Today I said goodbye to an old friend. My 2002 Ford Explorer Sport showed 241,000 miles on its odometer and I witnessed every single one. I was behind the wheel on 99 per cent of them. Here is the story of this spectacular truck, and its nearly identical replacement.
In 2002 I bought my third brand new Explorer in a row. My brother worked at Ford so A-plan was a bonus but Ken also worked on light trucks at Ford. He helped design the suspension in the Explorer. It's one thing to be able to consult a mechanic about your vehicle. It's quite another to be able to ask one of its creators.
The 2002 was merely another in a series, or so I thought. The previous two had been leases but something told me to buy this one. So, at the end of the contract, it was mine.
My Explorer rarely got far off road. The 4WD was primarily for bad weather and the times I felt like exiting in the morning without bothering to shovel my driveway. I even had it in 4WD Low a couple times but the bulk of my driving was in 2WD, while simply commuting.
It ran and ran. Much of it was during a time I had a commute of 100 miles, round trip, daily. The miles racked up quickly but the Explorer kept soldiering on. I brought it in for a new set of tires at 101,000 and the writer sheepishly told me I needed a brake job. He was worried I might think he was overselling. I looked at the disks – these Explorers have them on all four corners – and said fine. After all, this would be its first brake job.
Those tires did not make it as far as the factory set; I had to replace them at 189,000. I had long since forgotten about the warranty. The truck had never needed any warranty work. Never. I changed the oil religiously and watched underneath it for any suspicious leaks. Leaks that didn't appear for several more years. The only work it needed was windshields. A stretch of I-75 near Clarkston, Michigan, is used by gravel haulers to fire projectiles at my windshield. I replaced the windshield 3 or 4 times and then gave up. It just seemed a waste of perfectly good glass.
I took it up north to Michigan's Upper Peninsula quite a few times and made it over to Duluth once and Ironwood a few times. Once I was racing to a book signing in Escanaba and all along US-2 I counted cars in the ditch. I was still in 2WD because much of the pavement still had dry patches. The farthest north she ever made it was the tip of the Keweenaw Peninsula.
On one occasion, two of my brothers and I did some exploring which did get us off road. It was one of those times where I chose to believe a map instead of my own eyes and we drove down a "road" that – outside the map – was actually a trail. Or, it started as a trail and then degraded.
Rick drove, Dave walked ahead with a handsaw and cleared branches, and I stood on the rear bumper and shouted nonsense at the two of them. At one point we crossed a dried river bed. It seemed odd but you know how those trips go – where you have gone too far to turn back? A mile later we understood the error of our ways and turned to retrace our steps. As we re-entered the mostly dried river bed, one of the front tires got sliced open on a jagged rock, followed by an obviously catastrophic hissing. Without blinking, Rick yelled to me, "Do you have a good spare?"
I yelled back, "Yes!"
Dave pointed to the middle of the riverbed. "Park it there." Just seconds later, the tire was completely flat with a huge gash in its side.
We changed the tire and made it back out to pavement a while later. Those miles are the only ones put on the truck where I was not at the wheel.
The Explorer continued rolling. I noticed a bit of a high-pitch whine that was moving from the range only dogs can hear to the one where it annoys the driver. I took Ken out to lunch one day and asked him. "Just gear noise," he told me. It was aesthetic. I could get the rear differential rebuilt or ignore it. I ignored it for a while longer but eventually did get it rebuilt when I had the truck's second brake job done, around 200,000 miles.
Somewhere in the 230s, I had to have the front hubs replaced. I told the mechanic to throw in a new serpentine belt while he had it. He went over and looked. He came back and said, "Don't bother. Looks fine to me." I told him it was original to the truck. He shook his head as if to say, "It's your money." He changed the belt.
Then, around the 12-year mark, the Michigan winters began taking their toll on the underside of the Explorer. One day I saw a drop of trans fluid under the front end. A close inspection revealed that the lines to the trans cooler were rusted and needed replacement. My trusty mechanic tore them all out and replaced them. A short while later, it was the fuel line. Turns out that one is a bit expensive and a hassle, but it needed to be done. Then, the final brake job. As I was pulling into my parking spot, something weird happened. I went to roll my truck back from the parking block and something stuck. A brake caliper had frozen in a mostly-closed position.
When I figured it out, I drove it to the mechanic (who is only a mile from home) and scared the daylights out of everyone within a mile or so of the devilish screech emanating from my front right brake assembly. Later that day we were back on the road.
It was getting clear that her days were numbered. An exhaust bracket broke. I replaced it with hangar wire. I have no shame.
One of the hinges on the back window broke. I used caulking compound to seal around it. A couple of pieces of trim fell off. I duct-taped them back on. Yes, I know. Somewhere around this time, I had crossed a line. I realized I was now keeping her on the road for selfish reasons. She was tired. It was time to let her go. Her odometer had recently rolled over to 241K. I have no photo of that but I did snag one at 240K.
Since she was still running, I was in no hurry to replace her. I did random Ebay searches and one day I stumbled across her near-twin. Another green 2002 Ford Explorer Sport. A one-owner vehicle that had spent its first 12 years in Florida. This one only had 70,000 miles on its odometer. How could I NOT consider it? I went and looked. It was shocking. The green was actually a different shade and there were some subtle differences but this one looked brand new. I climbed under it. The frame rails were shiny. I drove it. It ran straight and sounded healthy. Five minutes after returning from the test drive, the owner and I had struck a bargain. A few days later, I had two green 2002 Ford Explorer Sports parked next to each other.
I couldn't sell the old one to anyone to use as transportation – she had too many nuances to deal with. The door locks were broken. To get in, you had to use the door code on the driver's side, then go around to the passenger side and reach in and open the driver's door. That sort of thing. Looking back on it, I realize I might have spent a few hundred hours of my life dealing with little inconveniences like that. But it was worth it. Still, she had her original starter, water pump, and exhaust. And that engine would probably outlive us all if given the chance. I asked around and someone referred me to a guy who buys junked cars.
The guy came out with a flat bed and did a double take when he saw the two parked next to each other. I told him I had just bought the "new" one and he bent down to look under it. "Oh my. This thing was garage-kept, no doubt about it." Hey, a scrap dealer would know.
A few minutes later, she was being driven away, on the back of the flatbed. For once, she was the passenger. I realize now I only have one picture of me behind the wheel and I had a co-pilot. Don't worry; I don't let him work the pedals. Technically, I was the one driving.
That Explorer was the most dependable vehicle I have ever owned. She started every time on the first kick and never once stranded me anywhere. If only every car was built that well. Let's just see if the next 170,000 miles on my "new" Explorer are as trouble-free as they were on the last one. I will miss her but I have my memories.
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Steve Lehto has been practicing law for 23 years, almost exclusively in consumer protection and Michigan lemon law. He wrote The Lemon Law Bible and Chrysler's Turbine Car: The Rise and Fall of Detroit's Coolest Creation.
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