Home » The Ford Ranger Splash Was The Ultimate ’90s Party Truck

The Ford Ranger Splash Was The Ultimate ’90s Party Truck

Ford Splash Ts1
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In the 1990s, automakers were desperate to put you behind the wheel of something funky, fresh, and new. They’d advertise it to you with a bevy of attractive young people running around the beach with smiles on their faces. The Ford Ranger Splash was out there in the thick of it, a fun-loving truck out for a good time.

It was a truck that landed right in on the bubble of the action sports trend. You’d spot the Ranger Splash on a beach, looking sharp in red with shiny chrome wheels.

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It lined up against jet skis, hang gliders, and mountain bikes, because these were the cutting-edge ways to have fun. Everyone was happy, and everyone was having a blast—right there with the Ford Ranger Splash.

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Selling To The Kids

The Ranger Splash was a sage marketing move from Ford. The typical Splash buyer was “young, single, with an on-the-go lifestyle.” They were seen as the perfect target for a do-everything, go-everywhere action pickup. To suit these new, exciting customers, Ford needed a hip truck that felt exactly of the moment. With a few smart tweaks, the Ranger became just that for the 1993 model year.

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At this time, trucks were still mostly work-a-day vehicles. Colors were drab, and most mirrors and bumpers were either chrome or black plastic,  Those vibes wouldn’t do for what Ford had in mind.

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Splash? Sploosh.

The Splash went for a look that was thoroughly modern for its time. It got a monochromatic design, which basically meant that it got bumpers and mirrors matched to the color of the body. No steelies here, either. The Splash wore handsome chrome or aluminum wheels, depending if you got the 2WD or 4WD version. The suspension was also lowered for better handling and a more car-like feel behind the wheel.

Perhaps most crucially, though, it got a flareside pickup box with an integrated step to boot. This was a first in the compact truck segment. It gave the Ranger nice unique lines compared to other compact pickups, but it also provided plenty of utility. Getting gear in and out of the bed was much easier with the step on the side. Plus, Ford noted that the double-wall construction meant that any dings inside the bed wouldn’t spoil the look of the outside of the truck.

Access 1997 Ford Ranger Splash Supercab Neg Cn325028 103

Engines and transmission were in line with the regular Ranger, with multi-point fuel injection standard across the range. A 2.3-liter inline-four was standard, good for 98 horsepower. If you were feeling flush, you could upgrade to the 3.0-liter V6 for 145 hp, or a 4.0-liter V6 for 160 hp. In this era, though, performance wasn’t really front of mind. The desert truck trend would come decades later with the dawn of the Raptor.

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And of course, because this was the ’90s, it had decals. They weren’t as bold and bodacious as most, but they did the job. They told everyone you’d bought the fun truck, with their pointy excitable fonts and loud color schemes.

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The Splash decals weren’t wild, but they were pretty darn 90s. Via eBay

Peak ’90s

With the 1993 model doing well, Ford turned up the wick for 1994 with a pair of concept vehicles. Enter the Sea Splash and Sky Splash. These weren’t production models, but helped support Ford’s efforts to sell these trucks as the perfect choice for the action sports set.

Access Ranger Sky Splash Ar 2002 210256 Box 7 003

Access Ranger Sky Splash Ar 2002 210256 Box 7 004

Access Ranger Sky Splash Ar 2002 210256 Box 7 002
I feel bad for the marketing team when they realized the hang glider wasn’t going to fit in the press shots very well.

The Sky Splash was audacious. “Attention hang glider buffs!” said Ford’s release. “Ford has developed a concept vehicle just for you.” The features went above and beyond to turn the truck into the perfect hang-glider launcher as per the press release:

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The unique Fluorescent Orange Pearl pickup box insert has a
special hang glider launching platform and winch designed especially for the
Ranger. The winch has an auto tensioning device that automatically feeds out
line until the hang glider reaches the proper altitude and is released.

Load-carrying rear stanchions and a front over-the-hood T-Bar are
to support and transport the hang glider. The stanchions have tie-down slots
to help keep the glider securely in place.

Additionally, the Sky Splash had other useful gear like spotlights for loading hang gliders after dark, and a winch for getting your truck to the best possible hang-glider launch spots. It also featured a CB radio, which you could use to chat with your buddy on a hang glider, and a cell phone, for when you inevitably need to call in a rescue when they get stuck in a tree.

