“Little Mule” Car Chase Is Relevant To Big Three Today

It was a brief action scene in an adventure romance movie directed by a Hollywood newcomer—a newcomer who would go on to become one of America’s best visual storytellers. Mentored by Stephen Spielberg and a pioneer of visual effects himself, Robert Zemeckis’ film, Romancing The Stone, outperformed box office expectations and alerted the Hollywood establishment a new player had arrived.

That was 34 years ago. And today, a brief car chase scene from that 1984 movie could be a foreshadowing of Big Three Auto’s status in the off-road segment. Why? In that 1984 car chase scene, much like the in the off road segment today, GM was unrepresented, Jeep had the numbers, and Ford was the dark horse… err, mule.

1984 was a blockbuster year for American cinema. Movies like Top Gun, Footloose, Sixteen Candles, and The Right Stuff brought in scores of moviegoers. It was also the year an obscure writer-director, Robert Zemeckis, landed his first Hollywood hit. When Romancing The Stone hit theaters March 30th, 1984, expectations were low, but Zemeckis had seemingly perfected a formula for blockbusters, and his film was a surprise hit.

Zemeckis soon became a hot commodity, producing Back to the Future the following year, which stablished DeLorean and Marty McFly as pop culture icons. His blockbuster formula for Romancing the Stone appealed to the imaginations of a wide audience, including this ’80s kid.

It was simple enough. Start with a tropical location, a treasure map, a damsel in distress, a machete-wielding, irreverent hero, and a murderous villain. Throw in a mud slide, a waterfall, a priceless emerald, and some crocodiles. Add a gregarious Columbian drug lord for comedic relief and his tricked-out Ford Bronco named “Little Mule.” Finally, throw in some James Bond-esque gadgetry and make sure the hero gets the girl in the end.

It was Raiders Of The Lost Ark meets Crocodile Dundee with elements of The Goonies and Dukes of Hazzard—and I loved it. Arguably for me though, it was the lovable drug lord Pepe’s 1982 Ford Bronco, christened “Little Mule,” which stole the show. Barreling through muddy streets and crop fields, the little black Bronco outran and out-jumped the villains’ machine gun fitted CJs with attitude. The chase scene culminated (spoiler alert) as “Little Mule” jumped across a river by means of a remote-operated ramp in a stunt performed before CGI effects tainted cinematic car chases. The feat was believable and the black Bronco barely remained upright as it sped away. As a 10-year-old, I was convinced that Little Mule could jump the Lampasas River on my family’s central Texas ranch. I wanted that Bronco. Heck, I still do. Which brings us to today.

For years, the Ford Bronco has been unavailable—since 1996, in fact. A large generation of potential buyers today have likely never even heard of the Bronco, save for an infamous white one with California plates involved in a much slower, albeit more famous car chase; probably not the type of PR Ford wanted.

Meanwhile, the Mopar folks have churned out their off-road-marketed Wrangler year after year, establishing Jeep as the bread and butter of Fiat Chrysler. What was once considered a niche market in the Jeep Wrangler, has now become a staple in the automotive industry and Jeep is its sole spokesperson. The newly released JL Wrangler is selling fast and for years the Jeep brand’s Wrangler has reigned with little to no real competition from Ford or GM. The Wrangler’s only significant competition in recent years has come from Toyota’s FJ Cruiser, which was discontinued in 2014.

Ford has taken its fair share of risks in recent years, such as swapping steel for aluminum and favoring turbo V6s over V8s in their flagship vehicle, the F-150. But Ford seems determined to challenge the Jeep Wrangler JL. Meanwhile, GM is strangely absent from the competition. It may be reviving its Blazer, but thus far it doesn’t appear a legitimate competitor for the Wrangler or the future Bronco. With no comparable vehicle in the foreseeable future to compete with the Wrangler or the Bronco, GM is missing an opportunity to market off-roaders (and mall crawlers) by not creating a retro-themed K5/K10 Blazer.

Growth in the off-road segment is showing no signs of slowing. For fans of the original Bronco, recent teasers from Ford are titillating, with classic lines paying homage to the ’60s and ’70s era Bronco. As many Bronco fans have hoped, it appears the 2020 Bronco may closely resemble the concept vehicle which debuted in Detroit in 2004.

Ford's upcoming 2020 Bronco, as it was recently "revealed." The shape is similar to the 2004 Bronco concept unveiled in Detroit over a decade ago.

Ford has a potential blockbuster, a game-changer if it gets it right, but Jeep has the numbers, the greater history, and the throne. Meanwhile, GM is content to simply have the Colorado ZR2 compete against the Tacoma, and pay lip service to off-roaders with packages like the Silverado Trail Boss.

Will the Bronco be a worthy successor to its lineage? One can only hope. In the meantime, I’ve got a hankering to look for a 1982 Bronco in all-black…

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