I owned a 1986 Ford Tempo 2.3 automatic between 1998 and 2003. I bought it with 58,000 km, and drove it for another 150,000. It had the usual Tempo troubles: perennial tie-rod attention, and emission-control gremlins. After a while I found that if you use the best quality tie-rod parts, they last well. The automatic choke stopped working, so I rigged up a manual system. Eventually the car was retired due to a corroded metal coolant hose, and the corroded body didn’t justify the cost of its repair. But after nearly 18 years in Canada, this was not unreasonable.
I am writing this now, in 2007, because of my fond memories of this car. In a way I would like to have another, but am also glad to have given Tempos a rest. I used to call my car “C.T.T.I.A.T.”. It stands for Car That Thinks It’s A Truck. My car carried bags of cement and gravel in the trunk. Often it was loaded to the brim with firewood: in the trunk, the back seat and the front passenger seat. I NEVER had a problem with the struts or springs on this car, but I know that later models gave such problems. I could fit 8ft. pieces of wood inside: diagonally from the rear window to the front on the passenger side.
I had a tow-bar to move my 1000 pound sail boat on its steel trailer, which must have been another 300 pounds at least. For years the car launched my boat and retrieved it again up the steep ramp every time I used the boat (as it was kept on land). Retrieving the boat meant backing the car's trunk into the water, with the exhaust under water, keeping the engine running of course. And then, with the benefit of the automatic’s torque converter working as a liquid clutch, hauling the whole lot out, including the weight of a trunk-full of lake water. I had a roof-rack, which carried furniture, mattresses, and more importantly to me, my row-boat, over thousands of kilometers in total. Now, I should admit that I had to get a replacement transmission, but it was easy to find, and cost only $650. One good thing about fixing that car: parts were easy to get and they were cheap.
But its finest hour was still to come. I had to spend six months in Thunder Bay, over the winter. The car had 178,000 km at the time. It was well loaded as I drove the 1,500 km at the beginning of the fall. I was not sure that my car would make it through the winter, as it didn’t have a block heater, and in Thunder Bay each car parking spot had an electrical outlet to plug your car into. Temperatures there can reach minus 40 Celsius. I looked into whether I could get a block heater installed, but I didn’t think the price was fair for such a simple job. So I looked around for another car. One mechanic/used car dealer indicated my Tempo wouldn’t start in the deep winter, because with the number of kilometers, the compression wouldn’t be good enough to warm the fuel to the point of vaporization. Well, this was my interpretation of his “you’ll never get the compression with that many kilometers”. But I didn’t find a suitable car, and soon was too busy to look.
The house where I was staying was 15 km out of town, and I had to drive each way every day. Each evening I would listen for the temperature forecast, and at temperatures in the mid minus twenties, I asked my landlord if I could put the car in his garage overnight. But at the weekends, I experimented to see if the car would start after spending the night outside. After a while, it was too much to keep asking for the favour of using the garage when the car continued to start outside. The winter set in: it was a particularly cold one in 02/03. At temperatures below -30, other residents in the house would gather inside around the window, and look out to see if I could start the car. -35, -36, -38, one day -42 according to the thermometer on the house. The Tempo, now 17 years old, started every time. Based on the weather forecast I would think the real temperature was between -38 and -40, although as the house was out of town, it was difficult to be sure. People started commenting: “I knew someone who had the same kind of car, and it was a good car” etc.
Now, again something I have to admit: The manual choke I installed probably helped. I could keep it fully on while pumping the gas pedal. After maybe 5 – 10 seconds of cranking the engine, it would cough once, and the secret was to keep the starter motor running until it had coughed itself into life, after about 20 to 30 seconds. Well, at least I can say there was nothing wrong with the starter motor! Something I hadn’t realized before: at those temperatures the shocks/dampers become like solid metal rods, i.e. allowing no suspension travel, until they warm up. Perhaps the springs and the tires are also harder than usual. There are a lot of railway tracks to cross in Thunder Bay, and every day I would jiggle across as if on a home-made go-cart.
The car would barely heat up during my commute, partly because the door seals were torn from having caught the seat belt multiple times, even though I had put my own weather-stripping around the door. It helped that I put an aluminum sheet in front of the radiator (behind the grille so it didn’t show). I don’t know if it was the right thing to do, but I blanked off the radiator completely, and drilled some holes in the bottom part of the shield, so that the transmission-cooling part could get some air. On a longer trip, it would heat up reasonably.
Come spring, I packed up and headed home. On this journey I had a passenger, more books and clothes, my computer, an ancient heavy Hewlett Packard printer, and again the car was loaded all the way down. Although spring, the temperature was still -26 and sections of the road were snow covered. The car hauled the load up the many hills with no complaint.
The car continued through the rest of the year pretending to be a truck again. In December its emission test was due, and I suspected the EGR valve wasn’t working due to its vacuum-operation leaking at an unknown point. I thought I should look around for another car. I arranged to meet a private seller in, as it turned out, a deserted car-park, in the dark! To view his car, I used my car’s headlights while running the engine. It really seemed that his old decrepit car (“no rust, low mileage, runs perfectly”) could have been the subject of some less than above-board means of achieving ownership, so I was talking my way out of getting involved. Just then, my car produced a cloud of white “smoke” – to the delight of the other car owner who was sure that I must now agree to buy his car. But I just had to get back in my car and drive away from that situation, trailing clouds behind me. It was quite funny really. So the car had blown the metal pipe that takes the coolant from the front to the back of the engine (as the mechanic later told me). Getting a new part would be difficult, and all things considered, I decided the car would not be moving under its own “steam” again from where it was parked behind my house.
In all, I have had somewhat strained relationships with four Tempos. Although they were not good cars, there are some things that can be said in their favour: Some of these points may still be helpful, as you can still find Tempos for sale. They are an attractive used car buy because: They were often owned by retirees who used them for shopping, and who serviced and maintained them regularly. It was not unusual to find a one-owner car with few-kilometers in clean condition inside and out, for minimal dollars. Also, they have the benefit of a rugged timing chain instead of the timing belt found on many of the other comparable four-cylinders. You usually cannot tell, when buying a car, whether a timing belt has been changed, or what the cost would be to change it. Also with the Tempo, I have never seen a head-gasket problem, as occurs with several of the other potential buys. The Tempo’s engine has a cast-iron block and head, so different expansion rates between the two are not an issue. My transmission mechanic tells me that the Tempo’s transmission is generally good: it doesn’t suffer from known issues as do some others.
The Tempo’s fuel economy is poor around town, and you have to maintain the cold-starting and emissions control systems, but it is about 10% better than 6-cylinders of the same era. Highway economy seems to vary: I have had from reasonable to surprisingly good. For its time it was no worse than other comparable “domestics”. The final gear ratio is low: almost 3,000 rpm at 100 km/h, but the fuel economy is better than expected for a 2.3 Litre running at this speed. I am not an expert, but I wonder if the exhaust-gas-recirculation (EGR) system introduces “dead” gas back into the cylinder to the extent that it virtually reduces the capacity of the engine at cruising speed. A good thing about the engine is that although its power is meager at around 90 hp, it has been designed to produce peak power and torque at achievable engine speeds, the torque arriving at under 3000 rpm (TempoTopaz.com).
In summary, in my opinion: The Tempo could have been a good choice for the budget-minded driver who was able to do some maintenance. Its suspension problems were fixable, its engine-management problems could usually be overcome, its transmission was adequate, and its engine was rugged and reliable.