The horsey car! Sometimes the past reappears for just a moment in all its perfect clarity, like a vivid dream. You shake your head to make sure you’re awake, but yes, there it is, the exact car you brought home in the spring of 1984, in the same color and trim, and it still looks brand new. And suddenly the words of a certain verbally-precocious one-and-a-half-year-old son shouting “horsey car” rings in your ear as fresh and clear as that day when he pointed at the spare tire cover and said it for the first time. If this 1984 Bronco II doesn’t jostle some memories in TTAC’s Editor-In-Chief on a Monday morning, I don’t know what will. To the best of my knowledge, his automotive awareness began right here. And fortunately, a rollover was not part of those memories.
I suppose this should really be a chapter of the Autobiography, since I omitted our brief shared journey with the Bronco there. And I know Edward won’t be the only one with reawakened memories, as Stephanie adored the horsey car. Me? Not so much, by a long shot. It was my first deep lesson in the reality that women and men like different things in cars. Like handling: the Bronco didn’t. It always felt like it wanted to fall over like the horses in a Western when they get shot. Or just buck you off like a Bronco. Stephanie didn’t care; she loved sitting high in the nicely trimmed interior of the Eddie Bauer edition.
Keep in mind that she was stepping out of an ’83 Civic Wagon, which handled like stink for its time. It was a ball to hustle up Topanga Canyon for a Sunday hike when my Turbo Coupe stayed at home. But it wasn’t ours; a long-term rental as a company perk. So when a Ford dealer suggested trading one of his new cars for a six-month lease in exchange for advertising at the tv station, I bit. And Stephanie had her choice of anything on the lot. So I got into an Eddie Bauer Bronco and drove it home – and I almost turned around and took it back.
It literally felt like it was on stilts. The super short 94″ wheelbase combined with a swing-axle front suspension was dreadful. I couldn’t believe Ford was actually selling a vehicle that felt so tippy and unstable. I eventually got used to it, and it took us to some incredible places way up in the Sierras. But I was always on guard, especially when we had it jammed to the hilt with five adults and two kids. I built a little rear-facing seat out of plywood, foam and fabric, and rigged up some seat belts. When my parents and sister came to visit, we all piled in for a trip to Yosemite, including the winding Highway 120 over Tioga Pass. The view out of those giant panoramic rear windows was like out of a sightseeing bus.
Ford’s twin-beam front suspension had many good qualities, but ultimately it was just a variation on the swing axle: two axle halves with a single joint each. The camber intrinsically changes with suspension travel. On a full-sized pickup with a long wheelbase, it works well enough. With the super short and tall Bronco II, it was a recipe for rollovers. Under strong cornering forces, the same jacking effect that plagued VWs and Corvairs at their rear ends could happen at the Bronco’s front end: camber would suddenly go highly positive, wheels tucking under forcing the car to rise. Like hydraulics jacking you suddenly up, and centrifugal force tossing you out and over.
Consumer Reports was on it, and gave the Bronco II an “Avoid Rating”. There were stories in the Wall Street Journal and other papers. The NHTSA opened an investigation of the Bronco II and the Suzuki Samurai. By 1989, there were 43 Bronco II rollover fatalities; eight for the Samurai. The NHTSA decided that they weren’t any worse than other SUVs at the time. It was written off as a price to pay for the privilege of riding in one of the first small SUVs. Today, Ford would have been taken to the cleaners. Well, it’s well known that Ford quietly paid off many law suits. And within a few years, the longer Explorer took over from the Bronco II. Still same suspension, but the extra length helped, sort of, for a while. The Explorer obviously was no poster child for rollover resistance, although the front suspension was replaced by a more conventional one fairly early in its life.
After the six months were out, we bought our first new car, a 1985 Jeep Cherokee. I’ll never forget the test drive; it cornered so flat and secure-feeling after the Bronco II; the difference was like day and night. I didn’t know an SUV could feel so secure. But the Eddie Bauer Bronco had a much nicer interior, and generally felt better screwed together. I felt much safer knowing my family was spending way too much time on the freeways of LA in the Jeep than that bucking Bronco.
I haven’t seen a green Eddie Bauer Bronco II like this in ages. The few old Bronco IIs still left are generally beaters in the hands of kids. This one appeared like a mirage, and was gone shortly later, never to be seen again. And it’s so fresh and almost new-like. How and where did it spend its life? I’d be tempted to think the whole encounter was a figment of my imagination, but here it is, every bit as real and fresh as that first utterance of “horsey car!”