Twenty eight years is a long run, and Ford’s Ranger marks that anniversary this year as it bows out of the North American truck market. Almost from Day 1 through the late ’90s, it was the best-selling compact pickup in the U.S., and there is still very strong owner appreciation. Now it’s time for the Ranger to give us a final wave of the Stetson, so return with us now to the thrilling days of yesteryear and we’ll look back at its history and some of the things that made it a best-seller.
1983-1988: The First Generation
Ranger development began in 1976 as Ford’s answer to a massive, gas-crunch-inspired influx of import minitrucks. Prototype Rangers were released for media review in late 1981, with 4x2s going on sale in March ’82 as ’83 models. The first 4x4 Rangers didn’t arrive until late 1982.
Initially, the only available powerplant for 4x4s was the 89hp, 2.3L OHC Four, proven in a bevy of Ford cars of the era, as well as the Courier. Two-bys came with a base 2.0L OHC Four, an optional Mazda 2.2L (non-turbo) diesel, or the 2.3L Four. Four Wheeler Editor Bill Sanders tested an early 4x4 Ranger in the Dec. ’82 issue and said, “All in all, the Ranger 4x4 is a versatile and rugged truck and fits a definite niche in the new midsized pickup class.”
The much-anticipated 2.8L 115hp V-6 two-barrel was delayed until March of 1983. Built in Cologne, Germany, it provided the top-dog engine option for Ranger. Four Wheeler’s Spencer Murray put one thru its paces for the Aug. ’83 issue, and said the new V6 performance was “scintillating.”
In the four-wheel drive department, first-gen Rangers used a scaled-down version of the Twin Traction Beam (TTB), semi-independent suspension that had debuted on the F-Series in 1980. It mounted a Dana 28 diff with a reverse-cut, 6.625-inch ring gear. In back was Ford’s 7.5-inch Sterling with 28-spline shafts. Gearing was either 3.45:1 or 3.73:1 and a rear limited-slip was optional. The transfer case was a Borg-Warner 1350, and you had a choice of Toyo-Kogyo (Mazda) four- or five-speed manuals. When the V-6 debuted, a C-5 three-speed automatic was an option for that engine only.
The Gen-1 Ranger came in two wheelbases: 107.9 and 113.9 inches, with either 6- or 7-foot beds. Trim levels started off with a base model, the XL, XLT and finally the XLS. Options increasingly abounded as the Ranger evolved at a steady pace. For 1985, a five-speed manual (either the new Mazda M50D-R1 or a Mitsubishi FM145) became the standard transmission, and a new four-speed A4LD automatic overdrive debuted and was optional with all engines.
For 1986, a new 125-inch-wheelbase SuperCab model made a hit with Four Wheeler’s Bruce W. Smith in the April issue, but it was hard to tell which he liked most, the SuperCab or the new 140 hp fuel-injected 2.9L Cologne V-6. A 2.3L Mitsubishi turbodiesel also debuted that year with a lot less fanfare and stayed through 1987. An optional, electrically shifted version of the BW-1350 transfer case appeared for 1987.
For the Western states, a new STX model debuted in 1985 and featured “big” 215/75R15 tires (versus the standard 205/75R15s). For 1986, the STX took the place of the XLS and went nationwide. In 1987, the “High Rider” STX appeared with a factory 1.5-inch lift and even bigger 235/75R15 (!) tires. The first-gen Ranger finished up in 1988 with sales that had steadily increased to 326,112 units.
1989-1992: The Second Generation
After the F-Series facelift of 1987, Ranger went under the knife and came out looking fresh for 1989, though the changes were little more than skin-deep initially. The front end was more aerodynamic, with flush headlights and an integrated bumper. The interior was heavily revised, improved and modernized. The standard four-cylinder engine picked up 14 horsepower, and a rear ABS system was offered. A 21-gallon fuel tank became optional.
Things got interesting for 1990. The STX and XLT models were the first Rangers to get the new 4.0L OHV V-6, a Cologne variant with 160 horsepower and 225 lb-ft. of torque. A new Dana 35 TTB front axle came with the 4.0L, plus a 28-spline version of the 8.8 rear axle and the new B-W 1354 transfer case. The 1992 model year was largely the same as the previous year, except the 2.9L replaced the 2.3L as the base engine for 4x4s.
