William Oliver has found a near-unicorn: a first or second year Ford Tempo, with the original non-aero sealed beam headlights. Near-unicorn, you say? Well, the reality is that all-new American cars invariably arrived less than fully-baked, something Toyota had been doing for decades, but the Big Three were slow learners. So yes, these early Tempos became increasingly rare a lot faster than their Cockroach of the Road™ successors. Of course, even they’re getting mighty rare, but that’s a different story.
Actually I did find one of these back in 2013, but…never wrote it up. But it did get written up along with a similar vintage coupe and some later ones in the definitive CC of the Tempo, by Perry Shoar. So if you want a more in-depth take on theses, let your fingers do the walking.
Let’s just say that given that the Tempo is really nothing more than a stretched US-version Escort, with an aero body and two-thirds of an old Falcon six engine, it sure didn’t get the best start in life. Quite the contrast to the all-new Toyota Camry, that arrived on year previously in 1983. It was almost over-baked, if that’s possible.
Not surprisingly, the Tempo had a great first year in sales, cresting the 400k mark. Why is this such a common reality with new American cars? These first year pops never happened with imports, but then they didn’t have the ability to crank out massive volumes on short notice.
The problem with these first year sales pops is of course obvious: the first year cars were inevitably shaky, in terms of build quality and reliability (among other shortcomings), meaning that they quickly got a bad rep, thus holding down future sales, resale value and reputation.
Like the early years of the US-Escort, the Temp just didn’t seem properly fleshed out. Its handling, like the Escort, can best be described as wobbly. We had one as a rental for a week’s exploration of New Mexico, including lots of back highways and byways. The 2.3 L pushrod four with a carb was wheezy and agricultural, especial y when teamed with the 3 speed automatic, as any pushrod four of this size that was essentially 2/3 of an elderly six cylinder engine without balance shafts inevitably would be. It was like so many cars of the era: one drove it with a very heavy foot. Positively dreadful. But it got us to lots of exquisite scenery including dome mighty rough roads.
To answer the inevitable question as to why Ford didn’t use the SOHC Lima 2.3 L four in the Tempo (and Topaz). The answer is production capacity: Ford was sitting on a huge facility built to crank out the Falcon six, and they weren’t about to throw that away. Engine facilities, especially the huge and expensive transfer lines that machine the blocks, are very long term investments. To expand Lima production and ditch the Falcon facilities would have been very expensive, at a time when Ford was still clawing its way back from near bankruptcy. The early 80s were lean years at Ford, and it was betting the now-smaller farm on the upcoming Taurus and its new Vulcan V6. Tempo had to make do with the leftovers from the Escort and Falcon.
Anyway, it’s not like the Lima 2.3 was a paragon of smooth running or performance either, back then. It too needed balance shafts and some serious attention to its breathing other than just turbo-ing it.
Tempus fugit, not Tempo fugit. It’s been 35 years since that experience in New Mexico, and I’m looking forward to visiting the same spots this coming winter in our van, which could run circles around that poor wheezy Tempo.