Auld Lang Syne: Ford Says Goodbye To The Ranger

Sometimes an era ends and nobody is there to record it.That’s not the case here today at CC. It was old, outmoded and way past its prime, but when the last Ford Ranger pickup rolled off the line last week in Ford’s Twin Cities Assembly plant, a page of history turned. After 28 years and almost seven million units, Ford finally put the Ranger to pasture and has no plans to replace it any time soon. With it went a lot of memories-first car, first truck, economy transportation. The Ranger had fulfilled a lot of missions for its owners in three decades. Let’s take a long last look before we say goodbye.

The history of the homegrown small truck in America has some remarkable similarities to the domestic small car market. In the beginning, Ford and GM resisted clean sheet efforts to build a compact truck in the U.S. This was largely due to the fact that until the first couple of years of the 1960’s, Detroit had the entire truck market to itself.

A “light duty” truck was more often than not a half and half like the Ranchero from Ford or Chevy’s El Camino. Indeed, both companies downsized their utility vehicles in these years by moving them to smaller car platforms, but these were not seen as true “trucks” in the conventional sense.

Thus, enterprising Japanese manufacturers saw a niche that had been ignored by Detroit and by the early/mid 1960’s had begun to exploit it. The industry heavyweights took a page out of their passenger car playbook and turned to captive imports to fill this giant hole in their lineups.

Nissan marketed its little 60 horsepower 320 pickup in the states (mainly on the west coast at first) while Toyota had cracked the market with its Stout / Hilux models. Sales were growing nicely when Ford and GM decided that the threat from Asia could no longer be ignored.

In late 1971, Ford and Chevrolet jumped into this growing market with the Courier and LUV respectively. The LUV was built by GM partner Isuzu and Toyo Kogyo (Mazda) did the deed for FoMoCo. Both vehicles were shipped as a two part kit, with bed separate from the cab and chassis to avoid a ruinous 25% tariff on a finished truck. The beds were attached upon arrival just to make things nice and legal and both vehicles found ready acceptance due to large dealer networks and rising fuel prices. Although designed and engineered for other markets, the diminutive pickups appealed to an entirely different type of customer than the traditional full size truck buyer. Because American trucks brand equity was paramount, Ford gave the little B series Mazda enough of a facelift that it bore at least a passing resemblance to the full size F-150.

The engine was a capable 1.8L overhead cam that put out 75 Hp. With a few minor  changes over the next decade, the Courier fought the good fight with the LUV and an uneasy détente was established with GM. Chrysler finally jumped into the race in 1979 with its own line of mini trucks, built by erstwhile partner Mitsubishi. MoPar even slapped a Plymouth badge on its Arrow pickup, the first use of the brand on a truck since the early forties.

The 1982 model year saw the game change in a big way for small trucks. The economics of the captive imports had never thrilled the bean counters in the executive suite at General Motors or Ford. When importation and shipping costs were tallied up, splitting an already thin profit with partner Isuzu or Mazda looked less attractive than building the vehicle domestically. Throw in the uncertainty of currency fluctuations and shifting trade policy,and there were just too many variables for managers to concern themselves with. Thus the S series twins made their debut for 1982. With more room, generally good build quality and a marketing blitz that stressed their American heritage, the S 10 was a smash.

Even though it had been in development since 1976, the Ranger was not quite ready for market when the GM twins hit the showrooms for ’82. Ford squeezed one more (short) season out of the Courier before the Ranger debuted in March 1982 for a long 1983 model year. The Ranger (and S Twins) offered their makers several advantages over their captive import predecessors. First , both vehicles had been engineered from their conception to accommodate a small V-6 engine that could provide a high margin option that many buyers would happily pay extra to get. Ford’s 2.8 Cologne V-6 joined  a 2.0 and 2.3 liter four cylinder mill in that debut year. Mazda also supplied a diesel four pot for buyers so inclined.

Another huge selling point for the domestics vis-à-vis the small imports was the availability of club or crew cab configurations that could easily add $1500- $2500 to the selling price for very little additional assembly expense. Chevy had an extended cab on the market for 1983 and Ford followed belatedly with its Super Cab for the 1986 model. But the Ranger also gave Ford the flexibility in the market that the Courier never could. Options packages, special editions and special paint and interiors could make the basic truck more profitable for almost no new investment. Another option that could make the cash register ring in Dearborn was available four wheel drive. As sales built for all small trucks, and self styled “mid sized” offerings hit the market, the Ranger began to overtake the S twins and by 1987, it had become the number one selling compact pickup.

Models came and went; Ford offered a stripper “S” model (above) for cheap and well heeled buyers could even load up a Ranger with an XLT package that put the price within a few hundred dollars of a base F-150. The Ranger also provided the basis for the successful (but ill fated) Bronco II of 1984. Ford had found a gold mine.

The models first major refresh came with the 1989 model year. Flush headlamps and a new interior updated the same basic vehicle that was selling well. The big news the next year was the availability of Ford’s 4.0 L V-6 in the 4X4 for much better pick up and towing ability.This generation Ranger would last until 1993,when the front end, interior and trim packages were shuffled to make the vehicle look more like the then current (and wildly successful) Explorer.

In 1994,the circle was squared when Mazda took the Ranger and re badged it as a B-series. Trim, paint and minor details were the only difference in the Ford and Mazda product except the price. The debt that Ford owed to Toyo Kogyo had been repaid in good coin. The B series would continue as a re-named Ranger until the 2009 models.

One more restyle/refresh would happen in 1999, and amazingly, the Ranger would see its peak sales in this year, with just over 348,000 units sold at retail. This was astonishing for a model that had not seen fundamental change in a decade and a half.

The Ranger would soldier on mostly unchanged for another decade before Ford started to rethink its truck strategy. While Ford planned for the natural end to the Rangers production life, the competition from GM started dying off. Chevy dropped the S10 after 2004 and replaced its small truck with the Colorado/Canyon twins. Even then, after being in production during at least parts of four decades, the Ranger was still selling over 50,000 copies annually when Ford finally put it to bed just before Christmas .Demand remained strong enough for the Ranger that it got several reprieves before the ax finally fell. The company will put its marketing weight behind its 3.5L direct injection V-6 for F-150 buyers that have fuel economy on their shopping checklist.

Thus a page of car history has been turned this month.The final truck, (above) will probably end up in a fleet buyers stable ,unappreciated for what it represents.  By any measure, the Ranger was a wildly successful model for Ford. It stayed popular long after its time had passed and became a milestone model for the blue oval. Weekend handymen, small businesses, teenagers driving for the first time; the Ranger served every one of them and made money for its maker. Not bad for a vehicle designed during the malaise era.

So here we are again. There is a hole big enough in the market…to drive a truck through. Ford, Chevy and all of the Japanese nameplates have evacuated the small truck space and moved up a size with their entry level pickups. Does this mean that there is another niche for, say, the Korean makes to exploit ? Will some hungry competitor that has nothing to lose step in and try to fill the space at the bottom of the pickup market? (Suzuki, perhaps?)