By on May 10, 2010

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!”

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41 Comments on “Curbside Classic: Ford’s Rollover-Happy Bucking-Bronco 1984 Bronco II...”


  • avatar
    BDB

    Man, I thought I finally won one of these contests!

    Really similar interior to the Aerostar I spent a good deal of my childhood in, especially the shape of the seats.

  • avatar
    twotone

    A Bronco II is a pretty good deal if you want a cheap classic winter beater. 1984 and older qualifies for classic car plates ($100 for 5 years here in Colorado) and classic car insurance (about $200/year if it’s not your primary vehicle). Yes, I’d prefer a Toyota FJ-40, but have you seen what they are going for these days?

    Twotone

    • 0 avatar
      morbis

      I’m going to have to disagree with you there. High center of gravity combined with a short wheelbase make for the worst possible combination on slippery roads. Slide, spin, flip.

  • avatar
    educatordan

    That is the most rust free example I have seen since production ceased. If you really want an unstable vehicle, their were companies selling V8 conversion kits for these bad boys. Although a solid axle swap would proably make the thing more stable.

  • avatar
    86er

    Is it just me or does the motif on the seats have a Navajo blanket thing going on?

  • avatar
    trk2

    A fantastic vehicle which was not nearly as tippy as the author describes. I owned two Bronco II’s (1987, 1990) and both happily commuted daily at 75mph along Boston’s 128 belt. OK, alot of the times the commute was just at 0mph…

    Anyway, in my experience I’ve found the Bronco happens to have very quick steering which may give the impression of unstableness.

  • avatar
    Fugue

    If the cherokee “cornered so flat” and was “secure-feeling”, I can only imagine how terrifying these bronco’s drove. Not that the XJs had terrible handling, just not what I would consider confidence inspiring.

  • avatar

    I had a Bronco II for a while. First vehicle the wife and I bought together. It came down to either a Bronco II or a SHO (both well used) and she talked me into the Bronco. I don’t know if the SHO would have worked out any better but it couldn’t have been worse plus would have had been some fun. The Bronco puked all its oil in parking in its first week. It constantly over heated and had a massively load knock when idling. They had some engine design flaws on the V6 from what I remember. Ours almost flipped as we passed a semi on the highway – a massive wind gust hit from the side and I swear it felt like we where on two wheels for a while. Fortunately the wife caught it and promptly pulled over and told me to drive. I did manage to somehow sell it for what we paid for it so all wasn’t lost. Would have liked to have tried it off road but couldn’t trust it.

    I managed to take a photo of an almost identical one to the featured one a while back. Conveniently parked next to a full size model.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/daveseven/2370203134/
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/daveseven/2370203130/

  • avatar
    200k-min

    The Bronco II is why the Explorer was so good when it came out. Not that the Explorer was all that great, but it was night and day better than the Bronco II. It’s all relative.

  • avatar
    dswilly

    Short and tall, bad for highway use for sure but these are actually pretty capable off-roaders.

  • avatar
    Turbo60640

    I didn’t know the Eddie Bauer trim was available on the Bronco II. That one is in very remarkable shape for its age. These really stand out when you see them on the road today, and most have been abused, beaten up and trashed.

    Thanks for the interesting back story.

  • avatar
    pauldun170

    I owned a 87 with the flawed 2.9 cologne V6 and a 5spd.
    I loved that little truck. It was the perfect size (for a single person) and had outstanding maneuverability. The engine delivered enough power to get out of its own way and the 5spd was pretty good with solid shifts and good clutch take up. I see it as a vehicle that is the perfect tool for a small niche and its crime was appealing to people who had no use for that tool. Was the Cherokee better? Depends on the conditions. Cherokee was a bit better balanced (no pun intended) off-roader and definitely had a better drivetrain but I always felt that packaging of the BroncoII suited me a bit better and as mentioned had a nicer interior (at least with the years I had experience with). Keep in mind that I’m one of those folks who kind of scoffed at 4dr variants of Blazers, Cherokees and Pathfinders (used to think “What idiot would use one of those as a grocery getter?”) and always saw Trucks as tools that had purpose.
    Yes the handling “meh” but nothing that wasn’t expected for a small vehicle with ground clearance.
    Eventually the engine took a crap at 120K after I loaned it to a family member for a month.

  • avatar
    psarhjinian

    This, and the Blazer/Jimmy, were responsible for a large number of accidents among teenage and early-20s drivers where I lived.

    And I mean accidents in more than just the traditional “shiny-side-down” sense of the word.

    • 0 avatar
      86er

      Was the back seat that big?

