Mr. Gump’s mother is credited with the assertion that life is like a box of chocolates; you never know what you’re going to get. With no disrespect to Mama Gump, I believe a better simile for the unexpected twists of life would be “Life is like a box of family photos”. I certainly didn’t expect to find my first Curbside Classic shot, taken way before I even knew what Curbside Classic was, just waiting for me to do a write-up on it four years later.
Here’s something that may just cause you to go “Well, gee, that’s sad.”: I’ve never once gone in a family holiday trip. Whether it was job obligations from my parents or lack of funds or (very often) taking care of the family matriarch, it was just something that didn’t happen. I didn’t feel angry or bitter about it, you really can’t miss the things you’ve never had, great-gran somehow lasted a century despite never drinking a glass of water that hadn’t been run through coffee beans first and smoking like a chimney for more than sixty of those years. Things like these made the concept of filling bags for a week and whizzing off to some random part of the world for rest and relaxation absolutely ludicrous in my mind. I was going to stay on good ‘ol Tegucigalpa until I could afford my own holiday trip.
Affordability is the one thing the Tempo was known for. Really, the best way to describe it in your author’s opinion is as Ford’s Cavalier–apropos, as that’s exactly what Ford was aiming at: cheap wheels without any sort of upmarket or sporty pretension. I’ve always said that the worst thing you can do when you’re in the goods business is to sell mediocre goods. Perhaps not a dealbreaker in, say, potatoes or washing machines, but when it comes to more marketable items such as cars there’s nothing worse than being one of the rest. However, I must be completely and utterly wrong because the Tempo was a complete success for Ford and people bought them as quickly as Ford could build them. Then why was it that the Cavalier crashed and burned? Oh, right. The Tempo wasn’t completely new engineering when it came out, as it was decided that instead of creating a whole new platform for it and its corporate cousin the Topaz, it would be considerably more cost-effective to stretch the existing CE14 platform that was the basis for the Escort and the droopy-eyed EXP. And then there was the styling…
If you trace the history of the Aero-Fords of the eighties and early nineties you’ll find their origins here, at the 1981 Ford Sierra. The car that brought Aero to the masses at the expense of a not-inconsiderate amount of fleet sales in Europe as conservative buyers fled away from the radical styling and moved to more conservative offerings from Vauxhall/Opel and Peugeot.
While not as good looking as the Sierra, the Tempo was equally revolutionary in its design. This is especially noticeable when you compare it against its predecessor, the Fairmont (CC Here). However the first-gen model’s design always struck me as a half-baked design test released to gauge the reception of the new corporate design language on a sedan. It just seems oddly proportioned to my eyes. The wheel wells seem to be too small for the rest of the body. The space between the side windows is lacking some black trim pieces so it makes the windows look smaller than they actually are, almost as if they took them from a smaller car and just plopped them there.
Things were not better in the Topaz, which ditched the rearmost window altogether, that one just looks incomplete. Apparently Mercury thinks that it looked upmarket and added C-Pillar badges to emphasize it.
I don’t get it, the coupes got it right on the first try.
Really the Taurus-ified second-generation car, like our headlining car, is a much more cohesive sedan design. The beta testing had worked and the American public quickly grew to love the Taurus, it certainly took less time than it took the Europeans to warm up to the Sierra. The writing was on the wall however. After a spike in sales on the year of its release the Tempo’s sales never really moved at the same rate that they did on its first-generation. And anyway Ford had decided that the best way to be competitive was to move upmarket. Which is how the Contour and the Mystique came to be. And this time it was the Europeans who adored it while the Americans complained about the high price and the low rear legroom. Perry Shoar told its tale here.
And the title of this piece? One day in January 2011 one of my University classes decided that actually having class would be extremely boring, so it was decided that the best way to learn about the course’s contents was to spend a weekend in the lovely port of Tela. I stumbled upon my first holiday by virtue of wanting to have a class to fill the gap between my 8 A.M and my 10 A.M. Highlights included magnificent sunsets, my first boat ride and my first weekend away from the family. The morning of the day we were supposed to go back home I woke up early and went to the balcony to savor the view for the last time, when I looked down I noticed an extremely clean Ford Tempo, instantly becoming aware that I hadn’t seen one in a very long time. So out came my phone-cam. It’s amazing to me that day is already four years ago. I should take another holiday sometime soon. Maybe I’ll find a pristine Aries or that danged 1.8 Cimarron. It’s as good an excuse as any to go down to the beach isn’t it?
Special thanks to kurtzos, nifty43, pv dave and Andrew T, without whom this article would look exceedingly boring.
While one understands styling wasn’t high priority for targeted customer of Tempos back in the days, Ford did have a styling and design dept. for Pete’s sake. How could something this unattractive got approved for production?
