COAL: 1990 Pontiac Tempest – A Corsica In Disguise

Not our car, but you get the idea.


“I’m not putting our baby in that thing!”

It was 1999 and my pregnant young wife Darlene was referring to our 1986 Skoda, which I had recently bought for $600 without her approval.  Unlike her, I appreciated its sharp handling and looks, its uniqueness and spiritual similarity to the classic Beetle.   It didn’t matter much anymore, as it soon died on the highway two months into ownership, a victim of overheating.  It now sat in a scrapyard awaiting the crusher.


Darlene’s stepfather Glenn owned an auto-wrecking company located on his residential acreage near the Edmonton area.  In the year since we were married, we had taken a couple of trips to visit the in-laws where I had toured the wreckages, sitting in them and admiring the interior bits, imagining the stories the vehicles held and finding “clues” such as photos, stickers and other artifacts; marveling at how such large American cars could have such little interior space, imagining how buyers must have felt sitting in this first-gen Accord, wondering why some people covered nice seats with blankets and ugly seat covers.

A few weeks before I had sat in a red 1990 Pontiac Tempest that was parked by the main shop, admiring the matching red interior that seemed comfortable enough and stylish enough to my eyes.  I had always found the curved hood and matching curved windshield awkward-looking rather than futuristic as it was probably intended to be.  Maybe GM designers, in an attempt to compete with the Taurus, tried to “aero” it up late in the game.  Glenn had rescued the damaged Tempest and replaced the trunk and rear bumper.  “These are good cars.” he had told me, “Good drivetrains.  They’re not meant to be driven hard all the time, but when you need the extra power it’s there.”  The Tempest was now certified by my father-in-law as having “rebuilt status”, something mechanics were allowed to do themselves back then. (Regulators have since put a stop this easily-abused practice).

Corsica Inte

A Corsica interior. Like our Tempest, but with a different steering wheel inscription.  It even has the matching missing cruise button.

Now that we needed a family car, Darlene made the phone call. “It’s a really fast car”, my mother-in-law warned her, not knowing if we could handle the extreme power of the 3.1 V6 underhood.  The Tempest had 190,000 kilometers on it and Glenn wanted $2500 for it.  Sold.

Darlene’s parents graciously drove the thousand kilometers in the Tempest to deliver it to us in Mission BC, also staying to visit for a few days.  It turned out to be a pretty powerful car indeed, especially compared to the 62-horsepower Skoda, and my mom’s 1984 LeBaron we had been borrowing. (The “your door is ajar!” model).  We soon found that the Tempest was economical as well, consistently bringing us over 600 kilometers per tank, which was a blessing considering my measly first-year teacher’s salary.

We soon drove our new baby safely home from the hospital in her tiny rear-facing carseat.  Months later I purchased a child car seat with a single y-strap, in which was utterly simple to secure a child.  Over the head, one click, and done.  (Years later, for our next two children, seats with several click points were mandated as safely laws changed, and as I spent endless time fumbling and digging around for belts and straps, I wondered if any of the lawmakers and designers even had children).

For GM, these were the days of the dreaded door-mounted seatbelts.  As door slammed and seatbelts flew around, the door would often catch a buckle as it closed, harming the weatherstripping.  In BC, where it rains one out of two days on average, torn weatherstripping can cause flooding, which it did.  I was never quite able to solve the problem, which caused wet carpeting, foggy windows, and a permanent musty odor.  Sometimes I’d place a space heater in the vehicle overnight to dry it out.

another red Tempest from the web

During a morning commute, as I waited at a 4-way-stop, I noticed the grille of an F-250 quickly growing larger in my rear-view mirror before the truck made impact.  After I caught my breath, I exited the vehicle and greeted the profusely apologizing driver at the back of my vehicle.   His higher bumper had pushed my bumper down and driven my trunk forward.  Fortunately, the car was still driveable.

“Are you open to settling this ourselves, without insurance?”  He asked.  To his obvious relief, I was.  We would meet later at the nearby “Rocko’s” greasy spoon after I received a quote, which I did: “I can tell you right now, that’s going to be $2500 to fix”, the local body man said before scribbling the estimate on a quote sheet.  That evening, I received the cheque as promised from the thankful F250 driver.  I was also thankful as the car was still driveable (though much less attractive) and I had a cheque for $2500 which I used to pay off our credit card.

Two months later, we would drive the car back to the in-laws in Edmonton for body repair.  As luck would have it, there was a matching red Pontiac Tempest in the wrecking yard, rear trunk and bumper intact.  As we worked on the swap, I noticed a torn CV boot.  With the help of Glenn, I replaced the axle with a used one from the other Tempest.  Then the brakes and a tie rod end.  Having little mechanical experience, I learned a lot during this time; valuable knowledge that has been used many times since then.  How to use a pickle fork, how not to ruin the boots, how to use a small sledge to free a tie rod end, how to balance tires, how to pull the axle, etc.  I bonded with my new father-in-law in a way that can only be done by doing this sort of “masculine” work together, something my own father and I were unable to do due to our impatience with each other.

The Tempest had received another lease on life and served us well for another three years.  The only reliability shortcomings were the small brake pads which needed replacing every few months and rotors which warped easily, both largely caused by the long, steep hills we often drove on.  After five years of ownership the Tempest had 320,000 kilometers and still ran like a champ.  We were moving to Calgary and chose to donate the car to a friend, who scrapped the car after a few months due to various problems including coolant and radiator issues.  It was done, served us well, and deserves a place in our memory.