The body of the original Ford Bronco is a study in form following function: a truck cut into clean lines and smooth, symmetrical curves around each corner. The front end blends two big, round headlamps with an iconic grill and a no-frills bumper that could be replaced in 10 minutes. It’s deceivingly small by today’s standards, yet stout and tough in silhouette.
Bryan Rood first really noticed the car a decade ago, while standing on the side of a road outside of the Kentucky Derby. He was at a bachelor party, trying to flirt with some women, when the group came across a 1967 Bronco on the side of the road, on sale for $4,000. “I bought it really to just impress a girl, right in that moment,” Rood says, laughing.
What he didn’t expect was that the Bronco would spark an obsession. He drove it back to Columbus, Ohio, and discovered that the truck was catching eyes and compliments at every stop. Rood made his money as an entrepreneur and real-estate guy, but now, as a new member of the Cult of Bronco, the twentysomething had different plans.
Over the last decade, Rood, now the owner of Classic Ford Broncos in Powell, Ohio, has been a major force in taking Broncos from affordable retro truck to coveted collector’s item. He’s among a number of people who are rebuilding old trucks for a new group of buyers who could be spending their cash on Porsches and BMWs but prefer an old Ford instead. The popularity has finally pushed Ford itself to announce a 2021 model that attempts to capture the fervor around the original.
How did a truck that languished for two decades, ignored by much of the automotive world, become a flashy new status symbol?
It’s a story of changing tastes, nostalgia and scarcity.
“Grandpa had that Bronco, or maybe you grew up in the larger, later-year Broncos. People remember it from family events, from going camping, maybe going hunting with their uncle,” says Seth Burgett, owner of Gateway Bronco in St. Louis. “Or maybe you’re just looking for something that screams fun but isn’t a Jeep Wrangler, and really sets you apart.”
We haven’t even mentioned that infamous O.J. Simpson freeway chase yet. But before we can get to that Bronco, we must go back further in time.
1) The 1966 Bronco is often considered just one of a number of genius wins by Ford Company Vice President Lee Iacocca, most famous for the development of the Mustang. But as with the Mustang, the person who actually shaped the Bronco most is Ford product manager Donald Frey. He, along with engineer Paul Axelrad, led the brainstorm sessions to create the distinctive two-door truck; Iacocca approved the project in 1964. It debuted in 1966 in three formats (wagon, pickup and topless roadster) for a price of just over $2,000 (about $18,000 in 2020 dollars). Its main competition was the International Harvester Scout and the Jeep CJ-5, a civilian version of the little truck made famous in World War II. The big factory option for buyers was a V8 engine.
2) Though extremely minimal by today’s standards, the original Bronco had a number of key features that made it more attractive than the competition, including the huge number of add-ons for the interior and exterior. An owner could go to any Ford dealer and pick up new bucket seats, or a rear bench seat, or even a CB radio. Off-roaders could cheaply bolt on a tow bar, snowplow, winch and even a post-hole digger. The wide aftermarket for Ford parts meant that it was simple and affordable to tweak the transmission and engine for increased power. The blank slate provided by a new Bronco made it appealing to a wide range of drivers, from off-road diehards to young families looking for a tough, do-it-all transporter.
“You have a vehicle that’s of the right footprint to do amazing things off-road, and it came at a time when that Baby Boomer generation was really taking off. Highways were becoming the norm, and with it came the idea of exploring the outdoors and the world beyond,” Burgett says. “In my opinion, it was the perfect timing for the Bronco.”
3) The Bronco also went on to prove its off-roading bona fides in competition, becoming one of the stars of the early desert races that were taking root in Baja California during the late 1960s. The fearless duo of Rod Hall and Larry Minor won in 1969, flying over the sand in a Bronco dressed in red and white. Parnelli Jones and car builder Bill Stroppe won the Baja 1000 in 1971 and 1972, using a heavily customized Bronco. The sight of the truck speeding through an exotic desert captured America’s attention. Ford, in perfect marketing form, debuted commemorative Baja Broncos as soon as it could.
“They were rugged, fast and durable. Broncos put the Baja 1000 on the map,” the late Hall told the San Diego Tribune in 2017.
4) Broncos have long been a signifier of old-school cool. You can see it as Brad Pitt’s car in Ocean’s 11, and in the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ video for “By the Way,” as a getaway vehicle driven by bassist Flea. But first-gen Broncos weren’t always the treasured find that they are today. It’s really in the last five years that the truck has become coveted, and Rood gives credit to Jonathan Ward of L.A.-based Icon for pushing the spotlight back onto the humble mid-century truck. Sold in 2012 for more than $200,000, Ward’s first restoration of the truck, modded with a new engine and guts, set the bar for what a rehauled Bronco could fetch on the market. The dark grey 1972 Bronco received a wave of incredulous media coverage that helped spark curiosity around a piece of American auto history that many had taken for granted.
5) Rood says the credit goes to Ward, himself, Burgett and others who created collector-level demand for restored Broncos basically out of nothing. Over the past decade, the value of a first-gen Bronco on auction has risen from just a couple grand to around $30,000 to $40,000 on average now. That’s for a bare-bones car that will barely function, Rood and Burgett say.
