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

Howdy, Ranger!

Jim AllenWriterFord ArchivesPhotographer

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.

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!

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

1989-1992 2nd Generation

1993-1997 3rd Generation

1998-2011 4th Generation

Related Articles