get the Bronco II to market on schedule in order to compete with the Chevrolet S-10 Blazer, which was already getting a year's head start. In the summer of '82, Ford's General Counsel office requested all documents related to the Bronco II's handling. The department gathered more than 100 documents, 53 of which, it was later discovered, would be made to disappear.

Ford Bronco II History: The Problem Goes Public

It took a while, but eventually the rest of the world became clued-in about the Bronco II's safety issues. In 1989, Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports, gave the Bronco II its dreaded "Avoid" rating due to its tendency to tip over in emergency maneuvers, even at relatively low speeds—a repeat of the circumstances that helped to sink the Suzuki Samurai a year earlier.

The rear-wheel-drive version of the Ford Bronco II, introduced in 1986, proved to be the biggest problem. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the rear-drive Bronco II's rollover-related death rate between 1986 and 1990 was 3.78 fatalities per 10,000 vehicles, compared to 1.74 for the four-wheel-drive Bronco II, and 1.11 for the Suzuki Samurai. IIHS said 88 percent of fatalities in Broncos, either two- or four-wheel drive, involved a rollover crash.

At the urge of CU and the Center for Auto Safety, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration opened an investigation into the Bronco II. NHTSA declined to issue a recall, determining the rollover rate wasn't significantly greater than other similar SUVs.

Ford Bronco II History: Bronco II's Replacement

By this point in Ford Bronco II history, the issue of the truck's design was largely a moot point. Ford was preparing its replacement, and given the bad press, it had already decided on a new name: The 1991 Explorer was scheduled for a 1990 launch. Worth noting, the Explorer's stability index was only slightly better than that of the Bronco II. It would run into its own rollover problems due to failures of its Firestone tires, which were supposed to run at lower pressure in order to quell the Explorer's stability issues. The problem wasn't truly solved until the 2002 Explorer was launched with a wider track and an independent rear suspension.

There were still plenty of Bronco IIs out on the road, as Ford sold some 700,000 during the model's seven-year run. Figures on the death toll vary—one estimate says 800 people were killed in Bronco II rollovers, while author Adam Penenberg claims that one in 500 Bronco IIs was involved in a fatal rollover crash. The peril of the Ford Bronco II was apparently so great that insurance giant Geico refused to write policies for it.

Ford Bronco II History: Related Lawsuits

It wasn't long before lawsuits began to pile up. One of the cases involved famous jockey Willie Shoemaker, whose own history was affected severely when he was paralyzed after rolling his Ford Bronco II while drunk; he won a $1 million lawsuit. The largest hit to Ford was $62.4 million awarded to two occupants of an '86 Bronco II that rolled, one of whom suffered a serious brain injury. In 1992 alone, the New York Times claimed Ford faced a total of $742 million in 13 lawsuit claims. Ford would only say it faced less than 100 lawsuits and claims, and had already settled at least 50.

One factor in the historical losses was a former Bronco II engineer named David Bickerstaff, who left Ford in 1990. Bickerstaff testified in a 1990 case about his concerns regarding the dangers posed by the Bronco II's low stability index. Shortly thereafter he cut a deal with Ford to serve as a witness on its behalf in future cases, for which Ford reportedly paid him $5 million during an eight-year period. Bickerstaff was accused of changing his testimony once he was on Ford's payroll, downplaying his apprehensions and the importance of the stability index. A Federal judge in 2001 called the agreement between the parties "a conspiracy to commit fraud." Neither Bickerstaff nor Ford was ever brought up on perjury charges, but the exposure of the relationship is considered to be a factor in many of Ford's litigation losses.

Ford Bronco II History: Totaling Up the Losses

How much money did Bronco II litigation cost Ford? It's difficult to say. In 2001, Time reported Ford spent a total of $2.4 billion in damage settlements related to the Bronco II, including one agreement that involved giving between $100 and $300 to 680,000 Bronco II owners for modifications and repairs. But that didn't stop the financial bleed; Ford was still settling Bronco II lawsuits as late as 2012. Ford continued to insist the Bronco II was not inherently defective, and that any vehicle can roll over under the right (or wrong) circumstances.

The Bronco II name had already been abandoned, and in 1994, the full-size Bronco had its own brush with infamy with O.J. Simpson's bizarre low-speed chase. Did that have anything to do with Ford's decision to abandon the Bronco name altogether? We don't know for sure, but in 1997, the full-size Bronco was replaced by a new four-door SUV called the Expedition.

Now, though, Ford has resurrected the Bronco as a rough-and-tumble off-roader, just like the original. There's a smaller Bronco, as well, but it's not called Bronco II, but rather the Bronco Sport. And, now you know why.

1984 Ford Bronco II Specifications
ON SALE: Spring 1983
PRICE: $9,998 (base)
ENGINE: 2.8 liter OHV 12-valve V-6/115 hp @ 4,600 rpm, 150 lb-ft @ 2,600 rpm
TRANSMISSION: 4-speed manual
LAYOUT: 2-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, 4WD SUV
EPA MILEAGE: 10/30 mpg city/hwy
L x W x H: 158.4 x 65.0 x 69.0 in
WHEELBASE: 94.0 in
WEIGHT: 3,239 lb
0-60 MPH: 12.1 sec
TOP SPEED 85 mph (est)