In 1996 Ford killed off the last bronco. The full size, two-door beast we’d loved since the seventies, was gone. It took 24 years for them to bring it back. But in 1997 they launched the Expedition, a full-size, 4 door SUV following on from the wildly popular Explorer and taking the next step in the EX naming convention that would end, and die with the full-size+ Excursion.
The day I first saw an Expedition rolling around Albuquerque, NM when I was In college I saw the potential. A big SUV with 4 doors. No longer dependent on dad to lean his seat forward for me to get out of the back seat. No longer crammed behind the buckets with my sisters and piles of camping gear threatening to fall on our heads. It was a big, powerful, adventure vehicle. And while, I’ve never owned one, driven one or even ridden one, I’ve always admired the platform as an adventure vehicle that could go almost anywhere I wanted to go right out of the gate.
Years later, I saw a cool late model Expedition rolling around Reno. Driven by Mike Shirley and emblazoned with the name of his business, Double Diamond Athletic Club, This seemed to be modified, though minimally, and even though it was the latest model with independent suspension front and rear, It sure seemed like a great platform for adventure.
I had the opportunity to finally meet Mike when he called Harry for help recovering it from High Rock Canyon last month. Mike had broken the steering rack in a remote spot, so we went out to help. I finally got the opportunity to meet up with mike and get the full story of this cool expedition.
Mike has installed a simple spacer lift that he found on Amazon. It raises the truck 2 inches and it still rides on the stock springs and shocks.
For tires he went with the biggest tire that would still fit in the spare tire location. This is one thing I really favor over bigger tires. It allows you to keep the interior and exterior of your truck uncluttered and easy to access and also cuts down on added weight of a tire rack or holder. God forbid you put the weight of a tire up on a roof rack! The tires are Nitto Terra Grapplers in size 285/75 R17. This nets out to about a 33 inch final diameter.
The truck has a 3.5 EcoBoost engine. Mike has upgraded the turbos and Intercooler and also runs a Livewire tuner. It has plenty of power to push around the full size truck and oversized tires.
For rally events, Mike has installed both an auxiliary compass and odometer. The odometer is manually settable and he can zero it out for following directions in a rally book. It is a wheel sensor odometer with a magnet on the wheel and wiring running up to where it’s mounted on the dashboard. He also runs a phone on a mount and the Livewire tuner.
He has several switches for controlling the lighting on the roof rack as well.
Mike has trimmed the body, and air dams for clearance as well as removed the running boards.
On top he has a custom steel roof rack from 775 Fabrication in Reno, NV. Mike sketched his idea and Tim from 775 designed it in CAD and built it. It’s a unique design with a load bar platform for mounting MaxTrax and a shovel surrounded by a faring that holds cheap LED lights. The faring hides the gear and provides some aerodynamics as well. He says he got the lights on Amazon and they’ve held up well for the last 5 years.
The interior is largely stock. In the cargo area, Mike removed the third row of seating and made a plywood storage well for recovery gear and tools that stays stowed and hidden under a weathertech cargo mat. It’s a very cool and well executed, if incredibly simple, solution. Many vehicles come with a third row of seating that people rarely use. Another possibility for that storage area would be to hold a water reservoir. If you extend filler and dispenser taps you’d never need to access it.
Yes, this vehicle has independent rear suspension. And, hear me out, that’s a good thing. A solid axle, while much much better for technical 4 wheeling, is less comfortable for the occupants. An IRS is able to be more forgiving and nicer for the passengers of a vehicle for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is the decreased unsprung weight. Basically, the more mass the suspension has to carry in terms of the axle, wheels, tires, etc, the more inertia affects it when you hit a bump, and when the axle/wheel assembly reaches the top of it’s travel, and starts heading back down. That inertia has to be overcome by the springs, and controlled by the shocks and the more mass there is to control the more energy gets transferred to the vehicle. This becomes a much bigger problem in ultra 4 cars where the unsprung mass is a greater greater percentage of the sprung mass. However on a passenger car, and minimally modified overlander like this, that’s not the issue.
I spent a lot of years bumping around dirt roads in a Subaru and anyone who has knows they do pretty well. They fall short when it comes to suspension travel and flex, and so often lift a wheel and run out of traction completely. To get around this, Mike added Detroit Truetrac differentials front and rear. So now he can get past 99% of obstacles that might have stopped him before, without having to hit a button. What’s more, the truetracs are going to put him at an advantage with respect to similar vehicles with open differentials, even if they have a solid rear axle. Disagree? Comment away!
I don’t mention the independent front suspension here as it’s a familiar and generally accepted feature of most modern trucks and SUVs. In fact, this one shares the front suspension and steering with the ford F-150. When Mike broke down in High Rock Canyon, he did damage the control arms, and knuckles, but what prevented him from driving out, was the steering rack, which is the same as what’s on an f-150. So the unique design of this vehicle isn’t what failed him. At least that time…
While the line between overlanding, 4 wheeling and rock crawling seems to be one of hashtags these days, I believe an overlander just needs to be able to get down rough dirt roads with the occasional tricky obstacle, not the Rubicon. As such, getting down endless rough roads with a high level of comfort and safety, which this vehicle provides in spades, is a welcome tradeoff for Mike, and he gets it out for a great many miles in the desert.
I just wanted to pop in here at the end and talk about outdoor ethics.
It’s getting on spring and camping outdoor season and I know there are a-lot of new folks enjoying outdoor activities. First of all, Welcome! Great to see you on the trail.
So what do I mean by outdoor ethics? Outdoor ethics are a philosophy for how we act in wild places to do the right thing for the landscape, the ecosystems and the humans who live and visit here.
First and easiest thing is pack it in, pack it out. If you produce trash, keep it and if you find trash, do your best to take that with you too.
Easiest way to do this is to have some grocery bags with you. I just have a wad of used grocery bags jammed in somewhere. I also have a couple contractor bags as well in case things get really messy, which happens, or if we come across a mess someone else left for us.
That’s it for now, if you want to learn more about outdoor ethics, check out Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics at lnt.org. What are some outdoor ethics that you think are particularly important?