Mitch Bergstom has built a host of Fords over the years, but not the high-dollar Early Broncos or Raptors that are commonly associated with off-roading. Mitch’s budget led him to build a Bronco II, a first-generation Explorer, and a Ranger before bringing home this 1996 Ford Explorer. It wasn’t long before the IFS was torched out and Mitch had a set of Super Duty axles slung under the Explorer. With a full frame and a 5.0L V-8 engine under the hood, very little else was necessary once the axles were added.
Since he has built several Explorers, Mitch already had a good idea regarding what works on the trail and what’s unnecessary. Money was spent on upgrading the axles to maximize strength to stand up to the biggest tires he could fit.
After that, he turned to the suspension. Mitch started with leaf springs at all four corners, but the leverage of the 40-inch tires kept eating front springs. Mitch and his friends built a three-link front suspension with King 14-inch travel coilovers to solve that issue, and he hasn’t looked back since. With a factory V-8, a full frame, and a low purchase price, the 1996-2001 Explorer makes an excellent platform for those looking to build a rig that stands out from the crowd without going broke in the process.
Mitch Bergstrom started with a Trail-Gear winch plate and built a bumper out of 1.75x0.120-wall DOM tubing. The bumper follows the lines of the Explorer and houses a Smittybilt XRC 9,500-pound winch with synthetic cable and aluminum fairlead. A Battle Born Outdoor Products single-row LED light bar is low profile yet puts out plenty of light for nighttime rockcrawling.
Rolling stock consists of 40-inch Nitto Trail Grapplers wrapped around 17x9 Raceline Renegade 8 wheels with an 8-on-170mm bolt pattern. With 1-ton axles under his Explorer, Mitch isn’t concerned about breaking parts.
The engine is the original 5.0L V-8 with 170,000 miles on it. “There are a lot of upgrades that make more horsepower, but at the expense of low-end torque,” Mitch says. “That isn’t very useful for rockcrawling.” The only change under the hood is a Saginaw TC steering pump on a bracket from Wild Horses, which required the removal of the factory air conditioning.
Mitch started with front leaf springs like on his last Explorer, but the power of the 5.0L and the leverage of the 40s was just too much. Up front you will now find a three-link suspension with 14-inch-travel King coilover shocks and 250-over-300 lb-in coil springs. The links are built from 2x0.250-wall tubing and use 1 1/4-inch rod ends from RuffStuff Specialties.
The front axle is a high-pinion Dana 60 with ball joints out of a Super Duty. Behind the RuffStuff Specialties diff cover are a Yukon Grizzly Locker and 5.38 gears that route power to Yukon 35-spline chromoly axleshafts and Yukon U-joints. The steering was originally rack-and-pinion, so a Toyota pickup box was tapped to work in conjunction with the Tractor Supply hydraulic ram. The tie rod and draglink are 1.5x0.250-wall tubing with Ruff Stuff 3/4-inch rod ends that mount to Jesse Haines Fabrication weld-on steering arms.
“I spent as much on the rear springs as I did on the used Super Duty axles!” says Mitch. The Alcan springs are worth it though. They are 2-inch lift springs, but the spring-over conversion adds another 4 inches of height. The Alcans are supple enough for a smooth ride and plenty of articulation, but also to avoid axlewrap, even with the spring-over.
The rear axle is a Sterling 10.5 out of the same Super Duty that shed the front axle. This ensures that the 8-on-170mm bolt pattern matches between each axle. The Sterling axle comes with disc brakes from the factory. All Mitch added were 5.38 gears and a Yukon Grizzly Locker.
Behind the original four-speed automatic, Mitch swapped in a BW1356 transfer case from an F-150, with a mechanical shifter in place of the original electronically shifted transfer case. The BW1356 bolted right up and provides a 2.48:1 low-range ratio. A custom crossmember secures the transfer case and protects it from harm.
1996 Ford Explorer
Engine: 5.0L V-8
Transmission: 4R70W 4-speed automatic
Transfer Case: BW1356
Front Axle: Dana 60 with 5.38 gears and Yukon Grizzly Locker
Rear Axle: Sterling 10.5 with 5.38 gears and Yukon Grizzly Locker
Springs & Such: 3-link with King coilover shocks (front); Alcan leaf springs and Skyjacker shocks (rear)
Tires & Wheels: 40x13.50R17 Nitto Trail Grapplers on 17x9 Raceline Renegade 8 rims
Steering: Toyota pickup steering box, Tractor Supply ram, TC pump with Wild Horses bracket, Jesse Haines Fabrication Super Duty steering arms, 1.5x0.250-wall tie rod and draglink
Other Stuff: Smittybilt XRC 9500 winch, custom front bumper with Trail-Gear winch mount, Battle Born Outdoor Products LED light bar, custom rock sliders, RuffStuff differential covers, custom transfer case skidplate