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Howdy Ranger: As The Ford Ranger Returns, A Look Back at Its Rich History

Posted in Features on January 22, 2019
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Photographers: Ford Archives

When the Ford Ranger said adios to the North American market in 2011 and rode off into the sunset, it seemed likely that was the final entry in a long and storied history. In yet another “not so fast” moment, the Ranger rides back into the North American market for 2019, even more steely-eyed and sitting taller in the saddle.

The Ranger name was not new when Ford’s first in-house–built mini-truck made an initial public appearance in 1981. Ranger had long been a package identifier for Ford light trucks. It appeared first for an early-’50s Marmon-Herrington 4x4 carryall conversion of a Ford panel truck. By 1965, a top-line Ranger trim package had been added to the pickup line and the Bronco got one for 1967. For 1983, it was retired from all those duties and chosen as the model name for a new ground-up truck with a lot of innovations, ready to do battle in a fiercely contested mini-truck market.

Prior to the 1973 Arab oil embargo, the mini-truck market in the U.S. was confined to a relatively small number of Japanese imports that had been coming in since the late 1950s. They were growing in popularity, and by the end of the 1960s, America’s light-truck manufacturers were beginning to see them as a potentially profitable sideline. Like GM and Chrysler, Ford worked a deal with a Japanese manufacturer to buy rebadged mini-trucks. In Ford’s case, it was Toyo-Kogo (aka Mazda), of which Ford owned 25 percent, and the rebadged mini-trucks went on sale for 1972 known as the Courier. During this time, mini-trucks held about 5 percent of the light-truck market.

Among the first glimpses of the Ranger people saw was this styling department rendering of the completed design. It appeared on a preview booklet called “Born Tough” that was distributed to the press and dealers in the summer of 1981.

As a result of the October 1973 to March 1974 OAPEC (Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries) embargo, oil prices quadrupled, gas shortages ensued, and the stock market crashed. OAPEC caught the world in a “perfect storm” moment, and the end result was semi-catastrophic. Fear ruled the day, and people clamored for more fuel-efficient cars and trucks. Detroit was largely left standing, crankshaft in hand. As it related to Ford trucks, the saving grace was that the Courier filled the gap.

By 1976, it was clear to management that high fuel prices would not be a passing situation; they began the engineering process to develop a new small truck in-house, but it was a slow-walk until a 1979 Middle East crisis spiked oil prices again. The project dovetailed with a renewed push to completely redo the Ford truck and SUV lines for 1980.

The basic goals of the new project were to make a small, fuel-efficient 1/2-ton pickup…but not really mini. The ability to seat three across in the cab, have enough legroom to fit a fullsize American male, and to have a long-wheelbase version with a bed big enough to carry a 4x8 sheet of plywood were among the design goals. Execs mandated the use of as much existing engineering as possible. An SUV version on the same platform was contemplated, and later it was made into a reality in the form of the Bronco II—but that’s another story!

By the summer of 1981, Ford had a batch of prototypes built, but among the 10 that have been identified in images, none were 4x4s. Shown here is a middle-trim-level XL long wheelbase (114-inch) with a 7-foot bed. The big engine for the intro was the 80hp 2.3L OHC four with the choice of a four-speed manual or an optional three-speed automatic. The standard GVW was 1,200 pounds, with 1,600 pounds optional. Production began in January of 1982, and some 1,440 Ranger 4x2s were sold in the month of February.

Press got the insider info on the Ranger in August of 1981, and during a press preview some were privileged to see and drive a couple of prototype 4x2s. This opened the bag enough for us to get a good look at the cat, and the picture became much clearer. Not unexpectedly, 2.0L and 2.3L OHC four-cylinder engines were under the hoods, and an automatic transmission option was confirmed. A later diesel option was also confirmed. The rear axle was a 7.5-inch ring-gear unit inherited from the Maverick. The front 4x2 suspension was a scaled-down version of the familiar twin I-beam semi-independent system that had been in use in larger Fords for about 15 years. Two things that came later were a 2.8L “Cologne” V-6 developed by Ford’s German arm and a downsized version of the newly developed Twin-Traction Beam driving front axle.

Anxious to match GM after the 1981 intro of their S-series mini-trucks, Ford put a limited number of 4x2 Rangers on sale in February of 1982 (as ’83 models), with the 4x4s coming in the fall. The much-anticipated V-6 models didn’t come until March of 1983. How were they received? About like a bottle of cold water after a four hour afternoon hike in the desert.

The Ranger became, and remained, a successful Ford model for most of its 28-year production history. It faded a bit over the last seven years of production, partly due to a declining small-truck market and partly to declining Ford interest in pursuing that market. The bulk of the 1983-2011 Ranger story is best told in pictures. The story of the 2019-up Ranger is just beginning to unfold and will someday be read by future generations of Four Wheeler readers. Whatever other lessons have been learned over the years, one of the foremost is to never count the Ranger out.

