The atmosphere in the room was charged with expectation, like we were awaiting something big, which we were. Twenty of us, all well dressed and mannerly, were gathered at the base of a ski hill at Gunstock Mountain Resort in New Hampshire's Belknap Mountains. We were a few of the many—125,000, according to Ford—who had plunked down $100 to reserve a new Bronco since it was unveiled in July 2020. And most of us sitting there were fidgeting like expectant parents, because we were still awaiting delivery.
Our own Broncos weren't sitting outside the upscale outdoorsy lodge, but there were Broncos at the ready. That's the whole point of Ford's Bronco Off-Roadeo parks, to make the waiting a little easier and give us just a taste of the 10Best-winning goodness that we'll eventually drive home.
I put down my deposit in October 2020 on a two-door Bronco in Big Bend trim with a manual transmission and removable hard top in Antimatter Blue over a black cloth interior. I wanted something pure and simple, an old-school truck I could imagine taking to the Two Hearted River on a fishing trip with Hemingway. What I didn't imagine was having to wait this long for the Bronco.
Ford's Off-Roadeo locations—there are four in total, with the others in Nevada, Utah, and Texas—are part of the automaker's marketing play to build the Bronco into a lifestyle brand. As such, there was plenty of merchandise for sale on-site, and the walls were covered in Bronco paraphernalia including photos, old advertisements, and a copy of the original interoffice memo greenlighting the first Bronco project in 1965, with Lee Iacocca's signature at the bottom.
For me, the new Bronco was love at first sight. I do have a weakness for rectangular things, probably because I'm a bit rectangular myself. Once, while walking at night with some friends, we passed a streetlight and our shadows appeared distinctly on the sidewalk in front of us. "Hey," said my pal. "Who's holding up the shoebox?" He was referring to my head. So I come by my love honestly.
There was a couple from Annapolis, Maryland, waiting on a 2023 Bronco Raptor, the high-performance variant that Ford has yet to publicly reveal. An appreciative murmur went through the room when they announced their order, and the two beamed. A father and son traveled from Illinois; the son was awaiting a Wildtrak four-door in Antimatter Blue with the Sasquatch off-road package. Another couple was waiting on a four-door Wildtrak.
It was like meeting people at a dog park, where you're known by your dog and not your name. Here, your Bronco was your identity.
There were appreciative nods when I announced my own order, but they were likely just being polite. Out of six trim levels, Big Bend is one up from the base, and everyone probably thought I was cheap. And that was before a man from Ohio announced he had ordered a First Edition Bronco, one of only 7000 units offered by Ford. There was an actual gasp and a barely whispered exclamation that First Editions were selling for $120,000 and more in the aftermarket. One popped up on eBay last summer for $150,000. The original starting price was $62,605.
Most of us had ordered hardtops, and those were delayed first by the pandemic and then by quality issues with the supplier. The softtop crowd was expecting delivery this year. I had just found out via email that I would be waiting until next spring or later for my truck, and it would be a 2022 model. Normally, I hate delayed gratification as much as any American, but the Bronco is a bit of an indulgence to which, after years of denials (sailboat, Airstream, remote cabin, etc.), my lovely wife finally acquiesced. She thinks the Bronco is cool, too, and she also (obviously) likes rectangles. Anyway, the wait allows me to save more for a down payment, and I can change my order if I want. A late-release color called Eruption Green is so cool it blows my hair back. I'm switching to that.
After the introductions and a preamble by one of the Off-Roadeo instructors, we went outside for what was, for many of us, our first up-close look at a Bronco. We had a safety briefing and then walked the short instructional loop where we would see the Bronco's off-road engineering at work. We split into two groups, with one new Bronco per group. Each owner (or future owner) got behind the wheel for one of the demonstration stations, which included wheel articulation, hill ascent and descent control, rock crawling, and Trail Turn Assist, which brakes the inside rear tire so the vehicle effectively pivots on it, dramatically reducing the turning circle. This is a useful off-road tool that Evan, my off-road instructor, said should be used sparingly as it's hard on the trail.
Of course, all wild places are worth preserving, something easy to feel on Gunstock Mountain. The Off-Roadeo course winds and wends through some quintessential New England country. Rarely were we far from the kind of bright silver stream that inspires poets, the gurgle and susurrus of water tumbling over mossy rocks. All around, towering trees split cathedral bands of light onto the forest floor. Fallen trees, slowly returning to the earth, were spotted with bright-red mushrooms that looked like candy, but I was not tempted to eat—I've seen that movie. If there wasn't a row of badass Broncos waiting for me, I might have been content to wander the woods for the day, like a spellbound Thoreau or waxing Whitman.
But duty called—it was time to get behind the wheel and spray some mud. I've attended a lot of off-road driving events for newbies, and most are usually bunny-hill difficult. The New Hampshire Off-Roadeo is not that. The course creators built a real off-road challenge including mud, deep ruts, narrow passages, boulder crawling, and several obstacles I seriously wondered if we could overcome. The most dramatic of these was a 100-yard-long trail of exposed granite with sections of slope 30 degrees and greater. I doubted I could hike it, let alone drive it.
I was the lead vehicle, and I didn't want to be the first one to put a new Bronco on its roof. I can live without that kind of fame. I also didn't want to be the guy who bailed, so I pushed all the hero buttons—disconnected the front anti-roll bar, locked the front and rear differentials, engaged low range—and kept even, constant pressure on the go pedal. With barely any fanfare or hesitation, the Bronco just did its job and climbed to the top, where I exhaled and dreamed in Eruption Green. All that excitement we were feeling at the beginning of the day? And the wait to get my Bronco? Worth it.
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