Not to impugn its impact on the automotive industry in any way, but the Taurus is not the most influential Ford of the past thirty years. While the Taurus once again wakened the idea that an American family car could successfully exhibit a trendsetting design, apart from its styling, the Taurus’ basic premise as a six-passenger sedan and eight-passenger wagon wasn’t a new concept for Ford. However, the same cannot be said about another Ford introduced just a few years later.
The 1980s saw one of the most tremendous shakeups in the American automotive industry since the 1950s. Big cars and four barrel carburetors were out, front-wheel drive and electronic fuel injection were in. Muscle cars were all but dead, replaced by smaller sports coupes, many of them powered by turbo four-cylinder engines. To put things in perspective take the Chrysler New Yorker. In only five years, Chrysler’s flagship nameplate lost over 45 inches in length and saw its standard engine go from a 7.2L V8 to a 2.2L four cylinder.
The dramatic shift in consumer tastes was probably more drastic than any other period in automotive history. The popularity of imports skyrocketed, in both the mainstream and luxury classes. The demographic of consumers buying 2-door Cutlasses a decade earlier were now buying 4-door Accords. The very definition of a luxury car took on a dual meaning, as America was now seeing nearly as many expensive European luxury sedans offering firm bucket seats, taut handling, and cockpit interiors as it was soft, pillowy Cadillacs with wire wheels and vinyl roofs.
Although American automakers were losing market share against European and Japanese manufacturers for passenger cars, they still owned the light truck market, and continue to do so today. With vehicles classified as light trucks subject to less stringent corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards, increasing production of these vehicles was an even more attractive option to U.S. automakers.
The full-size sedan and to a far greater extent the full-size station wagon, what had once been the quintessential family vehicles, were rapidly falling out of favor among the buying majority. Although the characteristically higher image-conscious import buyers could find solace in Volvo and Mercedes wagons, even middle Americans were growing ever aware that the full-size American station wagon was totally “un-tubular”.
Two types of vehicles emerged as the spiritual successors to the full-size family station wagon. The first (or chronologically, the second) vehicle was the minivan. As it’s been well-documented on this site before, Chrysler basically created the minivan in 1983, and owned this segment for the next two decades. The other type of vehicle was of course the 4-door SUV.
Although SUVs had been around for decades, with Ford’s own Bronco greatly helping make the SUV somewhat mainstream in the 1960s, SUVs, which were predominately 2-door until the 1980s, were still largely seen as either recreational vehicles or as necessary transportation for those who lived in snowy, mountainous areas — not as a practical and logical family vehicle for average Americans. But that was all about to change.
During the 1980s, the image of the SUV changed from one that was purely utilitarian to one that was fashionable. Helped by the introduction of compact SUVs including the S-10 Chevy Blazer/S-15 GMC Jimmy, Ford’s own Bronco II, and most notably the XJ Jeep Cherokee which was available with four doors, SUVs became as routine sights in mall parking lots as they were at national parks.
Roughly the same size as the original Bronco, the Ranger-based Bronco II failed to achieve the same success as its Jeep Cherokee rival — partly due to its smaller size and lack of a four-door “family friendly” model, and partly because of its quickly damaged reputation, a result of its high tendency to roll over. As the ’80s progressed, consumer preference rapidly shifted from two to four doors, and SUVs were not immune to this trend.
Going back to the drawing boards and improving upon the Bronco II’s inadequacies, Ford created what would soon prove to be their smash-hit of the 1990s, and a vehicle that would influence the coming decades right up to the present like few other vehicles have done. Called the “Bronco II four-door” during early development, this vehicle was ultimately christened as the Explorer, but in hindsight, Ford would’ve been more apt to call it the “Conqueror”.
