New Bronco debuts Monday; a look at what made previous generations special

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

The 2021 Ford Bronco debuting Monday night will be the first new Bronco since 1996.

The original first-generation 1966 Bronco was the marriage of Ford’s legacy as World War II military vehicle manufacturer and its new '60s Mustang spirit. The result was a rugged 4x4 truck fired by six- and eight-cylinder engines that populated a new segment shared by the International Harvester Scout and Jeep CJ-R (which would eventually be called the Wrangler in 1986).

The 2021 Ford Bronco will debut Monday night after an absence of 24 years. It will come in two-door and four-door versions, as well as a smaller Bronco Sport version. The nameplate has long history at the Blue Oval.

“Bronco started in World War II when Ford built more than 270,000 jeeps for the U.S. Army,” said Ford archivist Ted Ryan. “We took that know-how in four-by-four equipment and ... established a program in 1963 code-named Bronco."

Alternate names for the Bronco included Bravo, Gaucho, Explorer, Rustler, Sprint, Trail Blazer, and, yes, Wrangler. A 1963 memo nicknamed the Bronco as the GOAT, short for “Goes Over Any Terrain.”

The project was green-lighted by the legendary Lee Iacocca, who was vice-president and general manager of the company's Ford division.

The Bronco would evolve over four decades into a bigger, more-luxurious, mid-size SUV.

Resurrected for the 2021 model year, the two-door and four-door versions will be based on the Ford Ranger and will have removable doors and roof. The Bronco Sport — or "Baby Bronco" — will share the same chassis as the unibody Ford Escape.

Here's a look at the Bronco and its predecessors through the years:

1941 Ford GP

1941 Ford World War II GP

Ironically, Bronco’s roots lie with the Jeep, the military vehicles Ford helped produce in World War II using the Willys design. Known as the GP – short for “General Purpose” vehicle – Ford built 270,000 of these quarter-ton, four-wheel drive trucks for the military. Note the nine-slot grille; current Jeeps have seven slots.

1951 Ford M-151 MUTT

1951 Ford M-151 MUTT

Following World War II, Ford built the MUTT as its next-generation 4x4 for the military. Come the early 1960s, it would be the model for Bronco as Ford considered production.

1966 Ford Bronco

1966-1977 Ford Bronco

The first-generation Bronco was unveiled by then-Ford President Donald Frey as a “completely new line of sport utility vehicle” – the first time, says Ford, that term was officially used. Bronco was introduced in wagon, pickup and roadster body styles. It was assembled in Wayne, Michigan, and in Venezuela.

Built on a 92-inch wheelbase with solid rear axles front and rear, it would change little over its 12-year production run. It featured standard inline-six engines, with an optional 4.7-liter V-8 and (later) 4.9-liter a V-8.

1969 Ford Bronco Baja 1000 winner

1969 Bronco

With new market competition from the Chevy K5 Blazer, Bronco went racing under the wrench of Parnelli Jones and Bill Stroppe. Bronco won the legendary Baja 1000 in 1969, becoming the first production vehicle to do so — a feat that stands today. In 1971 Ford produced a handful of commemorative Baja Broncos tarted up in Stroppe’s red, white, blue and black racing livery.

1973 Ford Bronco

1973 Bronco

Since its inception, the Bronco was available with a manual-transmission only. After seven years on the market, the bare-bones Bronco got some refinement. Modern touches included optional power steering and automatic transmission.

1978 Ford Bronco

1978-79 Bronco

For its second act, the Bronco got bigger. It adopted the F-150's large chassis, expanded by two-feet in length on top of 104-inch wheelbase, and adopted the pickup’s style cues like square headlights and an egg-crate grille. The Bronco’s round headlights and boxy shape were mothballed. “Positively awash in new features, its only real resemblance to the old box-basic Bronco of yesterday seems to be its name,” Car and Driver wrote in a review. The new Bronco also gained the F-150’s big-block engine and added air conditioning. A rear window that powered down into the tailgate would become a hallmark of future Broncos.

1980 Ford Bronco

1980-86 Bronco

For its third-generation, the Bronco continued to move in lockstep with the F-150 pickup, becoming Ford’s truck-based family vehicle. In 1982, the Bronco for the first time wore a proper Blue Oval emblem on its kisser.

1983 Ford Bronco

1983-90 Bronco II

While maintaining big brother’s signature two-door look, the Deuce was a smaller — by 19 inches in length — Bronco. The Ranger pickup-based model had a family focus that would eventually morph into the five-door Ford Explorer. Note the return to a self-contained grille like the original Bronco, though with square design cues.

1987 Ford Bronco

1987-91 Bronco

The fourth-generation Bronco continued to evolve with wrap-around headlights and oval wheel arches. In 1991, Ford celebrated 25 years of Bronco with a limited-production, silver-anniversary edition. Electronic fuel-injection and rear anti-lock brakes were added.

The most famous Bronco, a 1993 model carrying OJ Simpson in a slow-speed chase through Los Angeles,

1992-96 Bronco

For its fifth generation, the Bronco went upscale with an Eddie Bauer package featuring a two-tone exterior and more-luxurious interior. But the 1993 model-year Bronco may have been its most famous as one was owned by former football star OJ Simpson who infamously led police on a nationally televised slow-speed chase — viewed by 95 million Americans — after being charged with the murders of his wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend Ronald Goldman in 1994.

1996 Ford Bronco

1996 Bronco

The last Bronco rolled off the line as Ford focused on the Explorer line of SUVs. It made room for the five-door Expedition based on the new-for-'97 F-150.

2004 Ford Bronco concept

2004 Bronco Inspiration

The long tease begins as Ford introduced a retro-styled concept  at the 2004 Detroit auto show. It woke up Bronco Nation with its modern turbo-diesel engine and dual-clutch automatic gearbox.

2019 Ford Bronco R, Baja racer

2019 Bronco Baja racer

Ford celebrated the 50th anniversary of its legendary Baja 1969 win with the Bronco R prototype at the Baja 1000. The racer is based on the same production chassis and powertrain that is the backbone of the 2021 Bronco.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.