Better Late Than Never?: Chevy beat Ford to the midsize truck market the first time too
The fact that Ford’s return to the hot midsize pickup market is trailing Chevy’s—this time by a few years with the 2019 Ford Ranger—has a real sense of déjà vu about it. Bob Nagy reported on the first-gen Ranger’s timing in our April 1982 road test of an ’83 Ranger XLS: “Its original fall 1982 on-sale date was hurriedly moved forward to mid-March in order to combat the effects of its midi-competitors, the Chevy S-10 and GMC S-15, which began appearing in showrooms late last year.” This cost Ford dearly in early-adopter sales, but Motor Trend liked the original Ranger enough to buy and modify one.
Half-year delay halves the sales
In January 1983, Jim McCraw reported on the damage Chevy inflicted on Ford during that six-month head start in sales: “Ford got a late start with the Ranger—leaving the S-10 alone in the segment for six months—and ended up finishing the ’82 model year with almost exactly half as many sales (Chevrolet reported 152,965 sales between October and September; Ford reported 76,684 sales between March and September).” But he later correctly predicted that “when the V-6, the five-speed, and some of the other latecomer options arrive, Ford should be fully prepared to get back the truck leadership it’s had for most of the century.”
Performance is Job 2 (or 3 or 4)
In his First Drive of the Ranger in November 1982, Jim McCraw noted that “the controlling performance number for the Ranger program was, and is, a city EPA number between 26 and 28 mpg (9 and 8.4 L/100km)—not quick 0-60 times or high top speeds. Consequently, neither the 2.0-liter manual combination nor the 2.3-liter automatic packs a lot of wallop.” In pursuit of gas mileage uber alles, the Ranger benefited from finite-element analysis to reduce weight (2,526 pounds (1,146 kg) was the claimed base-truck mass), and it spent 500-plus hours in the wind tunnel to achieve a 0.45 drag coefficient, “one of the best numbers on any truck anywhere.” In all, we reported that Ford invested “$700 million USD plus six years of planning, development, and testing” in the Ranger. Alas, official EPA city/highway ratings for 1984 ranged from 18/23 mpg (13.1/10.2 L/100km) (2.3-liter automatic) to 21/28 mpg (11.2/8.4 L/100km) (2.0-liter manual).
Parsimony demands patience
McCraw had a real gift for understatement—his insufficient “wallop” would translate to a 0–60 time of 14.8 seconds for our unladen base 2.0-liter four-speed manual. That stretched to a sun-dial-worthy 18.9 seconds when we loaded the truck down with 540 pounds (245 kg) of cement mix in the bed—a pace Bob Nagy would describe as “dieselesque.” Chevy fans shouldn’t gloat—an empty V-6 three-speed automatic S-10 needed 12.7 seconds in our February 1982 test. The addition of four-wheel drive to the Ranger only made matters worse in 1983: “The 2.3-liter engine, which is barely adequate to propel the lighter 4×2 trucks, is hard put to provide any fun in the 4×4 version, even with stiff gearing. The engine is a little weak, a little noisy, and a little shaky at high rpm, and coupling its power to all four wheels tended to amplify the noise and weakness even more during the short time we had the truck off-road.”
Rushing production reduces options …
Pulling the on-sale date ahead limited the options available to early Ranger buyers to regular cab and rear-drive configurations, with two box lengths, four trim grades, and two engines to choose. “The standard engine is an old reliable 2.0-liter OHC four used in Brazilian passenger cars, with cylinder head and camshaft improvements and a one-barrel carburetor. It’s rated at 73 horsepower at 4,000 rpm and 104 lb-ft of torque at 2,600 rpm. The optional engine is the 2.3-liter OHC four adapted for truck use from the Mustang and Futura car lines, rated at 80 horsepower and 116 lb-ft of torque.” Both could have a four-speed manual, but only the “big motor” got a three-speed automatic. A 2.2-liter Mazda diesel and a Cologne-built 2.8-liter V-6 would arrive later, as would four-wheel drive and the Bronco II SUV variant.
… but it lets you trump the other guys’ payload and price
Nagy noted that “the Ranger’s base payload is an impressive 1,200 pounds (544 kg), and an optional 1,600-pound (726 kg) package is also available. GM’s new S trucks offer 1,000-pound (454 kg) and 1,500-pound (680 kg) capabilities.” And McCraw reckoned that “Recreational buyers whose loads constitute 600 pounds (272 kg) of dirt bikes (or buddies) should be more than satisfied with Ranger performance. In both the XLT and the XLS sport truck, ride quality and quietness were very good, even on specially constructed rough-ride sections at the Ford proving grounds, with no cargo load.” He also noted: “Basing at $6,203 USD, the Ranger is definitely price competitive. The lowball sticker on a minimal S-10/S-l 5 counterpart (equipped with a 1.9-liter four and a four-speed) is presently $6,270 USD, and even a strippo [Mazda-built compact Ford] Courier costs $6,614 USD.”
In 1965, Ford introduced a suspension that strove to marry front suspension independence with solid-axle durability by using long swing arms up front. The Ranger got its own version of Twin I-Beams, but instead of casting or forging them, they were stamped from heavy-gauge steel to save weight. Out back was the tried-and-true live-axle/leaf-spring setup with staggered shock absorbers (one side angles forward, the other angles backward) to combat axle-hop. We also made a big deal of the fact that a computer on the assembly line chose the spring rates for each Ranger based on the anticipated mass of its option content.
Little outside, big and airy inside
“Inside, the Ranger presents an airy, pleasant habitat, with generous amounts of head, shoulder, and legroom. While the bench seat makes things a bit close for three, the XLS buckets provide exceptional comfort for two. Ford touts the Ranger’s upright ‘command seating,’ which is an exercise in positive labeling since the rear wall of the cab restricts the seatback adjustability.”
Rodney Rangerfield, the parts-chaser supreme!
Back in the ’80s Motor Trend owned vehicles, and with the gas crunch we decided to downsize from our V-8-powered 1980 Ford van, swapping it for a 2.0-liter Ranger. We immediately sent it out to be modified by Molly Designs of Irvine, California. Rollin “Molly” Sanders mounted custom wheels, gave us a graphics package, lowered the rear suspension, customized the interior, and bolted on a Thrush muffler in anticipation of future engine mods. We were stylin’ back then, and we look forward to seeing what creative minds like Sanders’ will make of the next Ford Ranger.