A friend of mine had recently purchased a Ford Contour (with the “Sport” package, five-speed and wonderful chunky wheels) and I wanted one for myself.
My recent stint in the UK also played a part in my desire for a Contour – the British car magazines had raved about how “sparkling” the Mondeo was to drive. After taking out a loan from the first national bank of Mom, my father and I headed off to the car auction in Dansville, NY to pick up a replacement for the Buick. We went with the intention of getting a Contour, but once there my mind was wandering with all the possibilities. I distinctly remember pointing out one of the ovoid Taurus wagons and my father chiding me, reminding me that “We came for a Contour, and that’s what we’re leaving with”. We finally located a 1995 Ford Contour that appeared to be in decent shape and in most likely in our price range. It was unfortunately saddled with an automatic transmission but it had AC, a tape deck, cruise control, power windows and locks, and dual airbags. It was powered by the 2.0 Zetec 4-cylinder engine and had steel wheels with (stupid) plastic hubcaps. I do not recall the starting mileage that it had (nor do I recall how many it ended with), but it was in good shape and everything worked as it should.
A few tense moments in the auction line later and I had my third car. We bought the car at the beginning of the summer, so I had a few months to roam around Upstate New York before I headed off to the Sunshine State for graduate school. I took the Contour on a trip to the Adirondacks with some friends from undergrad, but beyond that, I mostly drove to work and back. Finally, in August of 1999, it was time to leave the Northeast and venture south. We loaded up the Contour and our ’78 F-250 for the trip and set off. I was nervous and excited and anxious all at once about living so far away from home. I had traveled extensively in my life up to this point and had spent almost 6 months in the UK studying, but I was moving to another state for the foreseeable future.
Two uneventful days later we arrived in Tallahassee, Florida. My father went with me to register my car at the FL DMV. While we were standing in line we noticed that the license plates had the word “LEON” stamped along the bottom. The helpful clerk informed us that the name of the county that the car was registered in was indicated on the plate. My father had the idea to convince a particularly gullible friend that you could personalize your plate, and thus the Contour was christened Leon. This joke did, in fact, fool my friend when I came home at Christmas, and I finally let him in on the joke a few months later. He was not impressed with our humor, but by this time the name stuck.
The next year and a half saw Leon and me wandering all over Florida, from the Gulf beaches and national forests of the Panhandle to Miami and Orlando. The car was fairly reliable mechanically and the AC was always cold, something not to be discounted in the sweltering Florida summers. I also took Leon home to Upstate New York on four occasions, twice for Christmas and twice for summer break visits. I was busy enough with grad school and life that I didn’t really have the time to take long road trips to nowhere, so Leon was mainly a Florida car.
On the few long trips back to my parents I did take with it, I recall it being a quick, comfortable and efficient car. I would leave Tallahassee on a Friday night after I was done with classes and work and drive as far north on I-75 as I could, typically to the GA/TN border. The next day would be my longest day (~18 hours) home to Upstate New York and I never felt exhausted at the end of the drive. I mark this up to the cruise control and having comfortable seats (unlike the blue-velour bench seat in my Buick and the padding dining room chair that passed for a seat in my Escort).
During the Christmas break of 2000 I even ventured out to Boston to visit a good friend of mine, A. This was only my second time driving the Mass Pike and somewhere along the way I lost a hubcap. Since I disliked the full-disc plastic caps that came with my Contour, I soon shed the rest of them.
During the Spring of 2001, the Contour started developing a fairly ominous transmission problem. The Electronic Pressure Control (EPC) solenoids are now known as one of the most common problems with CD4E transmission and my Contour was no different. Tallahassee Ford could never seem to fix the problem correctly. What started out as a “reliable” car that my parents didn’t have to worry about breaking down was turning into a massive headache. By Summer 2001 the AC
condenser had started to leak badly into the footwell of the passenger side unbeknownst to me (I never rode over there and none of my passengers thought to tell me the floor was wet). Since the AC was running almost constantly from March through November, enough water had soaked into the carpets that the floorboard had started to rust through!
My parents and I had a camping trip planned to Salsbury Beach in Massachusetts in July of 2001 and the Contour dutifully carried me and my girlfriend from Florida to New York to Massachusetts. My father and I had been idly talking about getting me an actual “new” car with a warranty, but nothing was concrete. While driving around Newburyport we passed a Ford dealership and among the new Escapes and oval Tauruses sat a row of Ford Focuses in every color imaginable. Since I had admired the design ever since laying eyes on a brown Kona edition back in Florida I was keen to take a look at the up close. I took one for a test drive and returned to the campground to plead my case. Surprisingly, my father agreed that a new car wasn’t out of the question. Both my girlfriend and I had full-time jobs and we could afford a car payment, so he agreed to co-sign for me.
