For years, the Ford Bronco was essentially the same vehicle: a stubby SUV with a removable roof. The early Broncos were smaller, and the rest (those without “II” in their names) adopted shortened full-size truck underpinnings, but the formula was otherwise basically recognizable. But even Ford was considering what a larger Bronco might look like before a fuel crisis scared them straight, though it took an aftermarket conversion by Centurion Vehicles to bring the four-door Bronco into reality.
Not that Centurion called it a Bronco. Instead, it was the “Centurion Classic,” built off a crew-cab version of the F-150 or F-350. The rear quarters and roof were sourced from a contemporary Bronco. The Michigan-based outfit built these conversions for years, but it was the end of Bronco production to make way for the conceptually similar full-size Ford Expedition SUV that put the nail in its coffin.
These three-row, removable-roof SUVs were certainly unique, and as a customizer Centurion could make the interior as plush as a buyer wanted. The target was clearly the Chevrolet Suburban, and the Bronco roof was just a bonus. Ford had abandoned the full-size, four-door SUV market to GM for years. But the Expedition, based on the F-150, was the right vehicle for the right time.
Why was Ford so gun-shy, ceding its spot in the big SUV space to an aftermarket outfit like Centurion Vehicles? A few sources blame the oil crisis of 1973—a distressing time to have big fuel-guzzling cars in your lineup, and an even worse time to introduce a much larger truck-based job. That’s exactly what Ford was considering doing when they started exploring a replacement for the first-generation Bronco in 1972. The “Shorthorn” concept would evolve into the eventual 1978 Bronco—on a shortened F-Series platform with the fixed roof over the front passengers, and a removable roof behind.
However, it was the “Midhorn” concept that would have been a direct Suburban competitor. Ford got as far as producing some designs. This grainy image of a clay model shows a four-door configuration on one side (above), and a two-door on the other (below). In another universe, without an oil crisis, there’s no good reason why Ford shouldn’t have built it to take on the big GM SUVs.
All of which explains why the first-generation Bronco stayed in production longer than expected, and the second-generation Bronco—essentially the Shorthorn concept come to life, with a later front end treatment—had a short run. Ford never made it back to considering a four-door Bronco, and that opened up room for Centurion’s fascinating run of Classic conversions.