Holy Crap Someone Built A Cummins Diesel-Powered Ford Escape With A Frame And Solid Axles

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The CD2-platform Ford Escape, built between 2001 and 2012 model years, is a massively underrated vehicle. Yes, it’s ubiquitous and often thought of as one of America’s first “cute ute” crossovers, but that description doesn’t give it enough credit. These things were reliable, practical, and their geometry made them fairly decent off-roaders. But despite these positive traits, someone in Pennsylvania decided they wanted more, so they turned one into a body-on-frame, diesel-powered off-road beast.

I’m using this article as an excuse to declare my appreciation for the first and second generation Ford Escapes (the second gen, which came out for 2008, was just a facelifted first-gen). Sure, they are unibody crossovers with fully independent suspension that doesn’t do the greatest job at keeping the wheels on the ground at all times, and they lack a low-range transfer case to get those wheels torque to handle really technical rock crawling, but early Escapes did have decent overall geometry.

Ford’s specs say the first-gen model has an approach angle up to ~29 degrees and a departure angle around 22 degrees, while the facelifted model has an approach angle somewhere between 19 and 24.5 degrees and a departure angle of over 28 degrees. Looking at the two vehicles, it’s surprising that one has a great approach angle and one has a great departure angle, but I bet we can attribute this to small parts of the bumpers hang a bit low in the planes that make up the approach and departure angles; the actual body itself and vulnerable hardware all appears to be out of the way of danger. The overhangs are short.

This is important, because when it comes to off-roading, geometry is king. Just watch this Escape, equipped with what appear to be slightly oversized tires, navigate this downhill grade:

Anyway, it may not be a hardcore off-road vehicle, but I’ve always liked the way it looks, and with short nose and butt, I’ve always thought the body would make for a great off-road platform if only one could get a real transfer case in there and some solid axles for a bit more articulation. Well, apparently I’m not the only one who’s had these thoughts, because look at this madness:

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Check out that absurd ground clearance, and how it meshes with the Escape’s short wheelbase and short overhangs to yield humongous approach, departure, and breakover angles. Plus, behold the solid axles held to a real frame via a long-arm suspension; this thing must flex for days!

And, if you look closely between the frame rails, you can see a real transfer case:

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Finally the Escape, whose geometry I’ve always thought had so much off-road potential, gets the drivetrain and suspension it deserves.

As for the powertrain, under the hood, replacing the excellent Duratec 25 (which is based on the Mazda MZR 2.5-liter engine — a genuinely reliable engine), is what appears to be a Cummins 4BT turbodiesel:

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With probably somewhere around 105 horsepower and 265 lb-ft of torque, the thing won’t be quick, but it should be a monster off-road, especially with the proper gearing; plus it should score decent fuel economy and never die.

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I wish I had a bit more info on this machine (I’d love to know how they mated the frame to the unibody. I see one mount that appears to go to the Escape’s main unibody rail. How’d the builder get to the inside of the rail? Did they utilize the subframe mounts as well?). For now, all I know is what I have from the photographer, Pete Matesevac, who told me he spotted the vehicle at a car show in Pennsylvania.

“The photos were taken at the monthly Motor Menders Cruise Night at a place called the Markets of Shrewsbury, which is conveniently about halfway between Harrisburg, PA and Baltimore, MD,” he told me over Facebook Messenger. “It is not unusual to have 1,000+ cars here every month, and everything from traditional muscle cars to exotics to weird little British stuff.”

Matesevac, a Chevrolet S10 enthusiast who runs the pages “Pete’s S10 Page,” told me it’s normal to see wild custom cars at the event, but that this Escape stood out to him. “I’m watching all the classic hot rods, trucks and customs coming in and then I see a Ford Escape, which already has me scratching my head because it’s sitting really high,” he told me. “Then I can hear it drive by with the unmistakable sound of a diesel. As it passes by, I see a very glossy frame and a solid axle, neither of which should exist.”

