By now we’ve all seen the 2021 Ford Bronco, and from what I can tell, the reaction has been quite positive. I think Ford did a remarkably—possibly even surprisingly—good job on the design of the new Bronco, and I think it’s worth taking a little bit of a deeper dive into the design of it. It’s a retro-inspired design, but not exactly a retro design, though Ford has clearly jumped all the way back to Bronco’s roots. Let’s dig in.
Oh, I should mention for now I’m just focusing on the new Bronco, not the new Bronco Sport, which is a different platform. I’ll circle back to that one later, hopefully.
It’s interesting to remember that the Bronco had gone through a lot of design evolution and updates for decades since the original launched in 1965.
Ford went through five design generations between the 1960s and 1990s with the Bronco, with the most dramatic change coming with the second generation when the Bronco lost its unique chassis and bodywork and became an adaptation of Ford’s F-series of trucks.
The styling from then on tended to mirror the design of the F-150, sharing much of the front bodywork with the truck, just in a shorter package.
It’s notable that Ford seems to have ignored all these other generations of Bronco and leaped back to the original source, a more no-nonsense off-road and utility vehicle designed to compete with the Jeep CJs.
Today, it seems that Ford has a Jeep in its sights once again, the Jeep Wrangler, which, of course, evolved over the decades from the Jeep CJ.
The Jeep’s path was quite different than the Bronco’s; the Jeep evolved slowly, sort of like a Porsche 911, gradually over the years. In the Jeep’s case, I think AMC’s legendary frugality kept the Jeep design fairly static during the crucial years of AMC’s ownership of Jeep, the same era when Ford made radical changes to the Bronco.
AMC was just usually too cheap and broke to pull off major redesigns like that, and, besides, the Jeep sold too well to bother. As a result, the Jeep stayed more “pure” to its original design, and now Ford, after many decades, was able to learn from the Jeep’s enduring success and realize that the original source was where to go to re-invent the Bronco.
The original Bronco’s design is very much a product of mid-1960s Ford design which is part of what makes the new Bronco design so interesting; it’s not just a re-interpretation of an iconic off-roader, it’s a translation of mid-’60s design vocabulary and limitations into modern design.
So much of that original Bronco design is just a utility vehicle take on what Ford was already doing: clean body lines with minimal ornamentation—a reaction to the baroque 1950s design—a certain tidy leanness about the overall look, a few crisp character lines, and creases, a general boxiness, and a front end with simple round headlamps (all that were available at the time), basic rectangular indicators, set into a stamped-metal grille that was handsome and, importantly, cheap.
Just look at a Falcon of the same era and you can clearly see the familial ties:
I mean, that’s basically a Bronco two-door sedan right there. Boxy, clean lines, a few character creases, minimal detailing, stamped metal grille/fascia with round headlamps.
Now, when we look at the new Bronco, we can see those same basic elements are all still there, just updated to a modern design language, and with a greater emphasis on perceived toughness or ruggedness:
It’s the same stuff: clean lines, boxy overall shape, minimal ornamentation, and that stamped front grille with the round lamps has been transformed into a ruggedized plastic panel, and those parts-bin lighting elements have been re-interpreted to become the car’s distinctive face.
Ford has also made a number of interesting variations on this basic theme:
I think there are at least six variations of the grille/headlights/badge elements, with three distinct grille patterns (dense brick-pattern like a grid, regular smaller rectangle grid, and a six-oblong-openings one), two types of lighting (simpler round lamps and separate indicators/DRLs and more complex round lamps with DRL rings and an indicator/DRL strip that intersects the round lamp), two nameplate/badge types (black or chrome), and two tones of the grille plastic itself (black or a slightly metallic gray).
I think these all work quite well and do a great job updating that old stamped-metal grille into a modern “face.” I think I prefer the fancier lights with the intersecting indicator/DRL strips, as they’re nice and graphic, but even the lower-spec lights look good, too.
Oh, and the subtle marker lamp integration into the side of the grille panel is well-done, too.
Because the Bronco is a sort of a “reboot” of a 1960s design, I think Ford has managed to side-step the trap of making a car with an idiotically aggressive and overdone “face” as has been so common in the past couple decades.
Retro-inspired cars have been the only ones free from this trap for quite a while, and I think the result is a face that looks tough and capable while also being inviting and eager.
Besides, I’m sure if there are people so insecure they need to drive something that looks like it just wants to taste blood, the aftermarket will provide, like they have, abundantly and ridiculously, with the Jeep market.
Ford did a very good job resisting the urges to cover their “tough” car with vents (fake or real) and clunky body cladding to convey the concept of “tough.” They don’t need to, The contrast between those relatively simple, clean body panels (look at the doors, for example) and the big, meaty wheels with their chunky tires and big, black fender flares do way more than any cladding ever would.
They’ve also done good work with translating the design into two- and four-door versions. While I prefer the stubby pluckiness of the two-door, the four-door doesn’t look too stretched, too long—something that I can’t say about the four-door Wrangler.
This wasn’t an easy trick to pull off; I think subtle touches like that kick-up from the door to the rear cargo area that shows up on both two- and four-door versions helps, as does the overall simplicity of the body panels.
It’s subtle, but I bet making it work at both lengths took a lot of work.
From the rear, we see the same focus on simplicity, with the dominant visual elements being the large spare tire and the taillamps.
The tire is a tire, an element that fits on an off-road type vehicle like this, and by its sheer scale will dominate the rear of the car.
The vertically oriented taillights are reminiscent of lights the Bronco has used over the years, especially the Brannock Device-shaped ones that the Bronco shared with the F-150 and Econoline for years.
They appear to have an outer ring for the tail and possibly brake lamp, with inside areas for, I’m guessing, indicators and reverse. My one complaint about the lighting design is the center high-mount stop lamp (CHMSL), the third brake light, which feels a little phoned-in.
It’s fine, but I feel like this could have been a subtle place for Ford to do something a little more interesting.
Ford has also really leaned into the open aspects of the new Bronco, which is important, especially if they intend to really compete with the Wrangler. These optional windowed doors are great, and the black inner lip works well to show the two-tone possibilities: the black roof, black trim, and the black panel on the raised part of the hood.
It seems that there are options other than black for the trim, as you can see in this variation here, with the silver grille, door handles, and roof. That little bit of red in the forward limb riser tie-downs is doing some good work there, too.
Also interesting is how much the look is changed when the roof is completely removed, and the inner roll bars create a sort of fastback profile.
Also very important for open-ness is this overlooked but quite important detail:
When you take off all four doors, there’s actually a place to store them easily. This is a big deal, and I feel like one that’s too often overlooked for cars with removable body panels.
You want to be able to take them off at will, and not have to figure out where to store them or have to plan ahead to leave them at home, and so on. Being able to remove the doors and have places to safely and easily store them on the move is good thinking. You can’t do this in the Jeep.
Plus, you still have your mirrors when the doors are off, which is another door-yanking advantage over the Wrangler.
I’d prefer to talk about the interior more when I’ve had a chance to sit inside one, but from what little I’ve seen so far, I think there are two big positives: first, no carpet, just rubber, washable flooring, and second, it looks pretty clean and uncluttered, which is nice.
That dash panel is very flat and vertical, itself a retro-ish feel, but certainly looks modern. I suppose with the huge screens it’d be hard for it not to unless they were CRTs or something.
Overall, I’m really impressed with the Bronco’s design. It looks like a machine designed by people who actually give a damn and not just some series of focus groups. It’s retro without being a caricature and feels modern at the same time.
Ford did an excellent job on this. Finally, something in 2020 that doesn’t suck.