Ford Bronco poised to return: 'It’s like a cult vehicle'

Dealerships have waitlists and long-time fans are eager ahead of the Bronco's debut

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Ford Motor Co. is resurrecting the Bronco, and despite being dead for more than a quarter of a century, the fandom around the off-road SUV appears to be as alive as ever.

“It’s like a cult vehicle,” said Jeff Trapp, owner of the Bronco Graveyard parts supplier in Brighton. The business, which has operated since 1985, sells Bronco parts internationally from a 30,000-square-foot facility.

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“Everybody has a story. It’s ‘My grandpa drove his Bronco to take me fishing,’ or ‘My dad took me four-wheeling,’ or ‘I grew up riding the dunes.’ Everybody has a Bronco experience they remember.”

Those stories are driving buzz and waitlists at dealerships ahead of the Bronco's debut this spring for the 2021 model year. The vehicle is believed to be modular with a removable top and doors, according to dealer reports and individuals who have seen it. It seeks to grab a piece of the off-road market that Jeep dominates.

“There always will be the challenge and opportunity of trying to take market share from a successful competitor that already has established a buyer base,” said Karl Brauer, executive publisher at Cox Automotive Inc. “It wouldn’t be easy for any automaker to peel off a substantial piece, but the Bronco as a model has about as good of a chance.”

Trapp, who owns 16 Broncos made between 1966 and 1991, thinks so, too. He was there when the last Bronco rolled off the line in 1996 at what is now the Michigan Assembly Plant in Wayne. Now, he said he is one of roughly 20 people selected by Ford to provide thoughts on what the new vehicle should have. Although Ford has provided few details and released no photos, Trapp has seen the finished product.

“It looks good,” said Trapp, who plans to buy a red four-door and a black two-door. “It has the distinct styling. It has the Bronco look to it. The Ford team did a really good job with it.”

That should be good news to the Bronco fans who for years have waited in anticipation of the reveal and are hoping the next-generation will have the rugged character of the vehicles with which they fell in love.

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“I almost never go into any meetings where somebody doesn’t ask me about it,” said Tim Hovik, owner of a large Ford dealership outside Phoenix and vice chairman of Ford’s national dealer council. “I’ve never seen anything like it as a dealer, the level of excitement and enthusiasm from people waiting for a new product.”

It is no wonder, given the demand for older models, said Tom Carper. He restores them at “The Bronco Ranch” in Temperance near the Ohio border. Carper has owned more than 400 Broncos and built more than 100 for himself and others. He currently owns 13 from model years 1966 to 1978.

“The Bronco has just gotten popular more recently,” he said. “There was a small group of us that were into the Broncos, the early versions of the Broncos. You used to be able to buy parts of the Bronco for $100 and a nice Bronco for $3,000. Those days are gone.”

Now, that same part might cost as much as $5,000, Carper said, and a running first-generation Bronco can sell for $30,000. The nicest ones go for more than $100,000.

“I think they’re so universal for their off-road ability,"  Carper said. "It matches anything out there today.”

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Tom Carper's collection of Ford Broncos at his 'Bronco Ranch' The Detroit News

'Pony thing'

Although it would be discontinued two years later, the vehicle was seared into the popular consciousness by O.J. Simpson’s slow-speed police chase in a white Bronco down a Los Angeles freeway in 1994 after being charged with the murders of his ex-wife and her friend. More than 95 million people across the nation watched the two-hour pursuit on television, as crowds gathered on overpasses to cheer on the football legend. 

The demise of the two-door Bronco came as the smaller Bronco II suffered from a tipping problem starting in the 1980s, and Ford shifted to larger SUVs with the Explorer and Expedition.

But today, automakers look for new ways to segment the profit-heavy SUV and truck market that represents 70% of all sales.

"We want to build on our SUV strength," Ford spokesman Jiyan Cadiz said. "It's too soon to talk about plans, but for us, there's so much greatness we have coming with respect to the Bronco. Again, we come from an authentic place. We are going to leverage the best of what we are able to do and leverage the strength we have with the Bronco."

Last year, Jeep introduced its Gladiator pickup and sold more than 228,000 Wrangler off-road vehicles in the United States, a 5% year-over-year decline as it faces greater competition. General Motors Co. will bring back the Hummer in late 2021 as an electric vehicle, and Land Rover is reintroducing the off-road Defender to the U.S. this year.

“There’s kind of no such thing as too many SUVs in the model lineup,” Brauer said. “It’s not easy in today’s competitive global marketplace for any given model name. Most car companies who are introducing something new that hasn't been in the lineup for a while, they might utilize a name that is going to have awareness and consumer recognition right out of the gate.”

Even though potential buyers have yet to see it, Diana Wade, the “Bronco specialist” at Whitmoyer Ford in Mount Joy, Pennsylvania, has a list of a dozen people who are interested.

“My family has been in the Ford business for 53 years,” Wade said. “It was always the Mustang and Bronco owners that are the most passionate. It’s that pony thing.”

Annual events at Michigan’s Silver Lake Sand Dunes and in Tennessee and Massachusetts celebrate the Bronco. The Massachusetts event in recent years has drawn more than 65 Bronco owners and roughly 250 attendees, said Randy “Tasker” Wickman, who organizes the May charity event in Gardner with the Bronco Owners North East States, or BONES.

“It’s the people that I have connected to because of the truck,” said Wickman, 54, of Rindge, New Hampshire, who works in service for a Ford dealership and owns a ’73 in addition to building one. “We would go four-wheeling and torture those poor little trucks.”

'Indestructible'

Broncos are the only vehicles that John Hall, a 54-year-old physician and film producer in Bulverde, Texas, said can handle his rocky deer-hunting ranch in Bandera, Texas.

“The early Bronco kind of symbolizes the rugged individualism of the Old West,” said Hall, who owns four from model years 1966 through 1983. “The early Broncos, they’re indestructible. You can work on them yourself. They take a pounding. We take our hunters out in Broncos because Jeeps won’t get there without breaking down.”

Bronco owners shared stories with The Detroit News about drivers surviving severe collisions. Jamison Hurley is one of them.

“I remember being T-boned and surviving,” said the 36-year-old production engineer in Krum, Texas, who recounted the events from 2000 while driving his 1988 Bronco II. “It bent in half with me in it. I was 17. I literally just joined the Army. Structurally, it held together. That’s what impressed me.”

Now, Hurley is thankful to be alive and this summer looks forward to taking his sons fishing in the 1993 Eddie Bauer edition he is restoring. He also is eager to see the 2021 model.

“I use Broncos as my mud truck,” he said. “I’d destroy it and sell it. I might buy another one and make it a hunting truck. It might be so pretty that I don’t want to mess it up.”

bnoble@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @BreanaCNoble

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