Saddle up: Michigan Assembly Plant resumes shipping Ford Broncos after 25 years
Wayne — Andrew Pawlak recalls the emotional day when the final Ford Bronco rolled off the line here at Michigan Assembly Plant a quarter of a century ago. Now, it's back.
The highly anticipated return of the new Bronco faced delays from the COVID-19 pandemic, a global semiconductor shortage and other supply constraints. But on Monday, the first off-road SUVs began shipping to dealers 25 years almost to the day after the last Bronco rolled off the line.
"I remember a lot of crying," said Pawlak, now a process engineer for Bronco assembly who on June 12, 1996, was working on the line when the entire plant took a photo with the final white Bronco. "It's a lot of pride to have the vehicle line come back, especially to this facility. It's a legacy to have it here in these four walls."
The launch is a show of execution for Ford on a vehicle quickly becoming a pillar for the brand by capitalizing on the outdoorsy, active lifestyle that has made the Jeep Wrangler a flagship for the Blue Oval's crosstown rival. Although the Bronco is a traditional gas-powered vehicle, its profits will support the transition to the electrified future Ford is telegraphing to investors and analysts.
"It's the right product at the right time," said Stephanie Brinley, principal automotive analyst for the Americas at IHS Markit Ltd. "It won't be Ford's highest-volume vehicle, but it raises its image and has a decent margin on it. It will elevate the brand."
Ford has more than 125,000 orders for the boxy Bronco that starts from $29,995, said Mark Grueber, Ford's consumer marketing manager. Of those, the traditional two-door represents 30%, and the rest are four-doors. Customers also want to load up their vehicles with 70% of the mix coming from the higher trim series.
"They have two and half years out of already-sold Broncos," said Greg O'Neil, United Auto Workers Local 900 chairman for stamping, noting the transformation from five years ago when the plant was losing the Ford Focus small car to Mexico. "It's huge. For the younger generation coming up, they’ll be here for the next 20 years hopefully."
Because of that demand, dealers say customers without an order won't be able to come to a lot and drive off with a new Bronco anytime soon.
"I can't remember a product that is so anticipated by customers and potential customers," said Doug North, owner of North Brothers Ford in Westland, who has more than 50 reservations for the Bronco and says not all of them will be assembled by the end of the year. "By the spring of 2022, I hope we do have some inventory. It just kind of depends on when they can get the plant operating at full capacity."
Ford in December delayed the launch of the Bronco from the spring to summer due to pandemic-related supply shortages. The company in March said an issue sourcing certain roofs that are options on the Bronco will delay those orders until 2022. Michigan Assembly Plant, which also makes the midsize Ford Ranger pickup, also halted production for two weeks last month due to the shortage of semiconductor chips used in vehicles' driving assistance features, infotainment and more.
For now, there aren't any issues on the horizon, said Erik Williams, Michigan Assembly's plant manager: "We don’t foresee any issues with getting Broncos to the customers right now. We continue to monitor our supply base for any potential headwinds that might affect our ability to produce, and we work closely with our supply base to continue to make sure we get the vehicles to our customers."
The wait will have been worth it, he added: "We wanted to get it right. It probably took a little longer to do that, but that order bank is an indication we did it right."
The workers building it think so, too.
"It's having an off-roadsman, rugged vehicle option," said Robert Fox, 60, of Monroe, who works in motor repair. Fox in the past had a 1974 Bronco and has ordered the new Outer Banks model with the off-road Sasquatch package to drive Up North. "It appeals to both people my age and the younger generation. You want to drive down the road and look cool in this. This is going to stand out, too. It's unique."
Rich Shafer, 50, of Maybee, who works in fuel fill, added: "It just oozes testosterone. It screams muscle."
Ford invested $750 million for the sixth-generation Bronco and added 2,700 jobs at the plant. It runs on two shifts, though the UAW's O'Neil said it wouldn't be a surprise if the company added a third crew for the stamping operations.
The company also has transformed the next-door former Wayne Assembly Plant into a 1.7 million-square-foot modification center that will add roof racks, front bumper safari bars and exterior graphics to vehicles whose customers request them.
Grueber in marketing started at Ford the day the last Bronco came off the line. He was a member of the "Bronco underground," a group of employees pushing for Ford to bring back the SUV that sold 1.1 million vehicles in its first 31 years of production.
"There really wasn't anything in the showroom like that," he said. "There was a real need for it. Literally, customers were almost begging us to bring it back. There were starts and attempts to bring it back. It didn't work until now with the Ranger in the plant here and some open capacity. Everything kind of came around full circle."
Darnell Littleton, 58, of Brownstown Township had a '96 Ford Bronco Eddie Bauer when he helped build the final Broncos. Since then, he's moved onto buying Lincolns, but he says the new model rides beautifully.
"You get a bounce with it," said Littleton, a fitter. "It was amazing, because I didn't think it was coming back."