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.
Electric Ford Ranger: 1998-2002
For several years, an electric variant of the Ranger pickup was available. Though this was still in the very early days of electric vehicles, these EV trucks had a 65-mile range and could reach 65 miles per hour. Though they were substantially more expensive at $52,720, the electric Ranger was primarily leased for large fleets. Thanks to federal tax credits, Clean City programs, and Air Quality Management District Funding, most of the people who leased these vehicles were able to reduce the cost substantially.
The electric Ranger used the chassis of a normal four-wheel drive Ranger but had some unique features. For example, in the first year of production, the electric vehicle had carbon fiber leaf springs, but unfortunately, these springs didn’t have the stiffness needed. Steel leaf springs replaced them for future years.
At the end of the Ranger EV’s life, Ford elected not to continue manufacturing them and to crush all remaining Ranger EVs. Many of the owners were distraught over this and fought Ford to keep their vehicles. Fearing the negative PR, Ford allowed them to do so. There are still a few of these Ranger EVs out there, though their owners tend to be unwilling to part with them.
It’s estimated that as many as 400 of these electric trucks may still exist today.
Third Generation Ranger: 1998-2012
The final generation of the Ranger became more powerful and offered features like an extended SuperCab. One of the most unique features was a suicide door set up for two jump seats in the backseat. The Ranger was the only pickup truck to offer this feature.
The Ranger grew in size substantially in the course of the 1998 redo, but the hood line lowered and the rear window grew, allowing for greater overall visibility. The grille, bumper, valance, and lighting all saw minor improvements, and the front suspension swapped over from the I-beam to the newer, and smoother, wishbone style suspension.
Though this may sound like a lot of changes, the base price in 2000 was $11,485. Adjusted for inflation, that would be about $16,747, or approximately the same as the Ranger’s 1980s price equivalent. In short, the Ranger remained the “people’s pickup.”
As the 2000 era continued, however, Ford continued to offer additional packages. The XL and XLT packages were joined by the Sport and Off-Road packages, and as feature creep set in, sales declined. 2008 was originally slated to be the last year the Ranger was offered, but it managed to hold in through 2012 with almost no changes. During this time period, sales plummeted. What had once been a quarter-million units-a-year selling pickup struggled to even reach six figures. 2012 was the worst year of all time, with sales just reaching a little over 19,000. It was hard to see how much the once loved Ranger had fallen, and almost as soon as it left the market, customers realized how much they’d missed Ford’s smallest pickup.
During its absence in the United States, the Ranger continued to be a top seller internationally.
As the midsize pickup truck market in the United States grew, Ford realized that it may be a good time to relaunch the smaller pickup. Since 2014 there has been an 83% increase in midsize pickup sales, and Ford’s convinced. The Ranger was rereleased in 2019. Though this is the fourth generation of Ranger in the United States, it is considered by many to be the fifth generation, since the Ranger continued to be sold from 2012-2018 in other countries outside of the United States. There were no substantial changes to the Ranger during this period of time though, so the most accurate terminology would still count it as the fourth generation of Ranger.
Regardless of which generation you see the Ranger as part of, it's the start of a new chapter for the midsize pickup in the United States.
Given the F-150’s success, Ford sees the Ranger as reaching out to an entirely different demographic. Eckert has said that the Ranger buyer is someone who “is an urban dweller” who “drives his truck to work, not for work.” This has given them lease to consider the Ranger in terms of not affordability, but rather size and fuel efficiency.
This has some Ranger purists alarmed. They argue that this Ranger is too close in size to an F-150 and that they’d prefer to buy a Ranger with approximately the same size and towing capacity as the ‘80s Ranger. Though Ford hasn’t responded, this might be a great indicator that the time to bring back the Ranger S package is here.
The numbers are hard to argue with. The Ranger is simply more similar to the F-150 in size than it is to its Ranger ancestors.
Ranger Sizes Through Generations
|Dimension||1983 Ranger||1993 Ranger||2002 Ranger||2011 Ranger||2019 Ranger||2019 F-150 6 ft Styleside||2019 F-150 8 ft Styleside
|Width (W/Mirrors Folded)
Despite the Ranger having put on a fair amount of mass in the time that it’s been away, Ford’s having difficulty meeting demand, even with employees working overtime to try to get the Ranger out of the warehouses and back out on the road.
Though the Ranger is now definitely more midsize pickup than compact, within that class it’s very competitive. Squaring off against rivals like the Tacoma and Colorado with ease. The Ranger has earned the distinction of being the most fuel efficient in its class, and thanks to its turbocharged EcoBoost engine, it’s able to handily beat competitors in terms of towing capacity. While as the Tacoma’s V6 can only reach up to 6,800 pounds of towing capacity, the Ranger reaches 7,500 pounds.
Despite critics' claims to the contrary, the Ranger has changed substantially over time, but in each generation, it’s found a legion of fans.
Sources: Old Car Brochures | Ford | Motor Trend | C-Net | University of Texas | New York Times | Image Credit: Edmunds | Motor Trend | The Ranger Station | Four Wheeler | 300mpg.org