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Strangely, nobody was looking at the masterpiece. “I was surprised that I was the only person at that moment because everything was done very well. This looked like a high end shop built it. All the hardware looked fresh, all the metal looked freshly painted. It had an AC compressor with a belt. It looked well executed and complete,” he continued. “This definitely wasn’t a couple drinking buddies hacking up a nasty Escape, the Ford itself was in nice shape.”

Incredible. I must see what this thing can do off-road.

All Images: Pete Matesevac

 

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44 Responses

  1. One positive thing about an Escape was how easy it is to identify the FWD version. Viewed from behind, there is what appears to be a big empty “hole” where the rear diff would be.

  2. Am I the only one who thinks the photo of the engine bay looks like a mediocre Photoshop job?

    Frankly… most of the images look like a bad Photoshop job. I’m happy to be wrong… and kudos to the builder if I am. But it just doesn’t look right.

  3. As a 6BT powered Ram enthusiast I approve of this modification, someone clearly put some work in on this one! I do wonder though, you don’t see a lot of diesel powered off roaders here in the states, is that just due to the majority preference for gasoline and added cost of entry for diesel power, or is there a technical reason? I would think the low end torque of a diesel would be a major bonus.

    1. From what I know (not much), weight is a contributing factor. At least for soft stuff / mud, the added weight just makes you sink. I’d imagine crawlers prefer light-weight as well. Most guys get pretty involved with their gearing or at least their diff gearing, so it’s not that hard to torque up even an anemic 22re pickup.

    2. Not a lot of good donors to choose from as there were very few factory-installed small diesel engines. People still do 4BT, VW 1.8PD, and a few others usually from box trucks. the 4BT is an AWEFUL motor for streetability – rattle your fillings out for no power. The VW can get power but it’s pretty stressed off-road as it was never meant for that work. The Cummins R2.8 is a good motor but it’s more expensive than an LS/SBC swap which most people choose. Plus some places don’t allow for a diesel swap.

    3. I’m not an expert on the offroading scene, but in the UK it seems to be almost mandatory to swap a TD5 turbodiesel from a Discovery into your Defender. I think it’s a pretty straightforward swap, and until recently it would have been noticeably cheaper on fuel. They have so much torque you can practically climb a mountain without touching the throttle.

  4. I’m a huge fan of the first and 2nd gen escapes. They are crazy underrated and really tick basically every box for what someone needs for a daily driver in some way or another for 99% of the time. They could be had with a stick, got decent fuel economy, were insanely reliable when maintained and were super practical. I really loved the few my family had.

    Fun side note, the first gen was sold in Europe and (I think) China as the Ford Maverick. It’s come full circle!

    1. I’ve always liked them all, but the 3rd gen/Kuga version is the one that really floats my boat.

      It has a distinctive wedgey look that says futuristic in an alt-reality Blade Runner sorta way. I just can’t resist that.

      1. My wife has one – a Kuga (fun fact they changed the name from Kuga to Escape in Australia and NZ because it was dumb name). I like the way it looks, hers is white and kinda looks like a sneaker, which is perfect for a soccer mum car. What makes them really good though is the 2.0 ecoboost, so 180kw (240hp) in a car that really shouldn’t make that kind of power!

    2. Their boxiness also made for good interior dimensions and the engine compartment wasn’t too awful to work in even if ours had a tendency to pop its rear-of-engine water pump belt early in life and typical mid- late-oughties Ford electronic throttle body position sensor failures. When our company lease updated to the 3rd gen I was less thrilled with how the EcoBoost was wedged in there and more compact interior.

      The Bronco Sport seemed a return to that form factor and had me sorely tempted until Ford really reeled me in with the Hybrid Maverick.

      1. Yea exactly. They made the most practical space with their foot print, kinda like an xB or element does. They definitely lost that benefit with the 3rd gen.

        The bronco sport really does follow on with that original escape idea and that’s awesome, but I agree. Now if they’d only hurry up and release the awd hybrid maverick

  5. As a ford Ranger owner and operator for over 20 years it might come as no surprise that I always liked the 1st and 2nd gen Escape.

    I barely knew they existed ( they blended into traffic then like a Nissan Rogue does today) but anytime someone I knew had one I would have to step back and appreciate them a little more.