My father and I went back in the day after the Fourth of July to negotiate the deal. The sales staff test drove the Contour for valuation on trade and I remember fearing they would see the soaked carpets and the balky transmission and laugh at us. As it turns out they wanted to shift that row of Foci pretty bad and gave us a decent trade-in. We signed the paperwork and agreed to come back the next day for delivery.
I owned Leon for almost two years exactly. He was my transportation during a life-changing time for me. I had moved away from home to a new place far away from my comfort zone and I was entering adulthood (even though I didn’t really realize it at the time). My indifference to the Contour seems like an apt metaphor for the ambiguousness I felt in my life at the time. I can’t say that I was sad to see it go, and I don’t have many memorable stories about it. That would not be the case with my next car…
I drove a 03 Mondeo a few times last milk season a 2.0 petrol 5 speed manual, not a bad car really, nowhere near as fast comfortable or quiet as my 03 Citroen diesel but a nice handling car all the same, it was a popular car for over hours rescue missions as it had no tracking device fitted out of log book drivers are legally not allowed to drive any other company vehicles so one that cant be tracked is perfect, the other one I used to do a rescue was a just delivered new Ford Ranger the E road wasnt yet fitted I drove myself ans another driver to Taupo swapped the pickup for two laden DAF tankers and off we went on our delivery shift the other two took the ute back to the yard, The Modeo with just over 400,000 kms was nicer to drive than a brand new Ford Ranger over the same road, I can see why you liked the Contour,
It seems Ford looked back at the original Mondeo/Contour when designing the still-current version which is called the Fusion in the US–I see a resemblance in the door outlines & rear ends between your Contour & the Fusion sedan.
The latest Fiesta sedan (in the US anyway) shares this styling too. I don’t think you can get this variant overseas anymore, as with most of Ford’s other global cars–SUVs are the consumer market now.
In the first picture I thought that’s the Chestnut color, or Maroon. In the last picture it ‘chameleoned’ into something different. The first generation Contour came in some funky colors that really stood out against the mainstream colors. One may not miss the Contour in today’s street scenes but their colors sure would help.
My heart almost skipped a beat when the words “auction and 1995 Contour” were combined in one sentence. The ’95 was the undisputed king of the recall. The biodegradable electrical insulation of the engine harness was the crown jewel among the many royal adornments. The previous owner likely traded it in just in time when the endless recalls moved the car into its peak reliability phase. Good for you!
My wife’s 2000 Contour turned out to be the cheapest most reliable basic transportation car she ever had. I also found its handling and ergonomics impeccable. And with the 2.5 Duratec and 5 speed manual it was like a lion. The SVT could even roar like one.
I truly enjoyed this COAL of yours. The transition to adulthood is so exciting. You did well and your study abroad was likely a well placed first step. That happens to parallel the phase my 2nd son is going through right now. He studied for one year in Germany and he is going to move out of state this fall. Pretty soon he will be on his own taking care of everything, including the car.
“its peak reliability phase” can be a good thing or it can be relative. In the case of the Contour, it’s relative as the Contour had to compete against the 90s Accords.
It gave you 2 years of good service (well, one and a half with the transmission issues) and was a decent trade in value, so you did good!
The color was a maroonish/red, it wasn’t one of those funky colors. As I am looking at that first photo now, I can see where it could be mistaken for the “root-beer” brown that was common on these cars. My friend’s Contour, the one I reference in the opening for this COAL was that light blue that had rainbow hue’s in it when the sun hit it just right.
I wish this car had been more reliable, I did enjoy driving it quite a bit.
Just saw one of these yesterday, outside St. Augustine, Fl. though it was a 96.
Wet passenger floor: Condensate from A/C evaporator floods out onto passenger foot well. Very common in humid climates such as Florida and Hawaii. Damp, gooey gunk clogs the drain provided on the firewall to let the water out. Clean it out regularly to keep it draining. It is made of flexible rubber so warm air doesn’t flow into it but the water can flow out, but on my cars where I’ve had the problem, I propped open the lip on the rubber drain with a bit of plastic, usually salvaged from something out of the garbage can that day. Never had any more issues.
Your experience reminds me of a story…
Back in 1996 or so, my father and I took a road trip from Chicago to Miami with a stopover in Knoxville, TN. He was an auto parts salesman with a company 1995 Dodge Intrepid, the Most 90s Car Ever– complete with two-tone teal and gray paint job. It was the only MOPAR vehicle anyone in my family’s ever driven, and it really was Peak 90s Chrysler, for better and for worse; an amazing vehicle hobbled by indifferent build quality.