Like the Bronco II, the Explorer was derived from the Ranger pickup. In fact, all three vehicles shared the same headlights, front-end styling, and dashboard. Unlike the Bronco II, the Explorer sat some 2.5 inches lower, 2 inches wider, rode on a substantially longer wheelbases (longest in class at 102.1 inches for the 2-door and 111.9 for the 4-door), and improved structural rigidity, all for better road mannerisms and increased (but still not perfect) safety when it came to rollover risk. Ahem, Firestone.
Taking a play out of Jeep’s book, Ford chose wisely in offering the Explorer with four doors, and focusing marketing around the 4-door model. At 184.3 inches long, the 4-door Explorer measured nearly a foot-and-a-half longer than the XJ Cherokee, and eight inches longer than the newly-introduced 4-door versions of the Chevy Blazer and GMC Jimmy.
With more space, more power, more car-like ride and handling (thanks to a relatively soft suspension), interiors that offered greater comfort and better materials, and utilizing many newer components, the Explorer quickly became the benchmark of its class, and sales immediately took off.
Explorers were naturally available with the ever-important four-wheel drive. This part-time system used a Borg Warner electronic transfer case, and featured an independent front suspension (via Ford’s “Twin Traction Beam” system) and a solid beam rear axle with optional limited-slip differential. Unlike competitors, Ford offered simple push-button controls located on the instrument panel, allowing drivers to shift on the fly into 2- or 4-wheel drive. Permanent rear-wheel drive-only models were available for those living outside the snowbelt.
Front and rear anti-roll bars, anti-lock front disc/rear drum brakes, power steering, and skid plates were also standard. Transmission choices were either a 5-speed manual or 4-speed automatic with overdrive. Regardless of transmission, all Explorers were powered by the same pushrod 4.0L Cologne V6, initially producing 155 horsepower (later, 160) and either 220 lb-ft of torque with the automatic or 225 lb-ft with the manual.
Unlike the GM triplets (which as of 1991 also included the luxury Oldsmobile Bravada), but much in the way of Jeep, the Ford Explorer covered all bases in terms of trim levels, ranging from the spartan XL with knitted vinyl seats and manual crank windows to the luxurious Eddie Bauer with its lower gold cladding and sport leather buckets.
Inspired by the Jeep Cherokee Limited, but introduced in response to the all-new Jeep Grand Cherokee’s Limited trim level, from 1993-on, Ford offered the ultra-luxe Limited, with its monochromatic exterior appearance, unique grille and lower body cladding, special cast aluminum wheels, and unique front buckets with driver’s three-position memory and premium gathered leather seating surfaces with contrast piping and velour seat back inserts, exclusively on Explorer 4-doors.
Like Chevy and GMC, but unlike Jeep, 4-door Explorers were available with a front 60/40 split bench seat, bringing seating capacity to six. A rarely-seen option, this front bench seat was only available in base XL and mid-level XLT trims, and a further nod to the notion that many Explorers were purchased not merely to haul a carload of kids, but for more hedonistic values.
Even in base trim, the Explorer’s interior was generally a more pleasant environment to spend time in than its competitors. With as much of an ergonomic “cockpit” styled interior as was possible in a truck-based vehicle, the Explorer’s interior not only looked, but felt higher quality and more contemporary than its rivals, whose interiors dated back to the early-1980s.
And this was part of the draw of the Ford Explorer – its interior was among the most car-like in its class, making it appeal to buyers who had never owned an SUV or truck before. Car-like ride and handling, and the Explorer’s physical size, were also major pluses, as this translated to easy maneuverability and familiar sensations to Americans coming from traditional big cars and wagons.
In fact, the Explorer was actually shorter and narrower than a concurrent Taurus, and it was some seven inches lower in overall height than a full-size Bronco, ensuring its easy fit in both parking spaces and suburban garages. Furthermore, what the Taurus did not have was the Explorer’s commanding view of the road and go-anywhere capability. And oh, did the Explorer go places.
