The last Ford Ranger rolled off the St. Paul assembly line last week, marking the end of an era for manufacturing in Minnesota and for small, light-duty trucks. Feeling a little wistful, I half-considered buying one of the last Rangers, but my 2001 model is doing just fine. Still, it’s sad to know that when the time comes to replace it, I won’t be able to do so with another Ranger.
In 1987, I bought my first pickup truck, which was also my first new vehicle. As pickups go it wasn’t much—a gray, four-cylinder Ford Ranger with a standard transmission and two-wheel drive. But it was a big step forward from the cars I’d driven previously. High clearance and good gas mileage made the Ranger a truck well suited to my lifestyle.
A lot happened in 1987. We moved from Minneapolis to Atlanta. Our first yellow Lab pup, Rebel, entered our lives not long after we arrived in Georgia. Before the year was out, we moved again. With the new dog, I drove the Ranger north to a new life on the North Shore.
In the North, the old gray Ranger took me to a lot of good places and back home again. Only once did it let me down. Displaying more bravado than good sense, I hung it up on a boulder protruding from a mud hole on a remote forest road. Rebel and I walked eight miles in the dark that evening to reach the nearest telephone. It wasn’t the fault of the truck.
The only drawback to the gray Ranger was the lack of four-wheel drive. On the North Shore, you need four-wheel drive eight months out of the year. It frequently comes in handy during remaining four months, too. At the time, we lived in a home with a quarter-mile-long driveway that was all uphill from the house to the highway. On snowy mornings, Vikki would ride on the rear bumper to improve traction while I attempted the driveway ascent. If we didn’t make it the top, she drove while I pushed.
Out of necessity we bought a second Ranger, this time with a V6 engine, four-wheel drive, an extended cab and a sporty paint job. I don’t know if this truck was the best vehicle I ever owned, but it was the one I liked the most. Four-wheel drive opened up a whole new world to me. But it didn’t take me long to learn its limitations.
On a March morning, a friend and I drove my new truck out on Lake Superior’s Thunder Bay to fish for lake trout. Unseasonably early rain had melted the snow cover, leaving the ice shiny black. Far offshore we could see waves where the bay’s ice was beginning to break up. But the ice seemed thick enough where we were, so on we went, meeting some friends at a favorite fishing hole. We cut some holes and started fishing, but the ice rumbled and boomed beneath us.
A quick, unanimous decision was made to move closer to shore. Our friends went one way and we went another. As we drove, we watched cracks like spider webs spread out from the truck. Young, fish-hungry and not particularly smart, we were unfazed by this frozen phenomenon. Thinking we were playing it safe, I dropped off my friend to cut holes while I parked the truck some distance away. I had just stepped out of the truck when he began walking toward me at a furious pace.
“The booming noises didn’t stop when you drove away,” he said as he tossed our gear into the back of the Ranger.
We bagged our fishing expedition and started back to shore, the ice cracking and booming the entire way. It was the last time either one of us drove a vehicle on the ice.
The Ranger proved to be a good fit for me. Although the extended cab was awfully cramped for a passenger, it was a great place to stash the groceries or the dog. Four-wheel drive was invaluable in winter. The V6 engine had enough guts to tow my boat or climb a mountain. But what I really liked about the Ranger were the narrow frame and short wheelbase, which made it a perfect vehicle for navigating brush-shrouded North Shore backroads. It could go the distance as a highway vehicle, too. Whether I was in pursuit of a story, an adventure or both, I counted on the Ranger to get me there and back again.
I traded that Ranger in on another and eventually wound up driving five of them. Even after I graduated to a full-sized pick-up, I hung on to my last Ranger. It still sees plenty of daily use. Briefly, I considered trading it in on one of the final Rangers rolling off the line, but decided my current truck has a few miles to go. When the time comes to replace it, who knows what I will do.
They say declining interest in small trucks led to the Ranger’s demise. This may seem odd, in light of rising fuel costs and a trend toward smaller, more fuel-efficient vehicles. Perhaps part of the problem is small trucks with V6 engines aren’t very fuel efficient and the four-cylinder models lack the power many truck owners desire. From my point of view, whatever vehicle replaces the Ranger will need high clearance, four-wheel drive, fuel efficiency and light-duty towing capability. To my knowledge, at present, such a vehicle doesn’t exist.