1983-1988 1st Generation

The 4x4 Ranger was introduced in August of 1982 and went on sale in the fall of 1982. The only engine for the early units was the 2.3L four with a standard four-speed manual or an optional five-speed overdrive. The automatic wasn’t available in four-cylinder 4x4s. The standard axle ratio for the four-speed was 3.45:1, with 3.73:1 optional. The standard ratio for the five-speed was 3.73:1. There were four trim levels: Standard, XL, XLT (shown on a long wheelbase), and the top-dog XLS.
The little “V6” on the front fenders meant a lot. The German-built 2.8L Cologne V-6 added a lot to the Ranger model and more than 60 percent of first-gen Rangers were so equipped. The EPA rating for this ’85 XLT five-speed was 19 city and 23 highway—significantly better than the Ranger’s bigger brothers. The 2.3L gas four was rated 24/29 and the Mitsubishi 2.3L turbodiesel (new for ’85) was 27/29. The 1985 model year marked the first time a diesel had been available in the 4x4s.
The 2.3L Ford four-cylinder already had a long track record with Ford when it became the top-line option in the early days of the Ranger. It was a lot peppier than the 80hp paper rating would imply. When the V-6 engine debuted, the 2.3L carried on as the base 4x4 powerplant, undergoing a great deal of evolution until 1993, when the new 3.0L V-6 took the job. With a 3.78x3.13-inch bore and stroke in a five main block, the OHC four was rated at 79 hp at 3,800 rpm for manuals and 82 hp at 4,200 rpm for automatics. Torque was a respectable 124 lb-ft at 2,200 rpm and the compression ratio was 9:1.
The 2.8L Cologne V-6 gave FoMoCo parity with the GM 2.8L V-6 in the S-series trucks. They were nearly identical in output, but the Ford engine had a better reliability reputation. The engine went back to a German development of the mid-1960s that was built as small as 1.8L. A 2.6L version had been used by Ford in the Mercury Capri of the ’70s, and the 2.8L was a step up from that. The pushrod 4.0L would be the final American evolution of this venerable engine. It had a 3.66x2.70-inch bore and stroke and made 115 hp, 5 more than the GM 2.8L. Similarly, torque was 5 lb-ft more than the GM at 150 lb-ft. Bragging rights at least.
For 1985, Ford replaced the anemic, naturally aspirated 59hp 2.2L Mazda diesel with an 80hp 2.3L turbodiesel from Mitsubishi. Though 80 ponies seems modest, it proved to be a peppy powerplant for the Ranger. And economical. It was the same engine being used in the Dodge Ram 50 trucks, but Ford didn’t want you to know that. The American public didn’t find a lot of love for the small diesels from any brand, so they faded away in the late ’80s, and in the Ranger after 1987.
The top-of-the-line XLS beat the imports all to heck and gave the Ranger luxo-parity with the big trucks. This was a very important aspect necessary to make the smaller trucks more palatable, and Ford understood this from the get-go.
Extended-cab pickups were all the rage in the ’80s. Ford finally developed a Ranger version they called the SuperCab and introduced it for 1986. Sitting on a 125-inch wheelbase, it used the 6-foot bed, and the extra 11 inches of wheelbase was used for the cab extension. The SuperCab was available in all trim levels, including the STX. By this time, the four-speed transmission was gone and the trans choices were either a five-speed Mazda unit or the new AOD overdrive automatic. In later years, a four-door SuperCab was built.
The sporty STX package replaced the XLS for 1986, but the 1987 STX got an enhancement that still has Ranger fans panting. The STX “High Rider” package included a factory 1.5-inch lift and “big” 215/75R15 off-road tires. The tires had been available in earlier years, but the extra lift allowed more travel and the opportunity to mount even bigger 235/75R15 tires with no rubbing. The High Rider package included mandatory 3.73 or 4.10:1 axle ratios. The STX had a number of included options, including the new 2.9L EFI V-6, but not the alloy wheels, faux rollbar, lights, or brushguard. Generally speaking, the package was a blacked-out style with color-keyed stripes and a sporty upscale interior. This STX is shown with the optional Sport Appearance Package, which included the Light Bar (faux rollbar) with off-road lights, the grilleguard with driving lights, and a tubular rear bumper.

