Lessons from the automotive loves that dare not speak their names
Earlier this week, The Detroit News alternated between clutching its pearls and waving the flag in an article about a fellow who builds “new” Ford Excursions. If you just woke up from a 20-year-long coma, or if you are European, I should explain: The Ford Excursion was the mighty maxi-SUV built around the turn of the century using F-250 or F-350 mechanicals and your choice of V-10 gas or V-8 diesel engines. It was insanely popular with its owners and insanely unpopular with people who saw the big rig as a steel-and-glass embodiment of flyover-country environmental ignorance. Ford pulled the plug on the thing more than a decade ago and has never seriously considered bringing it back.
Most of the “new” trucks in question are simply Excursion “toppers” welded onto 2016–17 Ford Super Duty crew-cabs; a few are complete refabrications from the best of several wrecked or worn-out examples. In no case is the process cheap; if you bring your own Super Duty to the party, which is usually a $60K proposition or more all by itself, you’ll need to leave $40 grand in the glovebox when you drop it off. Yet the idea of a brand-new Excursion, even an S-Class prices, is so compelling that the shop profiled by the News can’t build them fast enough.
Truth be told, the idea of a three-quarter-ton or one-ton SUV was always a compelling idea. Centurion Conversions, formerly of White Pigeon, Michigan, made “four-door Broncos” and metal-capped F-350 pickups throughout the first half of the ’90s. Meanwhile, GM had no trouble selling 2500 and 3500 variants of the Suburban, usually powered by a big-block V-8 but occasionally chugging along with a diesel. The Excursion was meant to compete with the 3500 Suburban; its killer app was the availability of the infamous 7.3-liter PowerStroke turbodiesel.
As with many things in life, from the shawl-collar dinner jacket to the Fairchild Republic A-10 Thunderbolt II, if you need a one-ton diesel SUV then you really need one and there are very few even mildly satisfactory alternatives. The fellows and ladies who race in cheap-car endurance series like LeMons love them because you can haul a 24-foot enclosed trailer across the country as if it were not there and then you can take the whole crew back to the hotel each night. As a consequence, Excursions have simply stopped depreciating.The same is true of the 8.1-liter big-block gasoline-powered Suburbans that went out of production a decade ago.
Any time a vehicle stops depreciating, that’s a pretty good sign that it would be welcome in the marketplace again. Another good sign: when fabricators spring up out of the ground to do the work that the factory won’t. Besides the Excursion “rebuilder,” you have DuraBurb, which puts Duramax diesels in brand-new uprated Suburbans. “We don’t like to install engines with over 150K,” DuraBurb recently assured its Facebook fans. Can you imagine having so much desire for, and so much confidence in, a vehicle that you’re willing to start a “new” build with a 150K-mile engine?
In the words of Frank Lloyd Wright’s famous letter to the prospective owners of his Kentuck Knob home, if Ford wanted to do a 2020 Excursion on the aluminum SuperDuty, the company could “shake it out of its sleeve” tomorrow. The same is also true of diesel Suburbans, or one-ton gas-powered ’Burbs; if a guy with two lifts in a steel building can do something, General Motors can probably do it. So why won’t they?
The answer is hiding in that News piece, where an industry analyst says: “For a company like Ford to bring back the Excursion now would seem like kind of a slap in the face.” Which leads to the obvious question: A slap in the face to whom?
Certainly not the people who are paying $100K for aftermarket-capped Super Duty pickups. Certainly not to all of the buyers who could use a diesel SUV, which includes your humble author. And certainly not to the shareholders, who would no doubt nod approvingly at building a vehicle with Excursion-level profit margins. Everyone with skin in the game wants an Excursion. So this mysterious slap in the face must be hitting someone else.
In this case, I suspect that Ford simply doesn’t like the optics of building another Excursion. Like many publicly-held firms which are to some degree held hostage by the American media and its ability to pump or dump stocks at will, Ford is terrified of sending the “wrong signal” through its product decisions. That’s why it just invested in electric-truck vaporware via Rivian. Spending a half-billion bucks on chasing digital dreams earns some diffident approval from the Park Slope and Burlingame crowds, while building a new aluminum Excursion would infuriate them.
The fact that said coastal elites only sit in a Ford product when their black-car driver happens to have a Lincoln MKT for the day is irrelevant. Detroit automakers have an urgent and pathetic need to be loved and respected by the very people who will always despise them. That’s why Cadillac made its much-ballyhooed (and recently reversed) move to SoHo, where cars of all kinds are viewed with the kind of unbridled contempt that decent people reserve for horse thieves and solid-state guitar amps. That same level of investment, or less, could have engineered a Duramax Escalade that would be eagerly snapped up by 20,000 people each year. Each unit would probably make $30K for the company—that’s a couple billion dollars of profit over the product life cycle. And it would create loyal Cadillac customers, which are currently in short supply.
Trust me, that will never happen. This weird relationship between Detroit and the chattering classes is kind of like a Pretty In Pink director’s cut, where it’s just Molly Ringwald rubbing James Spader’s feet while he idly shoots at her with a paintball gun. Keep that in mind as you start to hear more about the current inventory crisis being faced by domestic-branded dealers. Sometimes, the automakers would rather build something nobody wants, for reasons having nothing to do with the bottom line or common sense. Every one of those “overflow lot” spots currently being occupied by showroom poison like the Regal TourX or Cadillac CTS could currently be totally empty because it would have contained a Suburban 3500 that sold five hours after it rolled off the transporter.
What do the kids say nowadays? This could be us, but you playin’.
In the meantime, if you’re interested in owning a vehicle which will not be subject to normal market factors or depreciation—a four-wheeled Rolex Daytona, if you will—but you are not willing to join your humble author in the fools’ paradise of Porsche 993 ownership, I recommend you see what the Excursion fellow has for sale. You can tow your race car or your boat or your glider with it, you can put 100,000 miles on it in a crazy year of exploring the country, and you can let it run all night to keep you warm when you’re camping, since diesels can idle on very little fuel. I’m reminded of a quote I read a long time ago, from a crazy small-town dealer who insisted on letting regular civilians buy Crown Victoria Police Interceptors:
“Ford don’t like it, boy—but I do.”