First Bronco: The Prototype

First Bronco: The Prototype

By John Gunnell

In 1966, Ford dove into the fast-growing off-road vehicle market with its all-new sports utility vehicle, the Bronco. The Bronco was a clean sheet design and shared little with any other Ford product at the time. It was equally unique in the marketplace.

With its trim proportions, advanced coil spring front suspension and available Pickup, Wagon and Roadster body styles, plus a myriad of factory options, the Bronco was the first sports utility vehicle to truly offer sportiness, a fact not overlooked in Ford’s marketing of the day.

With its 92-inch wheelbase and a scant 34-foot turning circle, the Gen 1 Bronco was an ideal off-road machine. Those same attributes also made it just as entertaining on a highway. It was exceptionally well suited to either plowing snow or plowing through it to get to the ski resort.

Early Broncos found great success in off-road racing events, conquering everything from the Mint 400 to the Baja 1000. More importantly, the early Broncos produced from 1966 to 1977 had soul. People loved them for their charm, their pluck, their ability to constantly punch above their weight and their ability to do these things in ways that made every minute behind the wheel a fun experience.

It doesn’t get lots of attention until people understand what it is.

For all these reasons and more, the 2017 Milwaukee Concours d’Elegance presented a special class for early Broncos. Some of the examples featured in the lakeside car show included special interest models and historically significant Broncos.

Tim Hulick of Indianola, Iowa, brought a turquoise-coloured 1966 Bronco Roadster to the event. Referred to as the U13 model (the last three digits of the VIN number) Hulick’s Roadster features many first-year-only items such as unique hub caps and bumpers, a distinctive tailgate, silver upholstery, a gray painted dashboard and more.

The very early Bronco Roadsters used bodies made by Budd Body Company and had unique touches like an “eyebrow” grille, transfer case shift levers topped with a patterned knob, front transaxle covers fitted with a square fill plug, and forward-facing rear shock absorbers. Only 4,090 Roadsters were produced by Ford for model-year 1966.

Early Broncos looked tall and narrow.

The first Bronco ever built was a 1966 “Half-Cab” model that now belongs to Seth Burgett, the owner of Gateway Bronco. This timeworn, unrestored truck is the first Bronco built. It was constructed in Ford’s pre-production plant in Michigan.

Burgett’s Bronco has been verified to be the one that Donald Frey used. It appears in Ford’s original literature for the Bronco and was the first Bronco to feature Sport trim. Eventually, Carroll Shelby came to own the prototype Bronco. 

The story of this vehicle begins in 1966 with the construction of a Teal Green six-cylinder half-cab prototype Bronco at Ford’s pre-production plant in Allen Park, Michigan. The truck soon moved on to the Shelby American facility in Los Angeles, California and underwent a few changes, not the least of which was shoehorning a V8 under the SUV’s hood. So, instead of just being the first Bronco, it was also the first V8-powered Bronco (as well as the first Bronco with the Sport Trim package.)

In addition to the engine swap, the prototype was also refinished in a special red-and-white paint scheme. Carroll Shelby used this Bronco from 1967 to 1977, during which time it was kept at his ranch in Texas. The first registration of the vehicle was in 1967 and it was registered to Hi-Performance Motors.

After Shelby American had used the truck for ten years, it made its way to the Christmas Mountain Land & Cattle Company ranch near Terlingua, Texas. A ranch hand named Harold Wynn frequently took the little work truck to be serviced at a Ford factory dealership in Alpine, Texas. This dealership was owned by Vincent “Vinnie” Yakubanski, who became the next owner of the Bronco prototype. 

Categories: Features, Off-Road Plus