I’ll confess, I’m always a little excited when I get to rent a car. I say this even though I know I’m probably going to wind up with some drab, fleet-grade box with about as much personality as a slice of day-old Wonder bread. But it’s a chance to drive something different, or so goes my thinking. Somewhere in the back of my brain there also lurks a hope that maybe, just maybe, the car will be better than I’m imagining and I’ll be treated to a new and fulfilling driving experience…okay, probably not. Usually, I’m just hoping it doesn’t suck.
Let’s take a trip in the way back machine to the summer of 1995. Ms. D and I were living in Medford and I worked for the Southern Oregon Historical Society. A former SOHS colleague of mine, Steve (actual name), was the director at the Lincoln County Historical Museum, about 240 miles away in Newport. Steve asked me if I could make the trip up and help him set up a working darkroom and copy stand.* Road trip! And, even better, the LCHM was going to pick up the cost, including the rental car.
I definitely needed the rental because you may remember that at this time Ms. D and I had only one car, the ’94 Saturn, and I wasn’t going to leave my wife at home without wheels. I called ahead to Enterprise or some other such place and reserved a 1994 Ford Escort for the trip. I remembered test-driving an Escort a few years back, before we bought the Tercel, and it wasn’t half bad. It was part Mazda, after all.
I was to head up to Newport on a Friday, stay Saturday and help Steve set up the studio, and then return to the Rogue Valley on Sunday. When I arrived at the rental place on that Friday morning to pick up the car–you can probably guess how this goes–they didn’t have an Escort available because of course they didn’t. “We can move you up to a Tempo,” the customer service associate suggested cheerfully, completely missing the irony of the statement. My thoughts flashed back to 1986 when we attended my brother’s graduation from Williams College. Dad had a Topaz as a rental and hated it. But maybe things have improved? So I took the Tempo, because it was either that or stay home.
Okay, so I didn’t get the car I wanted, but I was still excited about the trip. Leaving Medford, I’d head up Interstate 5 northbound to Sutherlin, about 110 miles. Passing through the narrow Rogue River Valley and then over four low mountain passes between Grants Pass and Canyonville, I-5 in southern Oregon is curvier and much more scenic than the Willamette Valley segment. Dense forests of Douglas-fir and Ponderosa pine line the interstate along many stretches. The mountains give way to the rolling, oak-studded hills of the Umpqua Valley by the time you reach Roseburg.
Taking the Sutherlin exit just north of Roseburg, I would drive up Oregon 138 to Elkton and then head west on Oregon 38, which follows the Umpqua River to the Pacific Ocean at Reedsport. The final leg, from Reedsport to Newport, would be especially scenic. North of Florence, US 101 hugs the west-facing slopes of the Coast Range in many spots and makes for some of the most spectacular coastal driving outside of California’s fabled Route 1. Even in a Ford Tempo, this was going to be a great trip…
…or so I thought. “This doesn’t look so bad,” I thought when they showed me the car I’d be renting. It was bright red and even, if such a thing can ever be said about a Ford Tempo, a little bit handsome. Crushing disappointment hit as soon as I started to climb inside, however. The driver’s door groaned wearily when I opened it as if to complain, “Not another driver…” Rather than closing with a confident bank-vault-like thump! as Japanese car doors did, it closed with a hollow, tinny clunk! The interior was soul-sucking monochrome gray. The seats were squishy. Worst of all–and this really isn’t the car’s fault, but it didn’t help matters, either–the cabin was redolent with the smell of a sickly-sweet deodorizer. Did the previous renter die in here?
I turned the ignition key and the 96-hp 2.3-liter HSC 4 wheezed to life. This engine was covered in glorious, gory detail at CC here. Suffice it to say, with the 4’s wet-noodle performance and a three-speed auto, the Tempo supplied me with a lived-experience definition of the phrase “barely adequate.” For example, passing on a hill turned out to be more of a challenge than I’d anticipated. The grades were steep enough that large trucks/trailers were moving pretty slow, but I had to time it right: get into the left lane, pass…(sloooowly…), and quickly get back into the right lane so more capable cars, like Geo Metros, Yugos, and King Midgets, could pass me. Yes, I’m exaggerating with that last bit, but I think you get my point that passing on a hill in this car was an exercise in both frustration and patience. Thankfully, trucks that were just crawling along would usually get over to the shoulder, much to my relief and to the benefit of clean underwear.