1993-1997: The Third Generation
The 1993 model year brought significant upgrades. A more rounded body gave it a sleek look that was well received, if the 311,406 sales in 1993 are any indication, and winning our coveted Pickup Truck of the Year award didn’t hurt.
Mechanically, the truck was similar to the last Gen-2 trucks, but a 145hp 3.0L Vulcan V-6 became the base 4x4 engine, and the 4.0L Cologne ruled as optional top-dog. The suspension was given a great deal of attention to improve ride and handling, the track widening by three inches.
By the Gen-3 outset, model options had coalesced to XL, XLT, Sport and STX, with a few regional specials tossed in. In mid-1993, the Splash Flareside was added to the 4x4 lineup, becoming available in a SuperCab the next year. Also in 1994, Mazda, a longtime Ford partner, ditched its own truck line in North America for rebadged Rangers. Called the B-Series, they were offered in largely the same configurations as Ford, though not with a Flareside bed. They came in two 4x4 versions, B3000 and B4000 (the “thousand” representing the engine size). The Mazda lineup was generally more condensed than Ford, but they offered a variation on the theme versus Ranger.
The Gen-3 trucks received only a few upgrades of note. For 1995, the interior was revised and four-wheel antilock brakes became standard. For 1996, the XL Sport model was discontinued and a passenger side airbag, with deactivation capability, was added. A 4.10:1 axle ratio was included with trucks having the 235/75R15 tire package, most notably the STX models. Some big news came in 1997 when the 5R55E five-speed automatic was added to the options list. This was the first five-speed auto offered in an American light truck.
1998-2011: The Fourth Generation
The 1998 Gen-4 Ranger was a big departure in the mechanical department. It had a similar look to the Gen-3 trucks but more wheelwell room for rubber: Up to 31x10.50s with no lift. The mechanical differences started with the SLA (short-long-arm) torsion-bar front suspension with an aluminum Dana 35 high-pinion diff and rack and pinion steering, supported by a much stouter, partially boxed chassis. The new IFS made the truck infinitely nicer on the highway. The wheelbases stretched to 111.6 inches for the regular-cab shortbeds, 117.6 for the regular-cab longbed, and 125.9 for the SuperCab. Along the way, an XLT 4x4 Off Road Group package appeared with P245/75R16 tires, skidplates, 4.10:1 cogs and the usual “Off-Roady” visuals.
The 3.0L Vulcan V6, still the standard engine for 4x4s, was given flex-fuel capability in 1999 and uprated to 150 horsepower. The Splash model went away for 1999, with only XL and XLT models available, each with a Sport Appearance Package and the XLT 4x4 Off-Road Group.
For 2001, the big news was that the 4.0L V-6 had changed from the pushrod unit to a 207hp SOHC barn-burner that had debuted in the Explorer for 1997. The five-speed automatic (5R44E) became available for the 3.0L trucks. The Edge model appeared as a low-production special that replaced the Splash in the lineup, available with optional Flareside or Styleside beds.
In 2002, the first FX4 version appeared, and that was a notable move into the “trail-ready” realm. Offered only on 4.0L SuperCabs, it had a heavy-duty suspension with Bilstein shocks, 31-spline rear axle with a Torsen limited-slip, 31x10.50 BFG A/Ts on 15-inch forged Alcoas, and a upgraded interior. In a May 2002 Four Wheeler road test, Craig Perronne called the FX4 package “pretty effective.”
In 2003, Ford split the FX4 package into Off Road and Level II versions. The FX4 Level II had the ’02 gear, but the Off Road package was tamed down with cast wheels and smaller P245/75R16 tires. It had 4.10:1 cogs, but the standard suspension and 28-spline rear axle with the regular Ford Trac-Lok limited-slip. The Level II was good enough to take second place in our Pickup Truck of the Year competition for 2003. The FX4 Off Road was available into 2009, but the Level II was stopped after 2007, though many Level II goodies could be ordered a la carte.
