This year marks the 75th anniversary of the Jeep brand, and in honor of that milestone, Automotive News has been taking a retrospective stroll down Jeep alley. Throughout those 75 years, Jeep has inspired many a copycat off-road vehicle – including, it turns out, the original Ford Explorer.
How It Went Down
Bob Lutz, who later held highly-impactful roles at GM and Chrysler during his career, was moved from Ford of Europe in 1985 to head up Ford’s truck operations in the US. Many saw the appointment as a demotion, and Automotive News reports that almost immediately, he began looking for a way out of Ford Motor Company. This drive would lead him to “unleash the light truck revolution” in America, as to Automotive News put it, by initiating development on what would become the 1991 Ford Explorer.
“We didn’t call it the Explorer then, we called it the four-door Bronco II,” Bob Lutz once said. “Originally it was just going to be the Bronco II we all remember – narrow and high, but with an extended wheelbase and two more doors, and it looked like it was born in a hallway. It was really this long, tall thin thing. I said, ‘Look guys… if we’re going to make this thing work, we’ve got to have a wider vehicle with more track width, and it’s got to be demonstrably bigger than the Cherokee.'”
Lutz went on to say that many at Ford were panicked over the success of the Jeep Cherokee, which had helped to make four-door SUVs “the hot thing,” but Lutz was insistent that the proportions of what would become the Ford Explorer were just right. “I said, ‘Let’s really take our time on this; we have $400 million to spend.’ … It carried over a lot of parts, but it was a wider vehicle than the Bronco II, and it did have the all-new front end, all-new styling. It wasn’t called Explorer at that time but it was the Explorer.”
The resulting first-generation Ford Explorer was a four-door, body-on-frame SUV (unlike the Jeep XJ’s unibody design) with a 4.0-liter Cologne V6 and a rear- or all-wheel drive configuration. In an ironic twist, Lutz would leave Ford the very next year – in 1986 – to work for Chrysler, but the seed of the Ford Explorer had already been sown.
“When we had that full-size clay model… it annihilated the Cherokee in research, so we knew that if we did the vehicle it was going be a home run. It was exactly the size that people wanted. Exactly.”