The Evolution of the Ford Bronco

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Once upon a time, you could hitch your saddle to a wild Bronco and roam the wilderness. There were very few limitations regarding where you could explore. This was the kind of freedom available for any rider. In 1966, humankind returned to the wilderness with a free spirit thanks to the introduction of the Ford Bronco, a different kind of horse with a new attitude.

From the off-road champion 1969 ‘Big Oly’ Ford Bronco to the infamous O.J. Simpson chase in a white ‘93 Bronco on June 17, 1994, the Bronco has reached iconic status around the world. Although it can be modified to the extreme when it comes to its potential, the Ford Bronco is a very capable off-roader and versatile SUV right out of the box.

Ford achieved success with the Bronco because the idea was exactly what the market was looking for at the time. The American automaker did an excellent job with the execution of the sports utility vehicle’s design. With that being said, the Bronco built a legendary reputation through off-road racing in its early days.

The Evolution of the Ford Bronco

That champion pedigree began with the very first generation of the Ford Bronco when the reputable race car builder, Bill Stroppe, decided to assemble a team of Broncos. He partnered with Holman-Moody and together they unleashed the Stroppe/Holman/Moody, or SHM Bronco against the competition.

With success at events such as the Mint 400, Baja 500, Mexican 1000 (which you now know as the Baja 1000), the SHM Ford Bronco experiment was a success. From 1965 and well into the ‘70s, the Ford Bronco became an off-road racing hero.

Many people remember the ‘Big Oly’ Bronco specifically because it won the Baja in 1971, ‘72, and 1973. Oh yeah, it also won the Mint 400 in 1973 as well. That kind of racing success always boosts the popularity of that vehicle in the eyes of consumers. The rest is history.

Over the years, the evolution of the Ford Bronco continues to push the boundaries of what off-road capability means. As technology advances, so does the Bronco. Many die-hard old school Bronco enthusiasts swear by the early models. However, the Bronco never stopped evolving, meaning some of the most capable Broncos are yet to come.

Looking back on the heritage of the Bronco reveals why every generation of the Ford Bronco is special. In the end, there is really no wrong answer when it comes to your generational preference as long as you choose a Ford Bronco as your steed.

First Generation Bronco Production
Andrew Duthie from Nashville, TN, USA, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

First Generation Bronco Production

Production for the first generation of the Ford Bronco began in August of 1965 for the 1966 model year. Ford Motor Company produced this generation of the Bronco until 1977. This generation of the Bronco is classified as a compact SUV and every single model features two doors. All Broncos ever made, to this day, feature a front-engine, four-wheel-drive layout. 

There were many engine options available throughout the first generation of Bronco production. You also had the choice of either a three-speed manual transmission or a three-speed automatic transmission in the first-gen Bronco.

As far as the engine options go, there were two different straight-six cylinder options or two different V8 options throughout the first-gen of production. The straight-six options were a 2.8L, 170 cubic-inch, or a 3.3L, 200 cubic-inch engine. 

Both V8 options are small blocks. One is a 4.7L, 289 cubic-inch V8 while the other needs no introduction to long-time blue oval enthusiasts. That’s because it is the 302 cubic-inch, 4.9L V8. Some people like to round up and call it the 5.0L. Whatever you want to call it, this is the engine most people want in their old school Ford Bronco.

However, Ford did not make the 302 V8 available until the 1969 model year. The 302 V8 replaced the 289 cubic-inch engine for that model year. Another important note is that the manual transmission was the only option until 1973. In 1973, due to consumer demand, Ford began offering both a manual and automatic transmission option.

First Generation Ford Bronco Dimensions

  • Wheelbase: 92 Inches
  • Length: 151.5 Inches
  • Height: 71.6 Inches
  • Width: 68.5 Inches

In 1966, Ford offered three different body configurations for the Bronco. You could choose from a three-door SUV, a two-door wagon and half-cab pickup, or an open-body roadster. Ford discontinued the open-air roadster in 1968. By 1972, Ford discontinued the half-cab pickup.

Some of the most notable first-gen Broncos include the Bronco Sport and Bronco Ranger. That’s right, the very first Ranger was actually just a trim configuration of the Ford Bronco. 

Over the first-gen of production, Ford made approximately 225,585 Bronco models. That means you can still get your hands on one today if you are in the market. Expect to pay premium prices for pristine examples. You will also pay a top-shelf price for any restomod first-gen Bronco done right. 

However, there are some examples out there in a more affordable range if you do not mind a project. With a little elbow grease, you can turn a first-gen Bronco in need of some TLC into an incredible off-road vehicle or ORV. 

