Welcome to Cars Of Future Past, a weekly series here at Jalopnik where we flip through the pages of history to explore long-forgotten concepts and how they had a hand in shaping the cars we know today.
Last time around we talked about a Mitsubishi that imagined what the Lancer Evolution might look like if it was a hot hatch and not a sedan. This is the part of the introduction where I normally draw a through line from the previous concept to the subject of today’s discussion. Instead, I’ll admit I spent an inordinate amount of time trying to work out a segue here, and I have nothing to show for it. That’s because this week, we’re talking Ford Bronco.
Specifically, this is about the 2004 Bronco concept — Ford’s most public flirtation with reviving the classic SUV nameplate until very recently. This design study debuted at the North American International Auto Show 17 years ago in Detroit, alongside the Shelby Cobra concept that was also very silver. A year later, Ford followed those with the Shelby GR-1 show car, channeling the old Daytona Coupe. It was a prolific couple of years for Ford design. (Well, at least for the concepts.)
But back to the Bronco. This thing was a hit, though it’s worth mentioning that at this point the Bronco had been gone from the market just eight years, and we as a culture were still a good while away from realizing peak Bronco fever. The concept was built on an Escape chassis and used Ford’s 2.0-liter four-cylinder Duratorq TDCi turbodiesel, common in European Fords like the Mondeo, Galaxy and Focus of the day. It produced just 128 horsepower but a respectable 244 pound-feet of torque.
All-wheel drive was on tap as you’d expect, along with an “intelligent” system that positioned sensors at each corner to calculate the optimal level of torque to distribute independently. This was the early 2000s of course, and technology like that was still rather cutting-edge. Most of the time the Bronco concept drove only its front wheels, though the rears would enter the fray when the computer deemed necessary.
Of course a production version might’ve lost some of those attributes, but what really won everyone over was the Bronco’s design. This brand of retro-futurism was something Ford was keenly attuned to in the 2000s, visible in everything from the Thunderbird nobody liked to the Ford GT and fifth-generation Mustang. It stood to reason that Dearborn would try to lavish some of that nostalgia on one of its trucks as well.
The Bronco concept’s proportions were on point. The short wheelbase, massive arches and two-door cabin ahead of a long cargo cover and rear-quarter window evoke an instantly recognizable profile. The prominent exposed door hinges, circular headlights and big winch under the grille may seem like obvious calling cards today for a hardened SUV built for business, but they were novel at the time — especially for a truck straight from the factory. Ford knew the dream it was selling, even though it’d be many, many years before it could figure out how to actually sell it.
Well, it’s a Bronco — the SUV that even people who don’t off-road, nor have ever cared about off-roading, lust after for some reason. The symbol of American freedom, etc. Ford settled on a design that was purposeful and honest-seeming at a time when many of its products were spiritless and confused, with little connection to Ford heritage.
All that said, I have to admit I don’t think this Bronco concept has aged well. I know Ford was chasing athleticism and strength, but sort of like the Hummer H2 and H3, the result was chunky, bloated and blockheaded. It’s a far cry from the leanness of the early Broncos, not to mention the smart-looking restomods from Icon that emerged later in the decade.
The obsession with brushed aluminum was hard to escape around this time — a phenomenon we can probably blame Apple for. Ford evidently decided it’d be great to dip an entire SUV into an anodizing tank, a practice I’m glad we as a culture have moved past. Also, why does the body incorporate two different tones of silver that are close but don’t quite match? Would a splash of color have killed anyone?
But perhaps the Bronco concept’s biggest design transgression was that it marked the beginning of one of Ford’s most reviled design cues: the Gillette triple-blade grille. It kind of works here because of the clever way the designers embedded the Bronco name in big block letters through the center bar, but even that can’t excuse it from later showing up on everything from the Edge to the (stifles laughter) Taurus X.
Yet I can forgive these choices because, like most everyone else at the time, I fell in love with this concept all those years ago. And it had some really fun, neat quirks that weren’t quite evident from the outset. The entire roof, save for a center cross bar, was actually glass. It could even be removed in favor of “Baja racer” bars for open-air cruising or crawling.
Hell, this thing even had a nitrous oxide tank, because it was 2004 and Fast & Furious was a new, hot commodity. Activated via a button labeled N2O, it would boost output by 50 HP, which Ford also pointed out would shave three seconds off the Bronco’s quarter-mile time. Not sure who the company expected to run the quarter in a 130-HP SUV, but I suppose none of that was of great concern to the Blue Oval.
Of course the new Bronco has nothing at all to do with this Bronco, though perhaps it served as an inspiration at some point along the way. It’s sort of reminiscent of when Dodge showed off that compressed natural gas-powered Charger concept in 1999, and then the production Charger a few years later ended up being completely different (and way less interesting).
They say good things come to those who wait, and I’m not so sure turn-of-the-century, malaise-era Ford could have brought back the Bronco as well as the Ford of today. The 2008 recession would have probably killed it on sight regardless.
You can, though I’d advise against trying. Ford had a thing for lending its name to bargain shovelware in the days of the PlayStation 2 and Xbox — the kinds of games you’d only ever come across in a Kohl’s checkout lane. Still, it had a fairly prodigious run with the semi-mediocre Ford Racing series developed by the U.K. studio Razorworks, and so the Bronco concept appears in Ford Racing: Off Road. It also wound up in Eutechnyx’s Ford vs. Chevy, a title I’ve never played but regrettably know about because of its cheesy story mode cutscenes.