1989-1992 2nd Generation

For 1989, the Ranger got a bit of restyling that dovetailed with the aerodynamic styling changes made to the F-series trucks in 1987. The interior also got a heavy dose of new. It was enough to freshen the overall truck without costing a lot. Under the skin, not much happened other than the 2.3L getting 14 extra horsepower and rear ABS added to the mix. The factory 1.5-inch lift was still available as the “Sport Rider STX,” but this would be the last year for the “tall-in-the-saddle” option.
Yeah, we’re “STX-ing” you here, but for some reason the STX shows up prominently in the image archives. A lot happened for 1990, and among the most important was the midyear intro of the 4.0L V-6. This engine appeared as a step above the 2.9L, and with 160 hp and 225 lb-ft of torque, it was a welcome upgrade over the 140hp/170–lb-ft 2.9L. With the 4.0L came a 28-spline version of the 8.8-inch rear axle and the first appearance of the Dana 35 version of the Twin-Traction Beam frontend. For 1992, the 2.3L four would be dropped from the lineup and the 2.9L would be the base engine. The 4.0L was the last evolution of the venerable Cologne V-6.

1993-1997 3rd Generation

For 1993, the Ranger got a top-to-bottom refresh that closely aligned it with the new F-series. In fact, it got the visual update before the Explorer, which had replaced the Bronco II after 1991 and was becoming one of Ford’s headline vehicles. The Ranger and Explorer shared a lot of hardware, and that was a good thing. The 3.0L Vulcan V-6 became the base powerplant for the 4x4s. The new body style allowed for larger tires, up to 235/75R-15.
In mid-’93, the Splash Flareside 4x4 was added to the lineup, a stylish stepside version that had previously only been available as a 4x2. It came with any available powertrain combo, but most are seen with the peppy 4.0L V-6. This gave the Ranger five trim levels: XL as the base, XL Sport, XLT, STX, and the Splash. Notable in the last year of the third-gen Rangers was the industry’s first five-speed automatic, the 5R55E offered in 1997 Rangers.
For 1993, the 2.3L four was gone and replaced by the 3.0L Vulcan V-6, which was designed in the USA and built at the Lima, Ohio, engine plant. It was an “old-school” pushrod engine with architecture that was reminiscent of the Cologne engines. At 140 hp and 160 lb-ft of torque, it was a peppy base engine and a step up in that regard. It had a 3.50x3.14-inch bore and stroke and a 9.2:1 compression ratio. Using multiport injection, it was a smooth and clean running engine. With revisions, it was the standard 4x4 powerplant through 2008.

1998-2011 4th Generation

Big changes came to the Ranger for ’98, though they weren’t cosmetic. Gone was the TTB, replaced by a fully independent SLA system that delivered a greatly improved ride and drive. They came with vacuum-operated hub locks, which offered everyday drivers great convenience and off-roaders great headaches. The 3.0L remained the base powerplant, but it was available in a Flex-Fuel configuration. By this time, the 3.0L had picked up some significant juice, delivering 150 hp and 185 lb-ft of torque. Ranger was still stuck with the OHV 4.0L at 160 hp, but the new SOHC 4.0L (205 hp/250 lb-ft of torque) would come in 2001. Gone also for ’98, was the long-running STX, leaving three levels: XL, XLT, and Splash.
The fourth-gen Rangers had fallen behind in the power race with GM and Chrysler, not to mention some of the imports. That ended for 2001 with the 4.0L OHC engine. The SOHC engine made 207 hp and 238 lb-ft of torque, which put Ranger (and Explorer) on an even playing field with the rest of the market. It had a 3.95x3.32-inch bore and stroke, a 9.7:1 compression ratio, and sequential multiport fuel injection. The 4.0L remained the top-dog Ranger powerplant right to the end.
The Ranger reached the pinnacle of its factory four-wheeling prowess in 2002 with the FX4 Off-Road. The mechanical parts of the package started with a heavy-duty spring package with Bilstein shocks, forged Alcoa wheels, 31x10.50-15 BFG T/A KO tires, skidplates, and towhooks. The rear axle was upgraded from 28 to 31 splines, the axletube diameters increased from 2.75 inches to 3.25 inches, and a Torsen limited slip was included with 4.10 gears. Special colors and interior features completed the package. The 2002 FX4 Off-Road was unique, as you will soon learn.
For 2003, Ford confused the heck out of everyone by having two FX4 models: the base FX4 Off-Road and the FX4 Level II. The Off-Road backtracked to something more like the old Off-Road package with 4.10:1 ratios and a standard 28-spline rear axle with the Ford Traction-Lock limited-slip differential. Tires were 245/75R16 on five-spoke cast alloys, and there were towhooks and skidplates. The Level II had the good stuff found in the ’02 FX4: the bigger rear axle with a Torsen and the 31x10.50 tires on the forged Alcoas. The Level IIs were built through 2007 and the Off-Road through 2009. According to Ford, 17,971 Level IIs (including the ’02) and 45,172 of the Off-Roads were built.
Ranger sales fell below 200,000 annually for the first time in 2004, and by then the number of plants producing them had shrunk from three to one. By 2010, only 55,000 were built, and 2011 numbers were even less. The only change to the 2011 was the addition of Roll Stability Control. Three models were available: XL, XLT, and Sport.

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