Auto journalist John Stewart painfully remembers the SUVs of the late 1980s. They were a cramped, uncomfortable lot: Jeep Wranglers, Chevrolet S10 Blazers, Land Rovers and Toyota Land Cruisers.
"The emphasis was on utility and not on comfort," says Stewart, group publisher of Four Wheeler magazine, as he recalls testing early SUVs for the magazine's Four Wheeler of the Year competition.
Even the SUV offerings of truck leader Ford Motor Co. were less than stellar. Its stable consisted of the behemoth Bronco and the smaller Bronco II, which Consumer Reports rated as "poor" in the spring of 1989 because of its "unsettling" behavior during the magazine's testing for rollovers.
But a truck renaissance was brewing at Ford.
New truck concept
By the late 1980s, Ford's product planners knew consumers wanted a new personal truck, says Leo Shedden, the now-retired Ford truck marketing manager. The truck would provide easy ingress and egress for front- and rear-seat passengers, plenty of cargo room and enough power to tow a trailer. Ford's logical choice to meet the need was the Bronco II's successor, scheduled for the 1991 model year.
Using the Ranger platform, a team from Ford's Truck Operations designed a new look for a compact SUV. The new vehicle would feature boxy truck-like styling with limousine doors and a large cargo carrying area. Rear-seat passengers would get ample legroom and headroom.
"There was a lot of dissatisfaction with exterior styling of the Bronco II, so we wanted to get away from any styling similarities," says Roger Simpson, the original program manager on the truck. "We also wanted more carlike features, including a sunroof, power steering, fold-down rear seats to expand the cargo area and improved ride quality."
A debate raged within Ford on whether the new truck should have two or four doors. The team took two- and four-door clay mockups of the truck to Boston for focus group testing. The four-door got the most attention, Simpson says. But Ford refused to abandon the two-door market, and the final product proposal included both body styles.
The vehicle needed a name. Ford chose "Explorer" rather than continue the beleaguered Bronco II name. The company already owned the Explorer name; it had been used on some Ranger and F-series' trim lines.
The advertising played on the Explorer's ability to be comfortable in the city or the country. In one TV commercial, a family escapes a bustling downtown area to drive through the country to a beach. "Welcome to the '90s, and welcome to a new way to explore new horizons," crooned the voice-over.
When the Explorer was introduced in March 1990 with a base price of $17,656, it became an instant hit. Ford sold only 8,011 Bronco II models in January 1990. By May 1990, combined Bronco II and Explorer sales nearly doubled that total with 15,706 sold that month.
Ford solidified its leadership in the compact SUV segment with a wide sales margin over competitors from Jeep and Chevrolet.
"It took us six weeks to take sales leadership in the segment, and we've never looked back," says Shedden, who became the Explorer program manager about a month after the vehicle's launch.
Even Jeep's more carlike Grand Cherokee, which was introduced in January 1992, couldn't match the Explorer. In 1992 - the first model year without the Bronco II in the sales mix - Ford sold 306,681 Explorers, while Jeep sold 128,960 Grand Cherokees and Chevrolet sold 147,742 S10 Blazers.
The SUV craze was in full swing by 1993, and Ford's competitors could not catch up: Ford sold 302,201 Explorers - nearly 85,000 units ahead of the Grand Cherokee and 135,000 units ahead of the S10 Blazer.
"Everyone in the industry had to have an Explorer; Ford mainstreamed the truck," says Stewart, who watched the Japanese and Europeans try to match Ford's success in subsequent years.
Winning the public
AutoWeek dubbed the Explorer "Ford's winner in the space race" in October 1990. Car and Driver reported: "Our test crew raved about the Explorer's spacious, well-designed and neatly trimmed cabin. You sit low behind a high dash panel, but a very low belt line and tall windows keep you from feeling that you're in the bottom of a bucket." Four Wheeler magazine named the Explorer its 1990 and 1991 Four Wheeler of the Year.
What surprised the product team the most was the number of customers switching out of luxury cars into Explorers.
"The mind-set was a bit of, 'We'll do a fine successor to Bronco II, and we'll get our fair share (of the segment),' " says Shedden. " 'Maybe we'll beat Chevy and maybe we won't.'
"I didn't think in any way that people (at Ford) believed we'd have luxury car trade-ins. I remember receiving a letter from a Jaguar owner who said he had traded in his Jaguar for an Explorer. That really surprised all of us."
The Explorer even won over the skeptics. Tim Spell, auto writer for the Houston Chronicle, remembers the first press introduction of the Explorer in Ouray, Colo., where a fleet of upscale Eddie Bauer models - with leather seats and premium stereo systems - were offered for test drives. Spell remembers that some journalists were concerned that the Explorer might be too refined for diehard truck enthusiasts. Even the four-wheel-drive lever had been replaced by a button system.
But when Explorer sales took off in his home state, Spell was convinced that the premium features didn't detract from the tough truck image.
"People (in Texas) were surprised that they could have Texas style ruggedness and civility in an SUV; it was a long way up from the Bronco II," Spell says.
The Explorer's most serious crisis began in 2000, when a spate of rollover accidents sullied the brand and caught the attention of federal safety investigators and the news media. Ford blamed the tires, supplied by Bridgestone/Firestone Inc.; Firestone blamed poor vehicle design. (See story on Page 298.)
While the Jeep Cherokee began the four-door compact SUV trend, the Explorer ignited it. The industry responded. Many brands dropped their station wagons as consumers chose SUVs as the new family car. Packaging, comfort and premium features became high-priority items in developing trucks.
With the Explorer, Ford again left its mark on the trail of product innovation.