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Ford Bronco nearly returned 2 decades ago and it could have looked like this

The Bronco went away in 1996, but even before the macho 2004 concept, Ford designers planned a comeback.

Past Ford Bronco prototype
What could have been.

A "what could have been" story is typically very entertaining. And wouldn't you know it, that sort of story exists for the Ford Bronco.

While it wasn't until 2017 that Ford announced the beloved off-road SUV would officially return, the Blue Oval came close to ushering the icon back into the world about two decades ago. The photos you see here portray how it was supposed to look.

The photos were quietly tucked away with some other Bronco information distributed in July, which we only discovered recently. Bloomberg first reported on the story behind the photos last month. While the name Bronco doesn't appear once alongside them, this was absolutely legitimate Bronco work. The story goes that a team from the "Underground" designers worked on the project without any approval from upper management back in 1999. What became of the creative brainstorming is U260. In Ford-speak, that's "utility," "two doors" and the T6 platform the old Ranger rode on.

Once Ford brass did see the project, they were smitten and it was full speed ahead. However, a couple of things happened, per the report. Around the same time U260 was under development, the Ford Explorer's rollover scandal unfolded. That scrapped U260 as management tightened Ford's belt. 

Twice more Bronco faithful tried to bring the SUV back into the fold. The well-received 2004 Bronco concept unfortunately was a futile attempt with no suitable platform, so it went nowhere. In 2006, another designer worked to fit the concept car's charm onto a global Ranger platform. Ford had already decided the US-spec Ranger would go away, which left the global truck as the only option. Management passed as fuel prices rose and the economy marched toward the Great Recession.

Regardless of the details, the design doesn't look out of place around 20 years on. The shape is undeniably Bronco with key elements calling back to the original Bronco, just like the 2021 model. It's a little less intimidating as the new SUV, but amid America's first SUV boom, this thing probably would have rocked. And the dashboard? It has the wonderfully optimistic charm so many cars from this era oozed, with retro-futuristic vibes. This was the era of the PT Cruiser, Chevy SSR and the Volkswagen New Beetle; the U260 Bronco would have fit right in.

These kinds of stories typically end with a bummer. But thankfully, the Bronco is back, so there's no need to fret about the past. Maybe we would have gotten a Bronco sooner in a different timeline, but so far, the 2021 Bronco makes us think it was worth the wait.

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