In the battle of 1980s 4x4 SUVs, there can be only one winner. And it’ll be up to you, Jalopnik, to decide. No pressure!
Here we find a slightly niche rivalry for the people out there looking for a family-friendly SUV that can still get a little wild offroad. Vintage 4x4s are pretty hot shit right now, and it can be tough to get your hands on a good Ramcharger or Bronco that isn’t going to cost you a couple organs on the black market.
But let’s pretend we’re cruising back in time and you, good Reader, are a prospective SUV buyer looking for something to cherish and love forever. Which big boi are you bringing home from the dealership today?
(Welcome to Who Ya Got, a new series where you get to vote on famed car rivalries, some more notable than others.)
Oh, the Bronco! The ever-popular 4x4 so beloved that it’s making a comeback for the 2020 model year! Let’s take a trip down memory lane.
The Bronco was produced by Ford from 1966 to 1996 and was designed by Lee Iacocca and Donald Frey as a way to compete directly with other compact SUVs like the Jeep CJ-5 and the International Harvester Scout. Those first generation Broncos are like a whole different creature compared to the bigger SUV that proved to be so enthusiast-friendly. Smaller and more compact, they came in three different styles: station wagon, a half-cab, or a roadster.
These fellas were cute, but they weren’t necessarily popular. Sales hit their peak in 1974 with 26,000 units sold. But there were some new faces in town: namely, the Chevy Blazer. And if it could compete with Jeep and still be bigger, well... maybe it was time for a change.
It wasn’t until the second and third generation that Broncos really came into their own. Much larger than its predecessor, the second gen was basically a shortened F-1oo chassis with a removable hardtop. People were pretty stoked about this bigger, more capable vehicle, but... well, it was a gas guzzler. Putting a V8 engine under the hood of a heavier car in the wake of the early-70s oil crisis didn’t turn out to be a particularly winning move for a ‘78 model year!
Ford realized real quick that they’d have to make some changes if they wanted the Bronco to grow in relevance. And it was in the early to mid-80s that Ford figured out the ideal formula. Here’s more from CJ Pony Parts:
Though the third generation of Ford Bronco was smaller than the second generation, they kept it as a full-size SUV.
Ford also expanded on the Bronco line up of V8 engines to provide a six-cylinder option. People who wanted a sporty SUV but who were concerned about the cost of gasoline could get a Bronco. While the second generation of Bronco used the F-100 as a base, the third generation used a F-150.
The solid front axle was lost as well, replaced by an independent front suspension that made the Bronco more comfortable for those who wanted to use it as their daily driver and take it onto the highway in addition to off-road.
And there it is: the beloved versatility of the Bronco. Perfect for taking the kiddos to the park or for going mudding with the guys. You’ve got the best of both worlds!
[And now it’s time for a sad aside: the tragic tale of the short-lived Bronco II. A shorter version of the Bronco, it was intended to be the option for couples without kids or single drivers. The problem was, it wasn’t particularly safe. Turns out, shortening the big Bronco altered the proportions in such a way as to make it prone to rolling over. Ford lost close to $113 million in lawsuits because of it. RIP Bronco II, 1984-1990.]
Back in 1978, Ford had started designing the Bronco around the F-series pickup line, which meant that the Bronco was able to piggyback on all the new upgrades post-1987. Now with added electronic fuel injection, rear anti-lock brakes, and a ton of fun variants that are, to this day, a collector’s dream, this bad boy could hit 100 mph and was a hell of a good time. Here we see the good ol’ Bronco at its mightiest.
Finally, there came the fifth generation Bronco, the kind you could buy from 1992-1996 (or, more famously, OJ Simpson’s escape vehicle). The three-door hardtop SUV was designed more for safety than any of its previous iterations had been. Now, there were three-point seatbelts, front crumple zones, a driver’s side airbag, and a few other scandals.
See, the NHTSA safety standards were changing pretty rapidly. Because the Bronco was designed with a removable top, its seatbelts and brake lights were no longer up to spec, and it was too late to do anything about it.
So Ford did what I’m sure any of us would do. They secured the removable top (which was still technically removable if you were determined) and completely eliminated all references to it from their user’s manual! Easy peasy!
It was just one more nail in the coffin at that point. People in the 90s just weren’t as excited about two-door SUVs anymore. They wanted four-doors. They wanted better safety standards. What could Ford do but shelve the Bronco and start producing the Expedition?
That’s not to say that Ford was totally done with the Bronco though. This year it announced that it’ll be releasing an all-new Bronco in 2020—so go ahead and get excited.
The Ramcharger might just be the underdog in this particular pairing. When compared to the Bronco, it just somehow didn’t quite match the sheer level of hype. But was that justified, or did auto enthusiasts do the Dodge Ramcharger a deep disservice?
Produced from 1974 to 1993, the Ramcharger might not have had as storied a history as the Bronco, but it had a little leg up on its competition in that the Ramcharger was designed to compete directly with the Chevy Blazer, off-road.com reports. That meant Dodge was solely concerned about crafting themselves a competitive SUV based on a shorter 4x4 pickup. The Ramcharger had nine inches chopped off the pickup base, and the roof had been removed (you could get it fitted with an optional steel or vinyl top).
Here’s some more history on the Ramcharger from Car and Driver:
In March 1974, the Dodge Ramcharger became Chrysler’s first sport-utility vehicle. Although the sport-ute craze was still far off, the three-door vehicle sold reasonably well. In 1985, production was moved to Mexico to create space for the assembling of the new Dodge Dakota pickup truck. The Mexican-built SUV was exported to the U.S. through 1993; sales had dropped off significantly, and after that it was sold only in Mexico. Finally, the Ramcharger was discontinued in Mexico in mid-1996.
The Ramcharger was different from its other 4x4 SUVs in some pretty crucial ways. First, it included a two-wheel drive version, something that no one else was doing at the time. Next, it was definitely designed as an offroad vehicle.
That’s right. This SUV wasn’t intended to be your daily suburban driver, your soccer mom cruiser. It was badass on four wheels, it was Rugged-with-a-capital-R, and it demanded to be used as such. Here’s more from the off-road.com article:
Unlike many of its modern counterparts, the 4x4 Ramcharger was not tamed for soccer mom use. Even the Royal SE Ramcharger, with cruise control and power accessories, was a brute, with stiff front leaf springs and a solid, if somewhat harsh, ride. Later Ramchargers (at least since 1982) did offer a fiberglass liftgate, supported by two gas cylinders. Great for loading in the rain, but a real pain if your cargo shifts and ends up leaning against the hatch.
While there were three generations of the Ramcharger, the basic formula remained the same throughout much of the SUV’s history. It was a rugged SUV, designed for the outdoorsy types. As time passed, Dodge added some simple refinements—radial tires, a 35 gallon gas tank, rear seats, and fixed roofs—but the demand for those kinds of offroad vehicles was severely waning.
And so a similar fate befell the Ramcharger as did the Bronco. People wanted something different, and so the auto industry moved on.