To call the Tempo’s handling sloppy would be an understatement on the magnitude of saying that Thanos has anger management issues. The first stretch of 5 leaving the Rogue Valley was pretty straight, but, like a distracted toddler, the Tempo wanted to wander all over the lane, and I had to keep a pretty firm grip on the wheel to keep it pointed forward. Steering was light and response was, ummm…vague. How vague? I got the feeling that the Tempo would turn when it darn well pleased, regardless of when I had actually turned the wheel. This problem became acute when I drove on the twisty sections of road on Oregon 38 and US 101. Though the actual response delay was probably only a fraction of a second, it seemed like an eternity. It got the point that I’d be scouting ahead for curves and then calculating when I’d actually have to turn the wheel so the car responded at the right time. When I did enter a turn, the Tempo tracked lazily and forced me to correct it as it would either be too close to the shoulder or the center line, depending on the turn.
To top things off, the 4’s nasal drone added a level of driving tedium I had never experienced in a car before. The sickly-sweet smell was also taking its toll and I was starting to get a 4-alarm headache. By the time I reached Elkton to stop for dinner, I decided I needed to do something about it. Where was that smell coming from? Had the rental company hidden random urinal cakes throughout the car? I fumbled around the car’s storage bins and glove box but found nothing. Finally, I did a sweep of the floor under the seats and discovered that they had placed several highly-perfumed dryer sheets under the front passenger seat. Are you friggin’ kidding me? And you thought that “bounce” box in the opening graphic probably referred to the car’s bouncy ride, didn’t you?
After I ate dinner, I felt a little better and it was time for the second leg of the trip. Having (mostly) learned the trick of how to drive this turd, and with the smell waning after I unceremoniously disposed of the offending dryer sheets in the nearest rubbish bin, I plowed ahead with a bit more confidence. I tried to enjoy the scenery, but the Tempo would jerk me back into its tiresome reality every time I hit a set of curves.
That’s pretty much how it went the rest of the way to Newport…until… I was rounding a curve near Heceta Head. It was getting late in the evening, probably around 7:45 pm. And then I saw it. I pulled over into one of the viewpoint turnoffs that dot 101 along this particularly scenic stretch. Just a few degrees above the horizon, the sun was setting over the Pacific and bathing Heceta Head Lighthouse and the surrounding cliffs in the most spectacular soft orange-yellow glow. Groves of Sitka spruce trees that marched up the hillsides, normally dark and somber, were lit up. For a moment, I totally forgot about the car that delivered me here. I stood staring out from the highway for several minutes, as slow, regular pulses of light emanating from the lighthouse’s lantern room mesmerized me. “This is the place I want to be right now,” I remember thinking. “Who cares how I got here.” The sun set and I knew I had to get back on the road to Newport which was still almost an hour away. Tempo? What Tempo?
The next day, the darkroom and studio set-up went swimmingly and I got a chance to drive Steve’s 1971 Volvo. (Just because I know someone will ask, I think it may have been a 142, but I don’t remember for sure. Sorry.) Despite having acceleration roughly equivalent to that of an Abrams tank, the little Volvo was a fun drive. The trip home on Sunday was largely uneventful as I had become both numb to the Tempo’s crudeness and resigned to its most loathsome qualities.
Before I sign off, I want to make it clear that despite the tone of this post, I have no particular ax to grind with Ford Tempos en masse (though, if you hadn’t already picked up on it, I do have an ax to grind with this Tempo and the rental company that foisted this fecal pellet of a vehicle upon me). If you owned one and liked it, more power to you. I’m a big believer in driving the car you like and not giving much of a crap about what other people say. I am merely writing about my experience with one particular car. Being fleet-grade, it was no doubt doomed to disappoint. And it being a rental may also explain why the car seemed so weary and worn-out despite the fact it was only two years old at the time. But it did sour my opinion of blue-oval products. A while back, I wrote about the crudeness of our Saturn, but compared to the Tempo, it was a Rolls-Royce. When I got back to Medford, I was never so happy to drive it again.
*Historical Societies usually have photo/image archives. The copy stand is for photographing original photos, printed materials, or artwork. An archival negative is created and copy prints made (hence the darkroom).