Since its introduction in 1990, the Ford Explorer has been one of the best-selling SUVs on the market, and after a decade of production, used-vehicle prices couldnt be better. The Explorer also has an aftermarket upgrade potential that seems to be developing more every day.
Early Explorers came out with a 4.0L V-6, two-valve, pushrod engine that produced about 155 hp and offered Twin-Traction Beam suspension. In 1995, Ford completely redesigned this front suspension into a control-arm/torsion-bar independent setup, called an SLA (short and long arm). For four-wheeling purposes, the TTB performs better than the SLA and soaks up the terrain, while the SLA seems to handle better on the street. Lately weve noticed Explorer suspension modifications are becoming more commoneverything from beefing up the TTB suspension to full-on solid-axle swaps. The word is out: Explorers are plentiful, reasonably priced, and easily modified.
The Truckhaven Hills is a barren desert wasteland, located 30 miles south of Palm Springs, California, and an ideal playground for four-wheel-drive vehicles. Situated on the western edge of the Salton Sea, Truckhaven is pure 4x4 heaven. It offers everything from sandy washes, hellacious hill-climbs, and impassable ditches to narrow, rocky, axle-crunching slot canyons. Thousands of acres of badlands are available for exploration. All you need is a capable Ford Explorer and a good sense of direction or a GPS.
Rick Horwitzeditor of Off the Beaten Trail, a Web site dedicated to modified Ford Explorersinvited us to meet him at Truckhaven for the Serious Explorations trail ride. Thirty Ford Explorers came from as far away as Littleton, Colorado, to attend the event and were joined by representatives of Ford Motor Company who had expressed interest in taking a look at the performance of modified Explorers. The Ford team (consisting of personnel from planning, marketing, and manufacturing) arrived in two stock Explorer Sports and one Explorer Sport Trac pickup. They came to test their vehicles alongside the modified ones and to get an understanding of what some folks like to do while they Explore.
At 9 a.m., after a drivers meeting and brief introductions, we hit the trail. The first obstacle of the day was a steep hillclimb with several trails leading to the top and a good place for everyone to get a feel for the terrain. The modified rigs chose the steeper, rutted, and rocky trails while the stockers took the easier routes. The Ford team impressed us all by piloting its unlocked 2001 Sport and Sport Trac through some of the tougher sections, making it to the top after several attempts. After warming up on the hillclimb, the group was eager to find more challenging obstacles. Fortunately, Truckhaven is all about hard-core wheeling and presents surprises at every turn. We meandered throughout the badlands for several hours, pushing the vehicles to the limit.
Trail leader Rick Horwitz made it look easy in his built 93 XL. He has spent a lot of time and effort building a rig that boasts some impressive modifications. For power, Rick added a bored throttlebody, a larger MAS, and a K&N Filtercharger to the 4.0L V-6. The obvious power increase became apparent when all four 33x12.50R15 BFGs on 15x8 Black Mod rims disappeared into a cloud of dust. These relatively mild mods send power down the pipeline to a five-speed manual tranny and an Advance Adapters Atlas II transfer case.
To compensate for the larger tires, Rick installed 4.56:1 gears in the stock front Dana 35 and 8.8-inch rear axles. Both are locked with ARB Air Lockers. A rear stainless steel brake-conversion kit by SSB was added for precise momentum control. He chose 5½-inch Superlift coils, with 3½-inch Rough Country drop brackets to elevate the front of the rig along with FST custom dual front shock hoops and Rancho RS 9000s on each corner. A spring-over axle setup was used in the rear.
Other goodies on this built Explorer include dual Optima batteries, a Smittybilt front bumper with a Ramsey 9000-pound winch, a rear FST bumper with a tire-carrier and jerrycan, a Ready Weld DC MIG-welder, and dual ARB air compressors.
Another impressive rig was owned by Jay Schimek of San Diego, California. Jay was able to negotiate many difficult obstacles with ease, and after a closer inspection, we realized why. His 94 Eddie Bauer Sport had a modified engine that included larger injectors, ported and polished heads, headers, a larger throttlebody, and bigger MAS. This rig crawled up rocky sections with the help of ARB Lockers and 4.56:1 gears. A Superlift 5 ½-inch lift and 3-inch body lift provide plenty of clearance and make room for 33x14 15-inch Boggers. Jay installed a Kenwood CD player along with Alpine amps and Polk speakers for his listening pleasure.
After lunch, we continued to wheel for a couple hours more. The guys from Trail Master impressed us in their lifted 99 Explorer by climbing a rocky ledge without lockers. This proved that moderately altered or even stock Explorers could hold heir own pretty well. The Ford crew was keeping up and having a great time testing its new rigs.
At the end of the day, quite a few memories had been made and maybe a stereotype or two had been shattered. Ford Explorers can be much, much more than soccer-mom daily drivers. Certainly, all the rigs involved with this years Serious Exploration proved that. Likewise, since aftermarket parts are becoming more available as these Fords get sold (and resold) and find their way into the hands of the right four-wheelers, we expect to see more and more of these popular SUVs being built for the trail.