Despite its best-seller status, the old Ford Explorer has had its share of fire-related problems that led to serious injuries and even death.
When you think of safety issues with the Ford Explorer, fires might not even be the first thing you think of. On top of this, the Explorer wasn't even the only vehicle to have been equipped with the faulty components which caused fires. Yet more Explorers burned than any other vehicle in this series, and what is therefore fascinating about the Explorer is that it isn't more famous for being prone to catching fire, even with fairly recent recalls.
The Explorer name was first used in 1968 as a trim package for the F-Series pickup trucks. This lasted until 1986 and was revived in 1991 for a full-on SUV. It replaced a smaller Ford model named Bronco II, but like the Bronco, was built on the platform from the Ranger pickup. A rebadged Mazda version, known as the Navajo, was sold for a brief period, but sales were never very good, and it was killed off in 1994. Construction of the Explorer was a heavy and truck-like body-on-frame setup until the debut of the fifth generation in 2011, when the switch was made to a unibody construction. But the Explorer ran into problems that first arose in Nineties and came to a head in 2000.
As the Explorer evolved apart from the Ranger, considerable weight was added, and the ride height (and therefore center of gravity) was raised. But Ford kept using the same tires as they had used for the Ranger, and it was found that this could lead to problems. The tires in question were made by Firestone, and when these were under-inflated, the extra weight on them would often cause them to overheat. Once overheated, the tread would separate from the rest of the tire, causing a blowout. This would be bad enough, but it was soon found that most drivers tended to panic in this situation and do the opposite of what they're supposed to.
They would counter-steer to correct the jerk to the wheel from the blowout and end up rolling the vehicle. The fault was eventually found to lay with Firestone, but the name Explorer being connected to the case didn't do Ford any favors. In fact, U-Haul even imposed a ban on renting trailers to anyone who planned to tow them behind an Explorer. The claim was that it was too much of a liability, even though there was no documented proof of this. The mechanically identical Mazda Navajo and Mercury Mountaineer weren't banned, and even the current Explorer, which is in every way a completely different vehicle, is still banned by the trailer rental firm.
With all this fuss over rollovers, it's easy to see how easy it could be to overlook a massive recall over fire risk. The fault in question was the Cruise Control Activation Switch. The part contains both electrical wiring and flammable hydraulic fluid, and as the part would age, it would sometimes leak fluid and start an electrical fire. These were especially bad, since the vehicle didn't even need to be running for the fire to start. Because of this, quite a few fires started while vehicles were parked in garages, and led to several incidents where entire houses burned to the ground.
A number of deaths resulted as well, and as the NHTSA's investigation ramped up, a huge number of Ford vehicles ended up requiring a recall. For this reason, it was perhaps unfair to single out the Explorer, especially given its already less than stellar safety reputation. But the fire stigma never fully replaced the rollover sigma, and not even this had any significant impact on sales. Ford has been selling a much smaller number of Explorers in the past few years, but that could be said about any SUV. Although the Explorer is not impervious to vehicle fashion trends, it has certainly somehow managed to avoid the same fate as the Pinto.