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The Rise and Fall of Ford’s Tempo and Topaz

Let me take you back to the 1980s, when Ford introduced the Tempo and Topaz with high hopes and big investments. These cars were designed to be revolutionary, packed with innovative technology and engineering. But despite their promise, they fell short of financial expectations.

What went wrong? Join me as we uncover the intriguing story behind the development, features, and challenges of the Ford Tempo and Mercury Topaz, and why Ford lost money on every unit sold. Buckle up for a journey through automotive history full of unexpected twists and turns.

Development and Launch

The Ford Tempo and Mercury Topaz were designed to replace the aging Ford Fairmont. With the underpinnings of the Ford Escort, these models were the first four-door sedans aerodynamically styled by Ford Motor Company. The goal was to create smaller, more fuel-efficient cars with front-wheel drive, a significant departure from the rear-wheel-drive sedans of the 1970s.

Wind tunnel testing for the Tempo and Topaz began in December 1978. Ford spent over 450 hours in the wind tunnel, resulting in more than 950 design changes. These efforts led to a drag coefficient of .36, which was comparable to the Ford Thunderbird at the time. Although this figure isn’t impressive by today’s standards, it represented a significant achievement in the early 1980s.

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The first-generation Tempo and Topaz were unveiled on May 26, 1983, aboard the decommissioned aircraft carrier USS Intrepid.

Both models were available as two-door coupes or four-door sedans and were marketed as five-passenger vehicles. The standard power plant was a 2.3-liter, four-cylinder, 90-horsepower gasoline engine called the High Swirl Combustion (HSC). An optional Mazda-built 2.0-liter diesel engine was also available.

Innovative Features

The Ford Tempo and Mercury Topaz introduced several innovative features that were ahead of their time. The front suspension included a lower lateral link and a coilover McPherson strut on each side.

The rear quadra-link suspension featured two parallel lower lateral control links and a radius arm rod per side with coil over McPherson struts. This configuration made the Tempo the first American-built Ford with an independent rear suspension using McPherson struts.

Brakes consisted of 9.3-inch discs in the front and 8.0-inch drums in the rear. Steering was provided by a power-assisted rack and pinion unit with only three turns lock to lock. The instrument panel featured an easy-to-read gauge layout, with all switches and controls placed within easy reach of the driver.

The Tempo was offered in three trim levels: the entry-level L, the mid-trim GL, and the luxury GLX. Topaz models included the base L, the mid-level GS, and the luxury LS.

Market Reception and Sales

The new Tempo and Topaz were well-received by the American public. In 1984, Ford delivered 402,214 Tempos, while Mercury sold an additional 150,999 Topaz models. Despite the initial success, Ford faced several challenges in maintaining momentum and profitability.

In 1985, the 2.3-liter engine received a new central fuel injection system. The four-speed manual transmission was discontinued, and a five-speed manual became the standard transaxle.

A new dashboard design featured a passenger-side shelf, side window demisters, and a redesigned driver’s pod with a separate area for the radio. The Tempo also became the first American automobile to offer a driver’s side airbag as a supplemental restraint system.

Ford introduced the Sport GL package, which included unique interior and exterior styling cues, a 100-horsepower 2.3-liter HSO engine, alloy wheels, a tachometer, and a five-speed manual transaxle with a lower final drive ratio of 3.73.

The Sport GL was badged as a GL but was distinguishable by its lack of chrome front and rear bumpers, 14-inch alloy wheels, and charcoal trim accents.

Mercury adjusted its model lineup by dropping the L model, while the GS and LS continued. In 1985, Ford delivered 339,087 Tempos, and Mercury sold 101,356 Topaz models.

Advertising and Promotion

Ford’s advertising campaigns for the Tempo and Topaz highlighted their innovative features and forward-thinking designs. Commercials emphasized the cars’ front-wheel-drive, precise handling, and fuel injection technology. One memorable advertisement depicted a day in the country, showcasing the Tempo’s design and driving capabilities.

The 1986 model year brought minor changes to the Tempo and Topaz. New plastic composite headlamps were added, and the Tempo received new cornering lights and a restyled grille.

