Classic Automotive History: Tempo – From Motorized Wheelbarrow To World Speed Record Holder To Immortality In India

Mention the word Tempo to a German car nut, and something very different than the Ford Tempo will likely come to mind. It’s easy to forget that in the fifties, much of Germany was in a very different state of development. And the Tempo played a role of motorizing the lowest level of transport still used by small farmers, tradesmen and business owners: the horse and wagon. With between 10 and 15 hp on tap, it was faster than the one horsepower wagon. Which also explains why as the Bajaj Tempo, it became a staple of India’s crowded roads. But why would Tempo take one to the Avus high speed track to set a world endurance speed record? I guess it’s all in the name.

What started out in the twenties as an evolution of a motorcycle with a small load bed in the front (above), eventually got turned around to put the bed in the back. But the tricycle arrangement stuck, as well as front wheel drive.

Yes, the 12-15 hp that an assortment of two-stroke engines put out were delivered to that sole wheel; obviously via a chain from this picture.

In 1934, Tempo took one of their trucks to the Avus high-speed track in Berlin, and set five world endurance records for the “open delivery truck under 200cc class”.  The average speed: 54.1 kmh, or 33 mph. I couldn’t find any pictures to confirm this really happened, but in more recent years, pictures of flying Tempos were a staple of an ad campaign in Germany for a savings bank. (Update: this is actually a very similar-looking RWD Goliath 750, which explains the rear axle, although not the lack of a drive shaft).

In addition to the pickup, there was a woodie wagon “kombi”. Strictly speaking, the “Boy” versions had somewhat smaller engines than the “man” versions; a 10 hp 244 cc motor in order to qualify its use by a Category IV driver’s license, which was immensely easier and cheaper to obtain.

I remember these in Innsbruck as a kid, with their nattering motors and smoky exhausts. You could see them parked by the big open-air market, used by the framers to bring their produce to town. Their rated load capacity: 500kg, or 1100 lbs. That’s only one hundred lbs. less than my half-ton F-100.

In 1958 or so, the Indian firm Force Motors made a licensing agreement with Tempo to build the Bajaj Tempo, and the same basic model was built until 2000.

There they will continue to natter and smoke away, until they’re either banned, or they finally die out.

In the mid-fifties, the German Tempo three wheeler finally gave way to the four-wheeled Matador, now using a VW engine, but still driving the front wheels.

The final version got an updated cab, whose styling was referred to as the “fishmouth”. Curiously, these were now powered by an English BMC 1600 cc engine driving the front wheels.

The Tempo story now intersects my Mercedes Van history from a while back. Hanomag eventually absorbed Tempo, and built a new advanced line of fwd vans and trucks, which Mercedes rebadged as their own after they swallowed Hanomag. That’s today’s obscure automotive history lesson; class dismissed.