With Ford Explorer in Beaverhead National Forest, Montana
Travelling to North America with a railroad buff means that you have to be prepared for the new world’s often challenging back road conditions. Because photographing at yards is only a small part of the fun. The real stuff is found out there on the tracks, so into the wild with the right gear. On the second trip to the USA in 1994, starting in Seattle, going to the Cascades and Glacier Park in Montana, it was deemed advisable to rent something with four wheel drive, because the Ford Escort rented a year before was not really a success in that respect.
That trip was my first experience with a Ford Explorer. A huge vehicle for a Dutchman used to more modest means of transportation, and an SUV designed from the old book of four wheel drive vehicles. Body on frame construction, a gear selector on the steering column, diving heavily under braking, leaning in corners, no handling to speak off. It almost tipped over during a fast u-turn, but still, during the vacation trip it was great for its task. Comfortable and fine for unpaved and gravel roads. Being quite tall, one of the best features of the car was the easy getting in and out and getting stuff from the rear seat or cargo bay without having to lean over. And then that in those days rather unique feature, a tailgate window that could be opened separately from the hatch. So perfect for grabbing your subs from the cargo bay! I think the Explorer was such a great vehicle, because it seemed so well adapted to the easy going American way of life, cruising at night, and arm out of the window. That a copious dinner, that started with an all you can eat salad bar, almost exited my mouth out of the Explorer when going over a nasty speed bump, is an anecdote that does not fit in the scope of this story here. But managing the impressive Gravely Range Road in Montana’s Beaverhead National Forest, picked by Men’s Journal as one of America’s best drives, wading through a shallow creek, with a view of the Grand Tetons in the distance, will always be locked to a Ford Explorer in my memory.
I don’t know if there were no Explorers available at Hertz a few years later, or if I wanted to have a try with the new first generation Toyota RAV4, but the smaller Japanese AWD proved to be a far better solution for the train chasing trips than the bulky old fashioned Explorer. Because it added elements to the driving experience the Ford lacked: performance and handling. A lovely rental with plenty of room for the two train explorers. “You will not be able to follow the Cape Breton & Central Nova Scotia Railway over gravel roads, because that is too dangerous” a trainspotters travel guide warned. But it was not impossible with a RAV4, an accomplishment I as the driver am still proud of today… But RAVs were either in short supply or very popular at Hertz, because at the start of the next trip there wasn’t one available. The lady at the desk wanted to upgrade us to an Explorer, but through the windows I saw a Subaru Outback on the lot. Once again, it topped the driving experience, while having sufficient off road capabilities for our needs – but cargo space for two suitcases was limited. I loved the Outback. Outbacks hold a special place in my automotive heart. Although I backed out of buying one three years ago – the car had grown too much, it felt too large on narrow polder roads, and it was rather lethargic with the A/C on and being fuelled by LPG. But that’s a different story.
Toyota RAV4 in Franz, Ontario.
Ah, nothing as impulsive as a man when it comes to cars. Or is it that I grew older and my priorities changed? Or is it simply because cars evolve? Any dreams of Explorers, first gen RAVs and Outback Subies were wiped away a few years ago when the Hertz employee handed me the keys of the most recent generation RAV4. I instantly fell in love with that car. The ergonomics, the ride, the quality, it is to me an ultimate boy toy. I want one. I need one. Ah well, a dream is a dream. American RAVs differ from Euro RAVs, because a longer wheelbase offers more cabin space, and we do not get the 2.4 engine. And the window sticker is out of my league. Importing one would even be more costly I fear. Maybe it better stays a dream then. Because, after all, it is a SUV at heart, and isn’t it politically totally incorrect to drive one these days because of its CO2 emissions? So, better leave it as a perfect American train chaser, and focus on miserly hybrid econoboxes. Hurray.