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The 97Sandbox

Hey y'all! Thought I ought to get a thread going for my ride, the 97Sandbox. The nickname comes from the double mid prairie tan color scheme -- basic as can be, but hey, it hides dirt like none other. My dad bought the Explorer in 2006 from the original owner and I took ownership of the truck in 2017 (although I've been driving it since 2010). It came into our family while we were all living in Missouri, but I eventually took the '97 with me to Kansas and later to Wisconsin where it resides now.

I'll kick things off with a brief history of my infatuation with Explorers, then I'll run through what I've done so far, and I plan to keep posting as I continue to modify the vehicle.

Stock specs: 4.0 SOHC, 5R55E, RWD with the 3L73 rear end

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A history section? Really? Okay, okay, I’m sure most of us are quite familiar with the history of Explorers and Ranger-based vehicles in general. I’m talking about the history of my Explorer, essentially how it came to be and why I’m passionate about the truck.

The first Explorer I was graced to experience was a ‘93 black XLT 4x4 auto. It was my dad’s truck which he selected because it was the best non-mini van Ford vehicle he could find in 1996 when child #2 (my little sister) came into our family and he realized his short cab ‘88 F-150 wasn’t going to cut it as a family car. I have fond memories of childhood road trips in our ‘93 and will never forget when we used it to drag lumber around our farm before we bought a tractor.


While my dad was falling for his ‘93, my mom began to develop a fondness for Explorers too. Eventually, she found a ‘98 black XLT with the SOHC, 5R55E, and 4x4. It was really fun to have two black Explorers as the family fleet for a couple of years!

Eventually, rust started creeping in on the rear quarters of the ‘93. Around the same time, the 98 started having transfer case issues and developed a nasty habit of eating CV axles. Realizing it was coming time to replace the ‘93 and annoyed by the issues on the ‘98, my dad set out to find a clean RWD Explorer.

Enter the 97Sandbox.


It was 2006 and my dad was getting sick of turning down neglected Craigslist Explorers when he stumbled upon a relatively low mileage ‘97 that belonged to a man who brought the truck to Missouri from California. The owner had moved a few months prior and left the truck parked since. My dad went to check out this ‘97 and found it to be in great condition, but it had a dead battery. They jump started the car, but anyone who has jump started a ‘97 with an SOHC will know that the obvious way to ground jumper cable on a ‘97 SOHC can/will zap your fuel lines (condition was eliminated in ‘98)...


As soon as the car started it began spraying gas all over the engine bay.


They shut the car off immediately and my dad said he would only be interested if the owner replaced the fuel lines and the battery. Thankfully, the owner did just that, and the whole fuel line scare nudged him to reduce the price. A few grand later, my dad had a replacement for his ‘93 and our family fleet briefly grew to three Explorers.

I spent a lot of my formative years in the ‘97 (Goldmember, as my dad called it). We took it to Michigan many times, made a trip to Florida, and hauled our dirt bikes to and from our farm more than I can remember.


At the farm 2011~ish

At age 14, I started driving the Explorer at our farm. By the time I was 15 with a learners permit, I was cruising the streets of St. Louis. At 16, I got my first real job and started driving the ‘97 every day. I fell in love with second gen Explorers and spent hours cleaning ours, upgrading the soundsystem, and reading about mods on this forum. I even went as far as to put together a scale model of the '97.


1:1 vs. 1:25

In spite of the way I treated the Explorer through my high school years, it was very much still my dad’s truck. When I started college in Kansas, I wasn’t allowed to take the ‘97 with me. Back in St. Louis, the Explorer became my sister’s commuter for a couple of years and the condition declined quickly. Luckily, the truck held together and it was eventually offered to me to drive again. I spent my latter two years in college driving the car, fixing what had broken, and performing normal maintenance.


Enjoying some bass in 2014

Great write-up so far! Well thought out and well documented; looking forward to the rest.


Thanks Paul!

Now that I've covered the history let's get into the fun stuff...

Like many 16 year olds, I wanted "my" truck to be fast and have a killer stereo. Since I was working with a lifeguard salary and no automotive experience beyond installing a spare tire and changing oil, the stereo was the obvious place to start. With my shoestring budget, I reused an old wiring kit from an all-in-one amp/subwoofer that had been in my dad's '93, bought a cheap 600 watt two-channel Boss amp off Parts Express, and picked up an even cheaper 8" sub. I then found a factory sub box and subwoofer grille panel in a '99 Limited at a local salvage yard and I was ready for my first setup!

I retained the OEM head unit and rear amplifier, just spliced into the leads for the rear speakers to get a signal to my amp, which is under the backseat. Thinking I was going to get so much bass out of this 8" sub, I put in sound insulation behind every panel in the car. As you may expect, the 8" sub was a disappointment and I burned up the coil after less than a week of use.


