Roger Johnson talks about his 1998 Ford Ranger with such affection, it's hard to believe he plans to part with it.

He bought the compact truck from his mother 10 years ago, when he was 16, and until a few months ago it was the only vehicle he ever owned.

He figures he's put about 100,000 of the nearly 170,000 miles on it, on hunting and fishing trips and on summer jobs hauling tree branches and sod. He used it to get back and forth between his family's home on the Iron Range and Minnesota State University, Mankato, where he earned an engineering degree.

"It's a pretty good-looking truck for a 16-year-old, and over the years it's been very functional for me," Johnson said.

But tastes have changed, and Johnson is selling his Ranger. He recently bought a roomier and more powerful 2006 Ford F-150, the kind of decision many Ranger owners have made in recent years, sticking with Ford but trading up to full-size trucks.

That trend led Ford to shut down production of the Ranger, and with it the Twin Cities assembly plant in St. Paul that is the last place the model is made.

Since 1992, the Ranger has been the only vehicle produced at the sprawling facility, which has been part of the landscape in St. Paul's Highland Park neighborhood for more than eight decades. The last truck comes off the line sometime around Dec. 16.

Auto industry analysts and area dealers say the F-150 has been the Ranger's biggest competition. As Ford and other automakers worked on fuel economy and other improvements to more profitable full-size trucks, compact pickups like the Ranger lost some of their luster.

In 1987, five years after it was introduced, the Ranger compact accounted for more that 20 percent of Ford's total U.S. truck sales and began an 18-year run as America's best-selling compact pickup. Ranger sales peaked at 348,358 units in 1999 and have fallen since then, with only 55,364 sold last year, just 5 percent of Ford's U.S. truck sales.

Art Spinella, president of CNW Marketing Research, said that in many respects the Rangers of today aren't that much different from the 1993 model, the last to undergo a major redesign.

"This is not the case of Toyota stealing Ranger's sales," said Spinella, whose firm specializes in the auto industry. "This is really a case of Ford not keeping Ranger up-to-date enough to maintain sales levels."

Besides improved fuel efficiency, the F-150 added features like the crew cab, which could accommodate up to six people, said Tom Kulick, sales manager at Midway Ford in Roseville.

"People started buying them as their family vehicle, using them for driving around town but also hauling and towing," Kulick said. "The Ranger just kind of got set to the wayside."

Lately, an uptick in sales

Ranger sales have risen slightly in 2011 and could finish the year at their highest level since 2008. Dealers attribute some of the uptick to an attractive rebate program.

Ford has said there's been a last-minute rush from buyers who know that after this year the vehicle won't be made in the United States. Ford will produce a new and different midsize Ranger in Thailand, South Africa and Argentina for sale in foreign markets.

Ford first used the Ranger name on a styling package for heavier F-Series pickup trucks in 1965 but dropped the name a couple of years later. It revived the Ranger name for the all-new compact pickup it began making in 1982. Ford had acquired a minority stake in Mazda, and the Ranger was basically a Mazda pickup designed to compete with Japanese automakers' compact, fuel-efficient trucks.

Michael Saxon, owner of Ford dealerships in New Brighton and Inver Grove Heights, said the Ranger appealed to two types of buyers. Small businesses found it useful for short delivery trips. Individual buyers used it to get around during the week and then for recreation on weekends. "If they had a little fishing boat, a snowmobile trailer or wanted to go biking, it was ideal," he said.

Saxon believes it would have been difficult for Ford to invest in improvements without substantially increasing the Ranger's price.

"It would have put it too close to the price of a full-size, and people would say, 'For that little difference I'll just get the full-size truck,'" he said. "I think Ford hung in there [with the Ranger] longer than it had to."

Celebrating a redesign

Kulick recalls the excitement that surrounded the introduction of the redesigned 1993 Ranger.

He and Midway Ford owner Ed Tichenor were among area dealers who picked up their first new Ranger models at a big event Ford held at the Mall of America in October 1992.

When dealers arrived, they found more than 200 red, white and blue Rangers arranged in front of the Bloomington mall in the shape of a gigantic American flag and spelling out the Ford name.

"You got your picture taken with your vehicle and the regional manager and then you drove them away," Kulick said. "It was pretty cool. That was a neat thing about being close to a plant."

The photo still hangs in Tichenor's office.

Johnson, who admits he'll probably feel some twinges when he sees the new owner of his Ranger drive the truck away, was surprised when he heard about Ford's plans to stop making Rangers for the U.S. market.

"That seems kind of strange," he said. "I knew they were closing the plant, but I figured they would still sell them."

As an engineer, Johnson said he can appreciate the drive to make full-size trucks better, but he has a hard time believing there's no place in the market for the Ranger.

"You can do just about anything with it," he said. "It's a pretty dang good little truck."

Susan Feyder • 612-673-1723


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