The Topaz featured a half pseudo light bar grille and slightly restyled trunk and tail lights. Both cars were early recipients of the high-mounted brake lights required by law in 1986. The Tempo lineup introduced a new luxury trim level, the LX, replacing the GLX.

Despite these updates, Ford faced declining sales. In 1986, the company delivered 277,671 Tempos, and Mercury sold 78,377 Topaz models.

All-Wheel Drive and Further Updates

In 1987, Ford introduced an all-wheel-drive model for both the two-door and four-door Tempo and Topaz. This model included all the interior amenities of the LX and LS models and the HSO engine from the Sport GL.

An automatic transaxle was standard, and the all-wheel-drive system was driver-selected via a push button. The Mazda diesel engine was discontinued due to weak sales numbers.

Ford sold 282,632 Tempos in 1987, while Mercury delivered 98,340 Topaz models. Despite these efforts, sales continued to decline in subsequent years.

Design Changes and Final Years

The 1988 model year brought a redesign for the Tempo and Topaz. The Tempo received a new grille with three thin horizontal chrome bars and flush-mounted rectangular headlamps.

The grille was blacked out on the GLS model. New flush-mounted tail lamps were added, and the rear quarter window was redesigned to blend with the restyled rear door trim. The Topaz featured a more formal rear window, a waterfall grille, upscale wheels, and solid red tail lamps. The HSO engine became standard on the Mercury Topaz XR5 and LTS models.

The interior of both models received a redesign, with a new instrument panel featuring a central gauge cluster. The HVAC controls were updated with a push-button layout.

Tempo LX and all-wheel-drive models received chrome and wood treatment on the dashboard and doors. The Topaz featured a tachometer-equipped gauge cluster and a front center armrest as standard.

This redesign proved popular, with Ford delivering 363,192 Tempos and Mercury selling 111,886 Topaz models in 1988. However, the following years saw minimal changes and continued declines in sales. In 1989, Ford sold 249,904 Tempos, while Mercury delivered 187,034 Topaz models over the 1989 and 1990 model years.

Challenges and Decline

By 1991, the all-wheel-drive offering was discontinued, and sales continued to decline. Ford delivered 185,845 Tempos, and Mercury sold 55,599 Topaz models. The 1992 model year saw minor restyling, with the Tempo gaining body-colored side trim and bumpers.

The three-bar chrome grille was replaced with a monochromatic piece, while the Topaz’s chrome grille was replaced with a nonfunctional light bar.

The 3.0-liter Vulcan V6 engine from the Taurus and Sable was introduced as an option for the GL and LX models and became standard on the GLS. The L model Tempo and LS model Topaz were discontinued.

Ford delivered 207,340 Tempos in 1992, and Mercury sold 76,698 Topaz models. The Tempo GLS and its Topaz counterpart, the XR5, were discontinued in 1993. The final years of production saw no significant changes, with Ford delivering 349,340 Tempos over the last two years and Mercury rolling out an additional 125,981 Topaz models.

Financial Losses and Lessons Learned

Despite the initial success and innovative features, the Tempo and Topaz faced significant challenges that ultimately led to financial losses for Ford.

The company had been losing money on every unit sold for a decade. The rationale behind this strategy was to attract younger buyers to Ford products early in life, hoping to secure lifetime customers. However, this approach had its drawbacks.

The Tempo and Topaz were prone to reliability issues, particularly with their ignition modules. These modules were placed on the side of the distributor, which was supposed to act as a heat sink.

However, the distributor did not dissipate heat effectively, causing the ignition module to shut down when it exceeded 257 degrees. This issue led to frequent breakdowns, frustrating both customers and technicians. Ford eventually resolved the problem by moving the ignition module to its own heat sink.

The last Ford Tempo was built at the Oakville assembly plant, which was later retooled to produce the new Windstar. Despite the financial losses, the Tempo and Topaz contributed valuable lessons to Ford’s engineering and design teams.

Conclusion

The Ford Tempo and Mercury Topaz represent a fascinating chapter in automotive history. Despite their innovative features and initial market success, they ultimately failed to achieve profitability.

The challenges faced by these models highlight the complexities of the automotive industry and the importance of balancing innovation with reliability and cost-effectiveness. As Ford moved on to new models and strategies, the lessons learned from the Tempo and Topaz helped shape the company’s future direction.

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