We’ve all got that one vehicle that pings our nostalgia centers like crazy- the car that, despite any number of drawbacks, would see us forking over a ridiculous sum to reawaken the feelings connected to it.
For me, it’s a ’66 Ford Bronco. My lust list for vehicles is surprisingly small considering my chosen profession, but I’m too high strung for truly high speeds, too big to fit in a race car, and a garage-free resident of the City of Angels, so I try to keep my expectations low. But, oh that original Bronco.
My family is from a tiny ranching community in western Wyoming, the nearest town so tiny that its one stoplight was deemed unnecessary in the early 1990s , and those roads that lead visitors and residents out to local lakes and campgrounds were both unpaved and untended until this century. The bi-ways are two-lane highways, and local roads were a bastion of red gravel and watery holes of varying depths for much of recent memory. In the winter, these lanes were virtually impassable, but in the summer, your basic truck could maneuver through, dropping you outside of town at a sunny, secluded spot for an afternoon of trout fishing, fried chicken and four-handed pinochle. If it sounds idyllic, that’s because it mostly was (in the summer at least).
When I was a kid, my great-grandparents had a first generation Bronco with a bolt-in back seat. It had been purchased as a working vehicle, and this being the family held together by duct tape and a decided refusal to read directions, this meant that the bolt-in seat was almost never actually bolted down; it lived half its life on the floor of the garage so that stuff could be hauled around in the cavernous back. When necessary, the seat was returned if transport for more than two people was required. Knowing my family, I’m also pretty sure that the bolts for that seat disappeared within the first days of ownership.
By the time I was old enough to appreciate the Bronco, my grandparents had retired from ranching, but the imminent possibility of something, anything needing to be loaded into the back meant that the seat was still roaming free. In the meantime, it was a great place to store fishing equipment or extra lumber. It was also the vehicle of choice for anyone who needed to run errands – whether that meant taking someone to work, pulling a car out of a ditch, or just avoiding the indignity of riding around in my grandpa’s lima bean colored El Camino.
Now, a beautiful day in western Wyoming is always something to take advantage of –I’ve seen it snow in July. So, sunshine and blue skies meant excursions, which in turn meant time in the Bronco. As a region surrounded by (bitterly cold) lakes full of happy, stupid trout, Wyoming-centric excursions centered around fishing. It was cheap, easy, and hell, the equipment was already packed!
Once phone calls across the party line established an ETD, my dad and I would stop by the local grocery store for bottled water and Velveeta (Pinedale gets water from a reservoir, which in the summer came with extra protein in the form of brine shrimp) and then pile into the Bronco with my great-grandparents. My great-grandmother and I would get in the back seat (the casual sexism of men in the front, women and children in the back unquestioned) and off we’d go to the gravel and potholed road that lead to Soda Lake.
The rattling and bouncing was a staccato beat, loosening up your bones, and stifling conversation, but it was soothing on it’s own – a rickety sort of massage until the inevitable happened. On the bad roads, the Bronco would hit a bump or dip into a hole that was too big for the loose suspension and the unbolted seat would tip backwards, tip forwards, and finally flip all the way back with an angry thunk, leaving us flailing on our backs, legs in the air like angry stinkbugs. The front seat was pleasantly protected from the sound of this disaster, so a great deal of bellowing was required to alert them to our predicament. My great-grandmother, who didn’t swear but had a strong sense of dignity and a way with metaphor, would yell for Donald (my great-grandfather) to stop the blasted vehicle and rescue us before we flew out of the back like a fart in a windstorm. It’s possible that the front seaters took their time carrying out the request, and meanwhile we’d continue rattling along, sliding slowly and inevitably towards the fishing equipment and the unlocked back door.
Finally, attention captured and momentum slowed, we’d stop and the men would get out, open the back, shove the seat (with us still in it) back to vertical, grunt, slam the door like we’d planned the interruption, and head off again. This was repeated four or five more times on the way to the lake, turning a 15 minute trip into a solid hour of labor and flail.
My dad and I usually stayed in Wyoming for a month at a time, meaning multiple trips to the lake, and never once, in all those trips over all those years, did it occur to ANYONE to bolt down the back seat. A little misadventure was nothing compared to the inertia of the status quo, and the ability to HAUL AROUND ANY RANDOM THING FOUND ON THE SIDE OF THE ROAD. (I mean, they never did pick up random furniture, or dead animals, or anything, but that looming possibility was always too strong to beat out the common sense of bolting down the back seat).
And yet, despite all of that, I remain inordinately fond of the original Bronco, both in theory and practice. It’s a timeless vehicle, much like those afternoons with my family – impractical and absurd and undeniably appealing. My great-grandmother was a great one for self-sufficiency and stoicism, but she would still put the worms on my fishing hook when I proved squeamish, and on days when she didn’t accompany us (and I was left to the back-seat all by myself) she’d bully my dad and grandfather into checking on me at least once or twice during the expedition to make sure I hadn’t fallen into the lake, or eaten all of the Velveeta that I was eventually given for the fish when it became clear I was never going to worm my own hooks. I think of her, and that indomitable strength, when I think of that Bronco, as often as I think of the feeling of being trapped like a stinkbug, waiting for rescue, giggling all the while.
The Bronco was loose and stylish and capable of being useful without actually needing to be, and that ability to fit into a working life, a surfing life, a life of possibilities has always remained with me.
The Bronco was sold before I was old enough to drive, and while my father eventually bought an Isuzu Trooper to feed his own nostalgia (a truck with all of the drawbacks and none of the verve of a Bronco) all it did was give me more of a taste for mid-60s power and style. I learned to drive in the Trooper, navigating snow, and terrible hills with its clunky manual transmission and would often pretend that I was on a long, lone dirt road, bumping along, playing back seat bumper cars with my best beloveds while I listened endlessly to The Wall on tape.
I learned a little about patience during those car rides, and whole lot about stubbornness and poor planning, but mostly I learned that very little beats the feel of a powerful truck, bumping along an unpaved road on the way to a long afternoon of unsupervised adventure.
The Bronco is an era as much as a vehicle, a transitional period between the 40 hour desk job and the weeks in the country. It could be both – poorly, passionately, positively. The later models were too bulky, too brash, too much fodder for OJ’s escape. I long for that original box, the two-tone sensation, the highlight of Ford’s mid-60s lineup, as sexy as the Mustang, cooler than the F100. I can’t currently justify buying an old Bronco with its bad gas mileage and indifferent suspension, but I’m dying for Ford to bring back to original with new technology. Clearly, I’m not the only one who longs for a return to a nostalgic emotion.
Everywhere we turn in the American automotive landscape these days, the OEMs are looking back to look ahead – the Mustang, the Charger, the Challenger, the GT40, the Corvette and Camaro…each trying to replicate the past with power and performance, and modern styling. The shapes and powertrains hearken back to the heydays of American muscle, when a car meant aspiring to a lifestyle, and nothing represents that like the Bronco.
So I ask you Ford, as we see the resurgence of iconic brands, as Chevy looks at it’s own discontinued and re-continued Colorado, as Dodge spanks everyone with the new powertrains in the Hellcat, can’t we please, please, find room in our hearts (and our new models) for the good ol’ original Bronco?