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Ford Ranger “Barn Find” Project Update

Dusting the cobwebs off our old 331ci V-8-powered desert prerunner!

It seems that "barn finds" are still all the rage these days. Trouble is, not every part of the country has barns. That's OK, though, since we can easily find abandoned and neglected old vehicles tucked into just about every corner of America, not just rundown Midwest barns. Case in point, our old Ford Ranger project. This poor truck has been sitting, neglected, in a cold and lonely garage for more than half a decade waiting for some love an attention. We're thinking now is its time to shine once more.

The truck began life as a simple 1999 Ford Ranger. It was an extended-cab, four-door, four-wheel-drive XLT that was custom ordered with manual windows and door locks. Why it was ordered that way exactly, we'll never know. The truck came into our possession when it was three years old and had 79,000 miles on the odometer. From there, it served daily-driver duty until it was transformed into a pretty stout desert prerunner.

Our Ranger briefly served as a project vehicle in Off-Road magazine, running the four-part 4x4Link project. During this time, we chopped off the factory rear leaf spring suspension and grafted on a Giant Motorsports four-link with Sway-A-Way coilovers, bypass shocks, and hydraulic bump stops. We also installed a Ford 9-inch rear axle that we yanked from a junkyard Ranchero and trussed. The axle is stuffed with a Strange nodular iron case, 4.56:1 axle gears, a Detroit locker, and 35-spline Currie axle shafts.

This was the final outing for our project 1999 Ford Ranger when it still had a 4.0L V-6 under the fiberglass hood. The transmission took a dump during a drag race, of all things, across a flat dry lakebed. Thankfully our trailer has a winch.

The truck ran great until two major issues sidelined it. First, we couldn't get the truck to pass California's stringent emissions test. Visual inspection was fine, but our tired 4.0L OHV V-6 was pumping out way too much NOx. Like maxing out the machine. We tried everything short of replacing the engine to fix the issue, to no avail. At the same time, the truck munched its second 5R55E automatic transmission. But to be fair, the transmission that replaced the original one was also quite old; we'd purchased it used from an internet forum and just slapped it in. This sparked in us a desire to perform a 5.0L V-8 swap.

To begin the swap, we sold off all the old drivetrain parts and picked up a running-but-not 1998 Mercury Mountaineer complete with a 5.0L V-8. Now, if you know anything about these SUVs, V-8 Mountaineers and their Explorer cousins, it's that they are all all-wheel drive. When the clutch pack goes bad in the transfer case it makes an awful racket. And that's exactly what caused our donor truck to go up for sale for just $900. Naturally, we pulled the front driveshaft off and drove it around like it was no big deal before we plucked the engine. Little did the old owner know (don't feel bad, we got it from a shady dealer, not a sweet little old lady) it only needed a $300 transfer case to be fixed.

Now, what we should have done was swap the drivetrain in and have fun, but we couldn't leave well enough alone. So we tore down the engine and shipped the block off to L&R Engines in Santa Fe Springs, California, where it was completely gone through and bored .030 over. We then installed a forged steel Scat crankshaft, Scat forged rods, and forged Mahle pistons, bumping displacement from 302 cubic inches to 331ci. The pistons have Total Seal gapless rings, and a new camshaft from Comp Cams was installed. For heads we turned to the experts at Airflow Research (AFR) for a set of their aluminum cylinder heads. Trick Flow intake manifolds feed air into the engine, while a set of large Aeromotive rails feed fuel to the injectors. Rough estimates, and from talking to experts in the 5.0L V-8 field, this put this engine combination at about 400 hp, which is quite a jump from the 160 hp our old 4.0L V-6 was rated at.

The truck sat in various places through the years, before winding up in the garage. Our double single-bay doors made things a bit tricky when it came to working around the truck.

We needed a transmission stout enough to hold the power, so we shipped the salvaged 4R70W four-speed automatic from the Mountaineer off to TCI to rebuild into one of the company's Super Streetfighter transmission. This transmission will be more than capable of handling the power and abuse of high-speed off-roading.

Because the factory all-wheel-drive transfer case won't hold up to the abuse, we contacted the folks at Advance Adapters and ordered up an Atlas 2 transfer case. Since we're not building a rockcrawler, we stuck with a two-speed case and a moderate 3.0:1 reduction (factory for four-wheel-drive Rangers was 2.72:1).

And this is where the fun stopped. We slung the engine and transmission into the truck, got halfway through wiring, and life happened. The truck sat dormant and quickly became a storage place and workbench. We've got some ideas for its revival, including possibly ditching the four-wheel drive in favor of more front wheel travel. Maybe we'll cut the rear tubing off and build a new back half, or we might just get the engine running and call it a day. Either way, stay tuned as we attempt to bring this old project back to life.

We slowly started using the truck as both a storage locker and a workbench. Seen here, it's pretty well cleaned off. It was downright embarrassing for a few years, though.
As with any good "barn find," we felt it was time to dust the off cobwebs and move the truck to a shop better suited for its resurrection.
Moving the truck meant moving a ton of other stuff, as well. We found quite a bit of gold among the truck parts, kids' toys, and tools that needed moving to get the truck out.
What better way to haul a dead project and its stuff than to just pile the parts on top Beverly Hillbillies style. Your eyes don't deceive, that is in fact an Atlas transfer case perched precariously on top of a fuel cell held down with one strap. We didn't go far.
Looking back, this was the engine bay of the Ranger right after we pulled out the factory 4.0L V-6. You can clearly see the Dixon Bros Racing long-travel suspension and Sway-A-Way coilover shocks. This kit pulled a clean 14 inches of wheel travel with working four-wheel drive.
We picked up this 1998 Mercury Mountaineer for just $900. After pulling the front driveshaft, we were able to do a few wicked burnouts before gutting the engine and scrapping the vehicle.
This is what we were after, the electronically controlled, fuel injected, distributorless 5.0L V-8 engine. In stock trim these engines produced 215 hp and 280 lb-ft of torque.
We stripped the engine down to just a block and then shipped it off to L&R Engines for machining and inspection. Eventually, we took the engine back to them for final assembly, as well.
The engine rotating assembly should be quite stout. At its core is a forged steel crankshaft and H-beam rods. All bolts are ARP, the pistons are Mahle, rings are Total Seal, and the camshaft is from Comp.
Handling airflow are AFR aluminum heads with Trick Flow 1.6 rocker arms. We also installed Trick Flow upper and lower intake manifolds.
Ensuring a steady supply of fuel are Aeromotive billet aluminum fuel rails. Injectors are oversized units from Accel.
Literally the only piece of the original Mountaineer V-8 that we used on this build was the block. Why did we buy the whole vehicle, then? Simple, we needed the wire harness and computer to make it work in our Ranger since nobody else makes a controller for a distributorless 5.0L, yet.
The V-8 sure fits nicely between the Ranger framerails. Hopefully soon we'll have it purring.
Backing the engine is a 4R70W transmission. This transmission has been used in a variety of applications, including in the F-150 pickup until 2008.
We shipped our 4R70W off to TCI to have their experts go through it with a fine-toothed comb. What returned was a unit ready to handle whatever abuse we could think of throwing at it.