I will admit to feeling a little bit of guilt for disparaging such a lovingly preserved car, and will also concede a degree of appreciation for what it is, but I don’t think there’s any denying how truly unappealing the Tempo/Topaz twins were.
They were everywhere when I was a kid and by the time the nineties came around, I’d have preferred to walk around my small town than be given a ride in one of these. Unfortunately, I often didn’t have the luxury of choice. The absolute worst thing about the Tempo was the fact that it was a relatively reliable car kept in production for an entire decade–the original K-car didn’t make it that long. I simply couldn’t get away from them, with their butt-on-the-floor marshmallowy seats, overly color-keyed soft vinyl interiors and strangely high (for the time) belt line. These things matter when you’re still a short kid.
One of neighbors owned a black GL sedan; unlike our Honda and our Nova, which rusted around their wheel wells, his car seemed to develop big puffy spots of raised black paint in the middle of its body panels. He must have been quite a patient man, however, as he would always answer the numerous questions I inevitably asked him as he slathered black Rustoleum over various spots on the body. It was eventually fully covered with dull, visibly brush stroked paint and replaced by a navy Eagle Premier. Incidentally, he had a fat orange tabby cat named Topaz.
My parents’ good friends also had a dark blue early production GL coupe which shared a garage with their ’84 Cavalier wagon (which I vastly preferred) and another brief acquaintance of theirs had a silver Topaz. Our paperboy was caught huffing something in his friend’s Tempo when it blew up after someone lit a cigarette while the interior was still full of fumes. I suppose one doesn’t make the best decisions in those circumstances, but I think he ended up okay in the end. He must have been enjoying his rubber cement in a GL Sport coupe, because I remember finding its streamlined, graphite blue sideview mirror at the foot of a nearby tree after it was thrown off the car. It was a very Stand By Me moment, though finding a partially charred mirror is a lot less traumatic than coming a across a dead body.
A friend of my older sister’s had one also, and it wasn’t until 2004 that the last acquaintance who I knew who owned one got rid of hers. Now that almost ten more years have passed, it’s finally safe to say that I’m out of the woods and will never have to ride in one again, but for the longest time, it truly seemed I couldn’t escape these cars. They were transportation’s equivalent to The Fog.
You have to hand it to Ford engineers for creating such a mediocre car. There was every reason to expect great things from the Tempo, with an up-to-date chassis and fashionable bodywork. But the sogginess that characterized the Escort, which shared most of its fundamentals, also defined its bigger counterpart. Despite a new rear suspension (a preview the Taurus’s design), it was very similar to a lot of other small American cars of the day, devoted to a full-time impersonation of a much larger sedan.
I have a hard time figuring out just what exactly Dearborn did; they didn’t really design the chassis, because most of that was done by Ford of Europe, nor did they agonize over styling, since they could rip off the Probe III concept car (famously used, as we know, for the Sierra). It seems they spent their time and money compromising two perfectly good major ingredients of their new car while phoning in the third, its engines.
Yes, the most lasting memories of these cars for me are of their powertrains. For one thing, it seemed like their cooling fans was always, always running in every example I encountered. To add to that, noisy power steering pumps were the rule, rather than the exception, and with such low power peaks, all I really remember hearing from these cars was a dull, flatulent drone, or during frantic moments, a muted, gritty throb. Everything about the cars seemed to say slow down. If the Tempo were a cartoon, it would have been The Simpsons’ Principal Skinner. Speaking of which, my elementary school principal, Mr. Dugan, also drove one.
It’s said that the 2.3 HSC engine (High Swirl Combustion) was developed using techniques learned from Ford’s Programmed Combustion (PROCO) research project. From what I can gather, this principle was originally supposed to be used for their large V8s, but wound up only in the Tempo. Considering that no other car was so gifted, it wasn’t the most effective approach. Of course, the engine’s origins were of no help either, being that it was simply a straight-six with two cylinders lopped off. High output varieties with sequential fuel injection and less valve shrouding were developed which produced all of 100 horses out of their ample displacement.
To be fair to the Tempo, a lot of Ford’s powertrains of the era were lackluster, and it wasn’t only in the US that this was the case. The most charitable conclusion I can come to is that finances were really screwed by the late ’70s, because it wasn’t until the mid ’90s that even the European Escort was given something decent under the hood. The HSC also served as the base engine in the no-holds-barred Taurus, whose three liter Vulcan was designed with very old technology for the time. But while acceptable for a medium displacement six, iron heads and pushrods had no place in a large displacement four cylinder. Even when Ford began to make more money from the Taurus, along with the Tempo, its trucks and the Mustang–all of which were huge sellers–they still saddled it, and Continental, with the 3.8 Essex V6. Engines were clearly at the bottom of Ford’s list of engineering priorities, and even the Escort sedan ended its life without a competitive, indigenous powerplant, so perhaps Dearborn was being stingy.
None of this mattered to the equally stingy people who bought the Tempo, but cultivating an allegiance to Ford’s most mediocre product in this segment meant no one was interested in the suave (though unreliable) Contour which replaced it. It’d be interesting to see how an earlier Tempo replacement conceived in good faith could have impacted the 1996 Taurus. Just as the ’84 Tempo set the stage for an up-to-date, fashionable sedan from Ford, both products’ overstayed existence likely created an audience who expected conservative, cheap designs from the company. Only now does Ford seem to have properly addressed the issue with the new Fusion, giving us a competitive midsize sedan for the first time in nearly thirty years, rather than simply restyling a platform from poor, exploited Mazda or decontenting a car from Cologne and Dagenham.
All of which goes to show why in those days, I might have preferred to get my front-drive American sedan fix from GM. For one thing, other than the four-cylinders, they offered some decent powertrains and for another, they were designed with a whiff of Brougham and packed with gimmicks like Kenmore-blue digital displays. If not a Grand Am or Skylark, I would have probably chosen a Shadow or Sundance over the Tempo and Topaz, since they answered the Japanese question a bit more resolutely.
Still, I can’t necessarily blame the people who bought a Tempo. As one of Ford’ first “aero” cars, it was thoroughly contemporary in appearance; progressive, even. It was a decent value and there were less reliable options out there, all of which made the Tempo a car which helped save Ford during some of its darkest days, or so the story goes. Still, it was never especially competitive, and as much as we like to savage GM for its cynical misdeeds, when looking at the Tempo, I can see why someone may have chosen an N-body or a J-body (or a better engineered K-car). Paul might even agree, having almost named the Tempo a Deadly Sin.