Home » How I Saved My Buddy’s SUV After It Died At The Most Embarrassing Possible Time

How I Saved My Buddy’s SUV After It Died At The Most Embarrassing Possible Time

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Maaayyynne, that switch you told me to put in didn’t work and I’m over it. Let ‘em tow it and F-’em.” This was said in exasperation to me by one of my best friends (and neighbor) when he finally reached his boiling point in the parking lot of his former employer.

How did he get to this point? A few weeks earlier, after a management shake-up and multiple staff walk-outs, he had come to the realization that employment at another venture was probably his best move. A little bit of this, and he was scot-free from those assholes and ready for the next chapter in life. Out to the parking lot and into his trusty steed, which has served him faithfully for tens-of-thousands of miles (the exact quantity is unknown, as the odometer stopped years ago). “This is the last time these pricks will ever see these tail lights!” he murmured as he prepared for his triumphant final exit. 

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The key slotted into the ignition yet it failed to produce the telltale chime that accompanied the start of this “Portofino Blue” hoss ever since it rolled off the Louisville, KY Assembly Plant in ‘96. Emotions were running high in that moment, so it was barely noticed against all the other consistent details of his ‘97 Explorer. The near monotone grey-colored interior, the familiar smell, the feel of the vinyl, plastic and rubberized plastic. Those same Ford plastics that seemed to be in every product of that period–here’s looking at you big volume units like Ranger and Taurus.

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Grey is good!” -Ford Execs, 8yrs BRS (Before Rob Spiteri)

The key was turned as the “exit stage left!” was about to commence, Snagglepuss style. But nothing happened. The key just spun forward in its cylinder and there was no Germanic roar from the 4.0 “Cologne” V6 (that’s Cologne Germany, y’all) from under the non-Germanic hood. “Heavens to Murgatroyd!”

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‘Found On Road Dead’ for sure!” (F-O-R-D) my buddy said as he called his wife for a boost home. The fact that the most trusty of all cars he’s ever owned would pick such an inopportune moment to crap out was to be, charitably, unfortunate. I’ve lived next door from my Exploder-owning friend for 6.5 years now and the only thing he’s done to this truck in all those years was one $15 oil pressure sending unit, gas, oil, tires and a battery. Everything else just always worked. It was daily driven to and from work and taken on many trips to Myrtle Beach, SC and to the beautiful mountains of Western NC (6+ hrs away from The Cape Fear). The fact that this was the moment that it finally stopped working was even more excruciating given the long, failure-free record of service.

Now, I will say that over my span of 126 cars and trucks over the past 28 years, I’ve grown a slight bit judgmental, critical, old-man-ornery and just generally bitter towards certain cars. I’ve created my own stereotypes of certain brands solely based on my own conjecture and subjective, anecdotal experiences. I’ll totally own and admit it, too. Everyone walks their own path in this world and my path has been full of broken, problematic German cars and Fords. I’ll save you the details but you may hear about them soon (if I’m feeling saucy and ready to write about them after a few Stanley Tucci Negronis). 

So I’ve already defined the setting and also admitted my own bias walking into this vexing situation. Now that all of that has been said and is out in the open, we shall continue along this tale of rebirth and Ford catharsis.

Dude! So sorry to hear. It sounds like your ignition switch conked out. I’ll grab one from Pick n Pull for you this weekend when I go!” was the text I sent back, thinking I had this all figured out without even seeing it. Hubris to the max, I know. You could probably tell this wasn’t going to end so simplistically or easily.

Off to the local parts yard

A couple days later I found myself in the Ford row at the local yard. There were a handful of Exploders there, but they were definitely outnumbered by Edges, Escapes and everything else that Ford did since the Clinton Administration. These trucks were literally the #1 seller for my later teenage years and well into the Dubya Bush/Early Aughts era before the Firestone Tire Recall spelled out the beginning of the end for them. There was a ‘94, a ‘96, a ‘99, an ‘01…dammit, there was no ‘97! I think the ignition switch was similar to the Ranger, but then I realized that the late ’90s were right around the time that chip keys and RF security systems were being implemented furiously and literally changing every year. I’d better get one that’s as close to a ‘97 as possible, which meant grabbing the ignition switch out of that ‘96 Exploder.

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A cheap, Amazon-sourced replacement ’97 Exploder ignition switch; made by communists

I will hand it Ford for ease of replacement of that switch: turn the key to the “On” position, press down on a spring-loaded button on the button with a pen (or such) and the cylinder pops right out! “I’m the man!” says I; awash in above-said hubris and totally setting myself up for an about-face failure on this task.

