Who was that masked man?
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.