(First posted August 11, 2013) Towards the fall of 1998, I’d started to realize that my switching jobs earlier in the year had been a very wise move. As a Print Broker during the rise of the dotcom boom in Northern California, it’s almost as if we were printing money instead of marketing collateral. So being somewhat flush, we decided to do what everyone else seemed to be doing at the time and look for a Ford Explorer.
My wife-to-be’s parents had succumbed to the trend a couple of years earlier, and I always enjoyed driving their ’96 when we visited them. Since it was late summer, traditionally the time when sales promotions started, Ford was offering 0.9% financing over 48 months. Seeing as how it was pretty easy to get a nearly 5% return at the local banks then, and we actually had the cash available to buy it outright, it seemed like a great deal – park the money in the bank, earn 5% on it and every month, send in a payment based on a 0.9% interest rate.
We were pretty particular about what we wanted–the XLT trim level, in Light Denim Blue with a gray fabric interior–and I insisted on the V-8 model which came with standard all-wheel drive. Since it was getting close to the end of the model year we ended up looking all over the Bay Area but ended up finding the perfect one at San Bruno Ford, some 15 minutes away from our home.
And so it happened: According to the copy of the purchase contract in front of me, on October 31, 1998 we became the proud owners of a 1998 Ford Explorer V8, for the sales price of $26,750 and a total price of $30,124.64 including tax, title, and license, of which we financed all but $2,000.
The document shows that over the next four years, we’d be paying Ford Credit just over $500 in TOTAL interest, the bank would be paying us 5% just to keep our money with them, and we’d simply send in the payment every month. Looking back, that seems like a huge amount of money for 15 years ago…(Update: the first two pictures in this post are of it the day we (very proudly) brought it home, I finally found my missing box of pictures)
For 1998, Ford had redesigned the body slightly, most obviously at the rear, which had a very different lift-gate design than before. The front was pretty much the same at it had been since 1996, and the interior was a little bit different, mainly in the seat design.
Ours had running boards, as my wife is on the shorter side, and inside we specifically wanted cloth seats, having looked at used Explorers before deciding on a new one and noting that Ford’s leather didn’t seem to hold up nearly as well as their cloth, even on very low-mileage vehicles. Having no kids and just one dog this did not seem to be an issue, never mind that the dog (who is still with us at 15 years of age, go Melbourne! (update: She sadly passed away in the summer of 2015, a couple of years after this was first posted, best dog ever)) vomited in it on her third trip–thankfully, back in the cargo area.
The V8 was the 5.0 “Windsor” engine, which was paired with Ford’s four-speed 4R70W transmission. It was a great combination; 215 hp, lots of low-end torque (280 ft/lb), nice rumbling engine noise and low-rpm highway cruising. Never mind that it averaged maybe 14 mpg around town and struggled to hit 17 on the highway; gas was still very cheap and 9/11 was still three years away. Nobody really cared about gas mileage then; even though we had some of the highest fuel prices in the nation, regular was still under $1.25/gallon.
We certainly did not need a V8, but it was a luxury I wanted at the time. Weight is listed at 4,166 lbs. (much lighter than I’d assumed until I looked it up), a couple of hundred pounds heavier than the V6 version. What was nice about the V8s was that instead of the manual 4WD system, they came with an automatic AWD system where you would keep the switch in “Auto” and the car would figure out what was needed. And while you could override it, really, for about 99% of the populace an automatic AWD system is the way to go.
What else did we have? Well, I recall it came with a 2” towing ball and wiring harness tucked into a cardboard box in the rear interior body side. Which is where they remained the entire time we had it. We did use the CD player it came with a lot as the sound system was quite good for the time. Everything was power-operated and the floor mats were nice and plush, but we covered them with a full set of Husky Liners to make it easier to keep clean.
ABS was standard, and it came in handy more than once as stopping distances definitely seemed on the long side compared to what we were used to. It happened to come with the automatic headlight option, which was nice but not used much, as I prefer to stay in control of the lights. And, of course, a nice little set of V8 badges adorned the front fenders.
What everyone remembers about this generation of Explorer is, of course, the Firestone tire fiasco; ours was not immune. The recall occurred when we had put around 18,000 miles on the vehicle, and we got a letter stating that if we were affected we could either schedule an appointment with any Ford dealer for tire replacement, or source our own tires and be reimbursed. OK, our tires were getting a bit worn, and this would work out well if we were part of the recall. I crawled under the truck, and on the inside walls of the tires saw the code that indicated we were part of the recall.
Of course, we soon found that no Ford dealer actually had enough tires to satisfy the demand. They were quoting dates well over a month from then to get replacement tires, but admitted they really were not sure how long it would take. After calling literally about 30 different tire shops, I found one about 20 miles away that had a set in the correct size. They promised to hold them for one day only, and otherwise they’d give them to the next guy who came looking. I went down there and came back with a set of Dunlop Radial Rovers, in the correct size, and a receipt for about $500. I sent the paperwork to Ford and got a check a few weeks later. I think all in all they certainly handled the recall part of the situation pretty well.
As it turned out, about a month after we got the Explorer we started searching for (and quickly found) a home to buy out in Dublin, on the far side of the Bay Area. Knowing what I know now, it’s a very bad idea to take on a car payment before applying for a mortgage, since it significantly reduces what you can afford to buy via a home mortgage, but it worked out for us and probably kept us from buying more house than we needed.
A few months after moving in, Allison’s sister visited. One day she borrowed the Explorer, and upon returning misjudged the garage entrance and somehow rubbed the rear fender against the trim. I assured her it was OK, no big deal, it’s just a car, let’s eat dinner etc.–and then, as soon as she departed for the airport, I was in the garage with my rubbing compound and applicator sponges freaking out over it. It turned out to be mostly a matter of paint transfer onto the fender. The paint rubbed out and the slight crease in the sheet metal was not noticeable to anyone not looking for it.
This was the second brand-new car either of us had ever had, and overall it was excellent. Ford had built a very popular, very well-made product. I think we had one tail light bulb go out, and it was promptly replaced by the dealer–and of course, the tire thing. Otherwise, our Explorer was a champ.
Two years after we bought it we moved again, to Oakland this time, and decided that although the Explorer was great we were ready for a change after almost 30,000 miles. We advertised it, and it sold fairly quickly to another young couple for $18,500. With the tire fiasco still fresh in peoples’ minds, Explorers had taken a hit on resale value and besides, gas prices were rising. Thank goodness we had that low interest rate, for without it we would have been upside down on the note.
As it turned out, we ended up with a few thousand dollars left over. Yeah, we took most of the depreciation hit, but we had a good experience with it and realized that America still knew how to build a darn good vehicle when it was inclined to do so. I have no doubt that the truck is still on the road somewhere in Northern California.