THE RANGER’S HUMBLE BEGINNINGS
The history of the Ford Ranger doesn’t begin with the first midsize pickup truck to use that name. For decades before it would find its rightful home, Ford experimented with the Ranger nameplate. They knew they wanted to use it, but where it belonged seemed a matter of much disagreement.
The loosest definition of Ranger is a keeper of a park, forest, or countryside. It’s associated with woodlands and outdoors folk. With that in mind, the first Ford vehicle to bear the Ranger nameplate was a 1958 sedan: The Edsel Ranger. This obviously missed the mark entirely.
In 1967 though, Ford got significantly closer. When the fifth generation of F-Series Pickup was introduced, the top of the line trim package was dubbed the Ranger. In either F-100 or F-250 size, the Ranger trim was heralded as “Ford’s finest full-size pickup.” In ’70, the popular Ranger trim level was joined by a Ranger XLT.
Though there’s nothing wrong with a feature-packed truck, somehow it still seemed to miss the mark when it came to a truck that embodied the spirit of the word Ranger, which doesn’t really call finery to mind. It took thirteen years, but eventually, the Ranger found its place as a pickup for people who just needed a pickup.
FIRST RANGER GENERATION: 1982-1992
The path for the Ranger to become its own line instead of a trim package in the F-Series started in the ‘80s. When Ford introduced the F-150, it quickly took over the F-100’s sales, making the two pickup trucks redundant. Anyone who wanted an F-100 was happy to upgrade to the F-150.
Ford knew that it needed a smaller pickup to promote though. The F-150 was a big pickup, and there were people who didn’t want that kind of size.
At the time, the only pickup that Ford had that was smaller was the Ford Courier, a vehicle that carried the blue oval with pride despite being manufactured by Mazda. So, Ford axed the F-100 and the Courier and ushered in its first in-house compact pickup: The Ranger. The Ranger XLT became the XLT trim, and the Ranger Lariat became the Lariat (still the F-Series’ top trim level).
The first Ranger was produced on January 18, 1982, and by March, Rangers were already in showrooms around the United States. The first Ranger was priced at just $6,203. Adjusted for inflation, that would be $16,570.
Though it replaced the Courier, the Ranger had several key differences that would make it a better pickup truck for many consumers. It had additional engine choices (adding a V6 and a 4-cylinder diesel engine option to the standard inline-four-cylinder) and it had a six or seven-foot-long bed.
It was during this first generation that Ford started to understand what the typical Ranger customer really wanted. In 1984, a Ranger S was offered. Unlike other trim levels (which added comfort features and additional options) the Ranger S was a stripped-down, bare-bones, spartan pickup. A truck for people who needed to haul things.
The 1985 advertising emphasized the materials used to make the Ranger, as well as the frame construction and i-beam suspension. It was an advertising strategy that capitalized on what the Ranger was instead of focusing on all of the things that it wasn’t, and people responded positively. Almost a quarter million Rangers were sold in 1985 alone, but the Ranger’s top-selling years were still to come.
Perhaps one of the more curious packages to come out of this era was the Ford Ranger GT. This version of the Ranger was only available between 1987 and 1989 and came with a 2.9L V6. Its most performance-oriented detail was a five-speed manual transmission manufactured by Toyo Kogyo and sport bucket seats.
Though the Ranger’s early years were all good, the Ranger chassis was contributing to the downfall of another popular Ford nameplate.
The first generation of Ford Ranger served as the basis for the Bronco II, one of Ford’s more famous catastrophes. “Bronco”-ing the Ranger threw it off balance, making it top-heavy. A series of very famous roll-over accidents eventually led to several large lawsuits and the discontinuation of the Bronco II.
During the years it was produced, the Bronco II averaged about seventy deaths per a year or about as many people as are killed by tornadoes in the United States in the same time period.
If you happen to still drive a Bronco II, no need to worry. According to the Insurance Institute, it’s perfectly fine as long as you drive it slowly, infrequently, and maybe don’t go off-roading with it.
SECOND GENERATION RANGER: 1993-1997
The second generation of the Ranger saw a major redesign. The grille size was reduced substantially, creating a smoother, more aerodynamic face for the Ranger. Slight fender flares added to this more rounded look. This redesign sought to improve the overall driving experience by making improvements to reliability and acceleration. Unfortunately, the fuel efficiency declined, partially due to more features.
The Ranger, much like its F-series brethren, became flush with options, from six-disc CD changers to the sporty “Splash” model. The Ranger aimed to be the truck for a wide range of customers, and in that endeavor, it was astonishingly successful. From 1993-1995, the Ranger sold more than 300,000 units per year.
Starting in 1994, a surprising turn happened. The Ford Courier had been produced by Mazda, rebranded, and sold through Ford, but was replaced by the Ford produced Ford Ranger. Starting in 1994, a rebadged Ford Ranger was also sold as a Mazda B-Series. Though this series had different grilles than their Ford equivalents, it was essentially the exact same truck inside and out. Mazda would continue to sell the Ford Ranger through 2004.