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A Short History of the Ford Ranger 1983-2012 – The Little Truck That Could

Ranger 36071 back page photoComing soon to your local Ford dealership is a reboot of the much loved Ranger truck nameplate last seen seven years ago. The all-new truck from the Blue Oval was designed and engineered by Ford of Australia, sharing nothing with the last North American Ford Ranger of 2012. It took awhile to come to America—Ford worried the now larger Ranger would eat into F-150 sales—but changing markets helped bring this new truck home.

Before the new Ranger arrives, though, here’s a look at the history of the first three generations of the storied nameplate, covering model years 1983 through 2012, and found in Chilton manual 26686 for 1983-1990 (out of print), manual 26688 for 1991-1999, and manual 26689 for 2000-2011.

1989 Ford Ranger3:10 to Yuma: 1983-1992

The 1983 Ranger replaced Ford’s initial compact truck, a rebadge of Mazda’s B1800, known as the Courier. That captured import allowed Ford to go toe-to-toe with mini-trucks from Toyota, and Datsun/Nissan, getting a feel for what customers wanted with minimal investment.

Code named “Yuma” during development, the Ranger name came from an F-150 trim level. Ford nearly sank the project when the 1979 fuel crisis caused an internal cash shortage, but perceived demand for more fuel efficient vehicles and small truck’s projected 20+ city mpg saved it. The first Ranger’s were made in the Louisville Assembly Plant in Kentucky on January 18, 1982 for the 1983 model year. Waiting for the Ranger were its competitors, the Chevy S-10/GMC S-15, Toyota pickup, Dodge D50/Plymouth Arrow/Mitsubishi Mighty Max, Datsun/Nissan 720, and the updated Mazda B-Series.

The new small Ford Ranger was aimed at work and lifestyle truck buyers, and nicely equipped sold for the loss leading full size F-100 stripper’s price. The platform and chassis were truck tough, just a smaller version of the leaf spring rear, twin I-beam front that had proved so durable under the last 25 years of F-series trucks.

The compact Ranger had a variety of engines through its first decade—2.0-and 2.3-liter 4 cylinders from the Pinto, and 2.8-, 2.9-, and 4.0-liter Cologne V6 motors originally from the European Capri—as well as a Mazda and a Mitsubishi sourced diesel. Over the years various four- and five-speed manuals were offered and a trio of three- and four-speed automatics were optional. In 1990, for unknown reasons, Ford began offering the unrelated Vulcan 3.0 liter V6 from the Taurus in the truck as well, slotting in between to the 2.9-liter and 4.0-liter Cologne motors.

Initially both short and 12″ longer long bed versions were offered, both with a cab designed to be wide enough for 3 across seating. In 1986, an extended cab version, Ford called it the SuperCab, added 17 inches of extra storage in the back, with center facing jump seats available for use by small children or narrow adults. A smaller, two door, five seat, fully enclosed SUV called the Bronco II was also built from 1984 onward, riding on a shortened Ranger platform. The Ranger and Bronco received a facelift in 1989 to further improve the aerodynamics, as well as updates to the frame and interior. This early Ranger also spun off the wildly popular Ford Explorer in 1991, and that history is told here.

1993 Ford RangerFord Returns the Favor: 1993-1997

The second-generation Ford Ranger bowed in 1992 as a 1993 model, and was the first American truck to be badge-engineered and sold by a Japanese company. This time, Mazda would be the one to do the badge swaps, with the Ford-built Mazda B-Series hitting Mazda showrooms in 1994. A few years later Chevrolet and Isuzu would do the same thing with the Chevy S-10 and Isuzu Hombre.

This short-lived Ranger introduced the trendy “Splash” variant. The Splash had a flare side bed, special chrome wheels, lower front and rear suspension, and contrasting decals. This Ranger could be had in a variety of fashionable colors, including canary yellow, red orange, and sky blue with contrasting stripe. These trucks were aimed squarely at active lifestyle young people with mountain bikes, motorcycles and kayaks.

Powertrain options were carried over from the previous generation, with engines including the 2.3-liter inline-four, 3.0-liter Vulcan V6, and 4.0-liter Cologne V6. The only manual available was the 5-speed Mazda M50D-R1, while there were both four- and five-speed automatics to be had, depending on engine and year.

1998 Ford Ranger 26689 CoverA Facelift to Last: 1998-2012

The final (until the new 2019 appears) generation of the Ranger arrived in August 1997 as a 1998 model year. Though it looked much the same, from underneath, the much updated front suspension shared with the Explorer was obvious. Though the body design was the same, it was now longer: the regular cab received three more inches inside the cab, on a 4″ longer wheelbase. Thought the truck remained popular, Ford spent most of its efforts on the profitable and new for 1997, and new again for 2004, and new again in 2009 F-150, neglecting its bargain priced small truck.

For 1998, the 2.3-liter Pinto sourced SOHC 4 cylinder was upgraded to a 2.5 liter, with a small bump in power, and the 3.0- and 4.0-liter V6 motors were back. In 2001, the more modern 2.3-liter Duratec 4 cylinder arrived with almost the same power as the Vulcan V6, and the same year the 4.0-liter Cologne V6 was upgraded with a single overhead cam on each bank of cylinders for nearly 50 additional horsepower. The lower spec trucks, with 4 cylinder or Vulcan power, finally upgraded from 4- to 5-speed automatics in 2001 as well

This Ford Ranger was also the platform for Mazda’s last B-Series truck, though with a differently styled bed with pronounced fenders. The Mazda B2300/B2500/B3000/B4000 were popular trucks, but Ford’s sale of its share of Mazda meant the end; the last North American B-Series left the line December 11, 2009.

An off–road oriented model sat at the top of the lineup, called the Ford Ranger FX4 Level 2, or the FX4 Off-Road depending on year. This Ranger took off-roading seriously, boasting three skid plates, tow hooks, 15-inch forged wheels, 31-inch all-terrain tires, Bilstein shocks, a limited-slip differential, and a beefed up Ford 8.8-inch rear with 31-spline axles.

There was also a Ford Ranger EV, made 1998-2002, as a battery electric vehicle with 65-82 mile range. The engineers did away with the inline-four for an electric powertrain located under the bed floor, fed by lead-acid or nickel metal hydride batteries. The EV used a de Dion tube in the back with half shafts from the motor unit to the wheels. Up front things were conventional, except under the hood where there was no motor. Only 1,500 Ranger EV trucks were made, leased to fleets then taken back and mostly destroyed by 2004.

The last Ford Ranger left the line on December 16, 2011, a white SuperCab Sport sold, as many had been before, to Orkin. For 2013 Ford considered the global Ranger T6 for the US, but as the compact truck market was depressed, they decided against it. Only a 2015 UAW contract and a revitalized market convinced Ford to call on the Ranger again.

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