Cars of a Lifetime: $50 Mystery Car – Turns out to be a 1988 Ford Tempo L

1998 Ford Tempo L

I didn’t need another vehicle at the time I bought this Tempo, but when a car ad showed up on Kijiji for $50 I couldn’t resist. All the ad said was “Silver car for sale. Runs but needs battery. Manual transmission.” I contacted the owner right away who had absolutely no idea what kind of car it was besides silver and probably two doors. She had been given it by her father who had driven it to a parking pad behind her house. She was being swamped with inquiries due to the low price so it was a take it or leave it proposition. It was located only a few blocks away from where I live and offered for less than scrap value, so I figured I could afford the gamble.

I showed up after work with a battery liberated from my Seven project to find the mystery car was a second generation Ford Tempo coupe. I have to admit I was a little disappointed as my parents had owned one for a decade, including some of my learning to drive years, so I was quite familiar with them. I had been hoping for a new automotive experience. But one cannot complain too much as a fifty dollar is a fifty dollar car.  After paying, the previous owner made me up a bill of sale on the back of a cereal box. I tossed in my battery and the car fired right up. Unfortunately the long grass the Tempo was sitting in also lit up, the result of a hot catalytic converter or exhaust no doubt. After stomping out the small grass fire, I proceeded to the drive the Tempo the few blocks home.

Image courtsey of Wikepedia Creative Commons

The L trim was the lowest on the Tempo totem pole. For the Canadian market the Tempo Ls were sparsely equipped with crank windows, partial hubcaps and not much else. Air conditioning was available but few other upgrades were offered. Ford sold a huge number of these cut rate stripper cars in the late 1980s by advertising them at just under ten thousand Canadian dollars. My father was one of many that answered the siren song of a cheap Ford with a warranty and bought a red two door L model Tempo. It was a 1988 model sold at the beginning of 1989, so Ford further sweetened the pot with air conditioning and a useless trunk mounted luggage rack included for the base $9988 price.

1988 Ford Tempo manual 1

There was, not surprisingly, a few minor issues with the car. The worst thing was the interior was absolutely covered in dog hair. Every square inch of the rear had a thick layer of the stuff. After a few hours with the shop vacuum and a few wet rags, the interior was restored to presentable condition. It was also missing a front signal light lens and housing so a replacement was sourced from the local u-pull scrapyard.


Another concern was a bit of rust near the rear wheel on the passenger side. I removed the rubber rub strip which turned the small hole into a rather larger one. The rest of the car was very, very solid. In an attempt to keep costs down on my cheap beater, I found a bit steel furnace door lying on the ground in the alley adjacent to my yard. This would be my patch panel!


It was my first attempt at body work so I cut down the panel and welded it in (very poorly as I look back at it). The Bondo was laid on too thickly followed by a token effort at sanding and finally painted with a rattle can of generic Ford silver. The rub strips were glued back on and it didn’t look bad provided you viewed it from far enough away. At least the silver paint was easy to match.


The engine had quite a few kilometers on it, 363k to be more precise. That is an impressive number considering the cold Canadian winters and the fact that it was a Ford Tempo. A quick hit of engine degreaser had it looking pretty decent. The 2.3L four produced 98hp and was at least routed through a five speed manual gearbox. I think it is fair to say the Falcon derived Tempo motor is happiest at low rpms where one can make use of the relatively generous torque. I had learned to drive a stick shift on my parent’s mechanically identically red Tempo years ago so the experience took me back a decade or more.

repair list

Interestingly enough the previous owner had written all the maintenance history with a felt marker all over the engine bay.


A novel way to keep your maintenance records for a car whose cosmetic condition causes you no worry.


The interior was a bit worn but cleaned up reasonably well. I’ve always thought the control layout of the second generation Tempo is both simple and almost elegant. Everything is easy to use and within the driver’s reach.

1988 Ford Tempo L

I drove the Tempo only for a short time but we did manage to take it on an out of town camping trip. The car performed brilliantly and the engine ran better than I would have thought possible. I also taught my sister-in-law to drive manual transmission on the Tempo. She was not a natural, but the Tempo has a long travel clutch with lots of feel which, combined with the torquey motor, makes the car rather forgiving for a first time stick shift driver.


As per usual, I sold the car as soon as I had it sorted. I had intended on making it my beater/daily driver but another vehicle landed in my lap rendering this one redundant. While it was a good, solid car, most potential buyers were wary of the high odometer reading so the sale was a bit of a challenge. I think the sale price ended up being something like $250-300 earning me a (very) minor profit, but I wouldn’t bet against this car still being on the road.