The last decade is when the term “long in the tooth” began appearing frequently in written reviews of the Ranger. Though it had been the compact truck sales leader for decades, sales were off and Toyota had taken the lead. The Ranger “Death Watch” began as far back as 2006, when several plant closures were announced, including the St. Paul, Minnesota, plant where Rangers were produced. There were several subsequent reprieves, but with the compact truck market down generally, would a major push to re-dominate the compact truck market fit in with Ford’s future plans?
The Ranger lurched on with few changes, but the big auto industry crash of 2008-09 finally forced a firm choice. For 2009, the Ranger product line was “simplified.” The 3.0L Vulcan was gone, and the 4.0L became the only engine for 4x4s. The Mazda B-Series, which had followed Ranger’s evolutions, bowed out that year. The lineup simplified again for 2010, with only XL, XLT, and Sport models offered. Ford’s Advance-Trac RSC system (Roll Stability Control) and side airbags were added for safety, but there was little else to boast about in 2010 and 2011. Ranger production will have stopped by the time you read this, with more than a few lamenting its passing.
Best Ranger Builders and Tips
Gen-1 Rangers are popular for their broad-shouldered look. All the goodies from Gen 2 and 3, plus the Explorer line thru 1995 (and later), can be swapped in. The Dana 35 TTB from vast numbers of ’91-95 Explorers in wrecking yards, plus their 31-spline 8.8 rear axle with disc brakes, are popular bolt-ins. The pushrod 4.0L and later transmissions are also popular swaps, as are 5.0L (Explorer) V-8s. The main limitations with Gen 1 trucks are the wheelwells and fitting larger tires without nose-bleed lifts—but those problems are Sawzall-solvable.
The short-lived Gen-2 trucks are the least popular Rangers in the looks department, but the last years had many Gen-3 upgrades in them and are good choices for that reason. They share the same wheelwell size limitations as the Gen-1 rigs.
The Ranger four-wheeling crowd generally regards the Gen-3 Rangers as the best of the breed in many ways. They require many fewer upgrades to be effective, having 8.8 rearends and the better D35 front axle, not to mention the pushrod 4.0L, better automatic and manual transmissions and, above all, lots of wheelwell room. The TTB front axle is regarded as more lift-friendly and beefable than the IFS in the Gen-4 trucks. V-8 swaps are more complex than for Gen 1 or 2 trucks but not out of bounds for a good shadetree wrencher.
In general terms, figuring Gen 3 drivetrain components, a 33-inch tire is a good target for an easy build. Fitting 35s is very do-able, but puts the drivetrain more on the edge of strength. Solid-axle-swapped Dana 44s are commonly seen. The Gen-1 and early Gen-2 Dana 28s are pretty weak and suitable for nothing more than a 31 if you plan to work it. The 7.5 Ford rear axle (’89 and earlier) can handle 33s.
Unfortunately, not all drivetrains in the Gen-3 era were good. Some 3.0L-powered rigs feature a hybrid D35 frontend with D28 internals. It’s mostly found on regular-cab trucks. You can tell them by the smooth housing (fewer ribs), and if you pull the oil filler plug and see the main cap, it’s a hybrid. They can be found all the way to 1997, but not every 3.0L is so equipped.
With the exception of the IFS front, the Gen-4 trucks provide a great basis for buildups. The FX4 Level IIs are especially good choices. The IFS front is strictly limited to a 33-inch tire if you plan to wheel it, but it only takes a 3-inch lift to fit them. There isn’t much in the way of stuff to beef the IFS axle, either, unless you want to fab in a Jeep TJ Dana 44 swap.
2012 and Beyond: The World Ranger
Does the Ranger ride off into the sunset and be relegated to history? Nope. The Ranger rides east into the sunrise to tame a new frontier. Ford Australia took the lead in designing a new Ranger to be sold there, as well as in Asia, Europe and other parts of the world. An extremely attractive rig, it’s bigger than the current Ranger and about 90 percent the size of the F-150. This Ranger has the attributes to be a contender globally, so the name lives on at least. Production is at Ford’s Thailand facility.