Before the electric F-150, Ford built a unicorn EV truck

By Arianna Skibell | 06/03/2021 05:49 AM EST

David Raboy waves from the cab of his Ford Ranger EV. Courtesy of David Raboy.

The F-150 Lightning may be the biggest, baddest electric truck Ford Motor Co. has ever produced. But it isn’t the first.

That honor belongs to the electric Ford Ranger, a plucky little truck with an outsize reputation. Its birth and near-death more than 20 years ago have become the stuff of legend among gearheads — a mythology made more potent by the Ranger’s rarity. As few as 100 could be left in existence.

The Ranger EV’s continued survival is owed almost entirely to its owners. They have held protests, built an online community and established specialized repair shops — all to keep the Ranger running.

The truck’s small but dedicated following offers hope to Ford and other auto manufacturers about the future of electric vehicles, as companies ramp up production and the Biden administration throws its weight behind EVs as a tool to fight climate change.

But the Ranger EV also serves as a cautionary tale about the pitfalls of regulatory rule and the danger of car companies overpromising and underdelivering. It also demonstrates the lengths consumers will go for a product they love.

"I see a couple of them every month," said Lanny Thomason, a mechanic who’s been finding, refurbishing and selling Ranger EVs since he first discovered them 10 years ago. He now runs a Ranger EV auto shop on his property in Eugene, Ore.

"I had a guy contact me this morning. He bought one in North Carolina, and he’s restoring it. It’s all original, and he’s still driving it," he said.

"We don’t have a lot of electric trucks," Thomason added. "That’s why the Ranger is popular."

A brush with death

The story of the Ranger EV begins in the early 1990s, when California’s air quality was so poor and so deadly that the state passed a zero-emissions vehicle mandate, which required a percentage of cars sold to produce no tailpipe emissions.

The major car companies complied, developing a limited series of EVs they leased for about $500 a month. Ford billed its Ranger EV as a best-in-class automobile, sure to become a favorite for fleet drivers, who have predictable routes better suited for the truck’s limited range of 65 miles.

But Ford and the other car companies still weren’t happy about it, and they fought the California mandate tooth and nail. EVs were expensive to produce, the technology fledgling, and they feared the combination would lead to profit loss.

Ford only manufactured about 1,500 Rangers, between 1998 and 2002, and when the California Air Resources Board (CARB) eventually scaled back the emissions rule in the early 2000s, companies wasted no time reclaiming and crushing their electric vehicles.

"Personally, I was not surprised that California decided to not only relax but put a stop to the ZEV mandate, because the technology was not mature enough," said Margo Oge, who oversaw the mandate as the head of EPA’s transportation office under the Clinton administration and, later, the Obama administration.

"Both California and the industry decided the time had not come."

EV lessors, however, felt differently.

General Motors was in the process of destroying its EV1s — despite consumer objections — when Ford announced its intent to do the same to its electric Ranger.

Legend has it that in order to prevent the Ranger EV from meeting the same fate as the EV1, a clever, unnamed man told Ford the company was welcome to come reclaim his truck, but he was on an island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Deciding it was not worth the hassle, Ford transferred the title to the man for $1. The man got online and told other Ranger enthusiasts to pick an island.

Bruce Westlake, a former Ranger EV owner, recounted the legend: "The next Monday morning meeting, there were many more asking for the same thing. And that’s what saved the Ranger."

In fact, the true story begins with two ranch owners from a small town called Catheys Valley, nestled in the Sierra Foothills of Northern California.

Unlikely activists

Heather Bernikoff and David Raboy met in college. He played on the Humboldt State football team and gave her home game tickets. "It wasn’t love at first sight, but he grew on me," Bernikoff teased.

The two had their passions and felt civically engaged, but neither had any plans to become activists.

"We were never the kids that were out in the middle of the quad with protest signs, burning things," Bernikoff said.

That is, until Ford tried to take back their beloved electric Ranger.

It was 2000, when Bernikoff, who rode her bike to work each day, decided she was "real sick of sucking down auto emissions" as she rode.

"I said to my husband, ‘Gosh, it’s the 21st century; there’s got to be better technology out there,’" she said. "So Dave, who’s a good researcher, got on the internet — it was fledgling back then — and found out there were electric cars."

