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How O.J. Simpson burned the Ford Bronco into America's collective memory

BEN FINLEY
April 13, 2024

The Ford Bronco initially was conceived and designed for rugged outdoorsy types, a two-door means of escape to nature from the bustling cities of mid-century America.

But it had already been tamed and polished for suburbanites, with cruise control and air conditioning, by 1994, when O.J. Simpson cowered in the back of one, a handgun to his temple, as patrol cars followed it for about two hours in the California twilight.

The model was discontinued two years later. But the Bronco -- or at least that white Bronco -- became one of America's most iconic automobiles after the slow-speed chase that played out on TV screens before an audience of millions, a moment that was seared indelibly into the nation's cultural memory.

"Kids who were born in the 2000s, even they know that's O.J.," Marcus Collins, a University of Michigan marketing professor, said of his students. "It's just as salient as me showing the twin towers on fire. It definitely became etched in the zeitgeist because of all the contextual associations that we applied to it."

The Bronco ridden in by Simpson, who died Wednesday, now sits in a crime museum in Tennessee, parked near a Volkswagen Beetle that was driven by serial killer Ted Bundy.

White Ford Bronco is also the name of a band that plays 1990s cover songs, by artists from Metallica to Will Smith to the Spice Girls.

Singer and guitarist Diego Valencia, 41, said he was brainstorming band names in 2008 when a co-worker suggested it.

"With something like 'Seinfeld' or 'Beverly Hills 90210,' you might be losing some people," Valencia said. "But that was the most '90s thing ever."

The White Ford Bronco name is not a celebration of Simpson, Valencia said, but a nod to that moment of "where were you in June of 1994?"

MARKETED TO HUNTERS AND FISHERMEN

The Bronco rolled off the assembly line in 1966 as one of the first sport-utility vehicles, said Todd Zuercher, an auto historian and author of the 2019 book "Ford Bronco: A History of Ford's Legendary 4x4."

"The whole thing back then was get out and get away from the hustle and bustle of urban life and get into the backcountry," Zuercher said.

The vehicle was marketed to hunters and fishermen but also to families for exploring, Zuercher said. The Bronco was an improvement over competing models, such as the Jeep CJ-5 and the International Scout, because it had a hard top, a heater and maybe even a radio.

SUVs progressively became larger and more luxurious over the years, Zuercher said, and by time of the Simpson car chase, the Bronco was on its fifth generation.

Simpson also owned a Bronco, but it was seized as evidence after blood was found inside. The one involved in the police pursuit was a 1993 XLT model belonging to his friend, former teammate and the driver that evening, Al "A.C." Cowlings.

'HE WAS CHECKING OUT'

Simpson was charged with murder after his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend Ronald Goldman were found stabbed to death. Simpson failed to surrender to police as promised and was declared a fugitive on June 17, 1994.

He was spotted later in the Bronco with Cowlings, sparking a 60-mile (96-kilometer) police pursuit across Southern California. More than 90 million Americans watched, thunderstruck, as TV helicopters provided live shots of the action. Thousands more lined freeways and city streets, some cheering the former star running back as the bizarre motorcade passed by.

Cowlings said there was only one thing on his mind: keeping Simpson alive.

"He was checking out," Cowlings told The Associated Press in 1996. "There's no way O.J. and I were trying to escape. I was trying to save a friend."

Clutching a family photo, Simpson was ultimately coaxed out of the Bronco and gave himself up in the driveway of his Brentwood home. Police found a gun, Simpson's passport, a fake beard and thousands of dollars in cash and checks in the vehicle.

The make of the vehicle seemed to heighten the drama.

"If it were a Jeep Wrangler, it almost could have been any of us," said Collins, the marketing professor. "But because it was a white Ford Bronco, it stood out. It was a distinctive vehicle with this very distinctive person, O.J. It was still on brand."

SOCCER MOMS WEREN'T DRIVING BRONCOS

There has been speculation that the chase hastened the Bronco's demise, or alternatively that it led to an uptick in sales.

Zuercher, the auto historian, said the Bronco was already on its last legs at the time. As a two-door SUV, it couldn't compete with four-door models that were family-friendly and extremely popular. The Ford Explorer, for example, was a runaway hit when it came out in 1990.

"Most of the soccer moms of the 1990s weren't driving Ford Broncos," Zuercher said. "There were two more model years after the O.J. chase, and then the Bronco was gone for 25 years."

The car-chase Bronco was later bought by three men, one of whom was Simpson's former agent, ESPN reported in 2016. It spent years in a Los Angeles parking garage, among other places, before finding a home at the Alcatraz East Crime Museum in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee.

Besides the Simpson Bronco and Bundy's Beetle, the museum also houses a 1933 Essex Terraplane that belonged to gangster John Dillinger and a 1934 Ford prop car used in the bloody death scene at the end of the 1967 film "Bonnie and Clyde."

Taylor Smart, the museum's marketing director, said there is still an air of mystery surrounding the O.J. pursuit that captivates people, notably the question of, Why did it even happen?

The museum replays the chase on TV screens in the room where the iconic Bronco is parked behind a barrier, allowing visitors to relive the drama as they use cellphones to take snapshots of a slice of American history.

"A lot of people can name the exact bar that they were at" on that day 30 years ago, Smart said. "It was this shared experience with many across America. Everyone kind of has a story to tell of where they were, what they were doing, when that white Bronco chase came on."

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