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Push in this little pin and it pops right out. Easy; too easy.

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The ignition switch just slots right into the steering column.

And here it is: Just so all of Autopia is aware and let it be forever placed in The Official Record that a ‘96 Exploder ignition switch will not work in a ‘97 Exploder. They’re frickin’ different. After sitting in my buddy’s ex-employer’s parking lot, fiddling with the wrong ignition switch on my lunch break from The Autopian on a hot spring afternoon (two weeks ago) in The Port City of Wilmington NC, I gave up. A text went out to my friend telling him to order the right part online and that we’ll toss it in as soon as it arrives.

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Three days later, a cheap Chinese ignition switch came in for a ‘97 Exploder and… it also didn’t fit. Frickin’ communists, man.

At this point my friend was starting to get a little rattled after my second suggestion did not pan out and my car repair credentials were not exactly shining through. People usually give you a pass if you’re wrong about something once, but after the second time, it starts to look like you don’t know what you’re talking about. I needed a solution and redemption.

Things got even worse and slightly more stressful when my friend got a message from  ex-employer instructing him to remove his vehicle from their property immediately with an imminent tow to a holding yard occurring if he failed to comply. He was pretty upset to get that call and he confided in me that he appreciated the effort I put in, but that he was resigning himself to just let the car go. 

Hitting a wall

My buddy has a heart of gold, he’s an excellent cook and is one of the best friends I have in this world, so failure was not an option. Especially since I frickin’ run Gossin Motors Backyard Shitbox Auto Rescue and write about it here for David and Jason! Talk about my credentials taking a hit if I couldn’t get a flapjackin’ late 90 Exploder to start–they’re literally one of the most simple everyday vehicles on the road today! No cam phasers, no turbos, no hybrid electrical architectures, just a pushrod V6, a four-speed auto, a cassette player, a truck frame and some wheels. We got dis. We know dis. Go, team go. Channel DT, I says to myself–it always works in a pinch. “What Would David Do?”

Thinking of my benevolent, badass, bespectacled boss brought me all of the motivation I needed in my moment of despair. The imagery in my mind of him wheeling along in a vehicle far worse than the one at hand, covered in grease, snow and mud in sub-freezing temps, whilst fighting ridiculous self-imposed deadlines made this task seem like a cakewalk in comparison. Thanks DT, I needed that.

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To The Master of Locks

I then decided to call my buddy Eric, who is a local locksmith, for advice since he deals with these types of things daily. The dude is a genius. He has told me stories of security systems and general locksmithery that would blow your mind. Example: he made a “Tibbe” (skeleton key) replacement for my XK8 Jag for me.

The master key unlocks all the lock cylinders on the car, but the valet key has to only unlock the drivers door and ignition cylinder, with the same cylinders and tumblers used for both key applications. More there for the upcoming XK8 saga story if I can the idea past DT (He has a near-zero interest in that car as the dude likes Jeeps and electric BMWs, but I’ve been slowly working on him for the past 15 months to get that story green-lit).

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A badass Jag needs a badass key.

Eric told me that I was probably barking up the wrong tree and that those steering columns were notorious for internal breakage due to cheap pot metal used in the inner gearing. A little bit of internet research to verify and it turns out that his hunch and years of past experience was correct.

What’s that thing they say about believing in and reinforcing your own anti-Ford stereotypes?! Goos-fabba, Stephen, don’t get all worked up”, says my Inner Self. “You know that Volkswagens are way worse to wrench upon, so at least this isn’t that bad!” Inner Self was right, we have work to do here. 

It’s Bo Time (similar to Go Time, but the truck was parked near a Bojangles)

Running back to the parking lot where the forlorn Ford was sitting after work that night, I saw firsthand that Eric was spot on. The inner gearing has literally walked off the job site (although after a commendable 26-year performance on the clock) and the truck was now a screwdriver-start. This actually would’ve been a perfectly fine working solution for my friend except… there was no way to “screwdriver-stop” the engine once started.

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We ended up getting the truck off the ex-employers lot with the screwdriver-start and pulled the fuel pump relay and battery cable once it was back in our hood, safely and successfully recovered.

Starting the truck with a hand tool and pulling relays and cables every time you need to turn off your car isn’t a viable option, so there was still work ahead to be done.

I began calling local junkyards for a ‘97 steering column (I was definitely not taking a chance on a <‘96 or a >’98 from Pick n Pull after seeing the model year differences) and found exactly one (1!) in the entire Wilmington Metro area. Wilmington has almost 150K people so let that be a lesson in parts availability of the day. If a ’90s Explorer is hard to find parts for, good luck with your Maserati BiTurbo.

