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This is Scarlet, my 1986 Bronco II, and my daily driver. In a world of rounded crossovers, the 35-year-old brick stands out in any parking lot. Her red paint is chipped, dents riddle the body in many places, her engine has that lovely lifter tick the old Cologne V6s are infamous for. Despite all of that, and maybe partially because of it, this little 4×4 has my heart.

I love the styling, or rather, the lack thereof. The front end is blunt; the only round thing to be found beside the wheels is the Ford oval set in the grille. Huge side windows let in loads of light into the cabin and look like nothing else on the road. The spare tire is on a swinging carrier, and the liftgate is just an almost totally flat panel of fiberglass. The taillights are simple shapes and the wheels are too. It’s the kind of truck a child might draw — straight and simple. Scarlet’s shape, and two-tone red over white, will never go out of style.

Why I Love My 1986 Ford Bronco II, A Criminally Underrated Classic 4×4
Images: Cassy Leone; Andrew P. Collins

So what’s it like to own a Bronco II in 2021? Well, let’s start with the drive. On the highway, you are not going faster than 70 mph. After 50 mph, acceleration kind of stops and you have to be patient for the rest. At speed especially, driving this thing makes you are constantly aware that you’re driving a truck that slices through the air about as well as a stone might move through molasses.

You feel every single gust of wind shoving you side to side as it buffets the huge curved windows set behind you. In Scarlet, glass rattles because I haven’t had the chance to replace the felt window holders in the driver’s door. In town, it’s similarly choppy. Scarlet’s short 94-inch wheelbase skips over potholes like it’s a smooth rock somebody chucked into a lake. In other words, the Bronco II lives up to its animal namesake by bucking all over the place.

You stay comfortable in the thickly padded cloth seats, but hold on to that steering wheel for dear life just to keep the nose pointed where you want to go. On smooth roads, it feels fine — just like the tall, boxy truck it is. Have I ever been in danger of flipping over? No, it’s not a sports car, or even a Camry. And I don’t drive it like either one.

Off-road, the little sodbuster feels a lot more fun (and comfortable). Even with modest tires, the four-wheel-drive has let me plow through ruts and mud, over rocks and logs. Knobbier tires, and further adventures into the wilds, are definitely in Scarlet and my future.

I realize I described the daily driving experience as a bit harsh, and in some ways it is. But the interior is as comfortable as it is simple. The 30-plus-year-old plastic is unfortunately as brittle as you might expect, the soft surfaces have an old-couch kind of comfort you just don’t find in modern vehicles. Fake wood paneling brings that “dated but familiar” aesthetic home. And as far as comparison to her contemporaries, Scarlet’s nowhere near as bare-bones as a CJ Jeep with such unthinkable luxuries as carpet and seats that don’t feel like lawn furniture.

The extent of the Bronco II’s digitalness is a little graphic that pops up on the console when a bulb is burnt out. Forget a multi-mode electronic traction control system; you can’t even put this thing in four-wheel drive without getting out and manually locking the front hubs.

For passengers, the back seats are small but comfortable… for short trips. More importantly, they can be folded down to expand the rear cargo room to that of a slightly shortened short bed Ranger. The expansive windows add a lot of airiness make the space feel not so cramped, and are very easy to see out of when driving. That’s another old-car benefit that people sometimes forget to celebrate; big pieces of glass that bring natural light in can make a little cockpit feel pretty spacious.

For those of us that drive classic cars every day, you know you need to keep some tools on hand, which I do. While cargo space is limited with the seats up, I find it’s more than enough for one person to carry the on-road essentials (such as jumper cables, oil, and transmission fluid jugs, a small folding stool, and plenty of tie-down straps, ect.). There are little boxes built into the sides of the cargo area useful for carrying rope, rags, and a flashlight. I even store a change of clothes just in case, as Scarlet has proven to make a nice little hotel room when in a pinch.

The Bronco II is largely unloved for its brutal design and similarly harsh ride. And mine’s far from a mint example anyway… but that’s kind of the point, and basically a big part of why I love this thing so much.

Why I Love My 1986 Ford Bronco II, A Criminally Underrated Classic 4×4
Image: Cassy Leone

These SUVs were built to be beaten on and this one has taken decades of hard use in stride. I’m not counting on Bronco II prices to start skyrocketing on Bring-A-Trailer, but again, that’s really just another advantage. I’m not worried about preserving it as a museum piece, I’m just enjoying it.

After thirty-five years of having the snot beaten out of her, being passed from person to person, having an apparent brief career as a drug mule in Mexico in the ‘90s (a story for another time), Scarlet is still roaming.

When you rely on a classic car every day, it becomes a part of who you are. You take care of it, as it takes care of you. As I’ve bounced from owning a 1961 Corvair, to a 1969 Caprice, to a 1985 Escort, they’ve all become a part of my family, a small part in the larger story of my growth as a person. A Bronco II was my dream truck for the longest time. Now that I’ve got one, I hope she’ll remain a dear friend forever.

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