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1985 Ford Ranger Rescue Road Trip - Part 1

Tow Trucks and Tornadoes

Text By Jason Gondermanx, Photography by Jason Gondermanx

I’ve wanted to own a diesel-powered Ford Ranger, or really any of the oil-burning mini-trucks, ever since I found out they existed. Ford produced these odd little trucks for only five years, from ’83 to ’87. The ’83 to ’84 models came with a naturally aspirated 2.2L Perkins engine, while the ’85 to ’87 trucks were fitted with a turbocharged 2.3L sourced from Mitsubishi. Combine age with the fact that a reported less than 1 percent of Rangers built during this time received a diesel engine, and you’ve got one hard-to-find truck.

Craigslist and eBay have made buying and selling older trucks easy and opened them up to a nationwide audience, which is particularly helpful when looking for such a rare specimen as this. I had spent far too many hours browsing the classifieds looking for a cheap diesel mini-truck, when this ’85 Ranger popped up. Located in eastern Kansas, the truck looked clean, was mostly rust-free, and it ran, which was a plus. With my wife on board with the plan, I pulled the cash out of the bank, convinced the owner to hold the truck for me, and conned my dad into going along for the ride.

I just want to get this truck home and not die. I’m not looking for that kind of adventure.

The plan was simple: We would fly out to Kansas, buy the truck, and drive it home. On paper, we figured this could be done in three days. Fortunately for us, our really close family friends, George and Debbie Mudrock, had moved to Kansas a few years back and agreed to be our ride from the airport to the truck, along with providing us a garage to work out of and a place to sleep before heading out West.

Day One - Thursday
The 3 a.m. alarm seemed to come way too soon, and before I knew it my dad and I were at the Los Angeles International airport boarding our early morning flight to Kansas City, Missouri. Landing in the middle of a storm, we fought our way south through the pouring rain to the small town of Stark, Kansas, where the Ranger was waiting. After a quick testdrive, we handed over the cash, took care of all the DMV paperwork, and were on the road with our newfound treasure. With the purchase complete, we made our way to the home of our friends, George and Debbie (who were also now our chase crew at this point), 100 miles to the north, where the plan would be to give the truck a thorough check before leaving for Los Angeles the next morning.

After leaving the Ranger’s former home, we made a beeline for the nearest fuel station, which happened to be more than a half hour down the road. With the tanks full, curious onlookers satisfied, and cold energy drink in hand, we set off. And that’s when the trouble started. We noticed immediately that something was amiss. The once strong running truck now didn’t seem to have any power. We quickly pulled off the road to assess the situation, and after a phone call to the old owner—and almost an hour of poking, prodding, hammering, and wrenching—we found that one of the front brake calipers had seized closed. Normally, this isn’t a huge issue, but the aging diesel lacked the power necessary to push through the stuck brakes, leaving us with only one option: breaking the bleeder valve open to release pressure.

With the brake pressure removed, we were able to get the little diesel moving again under its own power. Everything was going great until the road came to a T and we needed to make a left turn, uphill, on a blind corner. This isn’t typically a big deal, however, as soon as the brakes were applied to slow for the turn, they locked again. With the sun going down, fatigue setting in, and no parts stores for 50 miles, we threw in the proverbial towel and called AAA for a tow.

DNFed. Waiting on AAA. On the bright side, we just saved 60 miles worth of fuel!

Once the truck had arrived at our overnight (and now repair) location, we rounded up all the tools we were going to need, acquired a new pair of brake calipers and pads from the local AutoZone, and were ready to go to work. Unfortunately, Mother Nature had different plans, as she unleashed torrential rains and lightning, signaling to us it was time to call it a night. Hit with more than 2.5 inches of rain overnight, it was obvious that waiting till morning was the right decision.

Day Two – Friday
With our schedule already pushed back by at least half a day, we woke up early the next morning and set straight to work, swapping out the bad brake parts and flushing the rest of the system. While I handled brake repair, my dad focused on cleaning the interior of the truck to minimize the chance of us contracting Hantavirus on our cross-country trek. He burned through a full bottle of Simple Green before calling it good enough.

By the time we got the truck fixed, looked over, and loaded up with our gear, tools, and parts, it was already early afternoon. A quick look at the map showed we should be able to hit Oklahoma City by midnight, so we said our goodbyes, pointed the truck south, and hit the highway. The little diesel was humming along nicely, cruising at a solid 68 mph. We were still passed by every semitruck on the road, but we were covering ground quicker than we thought the 28-year-old truck would, and this made us happy.

It shakes a bit at 70 mph.

That’s when the phone call came. Back in Kansas, George and Debbie were watching the evening news and thought it might be prudent to warn us about the “large and dangerous” tornadoes that had been spotted near Oklahoma City. With storms growing all around us, we made the decision to play it on the safe side and stopped short for the night in the town of Guthrie, Oklahoma.

Day Three – Saturday
An early morning departure had us nearly back on schedule. After looking over the maps, and with the truck seemingly running great, we had made the ambitious decision to push through to Flagstaff, Arizona, a distance of nearly 900 miles.

Only 22 mpg this tank… Stupid wind.

Passing through Oklahoma City, we were hit with a deadly reminder of the power of weather. The “large and dangerous” tornado we received a warning about tore through the town of El Reno, eventually crossing a busy Highway 40, tossing semitrucks like toys and leveling everything in its path. The EF5 tornado cost eight lives and injured many more, caused widespread flooding, and racked up millions of dollars in damage.

To be continued…

By Jason Gondermanx
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