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1997 Ford Explorer Sport - Flexplorer

A 1998, 1992, 1997 Explorer built for the trail

Ken BrubakerPhotographer, Writer

Brad Baker is an insur ance vehicle damage estimator from st. Joseph, Missouri, and this is his fexy 1997 Ford Explorer Sport. Well, the body is a 1997, but the frame is from a 1992, and the engine is from a 1998 Explorer. Yeah, there’s a story here.

Baker says, “My 1997 Explorer build started from a passion in Ford RBVs (Ranger-based vehicles). I had been very active on www.explorer4x4.com reading other peoples builds, gathering ideas, and along the way building quite a few RBV rigs. I enjoy their cheaper cost compared to other vehicles and their solid platform. My friends say that I enjoy building the rigs more than using them. I agree to an extent, but really enjoy driving them hard. This 1997 Explorer started because I previously had a 1997 Ranger that I built to race tough tr ucks.

The Ranger used my 5.0L engine, fve-speed transmission, 4406 T-case, headers, and tune. The truck raced an entire season and made several trips to Southern Missouri Off Road Ranch, but along the way I rolled it over and it incurred some frame and body damage. Nonetheless, it completed the tough truck season, coming in Second Place overall for the year. I decided to retire it. My drivetrain sat waiting to see what I decided to do next. I decided I wanted something more for trails and rockcrawling, yet street legal. I bought a 1992 Explorer Sport with a 4.0L engine and fvespeed transmission. I lifted it with a James Duff TTB long-arm kit frst, some 33s, and wheeled it really hard. This took a toll on the body. We did the majority of our wheeling on the family farm where we have many trails, but when it comes time to make new ones the body gets a little roughed up. I decided to part out the suspension to some other www. explorerforum.com members and I bought the James Duff frst-gen Explorer solid axle swap parts.

The kit makes for a really clean conversion, with excellent fex and reliability from their long-arms. I shopped Craigslist and went to Kansas City to buy the front axle and rear axle as a set. I cleaned them up, and put back on the weld-on wedges for the Ford radius arm setup. To the rear axle I added the Detroit Locker and new axle mounting pads. This all went under the 1992 Explorer frame. I then decided the body was too rough and picked up a really clean 1997 Sport with engine problems for $500. I parted it out, but kept the body. I then set all my drivetrain in place that was previously in my race truck. This is a lot easier with the body off. Another beneft of swapping the body on was hardly any wiring modifcations to the 1997 Explorer. The PCM mounts in the same spot as the four-door V-8-powered Explorers and the 1997 Ranger.”

We had a chance to see Baker’s Explorer in action at the Southern Missouri Off Road Ranch. The rigs combination of V-8 power, a solid front axle, and impressive suspension fex combined to make the SUV a very good performer on the trail. We also dig that the rig is unusual and that Baker built it himself, on a budget.

The Dana 44 front axle was originally under a 1977 F-150 and the long-side of the axle has been narrowed six inches. This makes it just a tad narrower than the rear axle’s track width. The front axle has 4.88:1 gears, a James Duff diff guard, chromoly axleshafts, Warn manual locking hubs, and is located laterally by a 1.5-inch-diameter, 0.250-wall DOM track bar with spherical rod ends. Baker used James Duff components to swap in the solid front axle. The suspension includes early Bronco-application coil springs, long-arm radius arms, upper and lower coil spring buckets, and shocks. The custom steering system uses a Wild Horses Four Wheel Drive heavy-duty power steering pump; Ranger pitman arm; 1.5-inch-diameter, 0.250-wall DOM drag link and tie rod with GM 1-ton tie-rod ends; knuckles from a 1976 Chevy truck; and aftermarket high-steer arms.

Body mods were minimal. There’s a 1-inch body lift, and up front there’s a small homemade front bumper that spans the framerails. The bumper is made from ¼-inch steel and has a pair of D-ring mounts. Inside, the Explorer remains stock aside from an instrument cluster from a Ford Explorer Sport Trac. Baker says that one of the benefits of using the 1992 Explorer frame under the 1997 body is that 1995-2001 Explorers had rack-and-pinion steering, which would’ve forced him to fab steering box mounts.

Each corner of the front suspension sports James Duff early Bronco-application 5.5-inch-lift coil springs, coil bucket towers, and a pair of shocks.

Meaty 35x12.50R15 Pro Comp Xtreme M/T tires are located at all four corners and each is mounted to 10-inch-wide Mickey Thompson Classic II wheels.

Out back is a Ford 8.8-inch axle with disc brakes. This axle has a Solid Axle Industries diff cover, 4.88 gearing and an Eaton Detroit Locker to improve traction. The suspension consists of dual James Duff shocks at each wheel and a spring-over-axle setup that includes modified 4-inch-lift leaf springs (one leaf was removed). There wasn’t enough room to keep the standard Explorer driver-side framerail-mounted fuel tank due to the addition of the BorgWarner 4406 transfer case, so Baker mounted a fuel tank from an E-150 van to the rear of the truck.

The 5.0L V-8 sports the factory fuel injection, a K&N air filter, Tech Performance & Engineering Torque Monster headers, and the factory radiator and fan. Other underhood mods include an Optima RedTop battery and an ARB air compressor. Baker says that all of the body mounts lined up during the body swap except for the front core support. “I just widened the front mounts to bolt the core support in,” he says.

Mated to the engine is a five-speed manual transmission from a 1998 F-150. This transmission bolted right up to the 5.0L engine and it rests on a custom crossmember. Baker says he had to reprogram the vehicle’s PCM to delete inputs from the automatic transmission. Behind the transmission is a BorgWarner 4406 two-speed transfer case that was also pirated from a 1998 F-150. Transferring the power to the axles is a custom CV-equipped front driveshaft and a modified CV-equipped Ford Expedition rear ’shaft.

1997 Ford Explorer
Owner: Brad Baker
Stomping grounds: St. Joseph, Missouri
Build time: Six months
Engine: Ford 5.0L V-8, EFI
Transmission: Mazda M5OD-R2 fve-spd manual
Transfer case(s): BorgWarner 4406
Low range ratio(s): 2.64:1
Crawl ratio(s): 50.3:1
Front axle/differential: Dana 44, chromoly axleshafts,Warn manual hubs/4.88:1 gears, open
Rear axle/differential: Ford 8.8-in, Solid diff cover/ 4.88:1 gears, Eaton Detroit Locker
Front: James Duff long-arm, 5.5-in-lift coils, shocks
Rear: Modifed 4-in-lift leaf springs, spring-over-axle confguration, James Duff shocks
Steering: Wild Horses heavy-duty steering pump,Ranger pitman arm, aftermarket high-steer arms, custom tie rod and drag link
Tires: 35x12.50R15 Pro Comp Xtreme M/T
Wheels: 15x10 Mickey Thompson Classic II
Armor: Custom front bumper
Cool stuff: ARB air compressor, Ford Explorer Sport Trac gauge cluster