Lucky for me, my dad had an old Kicker Comp 15" sub (pictured in earlier post above) in a box just sitting in our garage (said he rescued it from the trash). I asked if I could "borrow" it, and he begrudgingly said yes. It was a good sub and I finally had the bass I was looking for. Three increasingly complicated boxes and four years later, I finally gave the sub back and built my own setup from scratch.

Where do you go next when you're happy with your 15" sub? Add another of course! I built this box from scratch with a buddy of mine who built hi-fi speaker enclosures as a hobby and had access to his dad's woodshop. All 3/4" MDF held together with 2 1/4" deck screws (and a lot of caulk haha).



I originally had the subs rear-firing, but the tailgate panel rattled like the trunk of a '98 Grand Am in East St. Louis. Flipping the box to top-firing actually helped a lot. I also reverse mounted the subs for a while to see if the added displacement would net me any gains, but it didn't so I flipped the subs back. I still have this box today, although it isn't currently in my Explorer.

One day it occurred to me that I had put over $400 into my stereo and yet I was still using a cassette adaptor to play mp3s through factory head unit. I hopped onto this site and read about installing an Aux by hacking into an existing input and decided to give it a try. I ended up stealing the inputs from my factory CD changer that I never used and just stocked the magazine with CDs I didn't like. It worked great for a while and I really loved having an aux input! I installed the Aux input in the center console, right next to my gain control for the amp.


Strangely, this input randomly stopped working one day in 2017 ("NO DJ" error). I tried changing out the head unit, changing out the CD changer, changing out the magazine, disassembling, cleaning, and resoldering everything in the head unit and the CD changer (that was a wild job and 100% NOT worth the effort), and I even rewired everything between the head unit and the CD changer to see I could get things going again. None of that worked so I went back to a cassette adaptor which I'm still using today.

My remaining interior electrical work consisted of installing LEDs under the dash and seats as well as inside the ports of the sub box. They seemed cool when I was 20 years old, nowadays I think they're pretty tacky.

One other tricky thing I did was hack a 4x4 dash bezel to make the 4wd selector knob into the gain adjustment for my amp. This allowed me to get rid of the clunky knob that came with the amp that I previously had screwed into my center console. It works great and even lights up!

Next time I take the dash bezel out I'll have to take some more pics and show y'all how I did it

Other interior things to note:
* 2000 Limited OEM floor mats (from salvage yard)

* Husky cargo/trunk liner (from my dad's '93)

* 10" 800W shallow-mount sub in custom "stealth box" with custom grille (replaced the blown 8" and OEM Ford enclosure)
- I use this sub when I don't have the two 15s in

* Recovered armrest
- I used a few varieties of fabric store vinyl and they never quite matched. One day it occurred to me I could cut off a seatback pocket from an Ex in the salvage yard and use that. After recovering the armrest with the OEM Ford vinyl, I never looked back.

* Fire extinguisher and mount (had a close call after a repair gone wrong and I decided this wouldn't be a bad idea)

* No singular item here, but I'm proud to say that everything in the interior (besides the CD changer) works! This has taken a lot of small jobs including
- Replaced all instrument cluster backlight bulbs (OEM style incandescent)

- Replaced backlighting bulbs in switches (headlight, fog lamps, rear defrost, rear wiper)

- Replaced 12V jack door
- Replaced all door speakers
- Replaced driver's door handles (inside and out)
- Replaced back seat climate controls and blower fan (now that's a tedious many screws...)
- Removed both front seat lower covers and stitched up ripped seams (not a bad job and totally worth it imho)
- Replaced brake and parking brake pedal covers
- Replaced jack storage area cover with cover from a '99 (has twist knobs instead of the snaps that pop out all the time)

My first exterior change was the addition of a Waag brush guard. I always thought these were cool and when I found one on a wrecked '01 sport in a salvage yard, I couldn't pass it up.

I felt the guard made the truck look tougher, but for some reason it made me less enthusiastic about the dated, very mid-90s Ford aesthetic of the grille. I decided I wanted something that looked more sporty and thus my first big exterior modification was a custom grille.

For my first attempt, I cut out the "bars," ground down what was left and glassed over the holes. I sanded it as best I could (didn't own a power sander at the time) and painted the formerly silver area black.


It did not age very well.

The actual grille was just galvanized expanded metal from the masonry section of Home Depot, painted black. I also ditched the blue oval for an XLT emblem.

For my second attempt, I again cut out the "bars" (another salvage yard grille) and ground down the remnants. This time, however, I used steel wire mesh and Bondo-glass to cover/fill the holes. I sanded that down, went over it with regular Bondo, and sanded more. Then Bondo Gold, more sanding, filler primer, more sanding, automotive primer, more sanding, and finally the semi gloss black that I used in the first iteration. This time it came out nice and held up too.

I still used the Home Depot expanded metal for the grille, but instead of painting it, I coated it heavily with bed liner. This thickened up appearance of the mesh and made it more durable too. I used more of this bed liner-coated mesh for the lower opening too after I relocated the front plate (more on that later).

In order to free up airflow for my intercooler...just kidding. I wish that was why I relocated my front plate! Maybe someday...

