Curbside Classic: 1973 Ford F-100 Ranger XLT – Slow And Steady Wins The Race

Ford and Chevrolet had been locked in mortal combat since at least the late 1920s.  From that point through the 1970’s it was more often than not that Chevrolet came out on top, especially in trucks.  But in 1973 each launched a new pickup truck design.  Only one got it right from the start, and this time it wasn’t Chevrolet.

We like to talk about “the modern era” in many things.  In pickup trucks, did “the modern era” begin in 1973?  While this sort of thing is always subject to debate, there is a strong case to be made that 1973 would indeed be the year, with new designs from Chevrolet and Ford coming on the heels of the first new design from Dodge since 1961.  It was the era that saw the American pickup truck moving from a tool for doing America’s work into a legitimate choice for an all-purpose vehicle that was as at home at a suburban mall as it was at a farm or ranch.

It is increasingly rare to find a vacant, buildable lot in the vibrant development that the Curbside has become.  Imagine my surprise to find that this hugely important and successful generation of Ford pickup has only been touched on at the peripheries.  I guess I get to be the guy who builds something in the open space that covers what was once the heart of the market in 1973 – the F-100 Styleside.

Ford truck enthusiasts consider the 1948 F-1 as the beginning of another “modern era” – the Ford F series.  If we accept their premise, this made the 1973 design the 6th generation in the F-Series’ lineage.  It is probably also the generation that moved the Ford F-series from a profitable sideline into the product line that has become the crown jewel of the Ford Motor Company.

There was not a lot of groundbreaking stuff underneath this truck.  Paul Niedermeyer has ably described the steady improvements that Ford trucks received starting in 1966 when the famed Twin I-Beam front suspension system hit the market.  The 5th generation “bumpside” 1967 trucks built on that foundation and the 6th generation “dentside” 1973 truck would mark other places where evolution and not revolution was the guiding force.

The engine choices were a mix of old and new, with both the 240 (3.9L) and 300 cid (4.9-ish with an asterisk L) sixes were on offer.  V8 choices included the 302 (5.0-ish with an asterisk L) and both 360 (5.9L) and 390 (6.4L) flavors of the old FE engine.  The modern 460 (7.5L) from the 385/Lima engine family was available on F-250 and 350 models for those who needed more truck than car.

Among the changes under the truck were a lengthened wheelbase (to 133 on the Styleside with an 8 foot bed) configured to reduce rear overhang and a rear track widened by 4 inches to match that of the front.  Longer and wider leaf springs out back made for an improved ride and front disc brakes were made standard.  But the most noticeable change was the relocation of the fuel tank out of the cab and down between the frame rails below the bed.

It was in the bodywork where these trucks made their biggest impression.  Although the styling was purely evolutionary (to the point where I did not recognize as a kid that these were all-new) it contained many small things that made the Ford truck more like a car when it came to driver and passenger comfort.  That relocated gas tank allowed a more naturally angled seat back and more leg room for those who occupied it (plus offering additional behind-seat storage).  And speaking of room, this big new Ford truck offered 66 inches of both hip and shoulder room to accommodate three burly dudes in that seat.

There were lots of other small touches too – curved side glass, the rear window that tilted slightly forward to reduce mirror-glare and options like interval wipers and an air conditioning system fully integrated with the heater and the dash.  Out back the bed was double-walled steel with rounded corners inside to make sweeping it out less of a chore and made with fewer seams for corrosion to get a toehold.  All in all, Ford claimed to use 200 square feet of galvanized steel in the bodies of these trucks – something that Chevrolet fans no doubt wish that their favored truck had employed in 1973.  These Fords were certainly not impervious to body rust, but they seem to have handled life in the Great Salty North better than the competition.

This generation would see another evolution.  The inaugural version of this truck offered a wide range of GVWRs throughout the lineup, plus choices in bed length, Flare (step) or Styleside beds and 2 or 4 wheel drive.  As this generation progressed the extended “SuperCab” would be offered in mid ’74 to augment the fleet-oriented 4 door Crew Cab.  The heavier-duty F-150 would be added the following year.  Also, 4 wheel drive would go from a fringe to a mainstream offering during the seven year lifespan of this design.  Ford got this truck right at the beginning and kept getting it right as changes were made.

I found this truck on a trip to Evansville, Indiana in October of 2011. At the time it did not excite me as much as some of the other finds from that trip.  Besides, I figured, surely someone will soon write up this important chapter in Ford truck history.  Well, as CC approaches its 10th birthday we are still awaiting that day, so here we are.

Another reason I avoided tackling this truck was that I had no idea what year it is.  I still don’t – the 1973, ’74 and ’75 versions of this truck are virtually indistinguishable.  Right down, as it turns out, to the Sequoia Brown and Wimbledon White paint on this example being offered all three years.  (Trivia note – did you know that Ford’s creamy, luxurious Wimbledon White paint was offered on Ford trucks almost every year from 1964-1988?).  After poring over ads, brochures and online pictures, I have made the command decision to call this one a ’73 – both because it was the highest production year for a 4×2 F100 Styleside (457,746 built according to and because it served as a good excuse to tell the story of the beginnings of the F-Series’ 6th gen.

This truck may have been Ford’s most important product launch of the 1970’s, as well as its most successful.  These trucks may have had their flaws, but they had fewer of them than did the competition.  Ford had touted a “car-like” driving experience in the years before 1973 but it was this series of truck that allowed them to say it with a straight face.  With high-trim models like this Ranger XLT becoming more and more popular, the terms “Ford truck” and “creature comforts” got crossed off the list of great oxymorons.  That these trucks continue to survive in significant numbers (and not just as playthings) tells us much about their inner goodness.

It must be conceded that Chevrolet’s new 1973 pickup offered an even more car-like driving experience than the Ford, but in exchange the Chevy buyer had to accept body rust that approached Vega levels in the first several years as well as interior plastics that degraded almost as quickly in sun as the bodies did in rain.  And in later years those buyers were restricted by a model mix that stubbornly refused to offer an extended cab as that configuration became more and more a mainstream choice.  These are doubtless among the factors which in 1977 allowed Ford to end Chevrolet’s longtime lead in truck sales, a situation that has remained unchanged in the many decades since.

Let us not, however, forget “Occam’s Razor”: the theory that can be summarized by saying that the simplest explanation is usually the right one.  What does Occam’s Razor have to do with the reason Ford surpassed Chevrolet in the Great American Truck Wars?  To co-opt another old saying, if you build a better mousetrap, the world will beat a path to your door.  Ford designed and built a really sound truck when it did the ’73.  It was not better in any revolutionary way, but it was better in many small ways that were important to truck buyers.  It should come as no surprise that truck buyers responded.


Photographed in Evansville, Indiana, October 8, 2011


Further Reading:

1973 Ford F-350 Camper Special – Paul Niedermeyer

1978 Ford F-250 SuperCab – Paul Niedermeyer

1979 Ford F-250 Explorer – Jim Grey

1979 Ford Indianapolis Speedway Truck Package – Vince C