(first posted 3/24/2015) Did you ever notice how seldom I share classics actually found curbside? I’m forever finding old cars and trucks in parking lots. It’s because I live more or less in suburbs. It’s all cul-de-sac neighborhoods and strip malls out here. Three-car garages are the norm; who parks on the street? So when I find a classic, it’s usually in a parking lot. But so seldom do I find such an odd juxtaposition as between a Bed, Bath, and Beyond and a rustbucket 38-year-old Ford F-250. Not the kind of vehicle you’d expect to find in a suburban strip mall, even in Indiana.
This is the angle at which I met this truck, actually. I’m partial to the 1978 and 1979 F-series trucks because my grandpa owned one, a ’78. His was a Ranger, the trim level above the entry-level Custom. Above Grandpa’s truck sat the Ranger XLT and then the Lariat, with increasing levels of what passed for truck luxury then. Curiously, in ’78, Customs got round headlights; the upper trim levels all got rectangular headlights. In ’79, it was rectangles for all Ford trucks. From a distance, I figured this plain white truck had to be a Custom, and so its rectangular headlights pegged it as a ’79.
Yup: Custom. Welcome to the land of rubber floor mats and three on the tree. (Of course, my memory is that by 1979 almost everyone bought the automatic in these.)
But then I spied this detail: an Explorer hood ornament. Ooh! The plot thickens.
Motor Trend photo
For those of you who grew up in the 90s or after, this is an Explorer. It was certainly not the first modern SUV, but from where I sit it was the first one aimed at middle America and as such it became wildly popular. I remember idly watching TV with my girlfriend in 1990 and seeing our first ad for the new Explorer. We weren’t truck or SUV people, but we agreed: it was an enormously attractive package and we’d consider owning one. Then it seemed like the whole gol-danged universe bought them, and being the type who assiduously avoided jumping on bandwagons we banished the idea, never to mention it again.
But even I knew then that Ford had recycled the Explorer name from its full-sized trucks. It was an old Ford trick: they had done the same in naming the compact Ranger in 1983. And why not use a name that already has some equity, some familiarity?
Ranger had a clear place in the Ford truck trim hierarchy: Custom, Ranger, Ranger XLT, and Lariat. At least that’s how it went through most of the 1970s. But Explorer was different. It was an annual limited-time trim-and-options package that could be added to the F-150 or F-250 Custom or Ranger.
A lot of what you got amounted to special paint colors, tape stripes, extra brightwork, carpeted floors, and patterned seat inserts. But you could also “package up” into power steering and an automatic transmission, and even air conditioning and tinted glass.
Available colors varied from year to year. In the early years, you could get the Grabber paints a la Mustang and Maverick. In later years the colors tended toward rich metallic hues like Dark Jade or Mexicali Red. But obviously, in 1979 Ford offered the Explorer package in good old Wimbledon White, and without tape stripes to boot. A strippo Explorer?
At least this one got the plaid seat inserts. And the automatic transmission, meaning that it got at least the “B” package. Not so strippo after all.
And here it was, on an improbable errand to buy household goods in a strip mall in outer suburbia. It would seem more at home on a job site with a bed full of gear. But like comedian George Burns used to say in monologues into his 90s, “It’s good to be here. But at my age, it’s good to be anywhere.”