The last Ford Ranger small pickup truck will roll off the assembly line Dec. 19, marking the end of a nearly 30-year journey that saw some 7 million units sold in the U.S.

The halt to production also means the loss of jobs for 880 workers who belong to United Auto Workers union Local 879 at Ford’s Twin Cities, MN, facility. The 148-acre (60-ha) site will be sold.

The union fought to keep Twin Cities open during the recently concluded contract negotiations, but UAW leaders say they were met with a firm refusal.

Ford says the Ranger has served its purpose and expects current customers to migrate to the entry-level F-150 fullsize pickup.

“Nobody has infinite resources, and we have to figure out how we can best position those resources to meet the needs of customers today and in the future,” Erich Merkle, Ford’s top U.S. sales analyst, tells WardsAuto.

“(The Ranger) has been pretty popular, but we think more of a baseline F-150 can also meet a good portion of those needs,” he adds, noting the 1-ton pickup now offers several fuel-efficient engines.

When the Ranger entered the American market in 1982 as an ’83 model, it was seen by Ford as a way to fight small Japanese pickups offered by auto makers such as Toyota and Datsun (Nissan).

The Ranger in its first year topped 100,000 sales and by its fifth year was the No.1-selling small pickup in the U.S., WardsAuto data shows.

Sales peaked in 1999, when 348,358 units were delivered. But the Ranger’s heyday was short-lived, with sales declining each year since then. Ford sold a mere 55,364 units in 2010.

“The (small-pickup) segment is down to just over 2% of the total industry,” Merkle says. “In 2000, it was 6%.”

Ranger sales through October climbed 20.7%, compared with year-ago, to 57,058 units, but he says that was expected. “Generally speaking, that happens when you announce discontinuance of any product line.”

Ford likely will lose sales after the small pickup’s demise, Merkle admits, but not in significant numbers.

Dealers view Ford’s decision to pull the plug on the Ranger with skepticism. “I agree that under the current Ranger price structure most customers would migrate to the base F-150,” Phil Smith, general manager at Dick Smith Ford in Raytown, MO, tells WardsAuto.

“I think the dealers would like to see the Ranger continued, but at a lower price point,” he says, noting the pickup should be well-depreciated by now. “There is still good demand for a lower-priced, good-gas-mileage, small truck.”

The Ranger stickers for $18,160, compared with $22,990 for an entry-level F-150.

O.C. Welch III, president of OC Welch Ford Lincoln Mercury in Hardeeville, SC, says Ford is “missing it here for sure.” Ranger buyers are “loyal commercial and retail customers,” he says. “In the Atlanta region, it outsells (the Ford) Taurus, Fiesta, Transit, Flex, Expedition and Econoline.”

Ranger sales have been affected by a lack of marketing, Welch insists, and the plan to discontinue the small pickup is a Ford strategy to boost F-150 sales. But the plan won’t work, he says.

“I’m not sure how many, but these Ranger customers will look for price and fuel economy, and I doubt they will find it in an F-150.”

He adds that Ranger sales in the Atlanta area so far this year have outsold the entire Lincoln lineup.

Ford recently launched a new Ranger for global markets, but says it will not be sold in the U.S.

bpope@wardsauto.com