On the evening of June 17, 1994, a white Ford Bronco became the world’s most famous SUV. A gun-toting O.J. Simpson had slipped into the back of friend Al Cowling’s 1993 Bronco, and the former football great — charged in the murder of ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman four nights earlier— led Los Angeles police on an extensively televised two-hour chase before surrendering at his Brentwood mansion. “The Juice” and the Bronco were forever linked. But only the Bronco got put away for 25 years.
Ford canceled the two-door Bronco in 1996, replacing it with the enormous Expedition. Now, in 2021, the Bronco is returning, rehabilitated for modern tastes and (fingers crossed) post-pandemic adventure — and its arrival has become a watershed moment in automotive culture. Sometimes during the Bronco’s oft-delayed rebirth, it seemed as though an audience even larger than the 90 million who watched O.J.’s attempted end-run around justice on live television were following every nail-biting moment.
But why, exactly? Take a trip down any street, from Brentwood to Boston, to spot the first clue: a sea of Toyota RAV4s and Honda CR-Vs, Subaru Foresters and Ford Escapes. In pricier nabes, you’ll lose count of the Audi Q5s, Mercedes-Benz GLC-Classes and BMW X3s. There’s nothing wrong with these SUVs, and a lot right, as the RAV4’s roughly 400,000 annual sales attest. (Set aside pickup trucks, including Ford’s dominating F-Series, and the RAV4 is America’s best-selling automotive model of any type). But the SUV has morphed, in stages, from adventurous outlier — including the heart-meltingly-cool Bronco Roadster of 1966, sold with no roof or doors in standard guise — to bloated environmental and safety scourge; to today’s symbol of tranquilized suburban conformity. In 2021, a minivan is a more provocative driveway statement than a crossover. Americans never like to see themselves as conformists, even if the New Balance shoe fits — so some of them, desperate for an image upgrade and a car with a pulse, will do just about anything to avoid re-upping a $269-a-month lease on a CR-V.
As a result, we’ve reached an inflection point, suffused with full-circle irony: the genuine, truck-based SUVs that the industry spent decades running away from are back in a big way, and just in time for a post-Covid where hiking, camping and other close-to-home adventures seem more enticing than an all-inclusive Caribbean getaway. The more authentic their image and backstory, the better. The Jeep Wrangler, the descendant of the military Jeep that started it all — sorry, Ford, Land Rover, Toyota et. al. — has never been more popular, its sales nearly tripled from 2005. The Land Rover Defender, the ultimate forbidden fruit of American 4x4 fans, is doing its own British Invasion and selling like mad. General Motors is rushing its GMC Hummer to market in electric form, simultaneously milking the Hummer’s bad-boy Terminator image and recasting it as an eco-warrior. Even mainstream models, from the latest RAV4 to the award-winning Kia Telluride, are ditching soapbox crossover shapes for the boxier lines and burlier attitudes of old-school SUVs.
But the Hummer’s inaugural First Edition will start from $106,000, putting it out-of-reach for most mainstream buyers. A decently equipped Defender shoots past $60,000, and above $100,000 in upcoming supercharged V-8 form. A 2021 Bronco, meanwhile — with its killer design that plays up the elemental charm of the pint-sized original with none of its farm-implement compromises — starts just below $30,000. No wonder people are going crazy for it.
For all the rose-colored nostalgia (and soaring prices for vintage models), the truth is that the Bronco wasn’t especially popular in its time — and not at all path-breaking. In its best sales year of 1974, the first-gen Bronco sold from 1966 to 1977 found 25,824 buyers, compared with about 43,000 sales for the better-equipped Jeep CJ. The Bronco didn’t even offer a radio or air conditioning until 1978. Yet a Bronco legend began taking dusty shape in the deserts of North America in those early years, with Parnelli Jones and Bill Stroppe winning the Baja 1000 in 1971 and 1972 in a modified Bronco race truck.
Ford fared best in sales with the “Big Bronco,” an upsized SUV based on the F-Series pickup that proved a stalwart through four generations between 1978 and 1996. The Big Broncos, including ruggedly handsome two-door models, were serious SUVs, a favorite of workin’ men, off-road enthusiasts and customizers of varying skills. These Broncos delivered a few cultural highlights, including serving as open-air Popemobile for John Paul’s American tour in 1979. The Bronco became a serviceable TV and movie chariot, often for lawmen or outlaws, from CHiPs and Lost to Terminator 2 and No Country for Old Men. But even those Broncos’ sales were consistently dwarfed by the Chevrolet Blazer’s, and the fuel-thirsty Ford grew increasingly out-of-step with the times.
“We need the new Bronco the way a moose needs a hat rack,” Car and Driver opined — in 1980, no less. “The new wave of small, efficient four-by-fours makes this better 4WD idea for the Eighties look like something exhumed from the La Brea tar pits.”
Let’s be real: all the yabber about the Bronco’s “iconic” status is more marketing fluff than reality; at the very least, it centers solely on the first-gen model and our increasingly romanticized vision of its primitive-SUV era. Take it from someone who grew up in Jeep CJs and Wagoneers, International Harvester Scouts and TravelAlls and a camp mate’s first-gen Bronco: yes, there was and is something cool about the early SUVs, with their rudimentary beauty, mechanical purity and lack of pretense. But most people today — even people who like 4x4s — wouldn’t want to spend an hour in these often-unreliable, fitfully heated, metal-lined tanks.
Collectors and nostalgists aside, SUV fans should be thankful they live in 2021 — and for the 25-year hiatus that’s led to the sixth-gen Bronco. This new model looks beastly enough, but it’s an entirely different beast. It’s roomier, friendlier and more approachable, suffused with modern comforts, tech and versatile on-road performance. This Bronco loves to get down and dirty, but cleans up nicely for dinner. And today’s SUV buyers wouldn’t have it any other way.