“If people are willing to pay for it, it just drives the prices up. The reality is, the prices are going up because there’s six to 10 of us out there who are buying everything that goes up for sale,” Rood says.
“You can look at that against the DOW, the NASDAQ, the S&P and gold, and you’ll see that the Bronco has outperformed all of those indices over roughly the last five to seven years,” notes Burgett.
6) So what does it cost to buy a restored first-gen Bronco, if the layman doesn’t get his mitts on a beater version for cheap(ish)? Rood offers buffed-up used trucks in the $60,000 to $90,000 range, and fully customized builds for $200,000 and up. Burgett sticks to the higher end of the market, at $180,000 and up. These trucks barely resemble the originals on the inside — there’s A/C, new transmissions, modern engine components and beyond. No matter where you buy it and how much you spend, however, expect to spend some time on a waitlist.
Who’s buying all these bleedingly expensive trucks? It’s a mix of younger and older buyers with money to burn and an appetite to stand out, Burgett says. The car feels timeless now, both in design and in the way it can be tuned and tweaked. Unfortunately, the scarcity and cost of the first-gen Bronco means that longtime amateur collectors are having to look elsewhere as of late.
7) The obvious place to look, of course, is in the cache of Broncos that debuted after 1977. While not nearly as desirable on the market, the Bronco boom is now ramping up interest in these later-year trucks, Rood says. Best of all are the prices: “I’ve just brought in a restored 1978 Bronco that’s fully, fully restored — and it only cost $35,000,” he says.
The biggest shift is in overall size: The 1978 grew by an absurd two feet in length, 10 inches in width and five inches in height. It was more than 1,000 pounds heavier than the original, too. Ford’s play was contrary to American carmakers going smaller and smaller with their cars in the 1970s, but the big remodel also delivered a suite of new options and creature comforts. “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 1978 road test.
The third generation got even bigger in 1980, but by the 1990s, the two-door truck was falling in popularity to other, more flexible four-door station wagons, vans and trucks — including Ford’s own Explorer SUV. In 1996, the Bronco was discontinued.
8) Maybe we ought to consider O.J. Simpson’s infamous car chase through L.A. the Bronco’s last great swan song in the zeitgeist before being cut by Ford. The NFL and Hollywood star had claimed he would give himself up after being charged for the murder of ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman. Instead, in a game of obfuscation, he wrote a suspicious “suicide note” and disappeared, never showing up at the L.A. police station where more than 1,000 reporters awaited his perp walk.
It only took about four hours for authorities to track him down. He was in a white 1993 Bronco driven by friend Al Cowlings, and the slow-speed chase on the 405 freeway became a fiasco witnessed by some 95 million television viewers. The pursuit ended back where it had started, in Simpson’s Brentwood estate, where he surrendered to a SWAT team. Inside Cowlings’ Bronco was “$8,000 in cash, a change of clothing, a loaded .357 Magnum pistol, a United States passport, family pictures and a disguise kit with a fake goatee and mustache.”
9) What most people forget is that there were two Broncos in the Simpson case — the chase vehicle owned by Cowlings, and Simpson’s own matching white Bronco, which was found with traces of the victims’ blood. That car has since been destroyed, but Cowlings’ Bronco has had a fascinating life since then. It was initially sold by Cowlings for $75,000 to a tour-bus company that planned on recreating the chase for paying customers before driving them to Nicole Brown’s grave. Disgusted by the plan, Simpson’s former agent Mike Gilbert raised funds to buy the car and then basically stashed it in an L.A. parking garage for nearly two decades, only starting it up on occasion to keep the battery and engine running.
In 2012, it finally left the garage to be part of a sports memorabilia exhibit at the Luxor hotel in Las Vegas. It was up for sale in the years following that, and Pawn Stars’ Rick Harrison famously took the Bronco for a spin during an assessment (“It felt like bad mojo driving in it. It felt a little weird,” Harrison remarked afterward). Today, you can see the white Bronco on loan at the Alcatraz East Crime Museum in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. Gilbert, the former agent, still has the original tires, registration and gasoline from 1994.
10) Plans for a modern Bronco have hit a lot of roadblocks since a 2004 concept car first captured people’s attention, but the details on the 2021 model are set to be announced on July 13th. Hilariously, Ford screwed up the announcement date the first time by scheduling it on Simpson’s birthday. As for the car itself, Bronco fanatics like Rood are a little worried about the namesake being watered down. “I want to love it. But I don’t love the look. I wish it was a more limited run rather than being mass-produced. It’s like the Ford GT. Everyone wants it, but only so many people can have it. That keeps the desire and value high,” he says. “But I totally get it from Ford’s perspective. It’s being built to compete with the Jeep Wrangler. They want to sell as many as they can!”
Will the new Bronco reach the heights its ancestor hit over a storied, 30-year lifespan? Industry experts aren’t sure, but Ford is betting big on it. There is at least one major upside to buying new: It starts at $30,000, which is a steal compared to the real vintage deal.