Introduced in March 1990 as a 1991 model, sales of the Explorer already reached 140,000 in the U.S. before 1991 even began. Selling above 275,000 units annually for the next four years (about 100,000 more than either the Blazer or Cherokee), it was clear that Ford was onto something with the Explorer, and other automakers scurried to release improved or totally new sport utility vehicles to capitalize on this very lucrative market that was growing with no end in sight.
The minivan may have been the prodigal sensation of the 1980s, but as Ford’s own literature stated, SUVs were “fast becoming the vehicles of the nineties”. With few automakers having yet succeeded in perfecting their minivans, they quickly moved on to developing SUVs, which were not only far easier to execute, but represented higher profit margins.
With the economy reaching new heights, wallets getting fatter, and gas prices remaining at low levels, conspicuous consumption was on the rise and the SUV was the new symbol of the American dream. Starting at $13,820 ($22,402 adjusted) for a base rear-wheel drive XL 2-door in 1991, prices had risen to $17,770 ($28,805) for this same model by 1994.
The more popular four-wheel drive, 4-door Explorers started at $16,393 ($26,573) in XL form in 1991, rising to $20,430 ($33,117) by 1994, with the range-topping Limited four-wheel drive beginning at $28,710 ($46,539) that year. By comparison, a 2016 base front-wheel drive Explorer starts at $31,160 and a 2016 four-wheel drive Explorer Platinum starts at $53,235.
Although the Ford Explorer was by no means single handedly responsible for the SUV craze, it deserves much of the credit for being the vehicle that brought the SUV into the mainstream. Transforming the SUV from a rugged alternative to a wagon or minivan to the preferred choice in two-box design vehicles, the Explorer’s appeal was widespread, spanning from young single adults to families with children to empty nesters.
Upon the Explorer’s release, SUV sales in the U.S. began increasing at an exponential pace, becoming the fastest growing segment in the auto industry. Representing just 7-percent of total vehicles sales in the U.S. in 1990, this number had grown 19-percent by 1999, and continued growing at rapid pace until gas prices took a sharp turn upward in the early-to-mid-2000s. With fuel economy once again a major concern of both automakers and consumers, it looked as if the days of the SUV might be numbered.
But even high gas prices couldn’t weaken Americans’ passionate love affair with their SUVs, and automakers soon found a way to greatly improve their SUVs in this area, by basing them on front-wheel drive car platforms as opposed to rear-wheel drive truck platforms. In doing this, the positive attributes of the traditional SUV were retained: high seating position, commanding view, rugged looks, generous interior space, and available all-wheel drive.
Although they didn’t have the same off-road capability, the fact of the matter was that few owners ever took their SUVs off-road, using them as grocery-getters instead. And by utilizing platforms that also underpinned front-wheel drive sedans, these “crossover” SUVs offered substantially better fuel economy, improved car-like handing and ride quality, and greater space utilization, much in the way of a minivan but with somewhat more of the macho appearance SUV buyers preferred.
As for the Explorer, it achieved its highest annual sales during 2000 at 445,157 units, the second-to-last year of its second generation. As one of the pioneers of the segment, Ford stuck with its rear-wheel drive, body-on-frame layout longer than most competitors through the 2010 model year, by which point sales had decreased to their lowest levels ever, in 50,000-60,000 range.
An all-new fifth generation Explorer was released for the 2011 model year, now riding on the Taurus’ Volvo-derived front-wheel drive unibody platform, and soon offering four-cylinder power for the first time. Offering numerous enhancements and refinements over previous generations, the fifth and current generation Explorer has seen its sales increase every year since its introduction, selling 224,309 units in 2015, its highest since 2005.
As of 2016, it is the fifth best-selling SUV/CUV in the U.S., and the best-selling mid-t0-large sized SUV/CUV. Additionally, SUVs (including crossovers) now account for the greatest percentage of new car sales in the U.S. among any bodystyle. Apparently Ford was onto something with the Explorer back in 1990.
Oregon Ford Explorer XLT photos by Paul N.
1984 Ford Bronco II (COAL)
1998 Ford Explorer (COAL)