The 1980s were a transitional time in American-car design and finish, and this mid-decade Mercury Topaz GS demonstrates how.
The Mercury Topaz, and its twin, the Ford Tempo, were introduced in 1983 as a replacement for the Mercury Zephyr and Ford Fairmont that had come before. The Zephyr/Fairmont was a box on wheels, and so it felt like the ’80s had really arrived when the slippery Topaz hit the ground.
The first hints of transition are in the deeply tunneled headlights – lenses that were flush with the rounded fascia were still a year away.
The Topaz’s platform was modern, a lightweight unibody with independent suspension all around.
But the past lived under the hood, where the cast-iron straight six that debuted in the ’60s Ford Falcon found its way there after two cylinders were removed. This cut-down four didn’t like revving up, and its 86 horsepower were realized at a lazy 4,000 rpm. That spells not much fun with a manual transmission.
Most buyers would have opted for the automatic transmission, as this Topaz’s buyer did, and the engine’s low revs and substantial 122 lb-ft of torque were well-matched to it. In today’s dollars, the three-speed automatic would cost about $800.
While the Tempo went further to incorporate aerodynamic flourishes into its styling, the Topaz was a little stuffier. To balance the radical styling for Mercury‘s more conservative buyers, the Topaz fell back on the complex detailing that Detroit typically employed to indicate that a car had a higher sticker price.
The wheels mimic the “bottlecap” styling of the wheels on a contemporary BMW 3 Series…
…the grille is a series of fine horizontal tines…
…and those tines are repeated in plastic panels between the tail lights.
The Topaz could be had as a GS or LS in either coupe or sedan form. GS coupes and sedans were the same price – about $17,300 in today’s dollars.
Nice that this Topaz has dials beyond the usual speedometer-and-gas-gauge setup – even base Camaros in the early-’80s had temperature gauges as options.
Here’s where we see that this Topaz was likely specified for the mild Bay Area climate; it goes without air conditioning ($1,700 adjusted for 2016) or the rear defogger ($315 adjusted). Imagine, almost $2K just to add A/C and rear window heat.
While both those items are standard on today’s base Focus S, the Topaz reminded its owner of their absences with a ghost outline on the control panel that hosted no levers.
It’s likely that an AM radio was standard, and this AM/FM stereo was an option. The AM/FM/cassette player added about $300 adjusted, and you’d spend an adjusted $1,200 total if you sprang for the electronically-tuned AM/FM/cassette unit with a separate equalizer.
Fit and finish was another area where the Topaz had its feet both in the past and the future. The seats were covered in a tasteful and durable fabric that rewarded buyers who were trading up from vinyl-interior Zephyrs.
But the Topaz’s plastics were as ticky-tacky as the Zephyr’s, and Mercury made no effort to hide the screws that held it all together.
It was an interior that appeared well-integrated in photos but was notably cheap when you took a closer look.
The Topaz’s 12.9-cubic-foot trunk isn’t far off from the 2016 Focus S sedan’s measurement of 13.2, but check out the Topaz’s liftover height – you’d be dragging your bags those finely-tined plastic bits if your Samsonites were to outweigh your shoulder strength.
This Topaz probably died a mechanical death, as its body is still straight. And like most lifelong California cars, it’s rust-free.
But time ran out on this Topaz’s mix of old and new, and we can use it to appreciate where our cars started from, and what they became.