Truth be told, I just think it looks cooler to move the plate off to the side (c'mon even the newer F-150s are doin' it). Conveniently, it also gave me a spot to mount more fog lights!

The plate relocation was easy, I just made some aluminum brackets to piggyback off two bolts holding the valance panel to the bumper, riveted them to holes I drilled in the OEM plate bracket, and tucked zip ties through more holes I drilled in the plate bracket and underneath the bumper trim. The brackets locate the plate and the zip ties keep it from flopping around.

Under the hood
- V8 air box (has larger inlet and heat shield that wasn't used on V6 models)
- K&N filter

Everything else is stock, but I have replaced a number of things:
- Radiator (my original had the thicker core and that's what I replaced it with) and hoses
- Timing chain tensioners
- Thermostat and housing gaskets (somehow my original plastic housing is still holding up)
- Spark plugs
- Valve cover gaskets & oil pan gasket (still haven't stopped that pesky oil leak though:mad:)
- Upper intake manifold gaskets
- Camshaft and crankshaft position sensors
- Serpentine belt tensioner and idler pulley
- EGR gasket


I'd like to think this is the cleanest '97 Explorer engine bay in Wisconsin. (yes, I have one navy blue fender right now...that's a story for another post)


Taking off the valve covers gave me a good chance to look at my upper timing chain guides.


I removed and cleaned the oil pickup when I replaced the pan gasket.

- Energy Suspension polyurethane sway bar bushings front & rear
- 1250 lb leaf springs
- Energy Suspension polyurethane leaf spring shackle bushings
- OEM-style axle damper
- Anti-windup bars from V8 Explorer



- 3.73 Traction-Lok differential from a V8 Explorer (mentioned above)
- Moog greaseable U-Joints
- Yukon Gear & Axle Traction-Lok clutch disks (no more getting stuck in the mud for me!)

- Stainless 2.5 inch cat-back exhaust
- Resonator delete


More Exterior Stuff

Leftover window tint on emblems -- kind of cheesy, but I think it's a nice subtle look.


Roof rack: Extra cross bars and Harbor Freight cargo basket coated with truck bed liner

I see you added the traction bars from the v8


I see you added the traction bars from the v8


I mainly put them on for fun when I was already back there replacing the leaf springs. I saw the "Anti-Windup Bars" mentioned in my Chilton manual and when I noticed my frame had the holes for the brackets and my rear end had the mounting tabs, I thought it was worth a try.


Found the cleanest V8 Explorer in my local salvage yard (sadly this is clean by Wisconsin standards)


Hit the nuts and bolts (four per side) with some penetrant and let them sit while I made my way through the rest of the Ranger-based vehicles in the yard. Then I put the breaker bar to work!


Made sure to take all of the hardware.


The bracket with parking brake cable tab is especially important! The parking brake bracket on the V6 trucks must be removed and replaced.


I wire wheeled off the rust and hit everything with my usual treatment (rust reformer/primer/chassis paint/truck bed liner). I was careful not to get bed liner on the sliding surfaces inside the brackets.

I also looked everywhere for poly bushings for these, but couldn't find any! I'll just have to make some eventually. I did coat the old rubber bushings with AT-205 to soften them up a little.

In the end, I honestly don't think the traction bars make a difference with the torque of the SOHC, but it was a satisfying project. I plan to swap the bars onto my next Explorer which will hopefully be pushing quite a few more ft-lbs than this one!

Finally decided to close this thread out.

After completing my suspension refresh in summer 2020, I took the '97 on a camping trip. On the way to the state park, I was accelerating to get back on the interstate after stopping at a rest stop. Revs were climbing in 1st, 2nd, then I hit a literal rough patch (a rectangle of newer asphalt that was slightly caved in) and the transmission dropped violently back into first. Made it home with 1st, 3rd, and 4th gear and started trying to get the 5R back into shape. I replaced the solenoids and rebuilt the valve body, then replaced the 2nd/5th overdrive servo piston, and finally installed a complete reman valve body -- all to no avail. At that point, I considered rebuilding the whole transmission, but I don't really care for automatics. Then I considered a manual swap, but decided putting all that work into a vehicle with rust was a waste.

I started searching for a manual replacement second gen, all the while driving the '97 around in its remaining three gears. It helped my then fiancé/now wife and I move to our first home, helped us haul loads of building materials to that new home as we renovated it, and when I finally found my '00 Sport, it donated numerous parts to start my Sandbox2.000 build. I like to think the 97Sandbox will live on in my Sport in some ways.

Anyhow, before I got rid of the '97, I decided to drive it to my wedding -- so I piled in with my groomsman (many of whom had ridden in it with me back in high school) and headed to the venue. After the ceremony, my wife and I were taking pictures and one of us (probably me) made a half-joking comment about getting pictures with the Explorer. I wasn't actually going to, but the photographer encouraged us to go for it. So here's to all the fond memories of the '97 and its last special trip!