Even better, my friend’s birthday was this past week, so getting him a shiny used steering column would be the perfect gift. I even put a bow on it and included a little signed card. It’s the little things, ya’ll. My buddy loved that I put the time and effort into finding the correct replacement part and taking a long lunch (after DT’s approval) to run to the exurbs to grab it late last week.

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Let’s Wrench

The old column came out with surprising ease and was actually a much easier job than I was expecting (again, past Ford trauma). There are four studs that the column assembly sits upon with four nuts to secure it in place. After that there are seven electrical plugs for the wipers, horn, airbag etc., the trans linkage, and the collar that attaches the steering shaft to the intermediate shaft and steering gear. That’s it!

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Remove this plastic trim cover…

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Unscrew the tilt lever head and remove the lower column trim…

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Remove this metal bracket…

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…and remove this pinch bolt from the shaft collar: done!

I literally had the new column installed in about 30 min. Big air high-5 to Henry F. somewhere in the afterlife. Actually I heard he was a jerk, so taking it back and sending that high-5 to Edsel instead.

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A sweet shot of those electrical connectors referenced above.

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The 4 stud/nut attaching points.

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The pinch bolt cutout that holds the shaft in place within the collar.

My friend was over the moon. Here he was thinking that his steady-eddie, ride-or-die hoss of an Exploder was about to be henceforth referred to in the past tense just last week! Now here it was, on his birthday, ready for more uncountable miles (remember the odometer doesn’t work). The best part was seeing the joy and happiness in helping someone you care about. It was also great in a very Autopian sense of learning something new, expanding one’s skill and knowledge set and combating past biases. 

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Are the Fords that wronged me in the past forgiven? No, they’re not. There is still a burning desire for drinking and revenge (Alvis-style) whenever they are spoken of.

But this does place things in a new light and has henceforth provided me a new perspective. Maybe I should try and channel the positive, thoughtful approach of our own Mark Tucker, who can always see the bright side of any car. Maybe things aren’t always the way that they seem. Maybe life is too short to carry around anger and bitterness towards anyone or anything. Perhaps I will be more open to the next backyard rescue of a frickin’ Ford and not be so flippant and fervent in my judgment. 

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I mean, nothing is as bad as wrenching on modern Volkswagen products.

All photos courtesy of Stephen Walter Gossin

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lastwraith
lastwraith
5 months ago

I was hoping that Alvis reference was to Sealab (considering we’re the same age) and I was not disappointed! Bravo sir.

lastwraith
lastwraith
5 months ago

I’m late to the party but really enjoyed this epic adventure. I don’t give a poop about Ford Explorers (unless a dinosaur is chasing me perhaps) and this was still a fun ride and very easy to identify with.
Way to be the hero and keep a trusty steed on the road, even if it’s a Ford haha.

Chi_spotting
Chi_spotting
11 months ago

Year to year changes for cars is the dumbest thing. Especially when you need to find a specific, shitty little push clip that apparently isn’t available on the pre-facelift models because GM wasn’t scolded by Toyota for doing something so stupid for their cars until 2005…

But anyway, glad to see another trusty bucket is back on the road!

Evan M
Evan M
1 year ago

If a ’90s Explorer is hard to find parts for, good luck with your Maserati BiTurbo.

I feel directly attacked.

Err by that I mean: interesting story! Glad it had if not a quick fix, then a happy ending.

Ian Case
Ian Case
1 year ago

I’ve driven all sorts of VW/Audi/Porsche/BMW/Mini products in my 30+ year driving career. Probably close to 50 total vehicles spread out across the euro-makes, but mostly mk1/2/3/4 VWs. While, yes, they are essentially pieces of shit that break all the time, I don’t think I’ve ever had one break DOWN and leave me stranded. Starter broke? Bump start. Coilpack blows? Drive that tractor home. I even had a wheel cylinder in a mk2 Golf blow and drive it home with the handbrake and engine braking. The things that break are like… the sunroof, or other electrical things. Meanwhile, I had a 92 accord that the main relay started going bad. When it was hot, it wouldn’t make contact and everything would shut off and not start again until you let it cool down. It took weeks to figure that out.

lastwraith
lastwraith
5 months ago
Reply to  Ian Case

Had a 90 Accord as well and suffered the very common summer start main relay failure. It wasn’t that hard to figure out for me (I got lucky) since I noticed it almost always happened after already being on combined with a Yahoo accord forum I was a member of. Yep, it was that long ago.
The only other time that car stranded me was because the alternator “died”, otherwise it was an absolute tank, went to 250k+ miles and then probably more with its new owner. Even the alternator turned out to be no problem, I replaced the brushes in it for like $5 and it was fine. I miss the forceful shifting of that very strange automatic.

