COAL: 1993 Mercury Topaz GS – First New Car Becomes First Project Car


It is already a few months into the 1994 model year, but what’s a dealer to do with all these leftover 1993 models.  Inventory Blowout Sale!!!!  Drop the prices to get these suckers outta here.  That’s how I ended up standing on the lot of Ken Johns Lincoln/Mercury with my dad, contemplating the purchase of a 2-door 1993 Mercury Topaz.


The dealership must have gotten a helluva deal on a big bulk order.  The blowout pricing of $9995 was on at least a dozen or so identically equipped cars, with the exception of transmission and color.  Mercury Topaz GS 2-door, A/C, AM/FM Cassette, power steering and brakes, black trunk mounted luggage rack and 7-spoke machine-faced aluminum wheels.  I zeroed in on a Bimini Blue 5-speed manual.  I really liked that color.  It was the same as my uncle’s 1992 Tempo GL 4-door that I drove during my vacation in North Carolina the previous summer.


After the test drive, the deal couldn’t be completed because the used car department was closed for the night and couldn’t work the trade in of my Plymouth Turismo (COAL).  By the time we came back the next day, the car I wanted had been sold (damn for not putting a deposit down).  I was disappointed but still wanted one, but the only 5-speed left was a bright red one.  I was so adamant about not driving a red car, that I opted for a white automatic with a blue interior.  Remember this, it will be relevant a little later in the story.  The deal was done, and I drove off in my first new car; an Oxford White 1993 Mercury Topaz GS 2-door.


Being a high school kid with a new car, I was on cloud nine.  Everyone wanted to ride around with me.  My friends and I would routinely go cruising Montgomery Blvd in north Albuquerque on Friday nights.  It wasn’t all fun and games though.  I still had to make all the payments on the car, and part of the deal by my parents required me to have at least 4 car payments in savings in the event something happened with my job.  Care and feeding was also my responsibility.  I did all my own oil changes in the car.  I got the windows tinted, and a put a LeBra front end cover on it (those were all the rage in the 90s).


About 6 months into ownership, I was involved in my first bending of fenders.  On my way home from school, a car in front of me made a last minute decision to turn left.   They stopped very quickly.  I practically stood up on the brake pedal, and managed to not hit the car in front of me.  I heard the squealing tires of the car behind me, and looked in the rear view mirror just quick enough to see a car skidding towards me, angling towards my right rear.  WHAAAMM!!  Plowed by a 1978 Monte Carlo.  The front fender of the Monte curled up over the hood, but my car just had a busted taillight and bumper.  My car was repaired by her uncle (or cousin, or friend of a friend… can’t really remember) as a favor to her family, off the record.  It was perfect afterwards, except for a small paint run just below the taillight.  It was always a little reminder of my first accident.


[The problematic radio.  This is not my car, mine was never that dirty.]

The only problem I encountered under warranty was the factory AM/FM cassette player.   It started acting up, so I scheduled a visit for the Monday of spring break my senior year.  Picked the car up that afternoon with a new radio… that went kaput that night.  Back in again Tuesday, picked it up again that afternoon.  That new radio was also defective.  I did this 5 times, always something different.  Around radio #4, we had exhausted the supply of them and they started swapping out radios out of cars on the lot.  I got fed up with this and had a chat with the Service Manager.  The radio delete option on the Topaz was something like a $200 credit.  Instead of continually replacing my radio, why not just cut a check for $200 and I’ll go install my own stereo.  The service manager cleared it through the regional service office, and I went off with my check of $200 to buy an in-dash CD player.


My first solo road trips also happened in this car.  The first was during my senior year in high school.  Three friends and I took a trip to Visitor’s Weekend at New Mexico State University, to scope out college.  Three of the four ended up at NMSU the next year.  The second trip occurred that summer after graduation, a two-week haul down to San Antonio, TX with my girlfriend and her family to visit her relatives.


When it came time for college, my parents and I decided I should focus more on school and not on working to pay for a car.  So mom took over payments on the Topaz, and I got the Party Wagon (COAL).  The Topaz became her daily driver, her 1991 Escort became my brother’s car.


A year later, the first mechanical problem with the Topaz occurred.  Mom had come down for a weekend visit to Las Cruces.  While driving around town, a strange rattle started emanating from the engine bay at idle.  It sounded like a bunch of bolts being shaken in an empty paint can.  Give it just a little bit of gas and the sound went away.  I traced the sound to the crank pulley, but unsure of what it could be.  Mom took it into the dealership and the harmonic balancer had gone bad.  Now knowing what that sound was, I actually found that it was a pretty common failure as I heard it often when sitting next to Tempos or Topazes in traffic.


[A little fun with the rear badge.]

A few years later, I took a break from college and started working full time.  Mom and Dad had just bought a new Dodge Ram, and the Topaz was now a third vehicle (dad daily drove his Harley to work).  A swap was arranged and I got my Topaz back.  The Party Wagon went back to mom and dad to be used by dad on bad weather days, and to haul his clubs to the golf course.


( – the little website I built)

During my second ownership of the Topaz, I had started working in IT and was really into this whole Internet thing.  I started searching the internet for any information I could about the Topaz and the related Ford Tempo.  There wasn’t much out there except for a few individuals who had put up personal websites about their own cars. There was definitely a void, and I decided that I was going to be the one to fill it.  I bought the domain and started the Tempo – Topaz Car Club of North America.  Over the years, I filled that website with every bit of information I could about these cars.  The site was even featured in Car and Driver magazine.


