Don’t let the title fool you. I’ve loved Fords that may have been better off as scrap metal. But when reviewing my car history in preparation for writing a handful of COAL posts, I was tempted to cherry pick the ones with character – cars that, for better or worse, left an emotional impression. Those are the easy stories to tell. However, the gaps in between the cars that stir our automotive passions are filled with the forgotten workhorses of our daily lives. The mundane, gray wash of my early car history was filled by a pair of perfectly adequate, perfectly forgettable 1984 Fords – a 2-door Tempo and a bouncy Ranger long bed.
The 1984 Ford Tempo in our family was “mom’s” car, and that’s exactly how it felt to drive. It was purposeful. It was reasonable. The interior of the gray car was an equally neutral blue. It’s 4-cylinder engine was powerful enough to move you around, but you never felt like you were being rushed to get anywhere you were going. The totality of a Tempo seemed as if it was meant to inspire approval through indifference…
…Holy smokes, did they just drive that Tempo upside down?!!…
While the cognitive dissonance here is utterly breathtaking, I am an admitted witness to both sides of the 1984 Ford Tempo.
In contrast to my ’64 F100 beater, the Tempo was a luxury ride that I could pry out of my parents’ grip when mom was carpooling to work, or on the weekends when I needed a classy ride to take my girlfriend to the movies. It shot off the line like a performance car when compared to my truck’s wheezy 292 V8. It had a radio! And FM, at that! And electric locks! And, as a 2-door, it was almost sporty looking. It even had a digital clock with a built-in timer, which I used to calculate – within a few seconds – how long it took to get from that girlfriend’s house to our garage if I got nothing but green lights along the way. To this teenager, in 1990, it was modern transportation at its finest.
And then we flip the coin back to the other reality. In far less than 10 years, this Tempo had aged quickly. Running the A/C sapped its meager power significantly. At 80K miles, it required a transmission rebuild (my driving is still taking the blame for this – some 25 years later – if you ask my father). After a 3-hour return trip from college (fully loaded with all my belongings), a mechanic reported that along with a split rear tire and a couple bad shocks, the Tempo had blown a head gasket. And I’m pretty sure there was some CV joint work in there at some point, as well.
But the final chapter for this automotive enigma was more happenstance than design flaw. My summer job as roustabout for a natural gas pipeline company had me driving on more than the occasional gravel road in rural Oklahoma. Most of these miles were eaten up by riding in fleet trucks, but I had overslept and missed my ride to the remote pumping station we were assigned to that day. After our normal, sweaty 8-hr shift, either the washboard roads or a random chunk of gravel knocked the radiator drain plug loose as I drove home. No warning lights came on as the Tempo slowly lost power – only after it topped a hill and refused to go any further did anything on the dash indicate that something was wrong. Thankfully, I was back in civilization and able to call for a tow, but that little Ford was never quite the same.
To its credit, the Tempo survived the ordeal. The sickly metallic rattle it made when starting up, however, was a clear sign that it was time for us to part ways. So it left us the same way it had served its time with us. With little fanfare, and an emotion-free transaction that brought back just enough cash to acquire the next standard issue Ford…
This is not a picture of my 1984 Ford Ranger.
And it’s not for a lack of digging, nor for a lack of pack-rat tendencies. Ticket stubs for every movie I saw in high school? Check. My 8th-grade letter jacket? Check. A participation trophy for YMCA basketball in 1982? Check. A photo of my blue and white 5-speed Ranger long bed? Not a single one.
This truck was so impactful, apparently, that I didn’t even bother to take a photo of it. As a 2nd-year Journalism major at the time, I was burning through film in photojournalism classes, so the opportunity was there for rolls of photos to be taken. That I never trained a lens toward the Ranger probably says as much as needs to be said about our relationship.
(Note: I took an hour break here, thinking I remembered where some old photos from college might be. No such luck. But I did find the floppy disc that I used in 1991 to login to the college network to sign up for classes. So that was nice.)
In fairness – however much it goes against the narrative – this little truck was a blast to drive. It wasn’t fast, even though it had the “big” V6. But with the 5-speed, I could get access to as much of the 115hp as possible without getting myself into much trouble. The truck drove heavy, almost inexplicably so, considering how thin some of the sheet metal seemed. But that Ranger also drove with a happiness that I haven’t experienced in the it’s full-sized cousins. I distinctly remember the joy of taking corners with (relative) speed and bouncing over the many railroad tracks that crisscrossed the tiny college town in which I lived at the time. No other truck I’ve owned has been as much fun to plow through rain-swollen gutters for blocks at a time.
If our time together had been longer, the Ranger might have earned higher stead in my automotive memories. Between my classwork and a soon-to-be-fiancée, I hadn’t found much time to troubleshoot its nagging issue of randomly losing power and refusing to restart. I’d be stranded for 20 or 30 minutes before it would fire up again, sometimes going weeks or months in between recurrences. A quick Google search tells me this might have been a TFI issue, which sounds like its pretty common for the breed. Where were you, Google, when I was sitting with hazards flashing along I-44 outside of Vinita, Oklahoma?*
The Ranger likely had mixed feelings about me, as well. I once put it out of commission after cracking the thermostat housing during a thermostat replacement. My chronic knack for over-tightening bolts had us both sidelined for a week while a new part was on order – though only one of use had to suffer the indignity of riding a single-speed Schwinn to campus in the quickly approaching winter.
The Ranger’s anticlimactic end came the following Spring. A left turn into the side of a Thunderbird closed our relationship with a sickening metallic crunch. Everyone walked away unscathed, but the Ranger would never again roll under its own power.
Life was transitioning quickly as these COALs shared their time with me, which likely accounts for them being shadows more than memories. But, they (mostly) faithfully moved me between school, work, and home, even as I hardly gave them a passing thought. So here’s a final nod of acknowledgement to my two 84s – gone but not forgotten.
*Former home of the World’s Largest McDonald’s!