Well, they really were short on cash and needed a stop gap to go from RWD to FWD in the midsize market. Shortly after they bet the whole company ($3 billion) on the Taurus.
I had a short drive in a 1st generation Tempo. I found it claustrophobic because the all the pillars reduced visibility to much. I kind of like the Tempo/Topaz. However, I have sworn off any vehicle with automatic belts. It is amazing how many of the Tempo/Topaz survived even here in the salty winters.
The first Tempo was fairly radical for an American compact of that time. Remember that its primary competition was the ultra-boxy K-car (Dodge Aries and Plymouth Reliant) and the GM X-cars. Compared to them, the Tempo and Topaz were a breath of fresh air upon their debut in the spring of 1983. Park a 1984 Tempo next to a 1984 Aries/Reliant or a 1984 Chevrolet Citation II – the Tempo is the one that doesn’t look as dated.
These were the second of Ford’s “aero” designs (the 1983 Thunderbird and Cougar were the first), and paved the way for the 1986 Taurus and Sable. They don’t stand out today because virtually every car maker has adopted some variation of the “aero” look.
A couple of friends have some of those cars when I came to the US in the year 2000. You come and you need a car as soon as possible, and there were a cheap alternative, as it happened with second generation Cavaliers.
There were very cheap for a good reason.
Not very reliable, but in the other hand very cheap to repair. One of my friends traveled with one all around the Midwest, once he fixed it.
I’ve always found the Mercury Topaz more attractive than its twin, the Ford Tempo. Even though its body was identical, it’s usually the grille (or lack of one) that usually attracts or detracts from the car.
Personally I always thought it was the coupes that looked so off. They emphasized the small wheel wells and the high rear deck looked awkward making the tail lights look undersized.
I also preferred the Topazes roof line. It is interesting that the Sable got a radical swoopy roof line compared to the Taurus while the rest of the Mercuries got a formal roof line.
I do agree that the refreshed car looks much better with the Aero lights and different tail lights.
I feel like Ford’s coupes in general were off in the 80s…the Panthers, these…the proportions just didn’t come off on any of them
Best of them all is the Second-gen Topaz with the awesome light bar.
I bet that the small wheel wells improved the air flow. The grill-less fascias certainly did.
These cars are proof that you can’t always take a platform and add (or subtract) a few inches here and there and wind up with a great car.
My parents owned 2 “fox-bodied” sedans and my father would go on to by 3 or 4 Corsicas, but they thought that the Tempo/Topaz were THE worst sedans for the money….they saw them as cheap and ugly. Ford “seemed” to aim these 2 at folks who wanted something bigger/better than an Escort/Lynx….but didn’t care at all about driving dynamics. The Corsica had a OHV 4 cylinder engine, so that was good enough for the Tempo. So what if it’s Japanese competition had long ago moved on.
I recall being at a Ford dealership to have some warranty work done on my Ford Taurus when I saw a Tempo up on the lift and the engine being dropped. I asked the tech writer what was being done on the Tempo and he casually mentioned they are changing the drive belts; there just wasn’t enough clearance in the engine compartment so they had to drop the engine. I was flabbergasted — dropping the engine just to change the belts. No doubt an expensive bill. Either a poor engine compartment layout or lazy mechanics. I made a mental note NOT to have my car serviced at that dealership.
I’ve worked on a lot of these & never had that problem, I seem to remember on certain models there was a square hole that faced up in the belt tensioner that would allow to fit a long extension (not a wrench or ratchet) to easily release the tension.
On my 1994 Taurus (Vulcan V6) that square hole works perfectly. A breaker bar or ratchet with a piece of pipe as an extension does the trick, cranking over the spring-loaded tensioner to release the belt.
Either the Service writer was full of it or they were ripping people off, no need to drop the engine to change the belt. Yes it does help to have it on a lift to make it easier to be certain that the belt is properly positioned on the crank and compressor. Yes it is tight in there but not dramatically different than many other FWD vehicles.
Good article and I did not know that Tempos were exported to South America. I do see more Topazes and Tempos in Portland, OR than I see pre-1995 Sunbirds and Cavaliers.
The back end of the first-generation Tempo looks like it’s frowning. Not very pleasant. Who ever approved that?
Must have been somebody who thought it normal to be in a bad mood all the time. I hate people like that. Didn’t like the Ford Tempo, either.
I enjoyed the story as I can relate. An only child of parents who had already traveled the world before I was born and really were not that interested in more “typical” American family trips, we went on a very limited, awkward number of vacations. As a result, I have no real “vacation” instincts, and only within the last few years, thanks to a number of girlfriends taking the initiative, have I gone on my own real trips.
As for the Tempo I remember them well, many parents (including the father in ‘Say Anything’) seemed to buy these for their kids as first cars in the late 80s and early 90s. I haven’t seen one in some time.
