Curbside Classic: Ford Expedition – My Introduction To Excess

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Bigger is better. While this phrase isn’t always true, there is no denying that the Ford Expedition was, and still is, one big vehicle. My reaction upon seeing an Expedition for the first time was pure awe. To my young four year-old eyes, it was the largest car I had ever seen! And even more intriguing, it was sitting in my own driveway. Where could this beast have possibly come from?

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The Expedition I am referring to is the white 1997 Eddie Bauer that was owned my uncle. Still a year away from my first subscription to Automobile Magazine, and several years away from using the internet, back then I generally didn’t know about a new car until I saw it on the road. So the first time I ever saw an Expedition was when it pulled into my driveway and I watched my uncle and cousins climb down from it.

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To me the Expedition was a giant, and rightfully so. At 78.6 inches wide, 76.4 inches tall, and 204.6 inches long, the Expedition dwarfed my mom’s Grand Cherokee in the driveway. Even its closest competitor, the Chevy Tahoe, was several inches smaller in every dimension. And although considerably longer, the Chevy Suburban was still shorter and narrower than the pudgier Expedition.

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I’ll have to be honest when I say that I was slightly afraid of this behemoth, for which illuminated running boards were required to climb up into its cavernous confines. I denied my mom’s invitation to go with her and my uncle for ride around the block in it. It was not until my cousins’ talk of tinted windows so dark that people outside couldn’t see in, that I was lured into the wonders of the Expedition.

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Upon embarking on my expedition up into this massive car, all my uncertainties of it were instantly quelled as I marveled over its commanding view, supple tan leather seats, and its third row seat–the feature that excited me most. Never before had I seen such a feature in an SUV, let alone one that was perched even higher than the first two rows, allowing me to feel like I was higher than any other car on the road.

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As the months progressed after that first encounter, I made it my mission to snag a ride in the Expedition every possible chance. That next summer gave me many rides in the Expedition, as my whole family spent a great deal of our summers together on the Cape. Though the novelty wore off, I still never passed up an opportunity to ride in that gargantuan.

The opening scene of “Vegas Vacation”, where Clark Griswald recklessly drives his 1997 Expedition through his suburban neighborhood.

There’s a quality of added value when riding in an SUV of this size that other cars can’t offer. Some would call it an added sense of security. I prefer to call it egotism. While it is true that in most collisions between a full-size SUV and a mid-size sedan, one’s chances of safety are greater in the SUV, there’s no denying the sense of power one feels behind the wheel of one of these goliaths. This feeling of power alone played (and continues to play) a huge factor in why people choose to purchase a full-size body-on-frame SUV over a less macho crossover or minivan.

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As I alluded to earlier, the Expedition was Ford’s response the Chevrolet Tahoe and GMC Yukon, and to some extent the 3-row Chevrolet/GMC Suburban. Although Ford’s Bronco had competed with the 2-door K5 Blazer and Jimmy for two decades, the introduction of the 4-door Tahoe and Yukon in 1995 left Ford with a gaping hole in its SUV lineup. Add that to the declining popularity of 2-door SUVs, and it was only natural for Ford to counterattack with the Expedition.

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Heavily based on the all-new F-150 pickup, the Expedition shared a full 50 percent of its components with the F-150. With the exception of the grille, the two were identical from the windshield forward. Moving rearward, things differed to a greater degree. Shortened front doors allowed for wide rear doors for easy access to the second and third rows. Additionally the beltline was lowered on the Expedition for better visibility. Explorer-influenced styling was much rounder than GM’s SUVs, giving way to a slightly bulkier appearance.

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When it arrived in showrooms in late 1996, the Expedition could be purchased in XLT or more luxurious Eddie Bauer trim, in either 2WD or All-Wheel Drive, and with a choice of two V8s each with their own 4-speed automatics. Standard power was the 4.6L SOHC Triton V8. Rated at a rather measly 215 horsepower and 290 lb·ft of torque, a 230 horsepower and 325 lb·ft of torque 5.4L Triton V8 was optional for those wanting a bit more pickup and towing ability. Output on both engines would be increased in 1999.

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The aforementioned all-wheel drive models used a revised version of Ford’s BorgWarner-developed ControlTrac. Coupled with a 2-speed transfer case and offering four drive modes, this system was the first all-wheel drive system to not require a planetary or bevel geared center differential. Instead, it used an advanced software-controlled locking center multi-disc differential.

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On the inside, the Expedition could seat up to nine passengers in all three of its rows. Its very swoopy dash and door panel design was also taken from the F-150. While it contained a lot of hard, monotone plastic by today’s standards, luxury was not the Expedition’s main mission. This area would be addressed with the Lincoln Navigator the following year. Still, the Expedition was an inviting place to be with its smooth ride, acres of space, and its commanding leather thrones.

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The Expedition was an instant sales success, selling over 200,000 examples annually in its first several years, and outselling the Tahoe/Yukon duo combined. But alas, Ford was still rolling with the bigger is better mantra, and would not remain outsized by the larger Suburban. The Excursion was the solution to this, but that car is so big it needs its own CC to talk about.

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The Expedition carried on with minor updates until 2003, when it was given its first (and to this date, most visually extensive) redesign. This was around the time when gas prices started to soar, and sales have steadily declined over the past decade.

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As for my uncle’s Expedition, it only lasted about 3 years in his ownership before he traded it in for something a bit smaller. However, I should add that another uncle and aunt of mine owned a red Expedition Eddie Bauer that they purchased new in 1998. They kept theirs for over a decade until if finally bit the dust. While I am certainly less enamored with the Expedition today, the sight of one will always remind me of my rather religious experience with it.