Bronco vs. Panther; Which Ford Reigns Supreme?

For Super Bowl 50, we pit the Dearborn’s iconic SUV against its cop car platform.

Ford Bronco Ford Panther

This Sunday at Levi’s Stadium, Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers face off against Peyton Manning’s Denver Broncos in Super Bowl 50. Because our brains are broken, it immediately got us thinking about Ford’s iconic Bronco SUV and the Crown Victoria’s “Panther” chassis, the longest-running North American platform in history. So, here, we let the various generations of each go tête-à-tête for the automotive Lombardi Trophy.

First Generation

Bronco (1966-1977) vs. Panther (1979-1991)

Conceptualized as a compact SUV to steal marketshare from Jeep’s CJ-5 and the International Harvester Scout, the Bronco was the brainchild of Donald Frey, father of the Mustang. The Bronco got a proprietary frame, suspension and body, and Ford’s 170cid Windsor straight-six. (Later, the venerated 302 V-8). Options were plenty, including bucket seats, a CB radio, auxiliary gas tank, a snowplow, PTO winch and even a drilling auger. With a clean, boxy shape and those beautiful round headlights, early Broncos are distinctive. And lovely. On stock wheels, they look classic and capable; with a lift kit and oversized tires, Broncos look downright badass.

The Panther, too, was all about simplicity. Body-on-frame, live-rear-axle. That straightforward design meant longevity, and ease of repair made it a fleet manager’s darling. The first bodies to grace a Panther chassis included the Ford LTD and Mercury Marquis, each available as a coupe, sedan and wagon, all with a Windsor V-8. Lincoln soon transferred the Continental, Town Car and Continental Mark VI to the Panther. And it didn’t take long for police agencies and taxi and limo outfits to fall in love, flooding parking lots with big cats. Still...

Winner: Bronco. The LTD, Marquis and Lincolns were sturdy, durable and functional. But the Bronco exuded all those attributes as well, and topped them off with panache.

Second Generation

Bronco (1978-1986) vs. Panther (1990-2002)

Since the Bronco’s second gen (technically) lasted only from 1978 to 1979, we’re throwing in the third gen to speed this along. The biggest change? The Bronco graduated to a full-size SUV, switching to a shortened full-size F-Series pickup chassis, drivetrain and a fair number of body parts. The V-8 engine was now the 351, and a 400ci V-8 was also available. In 1980, the live front axle disappeared, replaced by Dana’s Twin-Traction Beam setup, a hybrid of independent front suspension and a solid axle. This added comfort and control on tarmac or dirt, though wheel travel diminished. Aesthetically,the Bronco’s eyes squared up, and expensive trim packages, such as the Eddie Bauer variant, blossomed. This Bronco looked more like an adult truck, albeit one with no neck.

On the Panther front, Ford put down the LTD leaving way for the Crown Victoria and the P71, a police interceptor variant. Lincoln steamed ahead with the Continental, while Mercury doubled down on the Marquis by slipping a “Grand” in there. Gone were the sharp corners, right angles and brick styling, like someone had taken a belt sander to the body, unearthing a more palatable, curvy figure. Unlike offerings from other brands, the Ford didn’t shrink in size to improve fuel efficiency. And the Panther thumbed its nose at front-wheel drive, and an overhead cam 4.6-liter V-8 became standard, too. (Fun fact: In 1993, a Town Car chassis and powertrain underpinned Aston Martin’s bulbous Lagonda Vignale concept.)

Winner: Panther. The Bronco gets points for growing into an adult ute, but the Panthers really hit its stride here. Could Ford have kept the wood-paneled LTD Country Squire wagon around a bit longer? Sure, but we won’t hold that against them.

Third Generation

Bronco (1987-1996) vs. Panther (2003-2012)

Yes, again, condensed for brevity. Here, Ford streamlined the Broncos body and offered a 5-speed manual transmission for the first time. But but the real treat were a couple of Frankentrucks called the Centurion C-150 and C-350. To compete with Chevrolet’s Suburban, the F-150 and F-350 crew cab pickups were given to a Michigan aftermarket group named Centurion. The beds were lopped off, the frame shortened and a Bronco butt was slapped on. They were overflowing with amenities, including drink coolers, CB radios, six-inch color TVs and VHS players, captain’s chairs, and a rear bench seat that folded flat into a bed. Accordingly, they were not cheap.

During this era, the rear shoulder belt and third brake light were standardized; Ford integrated them into the roof, so the top wasn’t legally allowed to be removed (Ford dropped instructions on doing so from owner manuals, though crafty buyers still managed to go topless.) By 1993, sales had dipped so low, even the spike after O.J. Simpson’s sluggish chase couldn’t save the marque. The last Bronco rolled off the line in June of 1996, making way for the Expedition.

Ford did a complete overhaul of the Panther frame in 2003, using hydroformed steel, new suspension and rack-and-pinion steering. It was status quo for the Crown Vic’s styling, though the Grand Marquis and the Town Car both were treated to facelifts inside and out. The apex model had to be 2003 Mercury Marauder, a high-performance iteration of the Grand Marquis,  which used a quad-cam Mustang Cobra 4.6-liter V-8 and 3.55:1 gears with a limited-slip diff. But crummy sales saw production halted after one year. By 2007, Crown Vic sales were limited to fleets only. The Panther met its North American market demise in 2011, (although some police Crown Vics trickled out internationally for another year). Lincoln and Mercury models were discontinued, too, bringing an end to the Panther’s impressive 33-year run.

Winner: Bronco. Did you not see that Centurion?

Final score: Broncos 2, Panthers 1.