When the future Mrs DougD left University in 1995, she exited the world of bicycles and buses, and needed a car to get to her new nursing job.
Of course Lynne turned to her wise father, the Ford Sales Associate, to provide her with her first wheels.
Now you must consider here that to be an effective seller of new cars you must believe, deep down in your heart of hearts, that what everyone really needs is a brand new car. So you can somewhat understand the rationale when Pa V turned to his daughter and said “I can get you a good deal on an Aspire.”
Well not quite, he pronounced it “Ass-pire” in the derogatory way that everyone always pronounced it, which is probably how it should have been written up in the Ford sales literature.
“No Dad, I want a REAL car. And cheap too, a real cheap car.”
As I’ve mentioned before it takes Pa about two weeks to come up with the deal of the century on a used vehicle, so long as you’re not fussy about the model, options or color (almost always red). Within a couple of weeks he called her up again and a deal was struck on a 1989 Mercury Topaz in Maroon over Grey.
The Tempo/Topaz twins do not get a lot of love here at CC, and come under harsh criticism for their el cheapo construction, poor handling and thrashy powertrain but the key difference in this case was that Lynne’s Topaz came with the 5-speed manual transmission. I’ve driven a few automatic Tempos/Topazes (Tempazi?) and the overdrive 5th gear transforms the car from a noisy, thrashy, boring, penalty box into a long legged, less thrashy, somewhat fun to drive penalty box. So the pumpkin didn’t quite turn into a golden carriage but it was a definite improvement.
Although the transmission was the saving grace of this car, it was also the first problem because Lynne did not know how to drive a standard. At all. I don’t think her parents had ever owned a standard car either. So it fell to me to teach her, and after watching me drive for a while she was ready to attempt the tach-less Topaz.
When learning to drive standard simple tasks become daunting, like stopping on a hill, creeping past a drive through window or even turning left. While waiting to make a left turn once Lynne hesitated and missed a few opportunities to complete the turn. Finally in exasperation she cried out “I can’t go, I’m too nervous!” and the expression stuck. To this day whenever one of us hesitates at anything (driving, playing cards, crossing the street) we always say “I can’t go, I’m too nervous” and with the tension broken we can always proceed.
When we got married in 1997 the Topaz got covered in ketchup and toilet paper, then settled into married life with the Wee Truck as it’s stablemate.
Although the 2.3 liter HSC engine was a stopgap move by Ford, designed from the inline six and built on the same tooling I kind of liked it. It sure didn’t like to rev (at least I think it didn’t, since there was no tachometer) but it had enough low down grunt to move the Topaz around smartly. I think they only engine repair it ever needed was a leaky valve cover. Turned out that you couldn’t replace the gasket, you had to buy a whole cast aluminum valve cover with integral seal.
The suspension was another story. Since the Topaz was based on a stretched version of the Escort platform the handling was just as flabby, perhaps even more so because of the additional length and weight. Lying under the Topaz it occurred to me that there seemed an insufficient amount of stuff connecting the wheels to the rest of the car. It had Macpherson struts all around, with long spindly paired control arms in the back. Up front the sway bar doubled as the longitudinal link with forged control arms that looked weirdly angled, but despite my doubts the wheels never fell off.
In those days the Topaz was our shuttle for wilderness canoe trips, since my truck could not carry a canoe. On one trip Lynn was driving north from Toronto on Highway 400, a fast, busy and accident prone stretch of freeway. Having been stuck in the backup from a minor accident, we finally crawled past then accelerated briskly with traffic, getting back up to 110 km/hr, not realizing that there was another accident just ahead.
Suddenly everyone ahead was braking and swerving. Lynn braked hard, and the Topaz stood on its nose in the middle lane as I watched the cars in front of us jink from smacking into each other. We weren’t going to stop in time, and I was tensed up for the collision when Lynn released the brakes and yanked the wheel to the right. The tires howled as the Topaz whipped across the right lane, clawed itself back straight on the paved shoulder, and slowed beside the chain of damaged vehicles.
I was stunned, my Wife had just executed a perfect brake-release-and steer maneuver while I’d been target fixated on the cars ahead. Moreover, the weak and squishy Topaz suspension had totally come through for us when we needed it most.
Lynne’s driving wasn’t always so stellar, once when visiting friends she backed out of a parking spot and square into a light pole. The trunk lid got dented and the bumper cover broke but it never got fixed.
Quality wise the Topaz was indeed cheap and cheerful. The seats developed the famous reverse lumbar support and required pillows to drive comfortably, the blend control door in the heater broke it’s plastic arm and required a whole weekend to put in a new heater box. The headlights became clouded, to the point where it was downright dangerous to drive after dark. Since the 3M headlight reconditioning kit hadn’t been invented yet we had to buy brand new headlights for it.
Eventually we decided to bite the family bullet and get a minivan, which led to a discussion about what vehicle to replace. The Topaz was the better vehicle, but we decided to keep the Ranger. The car was given away to friends, a starving student couple just starting out. They were in much the same situation we’d been in five years earlier and needed cheap reliable transportation.
Our friends drove the Topaz for two years, and once their situation improved they bought a newer car and managed to get $500 for the Mercury. Another full year later they got a call from the Police asking about the Topaz, found abandoned on a downtown street. The final owner had never visited the MTO registration office to transfer the ownership. Maybe he couldn’t go, he was too nervous.
As of 2016 it’s been a while since I’ve seen a Topaz, I think I saw one up on blocks in a yard last year. Not only have the cars disappeared but there’s precious little information about them on the Internet. No Topaz fan club website, no suspension shots or good interior photos. The best pictures on my image searches were provided by some little website called Curbside Classic 🙂