If I had to pick one upside of this whole pandemic/quarantine fever dream we’re all living in, it might be that Ford’s archive department is now extremely willing to dig around and find cool stuff for me to show you. One bit of this cool stuff is the original Ford Explorer, a vehicle very, very different from what you normally think of when you think “Ford Explorer,” mostly because it’s a mid-engined pickup truck with a huge pop-up batwing-like canopy.
This glorious golden beast may look a bit familiar because in general form it’s quite similar to another famous concept car of the era, the Dodge Deora.
While it’s conceptually quite similar—mid-engine, low-profile, Utopian lunar base-looking showboat pickup, I think the Ford Explorer has one very significant difference.
You see, the Deora was built by car customisers Mike and Larry Alexander for the 1967 Autorama out of a Dodge A100 van. This was the product of independent car customisers and not really Dodge themselves. Chrysler leased the car for various corporate events, but it started outside the company.
The 1973 Ford Explorer, on the other hand, was an official Ford concept car, coming from their own design teams. I’m not necessarily saying this was better or worse, but it’s significant to note.
Also, I think being the product of an actual carmaker also caused the design to be refined a bit, and while never intended for production, the Explorer was a lot closer than the Deora would have been.
Where the Deora used an odd front hatch and swivel gate for entry and exit, the Explorer used conventional doors, so getting in and out was no big deal. The drivetrain was the 429 cube V8 from an F-100, just shoved backwards a good five feet, with a pair of louvered panels allowing airflow and (looks like pretty cramped) engine access.
The bed was bigger than a normal F-100, and would have actually been very usable, and that wing-like canopy/tent pop-up thing is, if nothing else, very cool. The concept also had all the required lights/indicators/side marker lamps, and that facemask bumper setup even looks like it would have met 1973 standards just fine.
Also, this door handle is remarkably AMC-like. I can’t think of a Ford that used these; did they borrow them from an old Gremlin?
As radical as it seems, I think the Explorer could have become a production car, if Ford had felt so bold. It took the exotic idea of the Deora and recast it with more viable packaging and with fairly off-the shelf components. Plus, for as dramatic and daring as it looks, I think you could argue this is actually a remarkably practical design.
Man, what would our world be like if this was the Explorer we all knew? What if soccer parents carted their kids around in van versions of these things?
How do I get to that alternate universe? Is there a pill I can take? Even a suppository?
This article was originally published in May 2020.