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1999 Ford Explorer 4x4 - Re-Frame, Re-Focus

Posted in Features on February 24, 2014 Comment (0)
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“I’ve got some bad news,” Matt Cawley’s voice dejectedly declared over the phone. “I was in an accident tonight. I’m fine, but the Ranger’s not.”

Matt’s 2000 Ford Ranger 4x4 was coming along nicely, and we’d planned a photo session. A Dixon Bros. Racing long-travel kit handled terra firma duty up front, while a Giant Motorsports long-travel spring-under leaf spring kit was the key to handling the bumps out back. A custom bed cage, custom front bumper, and fiberglass fenders and bedsides were among the other parts that made it both a dirt-worthy ride and a competent daily driver. A full rollcage was the project’s next big step. Then the accident happened.

In the days following the impact, aches and pains reared their ugly heads. The first pains were physical. The second pains were emotional. The Ranger had taken planning, patience, and paychecks. Now it was sitting in a tow yard with a bent frame and other damage.

What next? Matt considered his options. At first, he just wanted to walk away from repeating any sort of off-road truck project, especially one that he’d regularly drive on the street. Who knows what sort of crazy driver might smash into the next project vehicle?

Gradually, the off-road bug began nibbling anew, then biting. The infection was terminal, and there was only one solution: Salvage the good parts off the Ranger and start a new build. By that time, he’d decided an SUV made more sense for him than a pickup truck. As a husband and a father of four, Matt could see an SUV would provide a better way to share off-roading with the rest of his family. On top of that, an SUV offers a vast amount of weather-protected, lockable storage space, perfect for multi-day off-road camping trips. SUV it was.

Somehow, Matt was able to move before the T-Rex took a bite.

It turns out ’95-to-’01 Ford Explorers share their front suspension with ’98-and-newer Ranger Edge and 4x4 models. As such, the Dixon long-travel system could be transferred to an Explorer. The Giant rear suspension system wasn’t designed for an Explorer, but with the right fabricator’s help, perhaps it could be adapted.

Plans in the works, Matt looked around for a suitable secondhand Explorer. As a resident of Tucson, Arizona, Matt had plenty of local rust-free local vehicles to choose from. He decided to go a different route, though. His parents owned a high-mileage 1999 Explorer and were getting ready to retire it in favor of something newer with fewer miles. Even though there were quite a few miles on his parents’ Explorer, they’d owned it since new and had taken good care of it. This added up to peace of mind and was the deciding factor. Parents and son worked out a deal, met, and made a handoff.

During the winter, Utah roads are salted to melt the snow, and body rust is sometimes a problem for vehicles in that state. The Explorer had lived its entire life thus far in Utah. Yes, it had a few rust spots, but they were all on the surface and the “body cancer” was still benign. The bone-stock Explorer was about to begin a second career.

The Dixon Bros Racing long-travel front suspension was transferred from the wrecked Ranger. Matt selected dual ADS shocks because ADS is a local company in Tucson, Arizona, and because ADS offers excellent quality and equally impressive customer service. The Dixon Bros. lower control arms came with coilover mounts only, so Smitty fabricated and installed custom mounting tabs for the bypass shocks. The lower spring seats on the coilover shocks are custom creations, too. Hank Norush machined them from billet aluminum, and they clear the tie rods at every steering angle. Wheel travel measures 14 inches, complete with functional four-wheel drive.

Finding a fabricator wasn’t difficult. “Smitty,” a local fabricator in Tucson, had built the bed cage for Matt’s Ranger and was both able and willing to build the Explorer. The plans called for a full rollcage, transferring the suspension from the Ranger, and mounting Explorer-specific flared fiberglass fenders and bedsides.

Every good project needs a deadline. Matt and Smitty agreed to make the 2013 Off-Road Expo the goal. The Explorer didn’t need to be completely finished, but it needed to be drivable by then, and the fiberglass fenders and bedsides painted.

Smitty made it happen, painted fiberglass and all. The SUV’s transformation was successful and undeniable. Matt Cawley’s off-road project had been re-framed and re-focused. An Explorer picked up where a Ranger had left off.

Specs
Vehicle: 1999 Ford Explorer 4x4
Owner/Hometown: Matt Cawley/Tucson, Arizona
Engine: Ford 4.0 SOHC V-6
Induction: Stock EFI
Transmission: 5R55E automatic
Transfer case: Borg-Warner 4405
Front end: Dixon Bros Racing long-travel kit, 8-inch-stroke, 2.5-inch diameter ADS coilover and bypass shocks, 14 inches of wheel travel
Rear end: Giant Motorsports 64-inch leaf spring long-travel kit adapted to the Explorer, ADS 16-inch stroke, three-tube bypass shocks, 2003 Harley Davidson-edition F-150 rear axle
Wheel travel: 18 inches
Ring-and-pinion: 4.88:1. Gears installed by Daryll at Lloyd’s Transmission, Tucson, Arizona
Tires: 315/70R17 BFGoodrich All-Terrain T/A KO
Wheels/Backspacing: 17x8.5-inch Model 72 MB/4.5 inches

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