The first generation Ford Bronco was so good at doing its job that this rather plain, unsophisticated vehicle, which remained essentially unchanged between 1966 and 1977, became, and remains to this day, a cult hero to off-road driving aficionados. To be embraced by the off-road driving community, a vehicle has to be tough, honest, and be able to go places where even the roads won’t go. Specially prepared Broncos have won some of the most prestigious long-distance off-road races of the day, including the Baja 1000, Baja 500 and the Mint 400. The Bronco has earned its respect.
Bronco – simple by design
Production of the Bronco was championed within the Ford hierarchy in the early ‘60s by two of the executives who brought you the Mustang – Lee Iacocca and Don Frey – as competition for the Chevy K5 Blazer and the International Harvester Scout, two typically basic vehicles that could tackle off-road adventures. The potential sales in this market segment did not justify a large monetary investment by Ford, so the design was simplified with an eye toward minimizing production costs.
The first thing that catches your attention about the Bronco is its squareness, its stark angularity – you can look at a first generation Bronco for a long time and never find the slightest hint of a curved surface, or an arched accent line. The sheet metal stampings are straight and all of the glass is flat; even the bumpers are straight C-section pieces. The engineering was also simplified. The Bronco had a short body with a 92-inch wheelbase, on which could be mounted a variety of tops to make the vehicle an enclosed wagon, a half-cab pickup, or left off altogether for the Bronco roadster without a roof or doors. Initially, the 170 cid six-cylinder, 105 horsepower engine with a three-speed manual transmission was the only drivetrain offered.
The Bronco continues to improve
During its twelve-year production run between 1966 and 1977, the Bronco continued to improve to keep up with an ever-changing market. The slow-selling Roadster was discontinued and additional upscale trim options were offered on the remaining models. By 1977 the Bronco offered a standard 200 cid six-cylinder engine and options included a 302 cid, 120 horsepower V8 engine, automatic transmission, power steering, power front disc brakes, front bucket seats, a rear bench seat, a CB radio and a tachometer.
Hard-core off-roaders could personalize their Bronco with dealer-installed options such as Warn freewheeling hubs, winches, air lift front auxiliary springs and tow hooks, and their Bronco could then take them just about anywhere they wanted to go, road or no road. You could even get your Bronco outfitted to be a small tow truck or a fire truck.
Bronco conquers off-road racing
The real feather in the Bronco’s cap was its success in off-road racing. Legendary race car builder Bill Stroppe worked with Ford on many competition projects starting in the early 1950s and when Ford sent him two of its new Broncos in the mid-60s to test, he realized it had the makings of a pretty good off-road racer. The short wheelbase gave the Bronco good maneuverability and the rugged suspension would hold together and let it go fast over dunes and through washes. Once Bill hooked up with Parnelli Jones, who was probably the best all-around driver in the business, their success was almost guaranteed.
With Parnelli behind the wheel, and Bill co-driving and building the modified Broncos, the team won the Baja 1000 twice, the Baja 500 twice, and the Mint 400, in addition to a number of lessor races. Both Jones and Stroppe are now ensconced in the Off-Road Motorsports Hall of Fame. The Stroppe racing Broncos were honored by Ford starting in 1971 with the introduction of the Baja Bronco package, a “limited production duplicate” of Stroppe’s team cars. All Baja Broncos have special paint including metallic blue roofs, white from the driprail to the beltline, and poppy red below the beltline. The hood is semi-gloss or flat black, except for the front edge, which is poppy red to match the lower body.
Stroppe’s shop installed fender flares, added special off-road tires on painted steel wheels or slotted mag wheels, and added a padded rollbar, padded steering wheel, front bumper braces, special tire cover, and fender decals. Sources estimate that about 450 Baja Broncos were built between 1971 and 1975, and unmolested Baja Broncos are now highly collectible.
An unlikely collectible classic
The first generation Bronco is an unlikely collectible classic vehicle. It has nondescript styling; it was built on a budget to compete in a small market segment; it never generated any media ‘buzz’ at car shows or concours; and in its best year it sold only 25,824 units – yet unmodified first generation Broncos continue to be in demand from collectors and bring top money.
Hagerty named the first-generation Bronco as one of its “Five Classics You’d Never Guess are so Valuable.” Hagerty says of the 1966 – 1977 Bronco, “The size and shape were just right, and collectors have latched onto them in droves. Totally stock, unrusted Broncos without cut fenders and flares are rare; it takes around $30,000 to get a nice one.”
The collector car experts at Hemmings agree. Hemmings notes the Baja Bronco is highly prized by enthusiasts and that a nicely restored example sold in 2007 at Russo & Steele’s Scottsdale auction for $45,650. Sometimes it’s better to be good than good-looking.
Off-Road Motorsports Hall of Fame: http://ormhof.org/parnelli-jones