The two had no idea such vehicles existed. They had never seen them advertised, and they were disappointed to learn that GM had already started reclaiming its EVs.

"I did find that there were still some Ranger electric trucks that were available," Raboy said.

As cattle ranchers, the couple knew the utility of a good truck, and they quickly found a Sacramento dealership that was still leasing the Ranger EVs. But finding the dealership turned out to be the easy part.

"We were in shock. They couldn’t find the key. They were trying to dissuade us from leasing it. They had it in the way back of the lot. It was dirty," Bernikoff recalled. "But Dave and I were really determined. We cared a lot about air quality; we cared a lot about national security and not getting oil from conflict regions."

It was the height of the oil crisis, prices were rising, and there was increasing concern that the United States’ overreliance on foreign oil would become a threat to national security.

"It was more than just this car," Raboy said. "It’s about self-reliance. Self-sufficiency."

The truck was also useful. For example, Raboy and Bernikoff were installing a backup solar battery one day when the forklift they rented for the job veered off a slight hill and got stuck in the mud. They tried to drag it out with a heavy-duty, diesel-powered truck, but it wouldn’t budge.

"Then we said, ‘We’re stupid. Hook it up to the Ranger,’" Bernikoff recalled. They attached the forklift to their 1999 electric Ranger.

"I pulled it right out like it was butter," Raboy said, "because with electric motors, all your torque is immediately available; there’s no ramp-up time."

"That’s why we were so pissed when [Ford] said they were going to take our truck back and crush it," Bernikoff said.

At first, the couple tried to keep their heads down. They continued paying their monthly lease, and Ford continued to cash their checks. But eventually, the company said it was time.

"But we loved this truck," Bernikoff said. In an effort to do something, they started reaching out to various groups, eventually connecting with the Rainforest Action Network, which, along with Global Exchange, helped the couple organize a sit-in.

"We had a lot of support," Bernikoff said. "We had Republican Central Committee chairs and dreadlock hippies and everybody in between supporting us."

"I like to say the electric car is the one thing that brings the right and left together," Raboy said.

Along with William Korthof, a solar panel installer from Orange County who has since passed away, the couple parked their Rangers outside the Ford dealership in downtown Sacramento and set up a solar charging system, vowing they would not leave until Ford offered them the option to buy their trucks.

Scores of people joined them, and the protest started gaining national media coverage.

"I drove the truck over to the Sacramento morning show, and we did a little interview there, and then I think the AP picked it up," Raboy said.

"People started calling Ford and asking, ‘Why do you want to crush this guy’s truck?’" Bernikoff said.

After eight days outside the dealership and an onslaught of national pressure, Ford announced it would allow current leaseholders to purchase their vehicles, with no warranty, for $1.

Other lessors were offered the chance to purchase a refurbished version for $6,000 in a lottery system. Fans of the truck say between 100 to 700 Ranger EVs are out in the world today.

"We still have our Ford Ranger sitting in the garage right now," Raboy said.

Life after death

With a dearth of electric trucks available, the rescued Ranger EVs quickly gained a small but dedicated following, attracting car collectors, mechanics, environmentalists and small-business owners alike.

It was 2006 when Thomason, the EV mechanic in Oregon, ran into a guy in Portland who had come into a number of Ranger EVs. "He didn’t have anybody to get them running, and asked me if I’d take a shot at it," Thomason said. "So I did, and that started it all."

Now, rescued EVs are popular in Thomason’s social circle. He fixed up a Ranger for his brother-in-law. His parents drove a Ranger before trading it for a refurbished electric Toyota RAV4. Thomason just finished restoring "a beautiful little gray" Ranger for his boss at the bowling alley, where he also works. And he recently bought himself an original Ranger EV from an Arizona power company.

"They parked it in the back of a warehouse and forgot to get it back to Ford," he said. "It only had 2,400 miles on it. I gave them a pretty good penny for it."

Scott Couchman, a "car guy" and mechanical engineer, first discovered the Ranger EV at a car show one Saturday morning in 2006.

"The hood was up, and it didn’t look like any Ford Ranger I’d ever seen before," he said.

Couchman, an avid collector, found a 1999 Ranger EV for sale in Moses Lake, Wash., and had it shipped to him in Southern California, sight unseen.

