Back in 1976, Ford began developing a new small truck platform of its own: the Ranger. A frugal, fuel-efficient truck for the hardworking American, the Ranger was born as a contingency plan from Ford for an industry and consumer shift to smaller trucks that evolved into an icon. Now it’s back, so here’s a look at the mess of politics, recession and war that brought on the 1983 original.
The Ford Ranger was, for a time, the best selling truck in the U.S., and its legacy as a straightforward no-bullshit machine for the working person and go-to second vehicle for active lifestyles kept it alive in the U.S. for nearly 30 years and cemented it in the hearts of fans.
But this dependable, lovable truck was Ford’s answer to changing politics, harsh economic recession, and an oil crisis that turned American consumers away from big and thirsty domestic vehicles, and towards the new threat of smaller, economical and fuel-efficient imports.
In many ways, we have President Richard Nixon to thank for the Ford Ranger. Through the 1960s, U.S. share of production in the global economy was in steady decline as Europe and Japan recovered after getting bombed into oblivion through WWII. The U.S. started circulating more dollars than it had gold to back. Confidence declined. The Nixon administration, desperate to counter inflation, abandoned the gold standard.
The move—just one element of the economic policy that came to be known as the “Nixon Shock”—had drastic implications on the global economy. Not only did inflation of the dollar quickly return, the Middle Eastern oil industry took a hit, too, since the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) priced oil based on the now-declining value of the dollar. The dropping dollar dropped oil revenues along with it.
And then in October of 1973, war broke out between Israel and an Arab coalition led by Egypt and Syria over territories occupied by Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War. The Nixon Administration supported Israel, including funding for military aid, and the predominantly-Arab nations of OPEC retaliated with an oil embargo.
Throughout the 1960s, OPEC had struggled to gain the kind of control over cost and distribution that it desired, but the destabilization of the dollar thanks to ditching the gold standard coupled with war in the Middle East gave the organization an opportunity to finally exert its influence.
OPEC halted oil exports to the U.S. and the global price of oil jumped from $2.90 a barrel to a peak of $11.65 a barrel before the embargo lifted in March of 1974. It was a shock to the economy, but more than that it was a shock to Americans personally. We’d barely thought about how much we relied on foreign oil, or that something like energy might be limited at all. We hit a recession, and while the oil crisis didn’t cause the recession all on its own, it sent a clear message to the U.S. government and to American automakers; the push toward fuel-efficient engines and vehicles was not just politics, it had become smart business. And we were lagging behind.
By 1975, the U.S. was in recovery from economic recession and the reverberating shock among consumers from the oil crisis meant the market was primed for the inexpensive and fuel-efficient economy car, and now that it was a big deal, U.S. automakers no longer wanted to borrow and rebadge European and Japanese imports. America’s ego was bruised, and for Ford, this meant it was time to jettison the captive import Ford Courier (a badge-engineered Mazda) in the U.S. and launch a new small pickup—an American pickup, which would be built from the ground up to be tightly packaged, confidently durable, relatively comfortable and, most of all, fuel-efficient.
Ford began work on what would become the first generation Ranger in 1976, with many critical decisions in the development being determined by “Ford’s most sophisticated computer,” according to a detailed write-up of the development process by Jim Clark in the December 1981 issue of Mini-Truck Magazine.
Ford and its computer determined that the future of the pickup truck market was the four-cylinder engine, which would give the significant fuel-economy improvements projected to be a critical element of the pickup truck segment in the 1980s.
In hindsight, Ford probably didn’t need a computer to tell it that four-cylinders were the way to go for fuel efficiency, as that’s what Ford’s partner Mazda had been up to for years with the Courier.
Still, it made more sense to develop a smaller, yet still practical compact pickup to adapt four-cylinder engines rather than potentially jeopardize the continuously strong sales of the larger F-Series pickups.
Ford finalized plans for the Ranger in 1979 and dove into development, putting the compact pickup through 500 hours of wind tunnel testing, tweaking the existing Ford 2.0-liter and 2.3-liter four-cylinder engines, and, according to Mini-Truck, “sophisticated computer-based structural analysis techniques to optimize design of parts and components without adding weight and innovative use of premium lightweight materials,” resulting in a 20 percent weight reduction. All of this was an effort to reach Ford’s target of a thundering, earth-shaking, world-altering... 20 MPG.
