Words by Stuart Grant and pics from Etienne Fouche
Emblazoned with badges depicting a Springbok head, featuring a healthy dose of local parts content and marketed as ‘South Africa’s own car’, the Ranger could possibly be the ultimate SA pinup poster car. But it is not that but rather a long forgotten exercise in badge re-engineering by General Motors South Africa. But so many brands under one umbrella makes for a bumpy ride for this Springbok team that came and went in quickly.
It would appear the press reporting on the Ranger at the time can be largely blamed for the lack of support for the Ranger. And it all started with the media launch in 1968, as shown by an excerpt from a letter written by regular CCA contributorRoger Houghton, who at the time was Motoring Editor at the Pretoria News:
“We flew to Port Elizabeth and spent the night in the Marine Hotel before the launch. The unveiling event took place on a specially built stage at the factory the next morning, with the Ranger driving through a huge sheet of paper in the old fashioned way! However, chaos erupted when we were able to get up close to the new model and saw the Vauxhall Griffin crest badge on the bonnet, in the centre of the steering wheel and on the chrome hubcaps. Immediately the impression was that this was not South Africa’s own car, but a GM parts bin special.”
Clearly the press that followed was less than favourable. And rightly so I’d say. So what was the Ranger thing? And why did GM feel the need to launch a totally new brand in South Africa?
The need to invent was forced when GM’s Vauxhall products started faltering in the local sales department thanks to a perceived image of them being ‘soft’ and ill-suited to the ruggedness of Africa. The Vauxhall Viva, which on paper was a reasonably decent offering, attempted to resurrect the brand but the sales people at the dealerships were less than thrilled with having to sell the British marque. When the announcement was made to them that the Vauxhall Ranger would be the next vehicle for them to move they threw their toys out the cot.
General Motors South Africa’s American boss, Bill Slocum, was quick to react though and immediately ordered the removal of Vauxhall from the equation, therefore creating a ‘fresh’ new brand for GM – the Ranger. The 400 or so units already tagged with the Vauxhall Griffin badge were hastily rebadged with a Springbok on the bonnet and a stylised ‘R’ on the steering-wheel and hubcap centres. Later this ‘bokkie’ found its way onto the door trim and rear seat. With a vast number of these already delivered to the showrooms a fair bit of this badge swapping took place at the dealership workshops. It also meant a delay in the public unveiling until March 1969. Just how hastily this change went from paper to final product can be seen in the February ‘69 issue of CAR magazine, where Cedric Wright pens a behind-the-scenes story on the GM factory in Port Elizabeth and makes mention of seeing the new Ranger crest depicting a Springbok head in the design department – that’s a month prior to the launch.
But enough about the badging, smoke and mirrors. What exactly is a Ranger? Well, it is basically an Opel Rekord body (remember Vauxhall in Europe is Opel) with a Vauxhall Victor FD nose job. The GM marketing department waffled on about how changes were made to beef up the underpinnings to better suit the South African conditions but in reality this was probably more a case of upping the local content percentage (with parts GM were already making for the Holden and Chevrolet models) to keep government officials happy – local content requirements were based on weight and not cost.
A good portion of this weight would have come from the engine and the Ranger did well here, making use of a pair of local 4-cylinder lumps already being used in the Chevrolets made in PE. The numbers 130 or 153 displayed on the grille indicated the cubic capacity of the mill – converting to the 2.1-litres and 2.5-litres respectively.
Right from the word go the Ranger offered a decent line up of body styles. For R1 958 you could pick up 2.1-litre in 2- or 4-door Sedan format, R2 305 would allow for a 2.1-litre 2- or 4-door station wagon, R2 369 a 2.5-litre 4-door and for the stylish out there, R2 389 would put you in a pillarless fastback 2.5-litre. The boy racers weren’t left out the equation either but had to wait until midway through 1970 when the Ranger Super Sport was unleashed – a 2.5-litre fastback decked out with a very Camaro-like SS on the grille, 13-inch Rostyle wheels, black vinyl roof, fibreglass boot spoiler and twin exhaust tailpipes, it bore a striking resemblance to the brutal Chevrolet SS and Holden Monaro GTS that every robot racer wanted at the time. It also featured extra gauges above the gear lever that kept the driver in the loop as far as the oil pressure, voltage and time went. Under the hood it received a chrome air-filter and tappet cover but more importantly, a twin-choke 36 DCD Weber carb replaced the Carter YF and a free flowing exhaust expelled the gases that bit faster.
With the 2.5-litre (2507cc) overhead valve developing 81kW at 4400rpm and 213Nm of torque from 2800rpm, as against the regular 2.5’s 67kW, the SS performed adequately – doing the 0 to 100km/h in around 12.5 seconds and maxing out at 168km.
The fun and games only lasted until 1973 though when the Ranger brand was canned. General opinion was that the popularity of the new Opel Rekord, which sold as the Chevrolet 2500/3800/4100 models here, left no room in the market for the Ranger which was essentially now old hat, having been based on the previous generation Rekord. GM South Africa went out its way to point out that the Chevrolet arrival wouldn’t affect the Ranger line-up but the plug was pulled soon thereafter.
To summarise: yes, the Ranger as a brand name was truly a South African effort and featured a large portion of local content. That said it was an overseas Vauxhall/Opel hybrid that got even more Frankenstein-like with the factory in Port Elizabeth borrowing locally-made mechanical components found in other GM products.
Our own car? I suppose it is… in the same way a South African, no matter where his ancestors hail from, shouts for the Springboks come World Cup time.
1969 – 1974 2- & 4-Door Sedan (2.1) 6 633
1969 – 1973 Station Wagon (2.1) 3 794
1969 – 1974 4-Door DL (2.5) 5 772
1969 – 1973 Fastback & SS (2.5) 6 862
TOTAL 23 061