By Mike Colias 

Steve Olliges has raced older Ford Broncos through the desert and has five vintage ones in his garage. But the Ford dealer has never sold one from his showroom in Las Vegas. Instead, he's watched rival Jeep dealers in town peddle thousands of Jeep Wranglers to off-roading enthusiasts over the years.

"Ford dealers have been saying forever: We need a Wrangler fighter," Mr. Olliges said.

Finally, they're getting one. After nearly a decade of plotting its return, Ford on Monday evening unveiled a new retro-looking Bronco reminiscent of the rugged, boxy original from the 1960s -- the U.S. auto maker's latest attempt to carve into a share of Jeep's dominant position in the off-road adventure category.

The new SUV will have two sizes: a smaller Bronco Sport to be released later this year, and a bigger one, the main Bronco, arriving next spring and priced at around $30,000.

Ford's Bronco is coming off the sidelines at a tricky time. U.S. vehicle sales are expected to contract around 25% this year largely due to the coronavirus disruption, analysts project, and car companies are crowding showrooms with new SUV models, putting pressures on profits.

The Bronco's tough timing illustrates a broader challenge facing companies: products under development long before the pandemic will roll out in a changed market, potentially forcing companies to adapt marketing or production plans carefully laid out years in advance.

Ford operations chief Jim Farley said for now the crisis hasn't altered its Bronco strategy.

"We'll burn the furniture before we start cutting back on attractive future-product growth," Mr. Farley said in an interview last week.

Convincing Wrangler buyers to make the switch won't be an easy task, especially with pandemic-related disruptions making it more difficult for vehicle shoppers to browse showrooms and take test drives.

The Bronco's long gestation period has allowed Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV's Jeep Wrangler to have a lock on the market for rock-clambering vehicles with removable doors and roof panels. Wrangler sales have tripled over the past decade, a stretch of good times for the auto business, and SUVs in particular.

"For the longest time, the other auto makers just kind of gave up and said 'Well, Jeep owns that'" category, said Brian Moody, executive editor of research site Autotrader.com. "The Bronco has the heritage to have a real opportunity."

A Jeep spokesman declined to comment.

Reviving the Bronco, which will also have a two-door option, as a family of vehicles is a key piece of Ford Chief Executive Jim Hackett's turnaround plan. Mr. Hackett, put in the top job three years ago, sharpened the company's focus on more-profitable pickup trucks and SUVs, while purging passenger cars from Ford's U.S. showrooms.

The Bronco also is core to Ford's strategy to transform the company's most popular models, such as the F-150 pickup truck, into subbrands with multiple variations. For example, Ford is expanding its well-known Mustang nameplate for use on an electric SUV, which goes on sale later this year.

Mr. Farley said the Bronco should help Ford jump-start growth in its U.S. market share, which has dropped following the discontinuation of sedans and hatchbacks in recent years.

Ford first introduced the Bronco in 1965 at the behest of famed auto executive Lee Iacocca, who saw an opportunity to challenge Jeep. The vehicles garnered a cultlike following among off-road enthusiasts and were solid sellers for decades.

But by the mid-1990s, the idea of a two-door, two-row SUV had fallen out of favor, while roomier, three-row SUVs like Ford's Expedition gained in popularity, said Mark Grueber, Ford's U.S. consumer marketing manager. Ford ended Bronco production in 1996.

Two years before it was phased out, the Bronco gained unexpected notoriety when former football star O.J. Simpson led Los Angeles police on a low-speed chase in a white Bronco. Mr. Grueber said Ford has no plans to reference the association in marketing the vehicle.

Ford changed its original Bronco reveal date, July 9, after criticism on social media that it fell on Mr. Simpson's birthday. Ford has said it was a coincidence.

Enthusiasm for the Bronco has endured long after Ford killed off the older model, leading to a hot market for collectibles from the 1960s and '70s. Valuations of the vintage SUVs have soared 75% in the past three years, and routinely change hands for more than $100,000, according to Hagerty, an insurer of classic cars.

Plans to revive the Bronco nameplate have stirred inside Ford almost since its demise. Projects were started and scrapped over the years, including a 2004 prototype that ended up being used by action star Dwayne Johnson in the 2018 film "Rampage."

Former manufacturing executive Joe Hinrichs, who left Ford last February, pushed the idea of returning the Bronco and the Ranger, a similar-sized pickup truck, to the U.S. together, aiming to leverage economies of scale. The Bronco will be built at a factory near Detroit alongside the Ranger, which went on sale last year.

In developing the new model, Ford insiders attended Jeep events incognito to chat up Wrangler enthusiasts. One thing they gleaned: Some Jeep owners griped about the difficulty of removing the doors and roof panels, and having no adequate place to store them while taking the vehicles off-road, Mr. Grueber said. The design of Bronco's removable panels takes such feedback into account, he said.

The Jeep spokesman declined to comment on Ford's findings.

Bryan Rood, owner of a Bronco-restoration shop in Columbus, Ohio, said his vehicles -- the bones of old Broncos, retrofitted with high-end, modern interiors and powertrains, that sell for more than $200,000 -- have become a low-key status symbol for affluent buyers who don't want the flash of a sports car.

"With an old Bronco, nobody knows how much it costs, but people think it's cool, and it can fit your family," Mr. Rood said.

Write to Mike Colias at Mike.Colias@wsj.com

 

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

July 13, 2020 21:11 ET (01:11 GMT)

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