    It was a solid choice for a vehicle at the time.

    And damn that’s a nice build!

  6. As a Canadian, I’m pretty shocked with the praise these old Escapes are getting.
    Don’t get me wrong, the project pictured here is really cool.
    I have several friends who bought loaded Escapes new, and they were expensive. The average total lifespan for one of these in the Toronto area was about 5 to 9 years.
    At that point significant rust issues, other body issues, AC failure, electrical gremlins, mechanical failures that can’t be diagnosed by the dealer, etc. would render the vehicle worthless and often unusable.
    My sister in-law was on the highway with her 5 year old Escape, with infant and toddler in back. She turned on the AC and the vehicle’s main fuse blew, instantly shutting the car down in the middle of a busy 401. It takes a special vehicle to have this kind of failure. The AC never worked again.
    As is often the case, Ford made a nice desirable vehicle with the Escape, but they were a terrible financial decision for those that bought them.

    1. That’s probably the event that started this particular conversion!

      I have this “like new” Escape with blown rear shock tower mounts. Now what the hell do I do with it? Part it out? No. Everyone else around here has bad shock towers, too! Nobody wants parts for a car that’s on the way to the boneyard… Hmm…

  7. Know what’s positively awful about Ford Escapes?

    The rear shock tower. They rust out at the top long before they should, just like old Ford Escorts used to. The rest of the car can look good, but hit a big enough bump and you lose your rear suspension.

    I’ve seen about a dozen ten to twenty year old Escapes with this problem while deciding never to buy a used Escape. It’s bad enough that Dorman makes left and right patch panels specifically for this problem, but welding them in for you is something that most body shops won’t do.

    I don’t know how Ford overlooked the chance of severe corrosion in that area after how bad the Escort was. It’s like they never learned anything from their own product.

    1. As a Canadian, I’m pretty shocked with the praise these old Escapes are getting.
      Don’t get me wrong, the project pictured here is really cool.
      I have several friends who bought loaded Escapes new, and they were expensive. The average total lifespan for one of these in the Toronto area was about 5 to 9 years.
      At that point significant rust issues, other body issues, AC failure, electrical gremlins, mechanical failures that can’t be diagnosed by the dealer, etc. would render the vehicle worthless and often unusable.
      My sister in-law was on the highway with her 5 year old Escape, with infant and toddler in back. She turned on the AC and the vehicle’s main fuse blew, instantly shutting the car down in the middle of a busy 401. It takes a special vehicle to have this kind of failure. The AC never worked again.
      As is often the case, Ford made a nice desirable vehicle with the Escape, but they were a terrible financial decision for those that bought them.

  8. “Strangely, nobody was looking at the masterpiece. “I was surprised that I was the only person at that moment because everything was done very well”

    It looks like that was exactly what the builder was going for. They took a vanilla bean car and turned it into an offroad monster while retaining a factory look. What’s even better, is many people would take one look at a lifted Escape, and write the owner off as a poseur, only to be embarrassed on the trail. I love these sorts of builds!

  9. I gave up on my 2009 Escape at 118,000 miles because of electrical gremlins. If I hadn’t been in a position to replace it I would have kept trying to fix it, but we were buying a new car for my wife and it made more sense to ditch the Escape and keep her older but stupid reliable Camry as my DD. So my time with this generation of Escape ended on a low note.

    It was a practical and rugged vehicle. The body shape meant you got the most from its modest exterior dimensions, and the interior was cheap and easy to clean. Pretty easy to work on too as long as you didn’t have issues with the parts you can’t put a wrench on. It also kicked ass in the snow even though I had a FWD version.

  10. Excellent work, whoever fabricated this rig & decided to go the hard route with a 4BT. It looks like the work of a custom shop, which it may be, but who would put that much $$$ into an Escape? As far as the off-road ability of stock CD2’s I once rode up on a Mazda Tribute way out on an ATV trail (40 miles from the highway) where I was taking my time with my Can-Am Outlander. They can do quite well as long as you don’t beat it to hell.

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