Ford also touted an “on-screen NAV system,” which in the nascent era of consumer GPS was more of a wish than a reality. The aircraft-style compass and altimeter were more believable inclusions. “When carrying a hang glider, the destination promises excitement in the air,” said Andrew K. Jacobson, Ford’s truck design director. “But, when there is work to be done, the Sky Splash still delivers—and it’s a head-turner plus when you’re just cruising around town or on the open road.”

Access Ranger Sea Splash Ar 2002 210256 Box 7 003

Access 1994 Ford Ranger Sea Splash Ar 2002 213709 001

The Sea Splash was much the same deal, but it was built for water sports (shut up), not hang gliding. Rather than being built to launch James Bond into the sky on an aerial infiltration mission, it was made to haul watercraft to the beach. Or, you know, a big old canoe, as seen in the press pictures. Really, a compact kayak would have been more modern, but Ford at least painted it to match. It also got a nice blue interior and a CB radio, along with a set of painted blue and white wheels matching the body graphics.

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Access Ranger Sea Splash Ar 2002 210256 Box 7 002 (1)
Peep the “NAV System” in the center, beneath the HVAC controls. It was essentially a preview of GPS navigation systems which would become ubiquitous a decade later. One suspects it was largely a conceptual inclusion here.

What Happened?

The good times couldn’t last forever. For the Ford Ranger, as in life.

The Ford Ranger Splash trim was dropped for the third generation model in 1998. The world had moved on, and the sun, sea, and sand trope was growing old. But there’s more to it than that.

It wasn’t just that we lost the Ranger Splash. We lost the Suzuki Sidekick, the Daihatsu Feroza. We lost the Jazz cup decals that were on just about every car. We lost our buzz. We lost fun itself.

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It was a different age. We’re going to look at a lot more of these, don’t you worry.

Turn back the clock and try and remember what it was really like, way back when. That is, assuming you were there.

You see, the 1990s was a time of unbridled joy and enthusiasm in the West. Consumer capitalism was a roaring success. Our die-hard arch-enemies had collapsed, with the Soviet Union collapsing in on itself and leaving America the victor.

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The sun shined every day, and our future was bright. We were the masters of the world, and we had the science, money, and smarts to achieve whatever we could dream of. We drove fun cars in bright colors and took up mountain biking, kayaking, or sky driving on the weekends.

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They were wild, heady days. You’d grow up, go to school, and learn about the bitter repression of the past. Social upheaval and unrest in the 1960s. The horrors of World War II. But the overwhelming message was that we’d left all that behind. This was the 90s! The bad guys were gone, now, and the future was only getting brighter.

How best to describe this? Here’s presidential candidate Bill Clinton playing saxophone on “The Arsenio Hall Show”

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That’s what the ’90s were like, at least if you were a kid from the suburbs.

Now, I’m not saying life was perfect in the 1990s. Far from it. I was there, and I saw my fair share of shit. But the broad arrow of our culture pointed skyward. There was no question that fortunes were on the rise.

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Fast forward just a few years and the scales started to turn. Our consumer utopia was suddenly under attack, and the West found itself embroiled in turmoil across the globe. We plodded on, through recession after recession before a global pandemic hit, and pushed us to the edge.

Now trucks look like this:

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We don’t sell fun cars to youthful go-getters in yellow, red, and blue. We sell expensive trucks with aggressive designs so we can stand tall over our fellow citizens. Trucks with “bulletproof” panels. Cars with “bioweapon defense modes.” All to protect us against the new enemies. The bad guys we’re sure are out to get us.

Like other fashion items, cars hold up a mirror to society. They follow prevailing trends just like everything else. We’re not having fun anymore. We’re not dancing to optimistic pop hits like “Steal My Sunshine” or “All Star” these days. The carefree message doesn’t resonate. Nor does the idea of a fun beach truck or a sweet little coupe for the mass market.

All New Ford Ranger Raptor 06
Trucks today are less “upbeat surfer bro” and more “brooding bouncer on a hair trigger” if you ask me.

Automakers aren’t selling “cute” or “happy” or “beach” anymore. Even if they were, the younger generation doesn’t have the money to purchase new cars anyway. Of course, automakers know this, and know it well. Thus the focus on more silver-grey SUVs for the people that actually show up to dealerships looking to buy.

Ford tried to bring back the Splash in 2022, as a trim package for the then-current Ranger. Don’t remember it? Me neither. It didn’t project “fun” and it lacked the monochrome design of its predecessor. It was a yellow truck with a black stripe and none of the vibe that captured hearts and minds in the ’90s.

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2022 Ranger Splash Package 03 Jpg 1630445621

The world has moved on. We’ve all moved on.