The first Ford Broncos to wander the wilderness set the tone for an off-road legacy that continues to this day. Even competitors of the Ford Bronco knew they could not beat it off-road, so they shifted their SUV engineering to more road-friendly designs. Meanwhile, the Bronco continues to be bucking in the wild all around the world.

Second Generation Ford Bronco Production
Magley64, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Second Generation Ford Bronco Production

There is no doubt about it, the second generation Bronco is one of the most classic SUV designs of all time. Unfortunately, the second-gen version had a very short production window from 1977 to 1979.

V8 engines were the only available options for the second-gen. One of them was a 351 cubic-inch, 5.8L V8 while the other was a massive 400 cubic-inch, 6.6L monster. Although both engines produce nearly the same horsepower, the 6.6L produced more torque.

Factory numbers rate the 5.8L at 156 horsepower with 262 pound-feet of torque. The 6.6L is rated at 158 hp with 277 pound-feet of torque. Both engines have a lot of tuning potential. In other words, it’s pretty easy to squeeze more power out of them.

Two different four-speed manual transmissions are found in second-gen Broncos. One of them is the famous Borg-Warner T-18 manual. There was also a three-speed automatic transmission available. 

One of the most notable details about the body of the second-gen is the lift-off hardtop. You can remove the hardtop from just behind the B-pillars to the rear of the Bronco. The second generation Bronco is classified as a full-size SUV. It was only available as a three-door SUV. 

Second Generation Ford Bronco Dimensions

  • Wheelbase: 104 Inches
  • Length: 180.3 Inches
  • Height: 75.5 Inches
  • Width: 79.3 Inches

The second generation Bronco was the first to offer air conditioning, a radio, and a tilting steering wheel as options. It was also the first to offer seating for up to six passengers, including the driver. Also, it was the first Bronco based on the Ford F-series chassis.

Although it is only available as a 1978 or a 1979 model year, Ford still made a total of 181,955 second-gen Broncos. Just like most classic SUVs, expect to pay a premium price if you want a pristine, all-original, or a restomod second-gen Bronco done to perfection. 

Ford made enough of them where you will still find second-gen Bronco projects for a reasonable price. If you love the big V8 era of Ford’s history, a second-gen Bronco just might be the right vintage SUV for you.

Third Generation Ford Bronco
Joost J. Bakker from IJmuiden, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Third Generation Ford Bronco Production

Believe it or not, Ford actually began development of the third generation Bronco way back in 1977. Production began in 1979 for the 1980 model year. Ford sold the third-gen Bronco from 1980 to 1986. 

Also classified as a full-size SUV, the third-gen Bronco is another three-door design. It is based on the Ford F-series. Of course, there is an asterisk to note. In 1982, Ford released the Bronco II which is not a full-size design. Instead, the Bronco II is a compact SUV based on the smaller Ranger pickup.

Ford went back to a standard inline six-cylinder engine for the first time since 1977 with the third-gen rendition of the Bronco. This 4.9L, 300 cubic-inch straight-six was only available with a manual transmission.

Other engine options for the third-gen are a 302 cubic-inch 4.9L V8, a 351 cubic-inch 5.8L 351M V8, or a 351 cubic-inch 5.8L Windsor V8. Ford made the Bronco lighter than previous Broncos for the third-gen in an effort to make it more fuel efficient. 

There was also a wide range of transmissions available in the third-gen. The four-speed Borg-Warner T18 was still available with select configurations. There were both automatic and manual transmission options available in the third-gen.

By now, Ford was able to fit the front end of all third-gen Broncos with a Dana 44 front axle along with a Twin Traction Beam independent front suspension system. This only added to the off-road capability and road versatility of the Bronco legacy. 

In 1982, Ford began putting their now famous blue oval logo on the front grille of the Bronco. That means the third-gen is the first available Bronco with the blue oval, if that is important to you. 1985 was the first year of the Eddie Bauer edition Bronco sporting the classic two-tone styling with an outdoor theme across the SUV.

Overall, Ford made approximately 322,474 third generation Broncos. That means there are plenty of them out there if you want to get your hands on one. Premium price territory still exists for the very best examples but you will find project third-gen Broncos available for lower prices than the previous two generations. 

For a large generation of Bronco enthusiasts, the third generation Bronco was their first exposure to Ford’s iconic SUV. That means prices will go up if demand increases because this generation is now looking for restomod Broncos from 1980 to 1986 featuring the modern 5.0L Coyote V8 engine under the hood. Many of those examples can sell for $100,000 or more. 

Fourth Generation Ford Bronco
Bejara70, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Fourth Generation Ford Bronco Production

The fourth generation Ford Bronco covers the 1987 model year all the way through the 1991 model year. This is another very desirable generation of the Bronco right now. It features classic late ‘80s Ford styling with plenty of on and off-road capability. 