In order to "give a face to the Ranger EV on the web," Couchman helped create a website for Ranger owners to share stories, swap repair tips, and buy and sell electric trucks.

The REVolt website is how Bruce Westlake of Ann Arbor, Mich., found his Ranger EV in 2007, which he bought from Thomason.

"My wife and I watched a movie called ‘Fuel,’ and we decided after watching it that we weren’t going to enable oil companies to do the things they’re doing anymore," said Westlake, who is now the president of the Michigan Electric Auto Association.

By the time Westlake’s Ranger EV required servicing, Ford no longer worked on the trucks. "So I had to learn how to fix my own," he said.

Westlake was no stranger to mechanical equipment. He had retired as a maintenance superintendent from Ford after 37 years. Westlake’s father also worked for the company for 34 years.

"I had a friend that does maintenance on vehicles, and he was into EVs, so the two of us got together and designed a battery replacement," he said. "We were kind of flying by the seat of our pants, but it worked."

Westlake drove his Ranger like that for three years before selling it to a guy who installed a lithium battery. Now Westlake drives a Tesla, which he loves.

"We’re the definition of a Ford family, and I’m driving a Tesla," he said. "I drunk the Kool-Aid, and I own the cup."

Raboy and Bernikoff also "leveraged everything we own" and bought a Tesla. That said, the couple — along with Couchman — said they were open to buying an F-150.

"We don’t harbor any ill will, so we’ll consider the F-150 truck," Bernikoff said. "We didn’t trust Ford before, but everyone is going all in on these vehicles. The fact that they are letting you buy them — we could only lease ours — is a great sign."

‘Sliding into the classic area’

While critics fault Ford and other manufacturers for failing to follow through with their electric vehicle programs, many experts and analysts maintain that the battery technology was just not up to snuff in the 1990s and 2000s.

"They were using nickel-metal hydride batteries with a fairly low range," said David Reichmuth, a senior engineer in the Clean Transportation Program at the Union for Concerned Scientists. "Compared to today’s vehicles, the performance was much lower."

Mike Levine, Ford’s North America product communications manager, said the new F-150 Lightning offers features and capabilities "not dreamed of" when the Ranger EV was introduced.

"While some hobbyists and early electric vehicle customers appreciated Ranger EV for its gas-free benefits, it had a limited driving range of just 65 miles, bulky air-cooled lead-acid and nickel-metal hydride batteries, and virtually zero public charging infrastructure outside of a home or fleet garage," he said.

The new F-150 Lightning’s range is closer to 300 miles; it has 11 onboard power outlets; and it can act as a backup generator, powering a home for up to three days. Customers are already getting in line. Ford received 44,500 preorders for the truck within 48 hours of its debut, and the manufacturer is now projecting that 40% of its global sales will be electric vehicles by 2030.

For commercial customers like plumbers, landscapers or contractors — who put hundreds of thousands of miles on their trucks each year with city driving — the F-150 provides a compelling alternative, said Sam Abuelsamid, a principal analyst at Guidehouse Insights.

"For those customers, the energy savings of going from gas to electric are enormous," he said. "What Ford is offering is a truck that is priced competitively with the gasoline version and is actually cheaper to own and operate over the life of the vehicle."

In the 20 years between the Ranger EV and the F-150, electric truck lovers found creative ways to keep the Ranger going, from online forums to specialized mechanics like Thomason to do-it-yourself projects.

"There are people who have taken them and put lithium-ion batteries in them, and they turn those same trucks into 150-mile-range-plus electric trucks," Raboy said.

Now, efforts to boost electric vehicles and build charging infrastructure are coming from the White House. If auto manufacturers follow through on their promises to rapidly increase EV production, refurbished Ranger EVs no longer will be the only truck game in town.

Thomason said he’s glad consumers will have more options, though he knows it will cut into his business. "I’m going to be sliding into the classic area," he said. "There’s no way I can compete with the big boys. The Rangers are still going to have their small niche, but they’re 20 years old now, so they’re becoming classics."

As more high-tech electric trucks enter the market, the remaining Ranger EVs are likely to live on as collectors’ items, rather than daily workhorses. Even so, enthusiasts said they hope the Ranger’s legacy will not be forgotten.

"The Lightning is just the next step in an evolutionary development process that started back in the ’90s," Couchman said. "The Ranger EV is part of that history."