We Can Go Back

There’s one way to go back to those carefree vibes of the ’90s. We need society to get happier again. Imagine today, but with less turmoil, less pain, and less cost-of-living pressures. Imagine getting your first full-time job in your 20s, and you realize you’ve got some money in the bank for the first time in your life. Maybe you’ll pop down to the dealership, and check out that fun new ride you saw online. The bright yellow sports truck with the smiling people running down the beach.

All I can say is we’re not there yet. But the example of the Ford Ranger, and so many other joyful, stickered-up 90s mobiles, can give us something to aspire to. Bring the joy back to our lives, and we’ll bring the joy back to our cars. I think we can do it.

[Ed Note: I am here for the ’90s nostalgia and here, especially, for that weird moment in time when America won the Cold War and had no idea what to do with itself. I think this is the period that fits in between the chest-beating film “Hunt for Red October” (written before the fall of the Berlin Wall but filmed after) and “The Sum of All Fears” movie in 2022. For more on this listen to this podcast.

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But I don’t know if I entirely buy the take that we don’t have fun cars anymore. Toyota has a stick-shift Supra, a rally-inspired hot hatch, the GR86, and a cool and cheaper hybrid Landcruiser coming out in all sorts of bright colors. There’s the Ranger Raptor, the Bronco Raptor, the bright yellow/red/blue Ford Mavericks, fun EVs like the EV6 and Ioniq 5. You can still get a two-door, stickshift Jeep Wrangler and a bright green stickshift Dodge Challenger Swinger. 

All that being said, I think the ’90s Splash is a great truck and nicely typifies what was so bonkers and fun about the era.

Finally, Tupac Shakur’s “Me Against The World” album might offer a nice counterpoint to my remembrance of the 1990s. In many ways, the decade was less ideal than idealized for many, but it was great to live in a time before social media and rampant school shootings if you were a kid in your average American suburb. – MH]

Image credits: Ford, eBay

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Doug Kretzmann
Doug Kretzmann
18 days ago

fun loving old guy, I have to make do with a 2004 Ford Sport Trac Explorer, and a 1976 Mad River Explorer canoe on top..

Thank you, that Sea Splash is fabulous. I can’t find any authoritative information on what the canoe is. Some random references suggest it’s a 17-footer. From the picture the canoe is slightly longer than the truck, which means my Sport Trac is 3 feet longer than the Ranger.. yikes.
The hull looks like either a Prospector-based hull, or possibly an Old Town Penobscot. It’s a compromise between a fast flatwater hull, and one that can manage mild whitewater, so a good all-round boat. Just like the Ranger was for small trucks..

Couldn’t agree more on modern trucks looking like bulletproof dictatormobiles for authoritarian freaks.

Doug Kretzmann
Doug Kretzmann
18 days ago
Reply to  Doug Kretzmann

I can also accessorize my truck with a green canoe..

Jalop Gold
Jalop Gold
9 days ago
Reply to  Doug Kretzmann

Royalex 4 Lyfe! (Or Royalite in my case, Novacraft Bob Special).

Daniel MacDonald
Daniel MacDonald
19 days ago

I’ve never fully understood this marketing to the “youths” and it’s perpetual recycling as the next thing. Seems to me that anecdotally the only time young folks without a trust fund or exceptionally good college/career decisions could approach anything but the most basic of new cars was in the ’60s.

Freelivin1327
Freelivin1327
19 days ago

Yeah, the 80’s is my favorite decade mainly for what music, movies and cars (certain ones among the many bad ones, but not my total favorite for cars which is the 60’s) came out of it but the 90’s is a runner-up. I prefer stuff like the Dodge SRT-10 but as far as “theme” cars all I can think of that I like is the VW Harlequin. Yeah, and the 90’s was the last decade of real fun…think about how when you go to think of what the “oughts” and 20-teens are known for- what do you think? Nothing! (Nothing good at least- there’s not much to like about them) The music all sucked & still does, outside of certain movies they all suck and are remakes, most of the cars suck- look the same and bland colors (Yes, certain ones are great), and obviously all the negative things that are different from how things were back then- although I try not to be negative and focus on the positive…just pointing this out…bring back the fun real cars w/ real colors!

MikuhlBrian
MikuhlBrian
19 days ago

80s/90s Nostalgia is very in right now. Ford would be wise to offer a Maverick Splash. It really wouldn’t take a lot. Throw on some really fun, vibrant colors. 90s style wild graphics. A decent set of wheels. I don’t think that you would need to have a flare side bed to still bring back the spirit of the Splash.

