'Like history repeating itself': Ford looks back to the Bronco to shape its future

Jordyn Grzelewski
The Detroit News

In the 1960s, Ford Motor Co. rode a wave of ingenuity to a historic victory over Ferrari at Le Mans, worked with NASA to put a man on the moon and introduced what would become two of its most iconic vehicles: the Mustang and Bronco.

Now, the auto industry is in another era of rapid change toward an electrified and self-driving future. Ford has committed to investing $11 billion in electric vehicles by 2022. But as different as the 2020s look, in some ways they look the same: As the Blue Oval looks to the future, it's leaning on the nameplates that have shaped its legacy, including the resurrected Bronco SUV which debuts Monday.

Ford in June debuted the next-generation F-150 pickup, which in the coming years will feature an electrified model. Mustang is getting ready to launch the all-electric Mach-E SUV. And after 24 years, the Bronco again will begin rolling off assembly lines.

"It's almost like history is repeating itself decades later with this massive output of creativity," said Ted Ryan, Ford's corporate archivist.

John Parks and his fiancee, Shanna Gibson, both of Highland Township, pose with their family's four Ford Broncos. The new Bronco will debut Monday. The new 2021 Ford Bronco is scheduled to be revealed, Monday, July 13.

The Bronco was a hit when it debuted in 1966, but its legend grew after Ford stopped producing it in 1996. Today, the SUV has what's often described as a "cult-like" following of enthusiasts who collect old models, modify them and build friendships around their shared love of the off-road utility vehicle.

When the new Bronco goes on sale in 2021, Ford will be looking to tap into that enthusiasm, as part of a strategy built around trucks and SUVs, and the technology that will define the auto industry's future: "What we need to do is leverage that history, but interpret it in a way that is very relevant and modern for today," said Dave Pericak, director of enterprise product line management for Ford's Icons division.

Another reflection of the Blue Oval leaning into its heritage: it announced Monday that Bronco will be its own brand, with the tagline "Built Wild."

The automaker will broadcast the virtual reveal of the Bronco across Disney’s broadcast, cable, digital and streaming properties, including ABC, ESPN, National Geographic and Hulu, during the first commercial break in the 8 p.m. hour on Monday.

A 1986 Ford Bronco II, front, owned by Merry Parks, John Park's 20-year-old daughter, a 1987 Bronco II and 1996 full-size Bronco, both owned by John Parks ; and a 1985 full-size Bronco owned by John's fiance Shanna Gibson.

Making of an icon

The Bronco's beginnings are in the World War II era, when Ford helped design and build the vehicles known collectively as "jeeps" for the Army. The concept for the Bronco was based on market research showing that customers wanted a rugged utility vehicle, but with the comforts of a car. The first-generation launched in August 1965 with three different body styles.

"You could take it to the grocery store," said Ryan. "But you could also take it off-road. So that's what the Bronco became."

A photo provided by John Parks shows his fifth Bronco, a burgundy-colored 1996 Full-Size Bronco.

The original Bronco spanned five generations, evolving from the smaller, more-rugged first generation to the larger body style that came to characterize later generations and which became popular to modify. 

Over the generations, the Bronco and the Mustang were intertwined. One was the sporty car that promised to fly down highways; the other was meant to be taken off the beaten path.

The Bronco is also forever intertwined, of course, with former football player O.J. Simpson after the infamous 1994 slow-speed police chase in a white Bronco while facing murder charges in the deaths of his wife and her friend. 

But the Bronco has had other notable pop-culture moments. It's been featured in dozens of movies, including "Zoolander," "The Breakfast Club" and "Office Space."

"Why is Brad Pitt driving a first-generation Bronco in "Ocean's 11"? Because it's retro, it's cool, it's hip," said Ryan. It's also shown up in song lyrics and music videos by artists such as Luke Bryan, Aerosmith and Red Hot Chili Peppers.

And there was another, less-discussed Bronco passenger: the Pope. Pope John Paul II used a white 1979 Bronco as his PopeMobile during a visit to the U.S.

A toy Bronco on the carpeted dash of the full-size Bronco owned by Shanna Gibson.

