I too am an ex-Jeeper. I've owned a 1991 YJ, 1993 YJ (built up), and 1997 TJ (built up). Like you, I've always wanted a Bronco. I ended up buying a black 1996 Bronco XLT about 3 weeks ago. It has a 5.0L-302, auto tranny, floor shifted t-case, Dana 44 front, and 9" out back with 3.55 gears. Recently, I had a 4" Superlift suspension installed on it to clear 35" General Grabber MT's on 15 x 10 Daytona rims.
First off, let me tell you that a 4" suspension lift is not enough room for 35" tires on 10" wide rims w/4" of back spacing. My front tires hit the front bumper when I turned. I had to use a Sawzall on the front bumper to make some room. Eventually, I will add another 2 inches of lift...probably a body lift.
One of the first things I learned from many Bronco guys was that I needed to swap out the auto hubs for a set of Warn premium manual hubs. These run about $79.99, but you also need to purchase a spindle nut conversion for another $29.99. I have the hubs at home waiting to go on. Probably this Saturday.
From what I've heard, you can put as much as a 6" lift without having to worry about any driveline problems. I guess the stock d-shafts are more than adequate for this much lift.
As for the 302 and 3.55 gears in my Bronco, I like them. Even with my 35" tires. Sure, I would love top upgrade to 4.10's or 4.56's, but that'll be later on once I get the funds together.
As for t-case activation, I think that's up to you. Personally, I like the shifter on the floor. Others like the push button.
When you're looking for a Bronco, just remember the basics. Be sure to check for rust or body damage. Crawl under the vehicle and check for any leaks. Check under the hood. Drive the vehicle. Make sure to try every gear. Ask the owner or dealer if they would mind if you stepped on the gas a bit to see how it performs. Check the brakes...slam on them if you have to. Test the t-case by putting it into 4 wheel drive. Make sure that the A/C & heat work to their fullest. Check to make sure that all of the power door locks and windows work...check the back window.
When I bought my Bronco from a dealer, I gave it a thourough look over. Mine only had 43K on it and was super clean. Not a spot or dent on it. Even the underside was super spotless. It turns out that a lady owned it and took very good care of it. In fact, I was lucky enough to get the original owners manual and window sticker.
Good luck on your search!
By the way, be sure to check out the many big Bronco web sites as well as some good Ford sites....
(check out their mailing list)
(club with chapters all over the place)
1996 Bronco XLT
35" General Grabber MT's on 15x10 Daytonas