What it’s like to drive a 1974 Ford Bronco
Driving that old car you’ve always pined for is a lesson is perspective, as satisfying as it may be to finally scratch the itch. Modern vehicles are so capable and refined that they’ve skewed our perspective. The further back we go the more likely our jaundiced modern view will spoil the gleam of nostalgia.
It’s this conflict of vintage charm versus modern expectation that’s at the front of my mind when I set off on a three-hour trip in a 1974 Ford Bronco. I got it through Hagerty DriveShare and, it should be noted, put the tab on the company dime as this story is in part promotion of our peer-to-peer collector-car rental service. The other reason, as we noted in our first impressions of DriveShare, is to go beyond the typical retrospective given to classic cars and trucks. We wanted to get behind the wheel.
In truth, the Bronco is not one of my automotive heroes. My dream list sticks to cars rather than SUVs (and skews towards oddballs like the Alpine A310). But the Bronco is undeniably cool, red hot in the collector market, and at the top of many people’s short list. For me, looking at the orange-and-white truck brings thoughts of driving down Baja California with a quiver of surfboards sticking out through a windowless rear hatch. Whatever your personal version of the Bronco fantasy is, it’s clearly the kind of vehicle that spontaneously fosters dreams.
The first and most enduring impression while getting close to the Bronco is one of rugged utility. The doors open and latch with a serious mechanical clunk, the kind that requires a level of force indifferent to mechanical sympathy. Ditto for swinging out the spare tire mount and opening the rear hatch and tailgate: it’s more shove than push (and watch out for several pinch hazards). The only thing that requires finesse is the aftermarket safari roof, which slides with the ease of fingernails on chalk.
The impetus for this rental was a long weekend in Palm Springs. Driving from Los Angeles out to the desert highlights the Bronco’s weaknesses in the modern world, the first of which is brakes. This Bronco’s owner added a vacuum booster to the system, but the stopping power from the four drum brakes is mild at best. Compound that with the tall truck’s short wheelbase and vague steering and, well, it’s best to drive like you’re hauling a big trailer: leave plenty of room in front, plan ahead, and try avoid any sudden moves.
The (sort of) good news is the brakes don’t have much to fight against. The 302 V-8 under the hood originally made 145 horsepower, which is good for a terminal velocity approaching 80 miles per hour. At first, piloting the Bronco on the freeway is intimidating, but you quickly settle in to a comfortable speed somewhat close to the flow of traffic.
As dusk turns to full darkness the Bronco offers a strong reminder that automotive lighting has come a long way since 1974. But so have distractions in the cabin. None of modern screens or switches exist in the Ford, only a single combination gauge dominated by the speedometer. The dark interior maximizes outward visibility, even with the dim sealed-beam bulbs.
Arrived and fully rested by morning, the Bronco’s charms come back to the fore. Ambitions of driving two-track dirt trails in Joshua Tree national park dissolve in the hotel pool, but the old truck serves as the perfect shuttle around town. The Bronco’s simplicity is a virtue. There’s no need to lock the doors, the flat dashboard and unadorned interior offer plenty of personal space, and the cargo area is an easy crawl from the passenger seats.
And yes, the attention is nice. At dinner a valet ignores the adjacent modern Ferrari California and Tesla Model X. He wants to know how much the Bronco is worth. My guess, later validated by the Hagerty #2-condition value, is around $40,000.
As I mentioned, there are a few cars I’d buy before spending half that on a Bronco. That’s nothing against the Bronco, just my personal preference. But that’s the inherent appeal of DriveShare; the rental price and fees ran $165 a day, or $660 for my four days plus almost a hundred dollars in gas (at a mere 11 miles per gallon). It’s a compelling alternative to a standard rental, or as a test drive before buying that long-lusted-for classic.
And to that latter point, the Bronco tips the scales more towards classic than old. If I were shopping, my rental would have sold me on the Bronco. It’s slow and the steering is reminiscent of driving a pontoon boat. The ride, actually, isn’t that bad, but driving requires full attention at modern highway speeds. You can barely look at billboards, let alone a phone. It takes more attention, but it’s more rewarding to focus solely on the driving.
The Bronco doesn’t even drive well by modern standards, and it’s still more fun to drive than the average SUV of today. And what the Bronco has in spades over the today’s anonymous crossover boxes is style. Or, as I explained to my co-driver, pulling up to our hotel upon returning to L.A., “When you drive something like a classic Bronco, the valet lets you park it in front.”