    • 0 avatar
      educatordan

      I know some children concieved in the back seats of VW Beetle’s. Don’t doubt a pair of teens with good motivation. My parents prefered an early 70s Cutlass coupe and being stuck in a dust storm. (But it wasn’t really an “accident” they were already married. :P)

  • avatar
    Verbal

    My sister-in-law had one back in the 90′s, which I had the opportunity to drive on the freeways of southern California. I can best liken the experience to driving a pogo stick.

  • avatar
    texan01

    The Bronco II was one of those vehicles that I liked when they were new, but by the time I could drive, were gently used.

    Then I drove one, and absolutely hated it. Even at 30mph it felt like it pitched and bobbed worse than my ’70s land yacht at the time.

    Now I drive it’s much improved successor the 2nd gen Explorer which in comparison drives like a sports car, despite the added bulk of a 4 door body, along with the pushrod 4.0 and slushbox.

  • avatar
    talkstoanimals

    An ’89 Bronco II with the rare combination of the 2.9L Colgone V6 (140 rampaging ponies) and the 5 speed overdrive manual served a few years as our family truckster and boat hauler. Push button 4WD and low range were some of its novel features, though you still had to reverse a few feet to unlock the hubs when it was disengaged. The panorama rear windows with deep tint were also pretty novel – great fun when driving on the interstate as it allowed the passenger to stare down into other cars undetected.

    The first traffic accident I ever experienced was in that beast. My father rear-ended a family friend’s Accord, which resulted in huge damage to the Honda because the Ford’s bumper height was so much greater than the car’s. The Bronco went completely unscathed, however. The thing was a tank. But the poor handling Paul mentioned eventually got to my dad and in ’92 the Bronco was traded in on an RX-7.

  • avatar
    VanillaDude

    The Bronco II was a retro vehicle. It was to be an updated version of the original Bronco. The original Bronco ended up becoming an enclosed F-100, with a back seat, so it grew in size as did the F-100, leaving it’s smaller original size behind by 1977.

    With the gas crisis, the new Ford Ranger appeared, and the Bronco II came along. In 1984, no one really could have foreseen the huge potential for this kind of vehicle. The Jeep, which the orginal Bronco was geared towards competing, was long in tooth when the Bronco II was on the drawing table. AMC was out of cash, and shot their last wad with the Cherokee during the same time, so it was aware that the old CJ7 was past it’s prime. Ford saw this and so did millions of customers.

    In 1984, families were to be found in the new minivans, not in enclosed two door pick ups with rear seats like the Bronco II. The Eddie Bauer version appearing here was simply Ford upgrading an interior for extra bucks and profits. Ford was covering their bases like a smart operator. No one saw the SUV boom coming, even Ford and Jeep who just had the right replacement vehicles at the right time. What clinched the SUV boom for Ford was adding rear doors, and stretching the wheelbase for the next model design.

    So yeah – the Bronco II wasn’t suitable for highway use, just as the CJ5 and CJ7. With the Bronco II, at least you had a vehicle that didn’t beat your ear drums with vibrating vinyl and zippered roofs like the Jeeps had. Take a look at those rear windows. They look like that to provide the feeling of being outdoors, without having to create a Jeep roof. The Bronco’s target market was Jeep CJ owners who liked the size, feel and style of the CJ, but wanted to step up out of the drone of a CJ.

    The Bronco II once again demonstrates to us that some vehicles that cast a wide net to cover many markets, fail to work as designed by the new markets attracted to them. The Bronco II works fine as a CJ replacement, but not as a station wagon or as a minivan. So those expecting to have a civilized CJ for their families had to wait until the Explorer. Even then, as we know so well, even the Explorer still had issues regarding it’s struggle to offer off-roading, safety and handling. The Bronco II is understandably worse since Ford and Jeep were both caught off balance by their unexpected successes with these vehicles.

    With the new Explorer and Cherokee, both companies were able to catch the new SUV craze. Also, please remember that the first Cherokees were also two doors like the Bronco II, since they recognized that a sizeable market existed for two door SUVs at that time. By the time we see the market swing away from two door SUVs towards four doors, we can still see Bronco II-like two door SUVs within each manufacturer’s line-up. Each is attempting to find a small CJ-like niche along with their family SUVs.

    It took twenty years for Jeep to finally give us a four door Wrangler, along with a better roof design, better sound insulation and a more car-like ride. We can thank the Cherokee and Grand Cherokees for this long wait.

  • avatar
    BDB

    “Bronco” was a great name for a truck, it’s too bad O.J. ruined it.

  • avatar
    tim850csi

    My cousin had one in high school. Good Vermont given the massive quantities of snow we occasionally got. Bad at blowing donuts in the gravel parking lot where while waiting for soccer practice to start she caught a pot hole flipping the bronco over. Oopsie.