That is the essence of the Splash package. Outside of the flareside bed, it was just a Ranger. You don’t need to do anything else with the Maverick. And the package should just cost a grand or two. Don’t do like Nissan has done with the Hardbody package and price it so high.

Strangek
Strangek
19 days ago

I think we still make fun cars, but you are absolutely right about fun loving youths being priced out of the fun car market. Hell, fun loving middle aged guys like me are priced out too in a lot of ways. Those ’90s Rangers were great. Honest, affordable little trucks that most people could find their way into if they wanted one.

Thomas Metcalf
Thomas Metcalf
19 days ago

Do people windsurf anymore? I remember messing with a windsurfer at camp one summer. I would gladly try one out at the beach if nobody else were around to witness a 40 year old looking like a jackass.

B P
B P
19 days ago
Reply to  Thomas Metcalf

Still very popular on the Columbia River in Oregon.

Wuffles Cookie
Wuffles Cookie
19 days ago
Reply to  Thomas Metcalf

There are still a few people who pick it up here and there, but it feels to me (from the windsurfers I know) that kitesurfing/boarding replaced it. Kites and kiteboards are more capable than a windsurfing rig under basically all circumstances, the equipment is cheaper overall, they have lower physical requirements than windsurfing, and learning proper kite control opens the door to a lot of other related sports (speedflying on snow, for example).

About the only thing windsurfing has for it is that it’s less dangerous, it’s shockingly easy to reeeeealllly fuck up when kitesurfing.

Last edited 19 days ago by Wuffles Cookie
Thomas Metcalf
Thomas Metcalf
19 days ago
Reply to  Wuffles Cookie

Well, let me tell you about my windsurfing injury. I was coming in toward a dock and got a little unbalanced. I jumped off the board into the mucky water. Felt my foot hit something. Put the windsurfer away, walked to the other dock and jumped in the water. Decided to look at my foot and there was a HUGE gash in the bottom. It was about 8 stitches. A few days later my foot was massive and infected. The hospital had given me regular antibiotics that don’t work against the anaerobic bastards that live in lake muck.

John Fischer
John Fischer
19 days ago

I bought a new 1994 Splash 4×4 extended cab in black with the orange accent stripes, 4.0 and manual transmission. Loved that truck!

Elduchey
Elduchey
19 days ago
Reply to  John Fischer

I had a 93 single cab 4.0 manual and man I miss that truck. My ecoboost Maverick comes close to filling that void but I do miss rowing my own.

TOSSABL
TOSSABL
19 days ago

One of the fun things I enjoyed in the 90s was, “Wait; we beat the Evil Empire—and now Japan is buying Manhattan piecemeal!”

Ariel E Jones
Ariel E Jones
19 days ago

“You see, the 1990s was a time of unbridled joy and enthusiasm”
This is true, I was there. It truly was a simpler time. Ask anyone 40 and up if not having a smart phone made things simpler. Would we give them up? Ehh.
Funny that you ended the way you did because I had various lyrics from seminal gangster rap songs swirling through my head when thinking about how happy everyone was.
Playing saxophone wasn’t the only thing Billy Clinton was doing. See, even he was super happy!

Dave mid-engine
Dave mid-engine
19 days ago

Flareside beds make trucks rear ends look skinny and shriveled from the back, like a middle age dude with a huge belly and no ass, due to the cab being significantly wider than the tailgate. In short, their fancy side appearance is overshadowed by the butt-ugly view from the rear.

Greensoul
Greensoul
20 days ago

ohhhhh, those graphics. God I miss’em. If you want graphics on your wheeled vehicles now you need to buy a shit built RV to get those oh so whoopy decal stripes. We live in sad times indeed.

Taxi maniac
Taxi maniac
20 days ago

Beautifully written article!!!!! Loved every min of it.

I’m 43. That splash was one tiny truck. Used one a few years ago to move a snowblower around. It’s practically a ford escort.

Was perfect little truck

ColoradoFX4
ColoradoFX4
20 days ago

I’ve had Rangers continuously for 27 years (wow, I’m that old?), but never a Splash or Flareside. My ‘97 was a fleet special, and in a boring tan color, but it had a simple honesty missing from vehicles today. It wasn’t exuberant like the Splash, but had a similar earnestness. We need vehicles like that again.

Gene1969
Gene1969
20 days ago

Can Ford repeat a Splash using a Maverick even if it means no flare side or does the flair side define it?

Stop Making Us Register To Comment
Stop Making Us Register To Comment
20 days ago
Reply to  Gene1969

needs the flare side

Gene1969
Gene1969
19 days ago

I respect this point of view.

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