That is, of course, the ages-old question for gearheads, no? We’ve all pondered which segment-bridging 1980s U.S. economy car we’d most like to spend a few dollars on and the answer, I think we can all agree, is the Ford Tempo. Built as an entry-level family car to bridge a gap between the penalty box Escort and the mid-size, Fox-platform LTD (and later Taurus), the Tempo and its Mercury Topaz cousin are historically significant for their early computerized engine management attempts, low coefficient of drag, and independent rear suspension with MacPherson struts, a first on a domestic car. Despite these developments, by the early 1990s, the Tempo and Topaz were the epitome of throwaway commuting appliances. As a result, you’re hard-pressed to find an example anywhere that sells for more than $2,000.
My first car was a 1985 Topaz with a 0-60 time measured in dozens of seconds and handling that can only be described as slightly less frightening than being a wounded wildebeest on the African Savanna during a drought. With that ringing endorsement and with tax-return season a mere eight months away, I offer this brief guide to which Tempo (or Topaz) matches up with your needs. If eight months is too long to wait, I recommend robbing a bank or organizing bum fights to make some extra cash so you can buy your dream compact (Don’t really do those things; that’s a joke). Make sure to bookmark this page so that you can return for all your Ford Tempo needs and so that you can send this page to your Tempo-curious friends.
Practical choice: You’re a planner, always a couple steps ahead of the present and out the door with time to drop the kids off at school, to grab a cup of oily gas-station coffee, and to arrive at the office parking lot with an extra moment or two to lament your forthcoming workday. Unfortunately, circumstances always conspire against you: The kids engage in fisticuffs and you have to pull over to break it up, lest one of them use the drooping headliner to suffocate the other. Later, you clobber the pothole you usually avoid and your four-door Tempo’s blown struts offer little comfort when the bump sends scalding coffee faceward. Luckily, your base-model Tempo wheezes out horsepower in the high double digits from its 2.3-liter “High Swirl Combustion” engine, so it can make a mournful noise from its broken exhaust to draw the world’s attention to your shameful morning.
When you arrive at work, this standard Tempo’s sturdy doors make a satisfying chunk as you toss the door closed and the mostly rust-free quarter panels competently absorb your repeated blows of frustration while your boss looks on in consternation from his or her BMW 3 Series. The big-for-its-class trunk capably holds three to four paper boxes of personal effects from your desk. A “prestine” example may last until the world’s end, at which time it will be piloted by human-sized cockroaches reeling down the twisted remnants of six-lane highways.
Self-loathing choice: As a kid, you gawked at dazzling Malaise Era personal luxury coupés chugging down your hometown’s boulevard. From afar, you saw self-important men and women enjoy the fruits of their labor with stretched American iron sporting a single elongated door per side. In a parking lot one day, you peered through the window of a 1978 Ford Thunderbird to see its lascivious red leather interior. Something twitched deep down in you and you knew you would have your own personal luxury coupé. Someday. As you count your pennies now, however, you notice that you’ve come up a little short on cash for purchase and the obscene gas costs of a V8 coupé.
So you compromise and throw down a small stack of twenties for your very own personal misery coupé a two-door Mercury Topaz. It still features inexplicably heavy, elongated doors and a push-button tape deck that works perfectly when the ambient temperature ranges from 63 to 67 degrees. The multitude of chirps, rattles, and screeches from various worn-out components lends the Topaz its own sense of gravitas that says, “This driver is going somewhere. Stay out of the way or your polished Jeep Comanche may be on the receiving end of a wayward sideview mirror.” Getyour very own personal misery coupé in Grand Rapids.
Performance choice: You’ve seen and heard a four-cylinder Tempo and you know that you’ll have none of its speed-challenged pedigree and blatting exhaust note. Luckily, Ford saw the light in the model’s final years and stuffed a Vulcan V6 under the bonnet, going so far as to mate it to a manual transmission in a lucky few examples. You love that early ’90s body cladding and know that this car has the makings of a sleeper: 130 horsepower, five-speed transmission, and independent rear suspension. This Tempo and you, well, you’ll show them all.
You drag it to the local club autocross and demonstrate your ability to wrestle with absurd front-weight bias and its accompanying understeer. You receive compliments on the Tempo’s skittering wheel-hop and on the sidewall flex of its 600-treadwear tires. While there, you get a line on a set of slicks that will help it understeer at higher speeds, but you ultimately balk on the deal when you realize that massive grip will certainly shred the suspension, mostly out of surprise. Detroit, of course, holds all the answers to your go-fast needs.
Adventurous choice: You relish a challenge and are constrained neither by poor weather conditions nor by rough roads. You possess a knack for finding rare things and paying virtually nothing for them, mostly because they’re rare and not collectible. The all-wheel drive Tempo you seek is a rare model only made for a few short years until Ford’s product was overcome by a blanket of competing Subarus, Audis, and Toyota Corolla All-Tracs.
Sure, the transversely mounted driveline looks weird in diagrams and the push-button AWD transmission is only available as an automatic, but you know the real value in breaking down while crawling up mountain roads covered with a light dusting of snow. This is no mere compact car; this is a character-builder. Sightings are indeed rare, but rumors of them crop up periodically.
Excessive free time choice: You love working with your hands and have no misgivings about mechanical misadventure. You also enjoy a glut of spare time, seldom have anywhere to be, and love clouds of black smoke emanating from a four-door car. Without a doubt, you require a diesel Ford Tempo. Or, more likely, you require a small fleet of diesel Ford Tempos in various states of disrepair so you can cobble together one sometimes-running car. The rough, smoke-producing Mazda four-cylinder powerplant infuriates the normally smug Toyota Prius drivers, but you enjoy knowing that, when running, this oil-burner will get comparable fuel mileage.
Sometimes you get lucky and you can buy running his and her diesel Tempos with a parts car and a spare drivetrain in a rusted bundle. CraigsList, you are too much sometimes.
Filthy rich car collector choice: You are either an eccentric billionaire or a billionaire desiring to be viewed as eccentric. Your oversized garage contains highly sought-after exotic machinery, but you want something to make visitors scratch their heads at your real or imagined esoteric nature. You exhaust all of your contacts within the Ford Motor Company until someone finally says they know where to find the eight-cylinder Ford Tempo prototype. You pay a princely sum for it sight unseen and then puzzle at the abandoned T-drive engine under the less-than-“prestine” hood.
“What is it?” an imaginary visiting auto journalist asks.
“This, my friend,” your arms form wide V to indicate the whole car, “is a Topaz in the rough.”
[Sources: TempoTopaz.com via Archive.org, Peoria CraigsList, Grand Rapids CraigsList, Detroit CraigsList, Lancaster, PA CraigsList, Minneapolis CraigsList, DrivingEnthusiast.net | Images: Mike Smith Flickr]