Liked the styling of the first generation Tempo. Missan must have too as the turn of the century Sentra sure cribbed a lot of it’s details from roof line to tail lights.
And then the refresh with that awkward C pillar and off the shelf wall to wall tail lights. Whoever signed off on that should have been axed from Ford then and there. Any style the Tempo had was destroyed by that facelift.
I always thought it was the early sedans that got it right, but they do look better with blacked-out window frames on a light color (or chrome ones with a dark color). The revised sedan just looks clunky and facelifted.
First gen was very frumpy looking, the 2nd gen it was greatly improved in the looks department. The 2nd gen. always had this mini Lincoln Continental of the same vintage look to it to me.
I don’t remember seeing any first gen Topaz or Tempos at all, but the second generations were thick in Toledo. Whenever I think about them, I think about the weird old guy I worked with who bought a new red Topaz to drive while he was restoring his “dream truck” an old Chevy LUV(I told you he was weird). He was the closest driver I’ve ever seen (I thought my sister held that title), and he put the grampa in grampa driver, I was behind him once and he drove like it was 20 degrees in an ice storm when it was 75 and dry out. He was sworn at and fngered constantly while driving. The Topaz was wrecked a couple of years after he bought it by his son who fell asleep, and it wasn’t replaced for a while, but eventually, he got a Contour, red, as almost all his vehicles were, including the LUV when it was done. The red was about the only thing I agreed with him on, as far as vehicles went.
The odd proportions of the first gen Tempo made it look like a larger car than it was.
Also, US regulations didn’t allow “European” flush headlamps until ’84. The new aero styling was rather tragically undermined by the recessed sealed beam units on the early Tempos.
Actually, you’re very close. 1983 was when NHTSA amended its headlight regulations to permit architectural headlamps with non-standard shapes, aerodynamic lenses, and replaceable bulbs.
1984 Lincoln Mark VII was first vehicle to be introduced in the United States with aforementioned headlamps.
While I’ve done some traveling, and look forward to more, I’m fundamentally a homebody. Constant upheaval just makes me anxious, and I wonder if someone who takes vacations for granted really bothers to smell the roses…or the Tempos.
I hired a Tempo for a week while my car was at a repair garage. After the first night in the country outside Dallas, Texas, I returned to Hertz and requested the swap with non-Ford vehicle or any Ford product with sealed beam headlamp capsules. The agent went, ‘Oh, not again. We got lot of complaints about Tempo so let’s see what we can do for you.’
The high beam was as powerful as a 1.5-volt keychain flashlight with incandescent bulb. I could barely see out in the front of me and hardly drive faster than 20 mph on the unfamiliar country road at night.
A biggest beef I had was a world’s shortest seat track, which was probably less than three inches. That and my 6’8″ height don’t get along famously. I couldn’t push the chair all the way back to the rear seat as I could in my friend’s Mercedes-Benz 190E. I sat in semi-yogic position, which got too uncomfortably painful after twenty minutes.
Please don’t get me started on that annoying automatic shoulder seat belt with a mind of its own. Ok?
After that harrowing night with Tempo, I vowed not to bother Hertz and drive another Ford vehicle ever again.
Here’s a bright red one I saw in Tacoma a couple of years ago.
My carpool driver had one that she inherited from her parents. I remember razzing her a little bit about it “The Ford Tempo is adagio, or andante…” It was indeed a slow car but seemed reliable, at least compared to her Aerostar 4WD van. It ended its life in spectacular fashion by spontaneously catching fire in a neighbor’s driveway while she was visiting.
I remember stopping to look at one that was for sale just down the road from our house, because the sign said it was a 5-speed car. I opened the hood and found the entire engine compartment to be coated in oil. Shades of my old Rover 2000! I closed the hood and hurried off….
Interesting comment about the 1st-series Topaz omitting the rear quarter window in favor of a more formal C-pillar. The very same motif was repeated in the 1992 Grand Marquis, which eschewed the Crown Victoria’s “six window” motif in favor of a formal C-pillar treatment with no rear quarter window. I preferred the Crown Vic’s treatment, but the Mercury roofline must have “won” since Ford adopted it for the Crown Vic in the 1998 refresh.
Also, reverse CC effect–I saw a 1st-generation Tempo just two days ago.
