COAL: Away in a Ranger

It’s funny having this opportunity to intentionally think back on one’s own automotive journey and driving history. For me, this COAL story begins some 20 years ago, in 2001. It almost didn’t happen like this – at least not in the traditional sense of getting one’s license.

My stepmom relayed to me that for whatever reason at the time, my father did not want me driving. I’m not sure if he was nervous for me, didn’t want the added expense at the time or what. I also don’t recall from the time but I’m not even sure I was all that passionate about getting my license! Whatever the case, when my stepmom somehow successfully rallied for my case. It was a big win, and I was enrolled in Driver’s Ed only a semester or two later than originally slated.

Another stipulation of this whole arrangement– they were not to pay one red cent (why is this the expression?) for my vehicle. I was to buy said vehicle, pay for gas, insurance and upkeep. This was not a big deal breaker for me, as I had several small odd jobs during the summer and a decent part-time job at a locally owned grocery store.

So began my search. During lunch breaks and in my free time I began perusing the local newspaper classifieds (remember using those?). I must have been towards the tail end of folks using that method. Of course, in 2001 the internet or other auto-finding resources were not geared towards my isolated locale in Northeast Iowa, some 80 miles from a big city, either.

My search was narrowed in towards a Ford pickup. I wanted a pickup for versatility – I’m a cyclist and could easily drive my bicycle to the trails and I liked the versatility for hauling stuff. A Ford because my perception was my parents were pretty brand loyal. Growing up, my dad had white Cadillacs (up until his retirement, when he went to a Ford Ranger – go figure!) and up until her passing, my mom always had blue Chrysler cars. In 2001 my stepmom had just taken delivery of a new, yellow Ford Escape and my dad still had his 1998 Ranger. So it seemed I should have a Ford, too.

My stepmom’s bright yellow Ford Escape circa 2003. You’ll see the background is decidedly not rural Iowa; more on that later.

I really wanted an ’87-’96 F-150, but in small town Iowa, full size trucks command a premium for their usability. I was pretty much priced out of that. So I broadened my search to include Rangers, too. Ideally a 4×4 but 4×2 could not be ruled out because they were a bit more affordable.

One day in the local paper a promising ad appeared. 1987 Ford Ranger, blue, longbox, 2wd, auto, 80k mi. $2,000 obo. Worth a look – it’s right in town, low miles and priced right – why not? My stepmom was on board and we went to check it out in person.

Here, garaged at this immaculate ranch house, was to be my first vehicle. The truck was in mint condition with “grandpa spec” – it was very confidence inspiring that this was a good buy and had been taken care of. I recall cheesy body length stripes, a big bug deflector on the hood and a woven seat cover protecting the bench seat. Even the low mileage seemed consistent with the story that it was owned by an old man!

The test drive went well and I think the seller (an older gentleman either giving up driving or downsizing to one car) was heart warmed that I was paying my way for it. He allowed me to put some money down on it and pay when I could, relinquishing the truck when the balance was met. I don’t think this took any more than 6 months and it was on our acreage awaiting my 16th birthday in September. One warm fall day my dad and I gave it a tune up (plugs, wires, cap, rotor, maybe an air filter?) and I fondly recall that – and learned a lot. At the time, my dad was starting up his own business (retirement was too boring for him) and spare time was rare, so this was special and memorable.

My Ranger back at the acreage. After I removed the big ‘ol bug deflector.

The Ranger proved to be a solid and reliable first vehicle – I don’t recall any big repairs or major expenses during the year and a half I owned it. The Ranger’s fuel injected Lima 2.3 liter inline 4 was spry enough to break the tires a little yet was fuel efficient. The 4 speed OD transmission worked well but I remember a very rubber band effect when I’d put it into reverse when cold. The driver’s side front fender was a slightly lighter shade of metallic blue so perhaps the body length stripes were added to attempt mask an earlier accident repair. Lastly, I recall insurance was a bit high for a high schooler working part-time so I guess I’m glad I didn’t get an F-150 with a bigger engine after all!

Photos of the truck are a bit scarce. Here’s a snippet with our farm dog, Molly. Just out of view would’ve been the cord dangling over the front bumper for the electronic block heater.

The Ranger dutifully took me the 6 miles each way into town for school and to work at the grocery store. I don’t remember taking it much outside of that route. I can think of a few trips to the bigger nearby city of LaCrosse, Wisconsin and maybe once or twice to Minnesota. Other than that, I was either content to stick around or too timid to press my luck.

Circling back to that Escape photo – my stepmother had a few nursing and administrator jobs here and there in the preceding years but felt that the real demand for her skillset was in Arizona. In January 2003, halfway through my junior year, our family moved to East Mesa, Arizona. My stepmom felt my truck either wouldn’t make the trip to AZ, would be too slow for traffic there or some combo, and I had the directive to sell it before we left. At the time I thought that meant that I would find a car there but that proved untrue (more on that in my next installment). Using the same classified pages in the local paper I found a dairy farmer from a neighboring small town who was willing to give me $750 for it over my $900 ask and off it went pretty stress free and easily.

I hope you enjoyed reading my first C.O.A.L. and thanks for having me!