Ford also launched an employee involvement program in the final phase of the Ranger’s development to get feedback and suggestions from the workers who would be building the new compact truck. Ford ended up implementing over half of the 376 improvement proposals from workers relating to the design of the truck and how it would be produced, according to Mini-Truck. For Ford, a company that at the time was making the jankiest, flabbiest, phoniest cars maybe of any American carmaker ever, the Ranger was remarkably sober and rational.
The first generation Ford Ranger went on sale in March of 1982 for the 1983 model year, one year after Chevrolet’s new compact pickup, the S-10. The 1983 Ranger was available with two four-cylinder engines, a V6 engine, and a Mazda-built Perkins four-cylinder diesel. A brochure for the Ranger claimed it had a payload capacity of 1,610 pounds and an estimated fuel economy of 30 MPG highway and 21 MPG combined for the 2.3-liter engine option.
Ford and its fancy computer, in an impressively exhaustive attempt to engineer a winner, came to market with a compact truck for just about anyone who wanted one.
During the Ranger’s early development, Ford anticipated the truck market would be split evenly between compact and full-size truck sales by 1985, with dreams of the market soaking up over a million compact pickups per year. By the time 1985 rolled around, the compact truck segment made up not half but 28 percent of the truck market, as The New York Times reported. And a timely, worried 25 percent tariff introduced on imported trucks helped ensure that new American-built trucks dominated the market. By 1990, Ford was touting the Ranger as the best selling compact pickup.
The Ranger got a facelift, interior overhaul and engine upgrades to modernize it against competition in 1989. The second generation truck was introduced in 1993 with a fresh era-appropriate smoothing over of its design, and now Mazda, once responsible for Ford’s compact truck offerings, was selling re-badged Ford Rangers as its B-Series of trucks.
As the Ranger carried on into the 1990s, a strengthening economy meant the truck began to adopt more standard features and new regulations introduced new safety features, like driver-side airbags in 1995. The Ranger also got technical upgrades, including the first five-speed automatic transmission to be used by an American manufacturer.
Though Ford made many attempts to modernize the truck through the years, eventually time started to catch up to it and nothing could really hide how old it was at heart. From 1998 through 2011, Ford extended the overall length of the truck, added extensive safety features to meet ever-stricter federal regulations as well as experimented with special editions, style packages and even a Ranger electric vehicle.
By the mid-naughts, on a rush of cheap gas and cheap credit, buyers shifted towards the larger and more capable full-size pickups. The rational, sensible compact pickup craze had entered its decline.
The Ranger’s original seven-year development program ultimately paid off with a platform that managed to survive three decades, becoming somewhat of a cultural icon along the way. The Ranger emerged from the shadow of the F-Series in a way that would be hard to imagine before that first Oil Crisis. Ranger sales peaked in the U.S. at over 348,000 in 1999, and Ford celebrated the production of its seven-millionth Ranger in 2010, the year before it ended production.
Enthusiasts were frustrated with the retirement of the Ranger in the U.S. as Ford continued to sell a modernized new generation of the truck in the global market. But U.S. sales began to plummet in the years before the Ranger’s retirement, and despite the country emerging from one of the worst recessions in decades after the housing bubble burst in 2008, demand for the more expensive full-size F-Series carried on strong. Consumers were flocking to increasingly-luxurious full-size trucks, and the practicality of the aging Ranger became an unnecessary compromise.
The Ranger was successful because it was an example of American rationality out of a time of bruised egos and challenged lifestyles. We were never going to give up our pickups, and we sure as hell weren’t going to let imports go unchecked, so we made a smart and enduring little piece of engineering on our own, devoid of the excuses and half-assed design that the relatively closed American market normally puts up with.
And now, the new Ranger is back to do it again. Except now the new consumer craze is crossovers, and so the Ranger has had to adapt. Fans of the original will say the new one is soft, and that it’s too big, and that it’s too expensive. But the Ranger wasn’t about being rugged, small and cheap, it was about giving consumers of the time the pickup truck they wanted.
Today, that’s a mid-size lifestyle truck, not quite as big as the full-size trucks and not as expensive, still fuel-efficient and with enough room to fit the whole family. It’s supposed to be practical, rational and American, and that’s why we want to love it, and so urgently want it to be good.
Correction: An earlier version of this article featured a photo showing the interior of an early-1980s F-150 Ranger, a trim level of the larger Ford truck sold before the introduction of the compact Ranger. It’s been replaced with an image of the interior of the 1983 Ranger compact pickup.