Once again, the fourth-gen Bronco is classified as a full-size SUV. It is essentially a short-wheelbase version of the eighth generation F-150 pickup. The fourth generation is a three-door SUV just like the previous generation. 

There were only a total of three engine options available for the fourth-gen bucker. One was the 300 cubic-inch, 4.9L straight-six. The other two options are V8 engines with one of them being a 302 cubic-inch V8 and the other being the popular 351 cubic-inch 5.8L Windsor V8 engine.

Several transmission options were available across a variety of configurations for the fourth-gen Bronco. There were both three-speed and four-speed automatic transmission options available. The four-speed Borg-Warner T18 also made an appearance in select fourth-gen configurations. 

Then, for the first time in its history, the Ford Bronco was available with a five-speed manual transmission. This five-speed manual was designed by Mazda. It was available from 1988 to 1991 in select configurations of the Bronco.

Ford made approximately 235,451 fourth generation Broncos. Again, they made enough fourth-gen examples for you to get your hands on one. For some reason, the fourth generation is really selling well right now. As usual, you will pay a premium for the best available fourth-gen Broncos on the market.

The styling on the fourth-gen Bronco is cherished by a lot of enthusiasts. Even when shopping for a project fourth-gen, many sellers know exactly what they have. The important thing is to look for a clean shell if you do not want to do a complete strip-down rebuild. 

If you do have plans for a restomod 5.0L Coyote fourth-gen Bronco, you already know it would be nice to start with a nice, clean frame. Even then, after thirty years, it’s going to need some work. However, the end result will be priceless to you if you do it the right way from the ground up.

Fifth Generation Bronco
IFCAR, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Fifth Generation Bronco Production

Ah yes, the final Bronco generation before disappearing into the wild for a few generations. Perhaps the O.J. chase did not help the namesake of the Bronco in the ‘90s. Still, time has a tendency to heal some wounds. Eventually, enthusiasts got their wish with the announcement and release of the modern Bronco but the fifth generation example still has plenty of fans.

Ford made the fifth-gen Bronco for the 1992 through the 1996 model years. Keep in mind, the Bronco has, for the most part, been using the same chassis since 1980 at this point, that’s what you call a timeless engineering success.

Once again, the fifth generation Bronco is based on the Ford F-150, this time the ninth generation of the F-series. Fifth generation Broncos were still classified as a full-size SUV with three doors.

You could elect for leather front seats in a Bronco for the first time ever but only in XLT and Eddie Bauer configurations. There was even an optional keyless entry with anti-theft alarm available as an option.

Power mirrors were available for the first time ever on the Bronco for the fifth-gen. On top of that, for the 1996 model year, the Bronco was the first Ford ever to incorporate turn signals in the side mirrors. Power windows and locks had been available as an option in several Bronco configurations since the 1980s.

Safety took a major leap forward with the fifth-gen Bronco as well. This includes a four-wheel anti-lock ABS brake system beginning in 1993. The 1994 Bronco introduced a driver-side airbag for the first time ever in the Ford SUV.

Because of safety regulations at the time in relation to the hardtop design, the fifth-gen became the first Bronco where Ford went out of their way to discourage owners from removing the top. This even includes removing any literature suggesting the removal of the hardtop while securing it to the vehicle using Torx bolts.

The same three engine options available in the previous generation of the Bronco remained in place for the fifth-gen. To recap, that covers the 4.9L straight-six, the 302 cubic-inch V8, and the 351 cubic-inch Windsor V8 engines. Ford discontinued the straight-six cylinder engine from the lineup for the 1994 model year.

Depending on the configuration, fifth-gen Broncos came with one of two different four-speed automatic transmissions or a five-speed manual if you still enjoy the three-pedal experience.

The final fifth-gen Bronco rolled off the assembly line in Wayne, Michigan on June 12, 1996. To this day, Ford maintains there was no relation between the O.J. Simpson incident and the discontinuation of the Bronco. If you look at the data, it is true that Bronco sales were declining before the police chase occurred. However, was it really enough of a decline to park the stallion in the stable?

Ford made approximately 162,703 fifth-gen Broncos. There are still enough of them that survived to find a decent example on the used market for a reasonable price. Although, the popularity of the fifth-gen has gained a lot of traction in recent years. When demand increases, well, so does the price.

After the fifth-gen Bronco, Ford technically replaced it with the larger Expedition. However, the Ford Explorer is really the SUV that kept the spirit and feel of the Bronco going until its eventual return.