(It was even featured in Car & Driver Magazine)

As I’m bonding with my fellow Tempo and Topaz owners online, I’m getting the itch to not just have a stock car anymore.  I wanted something uniquely mine, and stood out from every other car out there.  This was the beginning of my (almost) lifelong obsession for never owning a completely stock car.


First up I wanted a new set of rims.  The Tempo/Topaz has an uncommon 4x108mm bolt pattern not shared with many other cars outside of mid-80s Fords.  I also discovered the Contour/Mystique/Cougar did as well.  I found a set of used 15” wheels from a (edit) 1997 1999 Mercury Cougar to throw on it.  My Topaz had a clear “lightbar” instead of a traditional grille, a family resemblance to the Mercury Sable.  Unlike the Sable though, the Topaz didn’t light up.  After a few weekends of backyard engineering and work, mine was now illuminated.  I purchased a 3-piece rear spoiler from the ‘88-’91 Tempo GLS from a local U-Pull-It junkyard.  This little spoiler became the genesis of one of the two biggest modifications done to the car.


With the help of my dad, I embarked on a full respray of the car during the summer of 2000.  The trunk-mounted luggage rack was removed and the rear spoiler installed.  I spent many hours in Las Cruces sanding and prepping the car.  One weekend I went back to my parents, and my dad taught me all he knew about painting a car and with his watchful eye I laid down several  primer coats.  Back to Las Cruces for more prep, and a few weekends later I went back to the parents place and we laid down 5 coats of Ford Bright Amber metallic (paint code: BN, a coppery/orange color found on the new Ford Super Duty trucks) and 3 coats of clear.


(Success!  Oh look, Party Wagon in the background.)

The color didn’t turn out as coppery/orange as on the trucks, but more of a red/orange metallic.  Then it was back to Las Cruces for the final wet sanding and polishing.   I was very proud of what I had accomplished, it was a great bonding moment between my dad and I.  My car was definitely a one-of-a-kind visually.


My partner James and I moved to San Diego in the fall of 2000, and I continued to make changes to the Topaz. The front and rear seats were swapped out for the seats out of a 1988 Thunderbird TurboCoupe.  The blue color wasn’t a direct match for the original blue interior, but it still worked well.  The front seats were a direct bolt in replacement.  Even the wiring for the power seats was sitting under the carpet.  With a quick plug swap, the power lumbar on the front seats worked.  The rear seats also fit, with a little fudging.  They were just slightly too wide at the shoulder area.  I even replaced the stock 4-spoke wheel with one from a T-Bird TurboCoupe.


Even though I spent a lot of effort updating my Topaz, I had been on the lookout for a car to supplement my Topaz.  The car I wanted had to meet very specific criteria.  It had to be a Tempo or a Topaz, 1992 year model, sports trim, with a manual transmission.  I found one, and that became my primary daily driver (an upcoming COAL) while the Topaz became a project car.  I split my daily driving duties around 75% Tempo, and 25% Topaz.


(For a brief time, I owned all three.)

Too many what-if discussions about mods with my online car club friends is what led to the next transformation in the car.  This was probably the most adventurous modification on any car I’ve done to date.  In the fall of 2002, through the magic of eBay I purchased a 1989 Tempo GL 4-door with a 5-speed manual transmission located in Sacramento.  Drove up, picked it up, and drove it all the way back to San Diego without a hiccup.  In our exposed carport adjacent to our apartment, James and I performed a full transmission swap.  The 89 Tempo 4-door went from 5-speed manual to 3-speed automatic.  My Topaz 2-door went from 3-speed automatic to 5-speed manual.  Every night, all of the tools had to be brought back into our apartment on the 2nd floor and what parts were still lying around were packed into the trunks of the respective cars (even the complete transmissions).  Our landlord was pretty cool and lenient with us and allowed us to do this over the course of a week.  We gave the Tempo to my brother and his wife as a second car, and it served them well for a year before their divorce.  Not buying a manaul transmission from the beginning was a huge regret I had.  But I was an impatient kid and really wanted that new car.  Now, I was back to rowing my own gears in my Topaz.


Now think back to when I originally purchased the car.  I chose to buy a white automatic to avoid driving a red car, even though that red car was equipped with a manual transmission.  With a lot of hard work, I was now driving a car that was a shade of red and equipped with a manual transmission.  You’re probably thinking it would have just been cheaper to buy a 5-speed car, but I was very attached to my car and I learned a lot of skills along the way.  The experience of doing the work myself is something that I will always cherish.


I drove the Topaz in that configuration for about a year.  I still had a laundry list of modifications that I wanted to do with the car.  One of my online friends from Canada had swapped in an SHO V6 into his Topaz.  Shove a big engine into a smaller car is always a good recipe for fun.  For more power, that’s what I wanted to do as well.  I also wanted to install a custom coil-over suspension.  The list went on and on.  I continued to tinker with it here and there, but never really got down to tackling that list of bigger and more expensive mods to it.


After two more moves, buying a house, and ultimately moving onto another automotive obsession; it was time to say goodbye to my Topaz. By this point, it had an XR5 front bumper, GLS side skirts, and the Mustang rims from the Tempo when I had sold it.  I ultimately donated the car to a local charity, benefitting our local LGBT Center.  I learned a lot of skills working on the Topaz.  Even though many people dismiss it as a throw away car, I had a lot of fun with the car and have many memories of it.  While sifting through my photos for this article, I still love the lines of the car and how it looked when I finally parted ways.