  • avatar
    h82w8

    My wife and I bought a dark blue/tan 5-speed Eddie Bauer Bronco II in ’85. We traded in a ’83 T-Bird Turbo Coupe on it ’cause we’d just gotten a yellow lab puppy, we were living in Pensacola, FL at the time and spending a lot of time at the beach, and a small SUV made sense to us.

    We enjoyed it when it was new, and I agree it had pretty good build quality for the time, especially compared to the contemporary Cherokee and Blazer. But it didn’t age very well mechanically. I think ’85 was the last (maybe second to last) year of carbureted induction, before Ford went to EFI. After about 25K miles on the clock I started to have constant problems with the throttle position sensor getting all carboned up. The thing would stall in traffic when that happened…had to be towed on several occasions because of it. It also used quite a lot of oil, despite dutiful 3k mi change intervals. I think it had valve guide issues.

    The 2.8L Cologne V6 was woefully underpowered. Just heinously so, but so were the other small sport utes of the day. I bought a ’65 Shelby GT350 in 1988 and towed it up to the SAAC convention in Pocono, PA in 1989 with my Bronco II. Talk about the poor handling….towing a car with it REALLY brought out the worst of its handling characteristics. Along with the gutless motor that was an experience I’d never like to repeat.

    Finally sold it 1991 to some kid who wanted to go muddin’ with it. Bet he had more fun than I did with it.

  • avatar
    rudiger

    I might be imagiing this but wasn’t there an option (or aftermarket kit) that allowed those big, panoramic rear windows to pop-out and be removed?

    In any event, the Bronco II was as about as close as was possible to having a ‘civilized’, short-wheelbase 4WD, but still possess the same capabilities as the Jeep CJ.

    • 0 avatar
      trk2

      You’re not imagining it. Early Ford marketing showed the windows as removable and the user manuals even had instructions. Unfortunately none of those vehicles apparently made it into production and it only exists in Bronco II lore.

  • avatar
    ExPatBrit

    My Bronco II was the first vehicle I purchased new in 1984 after arriving from the UK. After only owning small cars I wanted to have some fun in the land of “less than $1″ gas. Originally planned on buying a full size Bronco like that guy in the TV show, but sanity prevailed.

    I did over 170,000 miles in my Bronco II with four speed. I added bigger wheels and tires and better shocks and that helped the stability some. The four speed (mazda sourced)transmission broke twice, and the 2.8 Cologne with solid lifters rattled way too much. But that truck never left me stranded.

    After 6 years I installed some fresh carpet and sold it the same weekend.

  • avatar
    brandloyalty

    Friends had one of these, and being higher and shorter it was more capable off-road than our ’91 Pathfinder. It did, however, have to be driven very carefully and slowly on the highway.

    One time we were on a multi-lane highway, on ice and going uphill, overtaking a Bronco II doing about 75kph. Just as we caught up, the Bronco II started fishtailing and slid sideways across our lane, not 10 feet in front of us. It caught the wheels on the snowbank and rolled into the median. The large rear windows broke out and allowed an easy exit for the occupants who were shaken up but not hurt.

  • avatar
    Runfromcheney

    The winds like to whip in early spring here in Michigan, and my Dodge Caravan has been blown around enough to get my heart rate up more than once. I can’t imagine what it would be like if I were driving a Bronco II during that time of the year.

  • avatar
    Carlson Fan

    I rode in my buddies dark blue Bronco II all the time. My Olds Cutlass wasn’t much of a tow vehicle so he used it to pull my boat to the lake and then I would pull him water skiing. The 2.8 V6 pulled 3k worth of boat pretty effortlessly. It rode just fine and I never found it to feel tippy or unsafe in any way. Of course he didn’t drive it like it was vette. His was an Eddie Bauer and IMO it was anice little truck. Rode nice, quiet, engine was smooth. Actually I’m not sure I ever rode in a 4DR Exploder that drove as nice as that Bronco II. Maybe he had a good one. I know he bought it used, drove it for 3 or 4 years and never did much to it except general maintenance.

  • avatar
    Turbo60640

    Here’s one in the same color, lifted with a 302….

    http://cgi.ebay.com/ebaymotors/V8-1984-Bronco-II-A-T-A-C-302-Lifted-4×4-NICE-/120566162791?cmd=ViewItem&pt=US_Cars_Trucks&hash=item1c124da567#v4-43

  • avatar
    Wheeljack

    My best friend’s Dad had a final year 1990 Bronco II Eddie Bauer. By that time they had lowered them a bit to address the rollover issues and the improved 2.9L FI engine delivered pretty good fuel economy for a stout little trucklet. By 1990 they had a more attractive front end that fortold the Explorer, as well as the same I/P that the Explorer would use through 1994.

