I have always had something of a love affair with the Ford Bronco. I've spent many a night scouring craigslist ads in search of the perfect one, while simultaneously trying to come up with reasons why buying one would be a responsible decision (haven't found one yet). Its first and final iterations are especially dear to my heart, especially given the *ahem* growing pains they went through in the between years. Something I didn't know about the Bronco, though, is that the US military ordered and deployed somewhere near 120 of these bad boys between 1965 and 1968.
(Full disclosure: Ford wanted me to drive a military issue Bronco so bad the government destroyed most of its records that it ever existed and scrapped almost every example they had. Since there is so little known about these, much of the information given here is from Bronco Driver Magazine, and some forum posts on ClassicBronco.com)
Starting in 1961, Ford had an ear in President Kennedy's Cabinet in the form of Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara. Yes, former president of FoMoCo, Robert McNamara. Make of that what you will, but it seems that making friends in high places can be good for business. Who knew?
Information is extremely scarce on these, but apparently ol' Robby was able to give Ford some inside details on exactly what the military was looking for in their vehicles. This was fantastic for Ford, given they were already developing a direct Jeep CJ competitor of their own. This was a clear opportunity to follow in Jeep's footsteps and sell a military and civilian version of their new off-roader. Whereas the Jeep was the hero of WWII, Ford might have secretly been hoping for their own little hero in the coming war in Vietnam.
The first examples of these were sent around the US as well as down south of the border to military bases in Panama, Cuba, and Guantanamo bay. This might have been done to get them out into as many different terrains as possible, but most were handed out to officers or were used as fleet vehicles for air support teams. A few 1966-1967 models were sent to Vietnam as well, but seemed to stay around the military bases and likely never saw combat.
As far as how they were outfitted for military duty, well, they were pretty much the same as the standard civilian Bronco that was available to the public. The initial test models sent to the government for testing had Ford's standard 302 V8 and were fitted with either power steering/brakes or manual. The actual models that the military ended up ordering, though, had the rather anemic 170 I-6, most of which seemed to come with a manual three speed transmission. Other changes were that the rear had two seats running down the bed over the wheel wells, as opposed to the single front facing seat that the civilian model had, and corresponding paint for each branch of the military it saw service in (Army green, Navy grey, Air Force blue, etc).
Not many of these survived after they were taken out of service, some as late as the 1980's. These days they are extremely hard to find in part because they look nearly identical to every other 1967 Bronco that rolled out of the factory. After they were decommissioned, most had their data plates removed from the dash (see below), which gave information on which branch of the military they served in, and how they were equipped. Many were restored and painted a different color, thus eliminating one of its few distinguishing characteristics.
Interesting to note the 2 year, 2,400 mile warranty on the data plate.
So why didn't they last? Again, there really isn't much info out there at all, but from what I can gather, the I-6 was underpowered (hi, Jeep), the truck just didn't seem to meet the high standards of reliability the military required, and parts were not as ubiquitous as the venerable GPW. My own personal theory is that the military was already looking for a larger and more robust, custom made vehicle, much like the ones you'll find in Arnold Schwarzenegger's driveway today. The Bronco didn't offer enough advantages over the long standing Jeep, and without a significant future for the small 4x4 layout, it's not particularly surprising that these didn't make the cut.
Here are some interesting anecdotes from a few people who had the opportunity to try them out while deployed (from issue #51 of Bronco Driver magazine):
"Many of the officers that were assigned them would work out trades with officers that had real Jeeps, because they wanted to look like they were in the War. Appears these trucks weren't "Warrior" enough for a bunch of desk jockeys."
"We really preferred the Bronco over the standard Jeep issued at the time. They were better equipped for offroad, and they didn't beat you to death onroad. Ours were equipped with 6 cylinder engines. We griped often about wanting something with a few more ponies. Our mechanic offered to put something larger in the engine bay, but regs prohibited anything but maintenance on them."
I wouldn't mind getting my hands on one of these, but unfortunately its history wouldn't make for a whole lot more than a conversation piece unless it was fully original. The only example of that I could find in my research belongs to Citadel Military College in South Carolina, who use it in their parades and ceremonies. Most others probably flew right under the radar and have since rusted out in junk yards or have been converted into rock crawlers — little do the owners know that their baby sitting in the driveway once gave the mighty Jeep a run for its money. What a shame.
Welp. Off to Craigslist...