Last edited 5 months ago by lastwraith
Flyingtoothpick71
Flyingtoothpick71
1 year ago

I know the pain of no yearly interchangeability of fords, my 98 exploders transmission computer died after 23 years, so we got a new 97′ computer because that’s all that was available new, now for the past ~4 years I’ve been driving it with no first gear in the automatic. you can manually put it in first and it’ll go, but that hursts to do, so we just start at the speed of a semi until I get back in there with the right year’s part.

Flyingtoothpick71
Flyingtoothpick71
1 year ago

~3 years*

Geoff Buchholz
Geoff Buchholz
1 year ago

I appreciate the quick tour of the Gossin Motors forecourt in the steering column “action” shots. The only thing missing were stickers on the windshields: “NO LEAKS” “HARDLY SMELLS LIKE MOLD”

Seriously, though, very much appreciate your commitment to keeping old iron on the road and out of landfills/junkyards, and sharing the stories with such entertaining style. Looking forward to the next dispatch from the Port City!

Geoff Buchholz
Geoff Buchholz
1 year ago
Reply to  Geoff Buchholz

Also: +1 for Snagglepuss references! “Stage right! Stage LEFT, e-ven!”

Moonball96
Moonball96
1 year ago

Man I loved this – mostly cause my first truck was a 96 Ford Ranger with that same monotonous grey interior (albeit a manual tranny, crank windows and locks, a 4-banger, as base as base could be). What I’m waxing nostalgic for though, is how in the early 2000’s I began buying junkyard Ford Explorer parts to make my Ranger interior look like your friend’s Explorer. I put in the power seats from an Eddie Bauer model, that flow through center console (which I never did get a shift boot to work right with) and other odds and ends I’ve forgotten about.

Anyway this is totally pointless and irrelevant to the column (the one you wrote, not the one you replaced) but I just had to share 🙂

lastwraith
lastwraith
5 months ago
Reply to  Moonball96

“totally pointless and irrelevant” is what many of us come here for. No shame, and I, for one, appreciate the random musings of staff and commenters alike.

Thomas Benham
Thomas Benham
1 year ago

It appears the first piece you replaced was the ignition lock cylinder, not switch. I hate to be pedantic but especially when helping people remotely, you definitely want to make sure you’re all on the same page.

aSAABforever
aSAABforever
1 year ago

I wouldn’t call that pedantic at all. I would call that correct. The lock tumbler is a different part than the electrical switch.

Torque
Torque
1 year ago
Reply to  Thomas Benham

This IS an important distinction, at least in the case of VAG products…
For literally decades (on VAG brands models), the ignition switch is a plastic bodied part & after 10s or 100s of thousand of turns and 10+ years in service, this part gets a stress fracture.
That stress fracture means that you get intermittent electrical loss to interior & exterior features as ALL electrical features use the ignition switch as a master switch.
So intermittently the headlights cut out, the interior fan, dashboard lights, wipers, defrost, etc…
Then all these features come back if you put some pressure on the key.

Of course if you ignore these warning signs your ignition switch will fail completely & you can’t use the starter to start the car

KENNETH M LEE
KENNETH M LEE
11 months ago
Reply to  Thomas Benham

Especially when you consider that on this era of ford you can pull the trim panel under the dash. Remove 2 torx bits and have access to the actual ignition switch which can be used to start and shut off the vehicle. I drove my 00 superduty like this for 6 months after the plunger in the column broke. It would have been way easier to replace the column but i’m cheap and spent a few hours tearing the column down to nothing to replace a stupid piece of plast.c.

Jalop Gold
Jalop Gold
1 year ago

Most Embarrassing Possible Time

Forgetting the obvious train track/intersection with on-coming traffic possibilities, I was fully expecting some kind of scatological scenario with Shelia-level interior cleaning resulting from this story.

Vetatur Fumare
Vetatur Fumare
1 year ago

David Tracy may be the Rust God, but SWG is surely some sort of anti-clearcoat demiurge.

ADDvanced
ADDvanced
1 year ago
Reply to  Vetatur Fumare

COTD right here.

VanGuy
VanGuy
1 year ago

Glad this all turned out well.
I came from a Ford household and I think my (now gone) ’97 Econoline-150 conversion van would’ve been a conversation piece on here. I swear it was mechanically cursed.

Of course I’m looking for the right used one to come up so I can resume the suffering.

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