My mother owned an ’88 2 door Tempo she got new (after my youngest sister inherited her ’84 Sunbird to take to college) for 21 years…having just replaced it in 2009 with a Focus. Early in the life of the car she would take it to the dealer for service, but as it got older it was taken to independent shops, and eventually I started working on it, mostly for small things. The car never had many miles on it, it was used by her to go to her job (before she retired) downtown, and shopping and errands. I also borrowed it as an “extra” car after she retired, but before my sister moved in with my parents…it mostly had alternator issues (several alternators, cables and batteries replaced)…at one point I took it upon myself to get the “sniggly” problems addressed (power locks stopped working on one side, couldn’t open the remote fuel filler door so had to open it with “emergency” cable inside trunk)…several relays fixed those symptoms. My sister shared the car with my mother, and not being a car person, the car kind of went back to seed (I no longer had regular access to the car to work on it…sometimes I would borrow the car when mine was down when I was doing some sort of major project on it, and I would sometimes do little fixup jobs on the Tempo while in my possession kind of as “payment” for being able to borrow the car).
One time my mother took the car to a voluntary emissions testing event they were having, and it got on the local news by chance…they started for some reason with a shot of the hubcap of the car, which I recognised, and then panned up and out till I saw that my mother was in the car (didn’t know she was going to the event, so it suprised me). Ironically, that’s kind of what did the car in, our state had a kind of “cash for clunkers” program that was a bit different than the federal one (which required that your old car got worse fuel economy than your new one…the state one focused on emissions…not actual measured emissions, but the assumption that if you owned a 21 year old car you were likely to have an oil burner on your hands that they wanted off the road). The car had been running fine, but the air conditioning compressor finally went and we didn’t want to pay for another one, and my sister wanted air-conditioning (we live in the south, so it is pretty long summer), so we ended up sacrificing the car to get another newer one with Air conditioning. Too bad, the Tempo wasn’t a great driver, but it persisted in our family for a long time (longer than any other car our family has owned)
My dad suffered through ownership of two Tempo’s. The first was a 1984 sedan complete with it’s sluggish stuttering stammering carbureted 2.3 OHV cut down of Fords ancient straight six. I never could figure out why they would have bothered making both an OHV 2.3 when they long since already made an OHC 2.3.
The valve cover leaked despite several re-seals. The power steering pump failed multiple times and leaked everywhere and made god awful sounds. Electrical gremlins were a constant thing. One day the radio worked and then it didn’t. The rear brakes lights sometimes would work. The front tires wore horribly bad due to Ford’s lovely plastic worn our ball joints. And this was a nice low mileage 59K car we found at the auction with a clean rust free body from down south from our used dealership.
This was in 1990. Dad kept that car for a few more years after which rust started settling in badly and dad sold it cheap to a college student. Then we got in a 1989 silver sedan I think in GL trim with the god forsaken motorized seat belts which drove dad insane and that was when they were working correctly. The FI version the the 2.3 ran a bit better but the automatic transmission could never seem to be kept in proper adjustment. If it was put in spec it upshifted way to early and lugged at low speeds. When the upshift cable was adjusted it revved the engine to near breaking point with a resulting hard shift and jolt. Dad settled on the early lugging shift but that made performance very sluggish. The A/C lasted exactly one Summer. The valve cover leaked. The power steering pump leaked and was noisy. And surprise there were electrical problems from day one starting with the power locks which worked intermittently. That turned out to be a broken wire in the driver’s door which we remedied. The passenger window never worked and dad didn’t bother fixing it. The turn signal switch went bad. The radio quit working and dad made us replace that because he always listened to the news on his way to and from work. Winter driving took it’s toll on the front end and the springs actually broke and needed replacing. This was also a common issue on many of the Taurus sedans and wagons we sold. This car he kept up until around 2000 when the passenger side strut tower actually broke effectively rendering the car junk. It was towed to the junk yard and dad was given 60 bucks for it. Ah the memories!
A good friend of mine had a ’90 Tempo 4-door as his first car. His was a stripper model-no A/C, crank windows, manual locks. Only options were an automatic transmission and AM/FM radio.
We decided to drag race, me in my 1986 Chrysler LeBaron GTS with the 2.5 K-Car engine and he in his Tempo. He beat me by a car length. Granted, his car had 30,000 fewer miles and had lived a good life before he got it, but still… He-we-beat the shit out of that car. Found out it would go at least 100 mph, or at least that’s what the needle indicated when it literally wedged itself against the bottom plastic frame of the instrument panel. He spun it out several times on gravel roads, and it came out with just a few scuffs. He jumped a few curbs in it playing car tag (don’t ask!).
The seats were hard as park benches. The automatic seat belts tried to strangle us every time. The radio sucked and the headlights were about as useful as two candles held out in front of the car. But damned, that car was a trooper!
I don’t get people who always say ” the 2dr looks better, i’d only have a 2dr”. Tempo’s look horrible as 2drs, just like Granadas look better as 4dr’s and K cars look better as 4dr’s. Some cars just don’t look good as 2dr versions. But no one agree’s with me.
I agree with you, especially regarding the Granada. Not everything looks better with 2 doors.