    That little truck served them well and the only two repairs it ever needed was an A/C recharge and replacement T-case shift motor.

  • avatar

    Wow.

    I had the ’88 Bronco II Eddie Bauer, only in blue instead of green. I bought it used in ’94 and absolutely loved it. It had real 4WD with locking hubs, was comfortable, and not only did it do well off road but was a fantastic car in the city. The short wheelbase and incredibly tight turning circle made it perfect for the impromptu U-turn and parallel parking. My wife and I drove the full length of the east coast in it and just loved it. It rode well, considering how close the front and rear wheels were to each other, had great seats, and looked really good once I put it on P235/75 R15 tires. (Taller than spec, and definitely more dangerous, but the right tires for the truck nonetheless) It was the perfect vehicle for the childless couple who had to commute and still went camping and skiing.

    Foolishly, I traded it in for a brand-new ’96 Explorer. They gave me crap for a trade-in, and I got stuck with an inferior vehicle. I still miss my old Bronco II and would still possibly buy another one if I found a good example at a reasonable price when I had the cash available. I’d definitely want the Eddie Bauer, and wouldn’t object to a little more after-market power. But that was a good car.

    I think I’ve got something in my eye, so I’ll just stop now…

  • avatar

    Between a fleet of them as TV news vehicles and one owned by an old girlfriend, I spent way too much time behind the wheel of these. And Paul nails it. They felt like they were on stilts. It probably happened more than that, but I remember almost rolling twice…once to avoid an elk, and another, taking a relatively gentle curve on a city street in Kingman, Arizona at 45 instead of 35.

  • avatar
    JeremyR

    We had one of these in pumpkin orange. I learned to drive stick in it. It survived three, maybe four, teenage drivers without any of us rolling it over :-)

    However, I did manage to spin it on a (thankfully deserted) highway. Snow was falling, so I had it in 4WD (it had the externally locking hubs). Everything happened pretty fast that night, so while I don’t know for sure, I probably failed to remember, “In a spin, both feet in.” Of course, had it not been for my ham-fisted steering overcorrection, I may not have lost control in the first place…

    Said vehicle was also my first ride off to college. Carried a lot of stuff. Lots of memories in that thing…

  • avatar
    denvertsxer

    My cousin was one of those rollover fatalities. Granted, it was on a poorly-maintained gravel road, but still, the tippy Bronco certainly didn’t help matters. I don’t think the family ever initiated any legal actions against Ford over it though.

  • avatar
    npbheights

    Great… now after reading this CC and upon seeing a Bronco II on the road, guess what phrase pops in my head now???

    HORSEY CAR!!!

    You have to admit, that horse logo told you a lot about the handling of the vehicle before you even got behind the wheel.

  • avatar
    Birddog

    WOW! That thing needs to go to a museum!
    Was it crap?? Yes.. Was it AWESOME?? Hell yes!!

    First gen Escape had it right..

  • avatar
    mkirk

    I had one of these. It was absolutely the best vehicle I have owned. My father bought it new in 88. Was a stripped model…an XL with AC, 2WD, and a 5 speed. It had over 350,000 miles on the original “flawed” 2.9. I sold it for 200 bucks like 4 years ago and it is still on the road. I did some crazy crap with that truck (jumped it, sideways at 60MPH…you know, normal 16 year old stuff. It got good gas mileage, had plenty of power, and I can only think of one time it left me stranded. The drive shaft had CV joints instead of the standard U joints (and was like a foot long). They broke one day. That was it.

    These trucks came in 2 flavors. They were either head gasket eating pieces of crap or bulletproof. Mine was bulletproof.

  • avatar
    ragajungle

    Absolutely best vehicle I have ever owned. I still have mine . A 1989 xlt 2.9l with a 5 speed. It remains parked most of the year but a few years ago I had to use it as a daily driver from Racine, Wi to Chicago everyday for my job as a copier repairman. So not only was I commuting there, was also driving it all over Chicago in punishing traffic. For over a year . It held up astonishingly well for being a 22 yr old truck w/ oem motor with a quarter of a million miles on it. And even with 31×10.50 tires on it I was pulling 20city, 25 hwy unheard of. The truck has become an endearing member of our family so much so that my nephew got one of his own and has learned how to drive stick and work on cars with it. Currently “humble” is parked and going to get a fresh paint job in the spring after a several year restoration including all new body sheet metal and complete suspension ovehaul and mild lift. Awesome that I stumbled upon this site!


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