Uncovering the Design and Development of the 1978 Ford Bronco
The 1978 and 1979 Ford Bronco, also known as the "second-generation" Broncos, were only manufactured for two years and stand out as a unique period in the history of the Bronco. These Broncos were built on the 1973-1979 F-Series pickup chassis and had a design that was unique in almost every aspect. From the use of Cleveland based 351M/400 engines to the solid front axle, the second-generation Broncos were unlike any other Broncos ever built. This article explores the design and development of the 1978 and 1979 Ford Broncos, the challenges faced during their production, and the reasons for their limited time on the market.
Design and Development
The design and development of the second-generation Broncos began at Ford's Product Design Center in 1972. The project, codenamed "Project Shorthorn," was aimed at creating an all-new Bronco that would compete with and surpass the popular full-size Blazer from General Motors. Ford imposed several requirements for the new Bronco, including it be based on the new 1973 F-100, use of the F-100 doors with no modifications, and a removable hard top to compete with the Blazer.
To meet these requirements, Ford's designers and engineers faced several challenges. They had to learn from Chevrolet's mistakes and come up with a vehicle that had many features never before seen in a sport-utility vehicle. Designer Dick Nesbitt proposed a wrap-around Targa-style roof, which ultimately shaped the unique design of all full-size Broncos from 1978 to 1996. This design allowed for a fixed-roof cab that used the F-100 doors and solved the Blazer's problem of leaks that developed along the thick rubber seal on the removable top. The design was tested and proven to be the best solution for sealing the top to the cab.
It is interesting to see the design changes and choices that are evident in these photos of clay mockups from early to late 1973 (if you look closely at the second to last of these photos, you can see some mockups of the Ford Carrousel, which was a design study of what we could call today a minivan).
During the design and development process of 1973, Carron Industries in Inkster, Michigan, also built a driveable Shorthorn prototype using an F-100 along with some Blazer components, at the behest of George Petersen, the project development engineer for the Shorthorn.
As a side note, Ford also experimented with a four door concept dubbed the "Midhorn." These photos from May of 1973 show a longer wheelbase Bronco clay mockup with a full steel roof in a four door configuration on the driver side and a two door configuration of the passenger side. Sources from the time also reference a "Longhorn" concept, an assumed longer wheelbase version, but photo evidence has not been located.
Delays and Release
The second-generation Bronco was originally supposed to be released in 1974. Ford required that the new Bronco be based on the new 1973 F-100 and be ready for the original release date of the 1974 model year. However, due to several challenges, including the need to overcome engineering obstacles and meet all of Ford's requirements, the release was delayed until 1975 or 1976, as can be seen on the design mockups above. As can be seen by this in process clay rendering from January of 1976, designers had begun to finalize the design based on the 1978 F-Series facelift.
The delay was compounded by the impact of the 1973 OPEC oil embargo, which was the worst energy crisis ever experienced in modern times. The world suffered from rising fuel prices, and the crisis nearly crippled the country, causing electrical brownouts and steep increases in fuel prices. As a result, Ford postponed the release of the second-generation Bronco.
Finally, in mid-1977, Ford introduced the first full-size Broncos for the 1978 model year. The long-awaited 1978 Bronco was an instant hit with consumers, who couldn't get enough of them. The Bronco was so popular that many people had to wait six months or longer to get one from their local Ford dealers. The automobile and truck magazines of the time raved about the new full-size Broncos, and they practically swept the boards with 4x4 and truck-of-the-year awards. Pickup, Van, & 4WD magazine even stated that "Chevy, Dodge, and Jeep engineers have '78 Broncos in their labs now, taking a look and calculating ways and means for catching up." The second-generation Bronco was an instant celebrity, and its popularity only continued to grow.
Features and Options
The 1978 and 1979 Broncos offered a combination of functionality and ruggedness with luxury features, including air conditioning, cruise control, and AM/FM/CB stereos. Ford offered two basic models - the Custom and the Ranger XLT - with a "Free-Wheelin" package. The Custom model was marketed towards outdoor enthusiasts, while the Ranger XLT was marketed as a more family-oriented daily driver.
The Free-Wheelin package featured tri-color striping, black bumpers, black low mount western-style mirrors, a sport steering wheel, a special glove box appliqué, and custom wheels. The striping was later replaced by optional chromatic striping for the 1979 model year.
The design of the 1978 and 1979 Broncos was highly versatile, and Ford made sure that consumers had a range of options to choose from when it came to equipping their new Bronco. This allowed buyers to choose a Bronco that suited their needs and preferences, whether they were outdoor enthusiasts or families looking for a vehicle that was both functional and luxurious.
The 1979 Bronco was basically a direct carry-over from the 1978 models. However, the big difference for the 1979 model year was the introduction of a full array of emissions equipment, including smog pumps and catalytic converters, that were now standard on all 1/2 ton trucks. Despite this change, there was little, if any, loss of performance over the previous model year.
The 1979 Bronco introduced several additional new features, including captain chairs, standard square headlights (which were optional on the 1978 model), and a more aggressively marketed "Free-Wheelin" package that featured optional chromatic striping in place of the '78s tri-color striping.
The 1979 Bronco continued to receive high praise from automotive and truck magazines of the time. 4-Wheel & Off-Road magazine, during their 1979 Bronco road test, stated, "If you've already come to the conclusion that we like the Bronco, you're right. In fact, the more time we spend in it, the better we like it."
Overall, the 1979 Bronco was a continuation of the success of the 1978 model year, and Ford managed to make several enhancements that made it even more popular with consumers.
End of the Second-Generation
Even before the very first full-size Bronco was released in mid-1977, Ford designers were finalizing the design of the third-generation Bronco, which was to be based on the all-new lineup of F-Series trucks scheduled to be released for the 1980 model year.
The third-generation Bronco was a significant departure from the second-generation, featuring several changes that made it lighter, more fuel-efficient, and cheaper to produce. The beloved, torque-laden 400 CID V8 engine was gone, and the solid front axle was replaced by a quirky "Twin-Traction Beam" that was far better suited for the road than it was for the trials. These changes made the third-generation Bronco more practical and efficient, and consumers responded well to the new design.
The 1979 energy crisis and failing economy also impacted the second-generation Broncos. The second-generation Bronco was introduced during a time when the energy crisis had eased up, and the first generation Broncos still being sold were outdated by this time. The full-size Bronco was a vehicle that combined all the ruggedness of the F-Series trucks with luxury features that were highly sought after by consumers. However, by the end of the second-generation Broncos' run, the energy crisis and a failing economy hit the nation. While the impact wasn't as severe as the 1973-1974 crisis, consumers were still hit with skyrocketing fuel prices and double-digit inflation.
Overall, the second-generation Broncos turned the 4x4 and SUV market upside-down for two wonderful years. While it was eventually replaced by the third-generation Bronco, the 1978 and 1979 models continue to hold a special place in the hearts of many Ford Bronco enthusiasts.
In retrospect, it's remarkable that the 1978 and 1979 Broncos were even produced in the first place. The combination of Ford's requirements, the lessons learned from Chevrolet's Blazer, and the engineering obstacles that had to be overcome made it a difficult project from the beginning. The impact of the 1973 OPEC oil embargo and the 1979 energy crisis also played a significant role in the release of the second-generation Bronco. The 1978 and 1979 Broncos are a unique and significant part of Bronco history, and they left a lasting impact on the SUV market. Despite their short production run, they remain highly sought after by collectors and enthusiasts alike, and their legacy continues to live on today.
Image Credit: Ford