The year was 1985. Just a year earlier, famous auto exec and future Chrysler and GM product Czar Bob Lutz had returned to Dearborn, Michigan. He was still working for Ford then, and fresh off a stint in Germany where, among other things, he had shepherded the creation of the Ford Sierra. In the early eighties, he was VP of international operations at Ford and seemed destined for the chairmanship.
His star waned in 1983-84 thanks to sales trouble in Europe and internal squabbles, and in March of ‘85 he found himself in Michigan heading up Ford’s truck division.
He’d be there just 15 months (during which time he was passed over for both Ford’s chairmanship and Presidency), but in that time, he and product planner Stephen Ross came up with Ford’s brightest domestic 1990s star – the Explorer.
Mama Fratelli’s Hot Rod
To know what inspired the Explorer, look no further than one of the summer of ‘85’s most popular movies: The Goonies.
Anne Ramsey’s Mama Fratelli used the hottest new SUV around and the film even showcased it alongside what people thought of as “four wheel drives back then – Jeep’s era-defining XJ Cherokee. Until that time, villainous movie getaway cars had usually been sports cars or big luxury sedans.
Notably, the Fratellis did not use Ford’s tall and narrow 2-door Bronco II.
Every manufacturer could see how popular the Cherokee was and having been beaten by Chrysler to the Minivan punch, Ford was eager not to be left behind on “family” SUVs.
“Everybody was panicking because the Cherokee was taking off and starting to sell really well, and there was this intense desire to have a four-door sport-utility because that was the hot thing. I said, “Let’s really take our time on this; we have $400 million to spend,” Lutz later told Automotive News.
To top Jeep, Lutz understood, Ford would need its own Cherokee, so the first proposal was for a 4-door Bronco II or a brand new 4-door SUV. The latter was too expensive and too risky, said Ross later – an entirely new platform would have delayed the project by at least three years and cost millions more. Studies began in late 1985 for a stretched II.
Bronco II to Explorer
The narrow, tall proportions of the Bronco II were exaggerated on this early prototype, so Ford designed a new shell using the Ranger/Bronco II mechanical pieces. It would be wider and larger overall, with a wider track. That saved cash and allowed the new SUV – still called Bronco II at that stage – to be built at the Ranger factory in Kentucky.
The new shell, in clay mockup, was shown to customer clinics in both 2-door and 4-door form, and the reviewers there actually preferred the 2-door, but Ford was going to build both regardless, and in the end the 4-door would be the dominant seller by far.
The clinics, according to Lutz, preferred the new-look truck to the Cherokee – thinking it looked more rugged and bigger (though it wasn’t much larger). Image, not necessarily utility, was key to its success.
Lutz departed in the summer of 1986 for Chrysler and the truck was christened “Explorer” under Ross. Bowing in March, 1990, it was an immediate cash cow for Ford; with profits of up to $8,000 per vehicle.
By tying it so closely to the Ranger, much money was saved – which meant it was very cheap to produce but sold at a premium because demand was so high. A perfect recipe for a high-profit seller but, of course, with some trade-offs.
However, putting the truck on the Ranger platform also made it a traditional body-on-frame truck in a way the Cherokee wasn’t. It drove more like a truck and it was heavier and thirstier. The heavy body also meant lower payload limits than the Ranger. The new truck couldn’t haul much more than a Taurus wagon.
It would be offered only with a 4.0L Cologne V6, mated to an auto or a Mazda-sourced 5-speed, though the latter would be rarely seen. It was rear-drive in standard form, but could be ordered with part-time 4WD.
Inside it had a plusher interior than any pickup or the outgoing Bronco II, and had a softer ride and more car-like features.
Explorers mostly replaced station wagons, and being a proper truck (albeit a small one), some drivers had a hard time adjusting to tall and heavy truck – which would come back to haunt Ford; especially during the Firestone tire debacle in 1998.
Because the Explorer was the best selling SUV of all at the peak of SUV mania in the 1990s, it was also the most visible example for critics to seize on (at least until the Hummer H2). That meant it was frequently criticized for being an “on road SUV” and for having roll-happy tendencies even though it was not the worst SUV around in this regard.
Criticism of the truck’s off-road bona-fides really didn’t matter to Ford. In the early 1990s the Explorer was a gold mine and it remained that for a decade.
Most were family workhorses, designed with Lutz’s exact goal in mind – providing something that looked and felt rugged and individualistic but served the function of a minivan or station wagon. Some people really did take their Explorers into the wild a-la Jurassic Park, but most were for suburbia.
Since the mechanical configuration did not change very much during the run, what did change was trim levels – as Ford found ways to make even more profitable premium versions of the truck. The most famous of these was the Eddie Bauer edition, the top-spec until 1993. The blackout-trim “Sport” replaced the Bronco II, though far fewer Explorer Sports were modified for trail duty than Bronco II’s had been.
The ultimate mk1 Explorer was the 1993-94 Limited, with a luxury interior (complete with several pieces unique to the Limited such as roof console), fog lights, special alloy wheels, and body color trim.
Within 18 months there was also a rebadged Mazda version, the Navajo, for North America only.
It’s easy to forget that the mk1 Explorer is now nearly 30 years old. It still seems very familiar as a new-ish car because so many Explorers were sold in the 1990s; but early ones and nice ones are not so common now. Eventually, the Explorer migrated to a car-based platform.
We saw this very nice Mk1 Limited time time ago at Griot’s Garage.