When the Ford Explorer appeared in 1991, taking up where the Bronco II left off, SUVs were just trucks with more seating. If you wanted a roof over your cargo, and seating for four plus, you’d opt for a sport utility vehicle. Whether it was a Chevy Blazer, a Ford Bronco, or a Dodge Ramcharger, the extra security and extra seating were perfect for getting tools and workers out to the field. No luxury features, no high performance under the hood, just something more comfortable and safe than riding in the back of a pickup truck.
Then, the Ford Explorer arrived. The Explorer was designed to take on the midsize SUVs of its day, like the Chevy S-10 Blazer and Jeep Cherokee, but it placed a much higher premium on passenger comfort. No one knew it then, but it would be the father of all SUVs to come, and eventually establish a new, highly popular market segment.
Here’s a look back on that trendsetting first-generation Ford Explorer, covering model years 1991 through 1999, and found in Chilton manual 26688.
And Ford said, “Let there be SUV” – 1st Generation
Based on the same sturdy and inexpensive underpinnings as the updated for 1989 Ford Ranger small truck (also covered in Chilton manual 26688), the first-generation Explorer bowed in March 1990 as a 1991 model. Two- and four-door models were available at launch, with the four-door aimed at drawing in more families who would found the recently introduced Jeep XJ Cherokee too small. Under the hood was the same 4.0-liter Cologne V6 found in the Ranger and Aerostar minivan, putting out 155 horses and 220 lb-ft of torque. Ferrying that power to the rear axle, or all four wheels, was a standard, though rarely taken, Mazda M5OD five-speed manual, or optional Ford A4LD four-speed automatic.
Unlike all of the utilitarian vehicles before it, the Explorer stood out because it wasn’t aimed at the traditional 4×4 customer. Instead, it drew in those who didn’t want a station wagon or its replacement, a minivan, but needed room for a family. For them, the Explorer had it all: Tons of utility, plenty of room for kids and cargo, comfort, and rugged style. Moms and dads could drive it and imagine they were going on safari or visiting a remote arctic outpost, instead of dropping off the kids at soccer and getting groceries.
The Explorer became a smash hit for Ford, as Motor Trend explained in their Explorer review, the first four months of 1991 were beset by low sales numbers of every model Ford sold, except for the Explorer. Demand was so strong that Ford increased SUV production at its Louisville plant while reducing Ranger production. Around 300,000 units of the first-gen Explorer were sold every year from 1991 through 1994, almost instantly becoming the ninth-best-selling vehicle in the United States. It didn’t hurt that Steven Spielberg lined up a deal with Ford to use the Explorer in 1993’s biggest summer blockbuster, Jurassic Park, which became the highest-grossing film of all time by the end of the year.
Evolution – 2nd Generation
Arriving in late 1994 as a 1995 model, the second generation of the Explorer carried the best selling name through the rest of the 1990s into the early 2000s. Still linked with the Ranger mechanically and structurally, Ford’s team of stylists gave this Explorer a more aerodynamic yet distinctive appearance. It also received an updated double wishbone independent front suspension and a new rack-and-pinion steering system, for better ride and handling.
Under the hood, the Cologne OHV V6 continued from the first generation as the base motor, with a slight bump up to 160 horsepower. In 1996, the new Explorer received a 5.0-liter OHV V8, delivering 210 horses (before revised cylinder heads in 1997 gave five more) and 280 lb-ft of torque. Then in 1997, a newly optional SOHC version of the 4.0-liter Cologne V6, which would fully replace the pushrod Cologne in 2001, offered nearly the power of the V8 though with 26 fewer lb-ft of torque. A five-speed manual or four- and five-speed automatics were used to move the power around with the V6 motors; the 5.0-liter V8 shared its four-speed auto with the Mustang, F-150, and Crown Victoria.
Inside, Ford installed dual airbags at the ready to protect its front occupants, the first American SUV to do so, and side airbags were added in 1999. Alas, in 2000 safety became a big issue with the Explorer, when the NHTSA investigated a higher than average incidence of rollover crashes, though it didn’t lessen sales much. Eventually, the SUV’s Firestone tires were blamed for causing the SUV to roll-over, due to sudden tread separation causing a loss of control. The resulting actions included the passage of the 2000 TREAD Act, many lawsuits, and the end of the near-century-long relationship between Ford and Firestone.
The second-generation of the Explorer included the launch of the first-gen Mercury Mountaineer in 1997, which was aimed at the mid-size near-luxury SUV market and eventually became the third best-selling Mercury in the lineup, behind the Sable and Grand Marquis. The best selling first generation Ford Explorer also was the basis for the rarely seen Mazda Navajo (1991-94), and the third generation Explorer later moved even further upmarket when it begat the Lincoln Aviator (2002-05).
The first two generations of Ford Explorer directly caused the growth and popularity of the SUV as the ultimate suburban family hauler, and later led the charge as it evolved with the times into a car-based crossover. However, in the near future (rumors suggest 2019) the Ford Explorer will return to its SUV roots as a more truck-like 2020 model featuring rear-wheel drive, and an optional EcoBoost motor, for better towing ability. No matter what happens, the Explorer is a family car icon right up there with the Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser, Ford Country Squire, and Dodge Caravan.Tags: Explorer, Ford, Ford Explorer, Ford Ranger, Mazda, Mazda Navajo, Mercury, Mercury Mountaineer, short history, SUVs