In 1996, spurred by changing consumer preferences, Ford discontinued the Bronco. But from then on, the vehicle's following only grew.

"With that removal from the market, a long-simmering love affair was rekindled and the efforts from outside to bring it back percolated in the intervening decades," said Ryan.

That's evident in the market for vintage examples. Hagerty Valuation Tools, which collects data on vintage cars, has tracked the rising popularity of the Bronco among younger generations.

"The Ford Bronco emerged as the poster-child of the popularity of vintage SUVs," said Jonathan Klinger, Hagerty's vice president of public relations.

The first generation is the most valuable, with a median price of $50,600, according to Hagerty. The most that's been paid for an unmodified Bronco at auction was $143,000, for a 1971 Bronco Stroppe Baja Edition.

With the comeback of the Bronco, Klinger says: "It's clear (Ford is) tapping into a passion side of the industry and hoping to bring others in along the way."

And expect enthusiasts to get in on the new Bronco, too: "If they have the means to do it, they're going to want a first-generation Bronco parked right next to their brand-new, tricked-out one."

John Parks talks on the phone while standing near the rear of this 1985 Full-Size Bronco (FSB), owned by his fiancee, Shanna Gibson (not pictured).

John Parks, 43, of Highland Township in Oakland County, counts himself as part of the enthusiast community.

Following his father's passion for collecting cars, Parks started buying Broncos 11 years ago. He expects he'll eventually buy a new one, but probably not right away.

Parks, his fiancee and his daughter have five Broncos between them, spanning from a 1985 model year to twin, burgundy-colored 1996 Full-Size Broncos. Parks's fiancee, Shanna Gibson, drives a powder-blue, 1985 Full-Size Bronco. His 20-year-old daughter Merry drives a red 1986 Bronco II. But Parks loves the older models, too: "I like them all. If I could afford it, I would probably have a first generation, the 1966-1977."

Parks is an administrator of the Michigan Bronco Association Facebook page, where fans gather to share photos of their rides, ask questions and plan meet-ups. He devotes some of his free time to modifying his vehicles, adding suspension lifts, putting on bigger tires, switching out engines and transmissions. He drives them in daily life, and out on the sand dunes at Silver Lake.

For him, what makes the Bronco iconic is simple: "Just being able to take the top off and cruise around town."

The 1996 Full-Size Bronco logo owned by John Parks.

Looking forward

The enthusiasm of fans like Parks, as well as a shift in what today's car-buyers are looking for, spurred Ford to resurrect the Bronco.

"When you look at SUVs and how popular they are, I think the market is really wanting something that is going to change what we've seen now for quite some time," said Ford's Pericak. "Now is the time because they're massively popular, and we have an opportunity to give (fans) something that's really fresh, and sets the bar like we did in 1966 of what an off-road sports utility vehicle can and should be."

So how do you go about bringing back an iconic brand?

Pericak learned from his work as an engineer on the all-new 2016 Mustang that you have to understand what makes the vehicle iconic: "You take all the heritage. You understand why people loved it. Then you look at what people are expecting today."

The custom-made front grill with three LED lights on the 1996 Full-Size Bronco, owned by John Parks.

What that means for the Bronco is that consumers can expect a look that hark back to the early years, but with 21st-century technology. Don't expect a carbon copy of the original, but "the early years are baked in there," Pericak says. "What we believe we've done is, that perfect mixture of nostalgia, but bringing in all that newness and technology."

Ford has been clear that it is leveraging its legacy vehicles in its push toward an electrified future. In response to questions from shareholders, the automaker recently said: "Ford electric vehicles will be inspired by our most iconic products like Mustang and our utility and truck lineup, amplifying the best attributes that our customers love, such as performance, capability and convenience."

"Our iconic brands, we're not shying away from them with electrification. We're leaning into them," Pericak said.

The next question, then, is whether that means electrification is in the Bronco's future. There are no concrete plans for an electric Bronco at this time, but Pericak doesn't rule it out: "No product is not considered at some point in time for electrification or some version of some propulsion system that would enhance its performance."


Twitter: @JGrzelewski