Sixth Generation Ford Bronco
SsmIntrigue, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Sixth Generation Ford Bronco Production

After a 25-year hiatus, the Ford Bronco made its much anticipated return to production with a lot of retro styling and modern technology. The sixth generation of Bronco production began in 2021 with the first official units rolling off the assembly line in Wayne, Michigan on June 14, 2021. Production of the sixth-gen Bronco continues to this day.

Ford put more innovation and technology into the sixth-gen Bronco than ever before. They also realized the market demands both two-door and four-door configurations, so they offer both options. You can even remove the doors like you can with a Jeep Wrangler. Better yet, you can store the doors, in covers, inside the Bronco while driving around doorless.

You can also enjoy open-air driving in a Bronco once again as every configuration can go into full convertible mode. The official classification of the sixth-gen Bronco falls under the mid-size SUV category. Ford bases the new Bronco on the Ranger chassis using body-on-frame construction.

Of course, Ford put a lot of off-road engineering into the development of the sixth-gen Bronco and it paid off. This thing is a beast off-road, in fact, you can even get the optional GOAT terrain management technology with your sixth-gen Bronco. GOAT stands for “goes over any terrain”.

Sixth Generation Ford Bronco Rear
SsmIntrigue, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The sixth-gen Bronco is the first production generation to not offer a V8 engine option. There are some special edition builds by industry experts featuring a 5.0L Coyote V8 but you cannot order a Bronco from the Ford factory with one.

Don’t discount EcoBoost technology though. Think of it this way, a version of an EcoBoost V6 engine powers the modern Ford GT to unthinkable performance and it sounds incredible with those twin-turbochargers spooling.

You can currently choose from one of three engines in the sixth-gen Bronco, depending on configuration. The three engines are a turbocharged 2.3L inline four-cylinder EcoBoost, a twin-turbo 2.7L EcoBoost V6, or a twin-turbo 3.0L EcoBoost V6.

Power and performance is impressive with all three engines. The 2.3L is The Little Engine That Could with 300 horsepower and 325 pound-feet of torque. Upgrade to the 2.7L V6 to access 330 hp with 415 pound-feet of torque. If you want to be the host with the most, the 2022 Ford Bronco Raptor features a 3.0L EcoBoost V6 creating 400 hp with 415 pound-feet of torque.

Ford Bronco Raptor
UltraTech66, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

There are two different transmissions available in the sixth-gen Bronco. One of the transmissions is a 10-speed automatic which truly optimizes your torque for every driving scenario. The other is only available with the 2.3L but it is a seven-speed manual transmission.

Actually, it is more like a six-speed manual transmission with an option to shift the Bronco into the C gear, or crawler gear. This essentially acts as the seventh gear with this Getrag manual transmission.

As for the suspension setup, the sixth-gen features the most advanced engineering of any Bronco yet. By far. You have a front twin A-arm independent suspension system breaking the sweat for you every mile along the journey. The rear uses a five-link coilover setup with a solid axle. 

You can even elect for the available HOSS or High-Performance Off-Road Stability Suspension for even more fun off the beaten path. This specific system utilizes Bilstein shocks at all four corners. Even the front sway bar features a hydraulic disconnect for when you want to go crawling. Get this, it automatically reconnects when you get up to the right speed. 

Dana axles come standard on the sixth-gen Bronco as well. There are both front and rear locking differentials that are easy to engage or disengage using dashboard switches. This is only scratching the surface when it comes to the evolution of the Ford Bronco. 

By now you should be getting a very clear picture. There is a reason why the Bronco is literally flying off the lots at Ford. They cannot keep them in stock, if you want one, the current model year is already sold out.

The sixth generation is by far the most versatile and capable Ford Bronco to date. It is comfortable to drive around in the city, it is more fuel efficient than previous generations, and it has more factory power than it did in the past. Oh yeah, and that whole off-roading thing? Yeah, the sixth-gen Bronco checks that box with flying colors as well.

In some ways, the sixth-gen may be the most spirited Bronco yet. If the market has anything to say about it, the sixth-gen Bronco has nothing left to prove. Consumers and enthusiasts are getting in line to get their hands on the newest Bronco without hesitation.

Call it a comeback, call it a coming out of retirement party, or whatever you want. In the end, the sixth generation of the Bronco is a celebration of a rich off-roading performance heritage dating back to the late 1960s. Ford nailed it with the original Bronco and it’s safe to say the same about the newest generation. The time has come to saddle up for another ride.

For as long as there are free spirits the Bronco will find eager drivers to get behind the wheel. There is nothing like desert driving, beach cruising, or even playing in the mud with a Ford Bronco. You can feel the freedom because it is always right in front of you, waiting for you to reach it because the Bronco never backs down from a challenge.

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