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Me and my Ford Ranger: Whom should I blame for its shaky future?

The St. Paul Ford assembly line, circa 1935.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society/Photo by Norton & Peel
The St. Paul Ford assembly line, circa 1935.

Some men want a sports car to combat a midlife crisis.

I wanted a pickup truck. (Perhaps that has to do with my South Dakota roots.) So a decade ago — OK, it was a late-stage mid-life crisis — I purchased a Ford Ranger, the Northland edition, built by Minnesotans.

I drove that truck off the lot and felt like a man again.

The morning after the purchase, I went out to admire my maroon truck and noticed friends had put a sticker on the tailgate. “Cute truck,” it read. Devastating. Real men drive pickup trucks, and real men don’t like that word “cute.”

But I recovered from the low blow and headed west with a load of stuff in the back of my pickup. My cocker spaniel, Rosie, was at my side. Man and dog and country tunes and a pickup truck. What could be better?

Then, I pulled into a café/gas station in the middle of Montana. The testosterone drained from my body. All around me were big men, with big pickup trucks with big bumpers. They all had dented fenders and big dogs, with names like Butch, in the front seat.

I was a city slicker in the country driving a cute truck.

All of this came to mind again with news that a Minnesota delegation, led by our governor, went, bearing tax credits and other financial gifts, to Michigan to plead one more time to keep open the Highland Park plant, where Rangers bounce off the assembly line.

Apparently, Ford executives were polite, but not impressed. It appears that the Ranger, that cute little truck, may be doomed. as is the plant where it is built.

The gloomy forecast
There are all sorts of reasons for the gloomy forecast.

Start with this: Ford has been trying to kill off the Ranger, which was first produced in 1983, for years. They can make more money selling those bigger pickups, the Ford 150s, 250s and 350s, than they can selling the Ranger. Given that, the company hasn’t made improvements on the Ranger in more than a decade.

Part of the reason for that benign neglect, according to Fred Zimmerman, a retired engineering and management prof at St. Thomas, is that, up until the current management team came on the scene in 2006, Ford’s CEOs have been awful.

“Ford had three not very good chairmen in a row,” Zimmerman said.

Those three CEOs, said Zimmerman, seemed incapable of decisive action. “Catonic” was the word he used to describe the CEOs.

It was that indecisiveness that led to Ford making no improvements, which continued to be a strong seller, despite the company’s neglect.

The new management, under CEO Alan Mulally, Zimmerman said, has come to realize that even if there aren’t big profit margins in small vehicles, they contribute to the bottom line.

“I’m told Ford won’t make any money on the Focus for 10 years,” Zimmerman said. “But they’ve come to the understanding that just having the Focus helps them sell bigger cars. It brings people into the showroom.”

By neglecting the Ranger for so many years, Ford wasn’t in a position to counter changing market demands. High gasoline prices, for example, diminish the interest consumers — even those big guys out in Montana — have for big trucks.

So Ford itself has played a big role in the diminished sales of the Ranger.

Did Minnesota drop the ball?
But Zimmerman says the state of Minnesota also has played a role in losing the plant where the Rangers are produced. He believes that it’s never looked at the big picture regarding the plant and what Ford would need to make it functional into the future.

Recall that on Wednesday, after the meeting with Ford executives, Gov. Tim Pawlenty said that one of the big problems facing the Highland plant is its distance from the supply lines that Ford now seeks in producing cars and trucks. Pawlenty said there’s really nothing Minnesota could do about that.

But Zimmerman says he’s been telling Minnesota political leaders for years that there is something they could do about the supply line problem.

The huge issue in vehicle manufacturing, Zimmerman said, is the metal-stamping of hoods. They’re big and bulky and because of that, heavy and expensive, to ship.

There are, the prof said, a number of metal stamping companies in Minnesota. With some forward-looking state leadership, some of those companies could have been expanded to stamp hoods for the Ranger, or any other vehicle. That would have been a huge incentive for Ford to keep operating at Highland Park.

“But I couldn’t get anybody interested,” said Zimmerman.

In general, Zimmerman believes the state has done a poor job at offering the sort of meaningful incentives that would bring manufacturing to the state. For several years, he said, he was on the board of directors of Winnebago. In 2004, when Winnebago was looking to build a new plant, nine states — including Minnesota — made proposals, Zimmerman said.

“Minnesota’s was dead last,” he said. “It wasn’t even professionally done.”

And he’s not been impressed with Minnesota’s approach to saving the Ford plant.

“What we’ve had is years of neglect and aloofness, interspersed by panicky visits made by dignitaries.”

Add incompetent Ford executives and sluggish Minnesota pols together and you come up with a bad end for the Ranger and the St. Paul plant.

Actually, there are some rumblings that Ford may not pull the trigger on the Ranger. There’s talk that a new version of the little pickup will be produced in Australia (let’s hear again about the supply line issue?) and shipped everywhere, including to the Unite States.

Meantime, my St. Paul-built truck and Rosie push on.

Comments (11)

  1. Submitted by Michael Hunt on 08/26/2010 - 09:55 am.

    “Minnesota’s was dead last,” he said. “It wasn’t even professionally done.”

    “What we’ve had is years of neglect and aloofness, interspersed by panicky visits made by dignitaries.”

