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Steve Simon loved his Ford Excursion so much he paid for it twice: once when he bought it from a dealer, and again nearly a decade later when he paid an Oklahoma mechanic to rebuild it.

He's not the only one. The big, powerful, excessive and now-extinct Ford Excursion has a cult-like following that has people paying as much as $100,000 for a "new" build of the long-dead behemoth SUV.

It's been more than a decade since a new Excursion hit a dealer lot. The hulking family hauler that shared its platform architecture with the F-250 Super Duty saw U.S. sales peak in 2000 at around 51,000. The automaker moved 16,283 of them in 2005, the year it was killed. 

It battled a poor public image due to bad fuel economy — an environmental group dubbed the SUV the "Ford Valdez" in 1999 after the Exxon Valdez oil spill — and was around for less than a decade before Ford quietly did away with it. Some gasoline-engine models got less than 10 miles per gallon.

But the biggest SUV Ford ever built was ahead of its time, believe the enthusiasts paying tens of thousands to get a new one built, and the Oklahoma-based mechanic and business owner who builds around 40 Excursions a year by marrying a back end to newer Super Duty chassis. 

"What I hear all the time is people wish Ford would build the Excursion again," said Tim Huskey, the 59-year-old mastermind who is keeping Excursions on the road. He owns Custom Autos by Tim in Guthrie, Oklahoma.

His small shop can build you a "new" Excursion in two months. He and his team charge at least $40,000 if you can find them a Super Duty chassis to work with. The price goes up if you need to buy one of the chassis he's salvaged from around the country, and if you want custom screens, paint or seats. Most people spend between $50,000 and $100,000 on one of his builds.

"I'm 99% sure I'll be selling them for the next five years," Huskey told The Detroit News. "Excursion drivers love them. They will keep buying them." 

It's a keeper

Steve Simon might.

When the 57-year-old Orleans, Massachusetts, business owner bought his 2005 model with the 6.0-liter diesel engine from the dealer, he said he knew Ford wouldn't be making them long. He paid in high-$40,000 range to have Huskey rebuild it after Simon and his family ran the odometer up to 225,000 miles a couple years ago.

"We're never getting rid of this," Simon said of his Excursion. "We drove across the country in it a couple of times. You don't have to think about 'oh we can't take this or we can't take that.' Nobody's got a car big enough to comfortably fit six people in it anymore."

Huskey kept the engine, transmission and dashboard from the original SUV Simon sent him. The rest was rebuilt from used vehicles Huskey salvaged — used Excursions that had front-end damage, and Super Duties with rear-end damage.

Felix Denmon, 72, came to Huskey a year and a half ago to have him convert an F-250 into an Excursion. He'd been driving Excursions since 2000, and bought the last diesel model in the state of Florida in 2005 when he learned Ford was axing the SUV.

When he brought the first of Huskey's builds back home to Florida, Denmon's wife said she wanted it. So Denmon bought a second one for his business that deals large vehicles to municipalities. Then a third for his son, and a fourth for the general manager of his company.

"I get stopped at least once a week with somebody saying they didn't think Ford made these anymore," Denmon said. "It's still an eye-turner."

For most builds, Huskey marries salvaged Excursion back ends behind the driver seat to the front end of the newer Super Duty chassis to make new Excursions. Huskey also stretches Super Duties to make extravagant six-door cabs.

His main source of income are the Excursion conversions, he said. He's averaged between 35 and 40 for the last few years. There's a two-month wait-list and a two-month build time. Now that the 2016 Super Duties are running out, Huskey says he'll have to move to using F-650 frames for the conversion, because they still match up with the 2005 Excursion body. He can't work with the newer F-Series models that use aluminum.

"People beg me every month to figure out a way to use the '19," Huskey said.

'Never a poser'

From 2000 to 2006, Ford offered several trim levels of the Excursion and three engines. A fourth engine was available from 2000-03. One mistake the automaker made was offering gasoline engines: they weren't strong enough to power the massive SUV with its heavy steel frame.

People who bought diesel Excursions, like Simon and Denmon, hang onto them for life. Some diesel models that are more than 15 years old are asking more than $20,000 on the used market.

The diesel engine is more powerful, has a fuel economy in the high-teens and lasts a long time, they said. And they made the vehicle drive like it was meant to. The gas engines sucked up gasoline and gave the SUV a bad name, Denmon said. 

Ford quietly marketed the vehicle, according to Karl Brauer, an auto analyst with Kelley Blue Book who's been around the industry for years. They pitched it as a "fresh new choice in the heavy-duty utility market" in a press kit from 2000 when the vehicle was introduced. It boasted space and convenience for passengers in a vehicle that could comfortably seat nine on three rows of bench seating, tow up to 10,000 pounds and haul up to a ton of cargo. It also had 10 cup holders and five power outlets.

"They kind of expected that the people who would want that kind of vehicle would find it," Brauer said. "It was kind of new in the early 2000s to have a large vehicle. People were calling out the Excursion as a foolish, wasteful, decadent, selfish and incredibly not earth-friendly vehicle. It seemed like overnight, all of the sudden, they all vanished. And the Priuses took over."

For Jason Mase, formerly the Excursion marketing manager at Ford, the vehicle's staying power is evidence that Ford made the right vehicle for the right people.

"Mustang is the only other vehicle where I've seen that kind of aftermarket love," said Mase, currently the marketing manager for Ford's electric vehicles. "Excursion is that kind of product that was never a poser vehicle. It had instant respect. People knew that it was a beast for towing and hauling. People loved it then and love it now."

Ahead of its time

Ford executives say they don't regret killing the vehicle, partly because the market size for it was small. Sales ballooned and then fell by half in the seven years Ford sold the model.

But Brauer said Ford and General Motors Co., which had its own gas guzzlers in the Hummer brand, might harbor some regret. No one questions the automakers' decisions to get rid of those vehicles, but U.S. consumers want increasingly larger and more capable SUVs now that fuel prices seem stable and automakers have figured out how to make them more fuel efficient.

"I don't think anyone, myself included, questioned their thinking at the time," Brauer said. "For a company like Ford to bring back the Excursion now would seem like kind of a slap in the face."

A new Excursion would likely poach from Ford's hot-selling Expedition model, which the company overhauled just more than two years ago. The automaker sells the Expedition MAX, which is an extended cab. It's nearly same size as the old Excursion.

But for Denmon, it's not even close. Nothing comes close to the early-2000s behemoth he fell in love with.

"All you got to do is climb into the cab of one," Denmon said. The Expedition is "a very nice unit, but it's not the Excursion. Believe me. In the Excursion, you see the difference. It's just a bigger, roomier vehicle."

Twitter: @Ian_Thibodeau

ithibodeau@detroitnews.com

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