The cars we loved.

1984-1994 Ford Tempo: Ford’s Forgotton Trailblazer

1985 Ford Tempo GLS

Middle kids are sometimes notorious for being overlooked in favor of younger and older siblings. In the case of Ford’s compact Tempo, a splashy intro eventually faded in to a slow death. When the Tempo first rolled out to showrooms in 1983 as a 84 model, it was so far ahead of anything else that it almost looked like it came from the future. In fact, a forgettable 1984 sci-fi film called ‘Runaway‘ (starring Tom Selleck and Gene Simmons), featured the Tempo as a futuristic police car. Maybe not as convincing as the Taurus in ‘Robocop, but still a nod to Ford’s futuristic styling.
1992 Tempo Interior

1992 Tempo Interior

The Tempo did have its share of innovation in the beginning. Starting with its sleek aerodynamic shape. Available as a four door sedan or two door coupe, the Tempo/Topaz was the first to usher in the jellybean styling trend at Ford. The Taurus came along later and took the limelight from the Tempo. It was later mistakenly credited for launching the aero movement at Ford. You can’t blame the Taurus.  It hit the core of the American market where it was weakest: midsized sedans. By contrast the Tempo was not much larger than the Escort, but promised some biger car style, comfort and performance. It delivered on at least two of those promises. ‘Style and Technology in total harmony’, was the tagline for Tempo advertising as it pushed American’s early awareness of aerodynamic design into the mainstream.  It was a tester for the publics reaction to the new Taurus and Thunderbird designs around the corner. The Tempo
borrowed equally from both smaller and larger siblings. The chassis was a stretched version of the US Escort and used Thunderbird like thick aircraft inspired door frames.

Stylistically the Tempo (and its slightly upscale twin over at Mercury called the Topaz), looked like smaller versions of Europe’s Sierra when seen in GL or GLS sedan trim. There were two engines offered in the early years. The most popular one, a 2.3 L four-cylinder called HSC (High Swirl Combustion) could manage only 84 hp in carbureted versions. A Mazda built 2.0 diesel offered a more depressing 52 hp for anyone needing maximum efficiency and minimum speed. Efficiency was helped across the line with aerodynamic profile. A low (for the time) drag coefficient of .36 for the two door and .37 for the sedan helped with
gas mileage and looks. Ford went through great lengths to make certain that any of the initial three versions of the Tempo looked good and not ‘basic’ as was the trend with most automakers stripped down cars.
1992 Ford Tempo GLS

1992 Ford Tempo GLS

The innovative Tempo was highly regarded for its packaging, but was never lauded for performance. Early advertising touted popular race driver Jackie Stewart putting the Tempo through its paces on a Mid-Ohio-like track. Any pretensions towards performance were quickly erased when using the 3 speed automatic. Even the 3 or four speed manual could not endow the Tempo with the illusion of speed. The term ‘Slowpo’ soon became a stand in for the Tempo name. The slow deliberate handling made it a favorite driver ed training car. Ford never intended it to be a Mazda 626 GT fighter, but it did look sporty when fitted
with the European Escort looking 6 spoke wheels on GL and GLS models. Some GLS models were even offered with ground effects, making it look more the part of a performance car (in spirit).

There are basically two generations of Tempo. The first is identifiable by sunk-in headlights and very thick A,B and C pillars reminiscent of the larger Taurus. All first generation cars were saddled with the underperforming 2.0 or 2.3 L four cylinder engines. Second generation cars sought to improve the performance by introducing a 3.0 V6 to the mix. The ‘Vulcan’ engine was good for 135 hp, making the Tempo almost competitive as a low-budget performance sedan/coupe (on paper). To further the Tempo’s appeal, a AWD option was added in 1987. By now the Tempo looked like a smaller, less interesting version of the Taurus with Audi like winter road skills – again on paper.
The second generation lost some of its design mojo. Gone were the curves and rounded edges, replaced by kind of anonymous angularity. It still sold well even as its styling was no longer its trump card, a sad testament to how Americans were willing to make do with what the big three were offering at during what seemed like a low point for the domestic industry. Not that the Tempo was a bad car, it just was not keeping up with the rapidly evolving competition. The rest of the small sedan market had caught up and surpassed the Tempo, especially the Japanese with the standard setting Civic and Corollas using multi-valve engines with dual overhead cams.
1992 Ford Tempo GL

1992 Ford Tempo GL

At Ford, neglect seemed to take its toll. The Escort and Taurus evolved while the Tempo made do with reshuffling of trim options and other minor changes after 1988. Sure there was a refreshed and more modern looking dash, but the car rode on basically the same underpinnings as the original 84′ model. Sales were as high as 400,000+ units in 1984 only to come down to slightly more than 110,000 nine years later. The Mercury Topaz, was cut down to just one trim level by 1993.  The ancient transmissions and 2.3 L would be discontinued and not used on anything else in the Ford line (the 2.0 deisel was long gone). The Tempo itself was replaced by the larger European inspired Contour, a considerable step forward mechanically. Even the Escort had made the Tempo redundant with its larger sedan versions by the early 90’s.

The Tempo’s legacy is one of both innovation and mediocrity. Often the cheapest rental, or driver ed car, it never caught the imagination of tuners and would be customizers mostly because in its final configuration it looked neither upscale or sporty- just bland. That’s sad, because the early Tempo was a futuristic and interesting car with potential. Any car driven by a certain Hollywood star who was synonymous with red Ferraris during the 80’s can’t be half bad.
1986 Ford Tempo GL

1986 Ford Tempo GL


One comment on “1984-1994 Ford Tempo: Ford’s Forgotton Trailblazer

  1. Singh
    May 20, 2011

    I totally agree with your take on the Tempo. I’m currently converting a 1993 into a 1985, just because I loved the car when my dad first bought it. I also plan to tune it. You have a very truthful approach to cars, I really admire that. You don’t sound the least bit biased in your writing.

    Take care and hope more people read your writing.


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This entry was posted on February 27, 2011 by in 80's Cars, Ford Motor Company and tagged , , , , , , , .
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