While the 2021 Ford Bronco is the hottest new SUV in recent years, the legend began with the early classic Broncos, which are still highly sought after and are now enjoying a resurgence since the brand's revival.
The first five generations of the Ford Bronco spanned 30 years, from 1966-1996. The original Bronco was developed by Ford initially as a compact off-road SUV that could compete against Jeep's CJ and the International Harvester Scout.
The classic Bronco was available in several styles, from the compact SUV of the Gen 1 to the full-sized editions found on the Gen 2-5. Early models offered wagon and pickup options with their short-wheelbase chassis. While the larger models were designed to compete against the Chevy K5 Blazer and Dodge Ramchargers.
The big-bodied Broncos were introduced from 1973-1979 and redesigned from 1980-1996 and are more readily available to find as donors or in solid, relatively rust-free condition. These SUVs still have some early Bronco magic and can be upgraded for less money in some cases because more of them are available, and they use some F150 parts. A few suspension components that fit F150s can also be employed on the big body Broncos.
The first-generation Bronco uses a 92-inch wheelbase (which is between the CJ-5 and Scout), with a box-section body-on-frame construction. All first-gen models were sold with four-wheel drive, "shift-on-the-fly" Dana transfer case and locking hubs. The Bronco employed a Ford 9-inch axle and leaf springs; the front axle on the first-gen Broncos came with a Dana 30 but was later replaced by an upgraded Dana 44 in 1971. All Broncos use radius arms to locate the coil-sprung front axle, along with a lateral track bar, allowing for a tight turning circle.
Today, many classic Bronco owners typically add a few mild upgrades to their suspension, mainly because using a larger wheel and tire increases the off-road capability and aesthetics. The stock suspension has tire size limitations. Still, most classic Bronco owners pay attention to their vehicle's stance. Some owners prefer the mild-looking leveling kit, which raises the front-end to match the rear. The front-end tends to sag with the engine and transmission weight, whereas the rear is relatively light and sprung more stiffly for load carrying or towing.
Not all lift kits are the same quality, so if you're purchasing a used Bronco that already has a lift kit installed, which a lot of them do, be sure to look for one that has longer radius arms instead of drop brackets. The brackets can cause additional stress to the frame and should be avoided if possible (or replaced with longer radius arms, ideally). Some Broncos (second-gen) have a series of holes in the frames meant to lighten the vehicle, but it can also be a stress point for cracks. So if you are going to add the lift kit yourself, look for one from a reputable company that includes longer radius arms for the front end. They increase suspension travel, which aids handling in rough terrain. Typically, a lift kit includes upgraded shocks, u-brackets, coil springs, leaf springs and extended length brake lines and cables to accommodate the extra travel.
What is the difference between a lift kit and a suspension system? Well, a lift kit is mainly just for looks and maybe a little bit of off-road driving. Just because you put a lift kit on your Bronco doesn't mean it's ready for the Baja 1000. On the other hand, a suspension system is just that – a system designed for performance over bumpy, treacherous terrain. These kits typically include removing stock shock mounts and welding (or bolting in) new mounting points (or multiple shock mounts per corner) to allow longer travel suspension. These systems may also incorporate larger, more progressive bump stops so when the suspension bottoms over big bumps, it is not jarring to the driver or adding stress to the suspension. It's like landing on a pillow instead of a hard surface.
For some Bronco owners, the whole point of the lift kit is to fit bigger wheel and tire combinations. You will need to assess how you want to use your Bronco – whether for street or trail or a bit of both – finding the right lift kit or suspension system will significantly improve your ride. For example, if you are looking for more extreme off-road capability, some Bronco owners go with M/T tires over an A/T (all-terrain) because they plan to use them off-road more than on the street. The wheels and tires you choose may add that certain "wow" factor to the look of your Bronco, but you want to ensure that it can perform as well as it looks. When coupled with upgraded shocks and springs that can control the increased movement of the suspension, your wheel/tire package will come alive.
With lift kits of 6-inches and larger tire/wheel combinations, the driveline must be examined to determine if the angles are too great for the u-joints and that the length of the driveshaft is correct in full droop and squat. One thing to think about when you go with larger tires is to upgrade the ring and pinion gears to a lower ratio that will pull the big combo out of the mud or up a steep climb if necessary. Most older Broncos were not intended for the extreme tires sizes and suspensions we see today. So, keep that in mind when upgrading to bigger suspension packages. The better the drivability, the more you'll enjoy thi