    “sluggish Minnesota pols”

    Sounds like presidential material to me!

  2. Submitted by dan buechler on 08/26/2010 - 10:28 am.

    Don’t despair of your ford ranger and the manliness quota. One of the manliest guys I ever knew had 2 ford rangers. Good article and when I thought of supply lines I thought they might be referring to tires or something bulky. Thanks for digging,

  3. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 08/26/2010 - 10:35 am.

    When I decided I wanted a small truck a few years ago, as a Ford guy, I assumed it would be a Ford Ranger. But after comparison shopping I was surprised that it was over $1,000 more than the comparable Chevy S-10. I ended up buying the Chevy.

    My biggest disappointment regarding the plant was the total lack of leadership from the mayor and the city council when Ford’s closure was announced. They immediately went into discussion of how many condos and candle shops could fit onto that property. They should have been focused on the 1,500 jobs that were leaving and how those manufacturing jobs could be replaced with different manufacturing jobs.

    At about the same time Ford was saying they were leaving, auto plants were being proposed and built by Toyota, Honda, Kia, Hyundai and Mercedes-Benz, in Kentucky, Indiana, California, Georgia, and Alabama. Our city leaders focused on building condos and never even entered a proposal to be one of those new sites.

  4. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 08/26/2010 - 11:46 am.

    It should be mentioned that those incompetent Ford executives were somehow able to keep their company solvent enough to be in a position to refuse Obama’s bailout cash.

    They have also been making a nice profit for more than 20 years from a fully mature truck line that required no further investment.

    Maybe GM (Government Motors) should hire some incompetants.

  5. Submitted by Jim Camery on 08/26/2010 - 12:13 pm.

    Mr. Swift – It appears you overlooked how the quote mentions that it was pre-2006 management that was so disastrous. That was a crappy company and probably would have gone under in 2009 if it had that same management. I remember buying Ford Preferred for $1.76 in 05 and it goes for $24.50 now. But confusing eras and who-said-what in order to make a point seems to be easy for some.

    I looked at buying a Ranger a few years back and wasn’t impressed. The price then was almost as much as an F150 and the fuel economy was only a bit better. The sales guy was almost apologizing for it.

  6. Submitted by Hudson Leighton on 08/26/2010 - 12:58 pm.

    It is my understanding that all of or a majority of the Ford UAW workers at the Ford Highland Plant have accepted buyouts and most of the workers now at the plant are Temps and Contractors.

    So you could say that the jobs have already been lost.

    Plus the Dam and Power Plant have already been sold.

  7. Submitted by Peter Rachleff on 08/26/2010 - 01:56 pm.

    Let me take the last comments a little further. After 80% of the workforce took the buy-out option, Ford hired workers at HALF of the standard wage, with the UAW’s approval. Since those workers have gotten raises every six months, Ford has hired a new complement of workers at $12 per hour, with reduced benefits (fairness would suggest they should get better benefits, no?), again with the UAW’s ok. Now a bunch of politicans, Repubs (Pawlenty et al) AND Dems (Coleman et al), are going to crow about what they did to “save” Ford jobs, jobs which now cripple workers for little more than you can make at MacDonald’s. Pitiful! Meanwhile, Delta (formerly Northwest) proposes to hire “ready reserve” baggage handlers at $12 an hour with no benefits. Congrats, Minnesota, we are winning the race to the bottom.

  8. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 08/26/2010 - 02:23 pm.

    One of this country’s biggest scandals has been the whole-hearted effort to destroy unions, ever since Reagan’s mass firing of air traffic controllers in his first term.

    “Labor relations specialists” travel the U.S. helping companies kill or void their unions. It becomes harder every day for unions to find ways to fight back when the choice is $12 with no benefits versus no job at all.

    At least it’s not as bad here as in Colombia under departing president Uribe, whose government sponsored the assassination of union organizers.

  9. Submitted by Gregory Lang on 08/26/2010 - 05:17 pm.

    Small “big three” vehicles are generally sold at cost or a bit below to make the CAFE. I bought a new 2005 Ranger two-wheel drive stick four cylinder with AC and a duraliner for $12K driveaway, including taxes and plates. I have gotten up to 24 MPH in town and up to 30 MPG on the highway.

  10. Submitted by Anthony Kelly on 08/27/2010 - 09:24 pm.

    Whenever I drive a Ranger, it’s immediately obvious why Ford discontinued it: the engineering is from another age and the vehicle just can’t compare with the competition. That’s certainly not the fault of those who built it; look to the penny-pinchers in Dearborn who couldn’t learn from the competition how to build a light truck that doesn’t ride like a hay wagon and can’t accommodate someone over 5’9″. That’s the real lesson that the Big 3 has only very very very recently learned: build something that doesn’t feel like a compromise between a bunch of corporate committees.

  11. Submitted by Robert Moffitt on 09/14/2010 - 09:02 am.

    One of the biggest mistakes Ford made with the Northland Edition Ranger was when they switched to a gasoline-only engine. Previously, the trucks were flex fuel, able to run on either gasoline or E85, widely available in Minnesota and cheaper than gasoline.

    Understand the whole truck thing. I owned a GMC Sonoma that I just loved. Cute trucks are great –we’re man enough to own one.

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