Upon reaching Florida, the Intrepid decided to puke its A/C guts out into the front foot wells. Not ever seeing this before, we ended up spending the rest of the week with no A/C and the windows down. This is not a good idea in Florida.
I don’t remember the exact fix when we got back to Chicago, but I do remember it entailing ripping out most of the dashboard.
Number one: the mileage is the one most important thing about a car. Number two: It’s the evaporator compartment that is leaking. The condenser is under the hood.
Fixed the AC leak sentence, thanks.
I’ll disagree with you on mileage as being the most important thing about a car. In Upstate NY there are many 80k cars that have completely rusted out rockers/subframes, etc. And I currently have a car with 262k on it that will last me well into 300k (a future COAL, don’t worry!).
Great COAL! I also am a former Contour owner; in my case a ‘98 SVT that I bought used in 2000. I took somewhat of a chance on that car since it was a former Ford program car (I wasn’t thrilled about that), and I was aware of some not-so-great stories of Contour reliability. But I lucked out; I owned the car for 10 years of mostly reliable (and fun) driving.
I owned mine during a life-changing time as well, and wound up driving both of my kids home from the hospital in that car. But shortly afterward, it began giving me frequent problems, and no matter how much I liked it, I couldn’t justify pumping money into keeping it around.
I love how you hot the name Leon, too. Since I suffer from a lack of creativity, I named mine “Connie.”
Thanks, every so often I’ll cruise around Craigslist and look for a nice SVT, unfortunately, they all have the dreaded rusted rockers…and I don’t really like the looks of the Mk 1.5 front end, I like the oval original best.
I usually suffer from that same lack of creativity, I like the name Connie for a Contour!
It’s funny, I don’t particularly like either of the front ends. The original design looked to ovoid and delicate for me, and then the ’98 Mk 1.5 front looked like it was trying too hard to be aggressive.
I remember at the time thinking that I was buying a car that I didn’t find particularly attractive… but in a short amount of time the styling grew on me.
Nice to hear of another Contour owner’s tale.
We bought our ’96 new–same powertrain and options–and it served well all the way ’til 2009. Never a no-start, and the only breakdown was well after 100K—should’ve replaced the timing belt by then! It just stopped running, a mile from home, and the dealer towed it right in, diagnosed it right away, and got me back on the road at reasonable cost.
It was a great freeway flyer but then equally enjoyable on country roads, too. I always wondered what the SVT’s were like to drive….
Yeah, the tale was that manufacturing cost was too close to the Taurus’s—yet they of course couldn’t charge anything like Taurus prices—and they pulled the plug on it soon enough.
Funny to think that I could get one of those 25-year-old “Antique” plates for that Contour nowadays, but time marches on….
I think it was a combination of encroaching pricing on the Contour and the fact that it was such a huge leap in price from the outgoing Tempo. The technology was leaps better than the Tempo, but people were used to paying Tempo prices for that size Ford car.
I was happy that I had a ’96, I’ve seen later models and they de-contented the heck out of them, losing many of the little neat touches that made the car fun to own.
I too bought a Contour new…a ’96, 5-speed manual. I still have it, and there have been remarkably few issues in all that time. The AC still blows cold, no engine or tranny problems at all. It’s the base model–no power windows or power anything else except steering and brakes. It was my daily driver for quite a few years. It’s now a reliable second car in the household. I don’t know if the cassette player works anymore…but the radio does! Think I’ve had my money’s worth, through 190,000 miles. (Ditched the silly wheel covers right after I bought it. The wheels I bought back then are a little battered, but fine).
Funny how these are pretty much all gone now. Granted, anything pre-2000 is rapidly going extinct 20 years on… but I still see quite a few W-bodies, big Buicks, and Camry/Accords from the late-1990s limping along. I honestly haven’t seen a Contour in so long I almost forgot they existed. Fords from this era just didn’t seem to transition down to beater status very well, and a lot of them hit junkyards early. If your example was already having such serious issues at only six years old, I can’t image many of these reached their 15th birthday.
I can honestly say I see more 1997-2002 Escorts on the road than Contours, which seems odd being the cheaper, more “disposable” model. Perhaps the Mazda underpinnings have something to do with that.
I think above all else it’s the rust in the rockers that condemned Contours to the rubbish bin. It’s a shame as they were decent cars (rear seat room notwithstanding). It’s funny that the Mondeo was such a huge hit in Europe and never seemed to suffer the same issues as the USDM market CDW27.
I am enjoying this series. That time of life is both exciting and terrifying. From everything I have read, Contour ownership could be both exciting and terrifying as well, so it made a great fit. 🙂
I remember reading all of the raves about what a great drive it was when it first came out, and I also remember that during one of my used car hunts the Contour/Mystique was routinely the cheapest thing you could find on Craigslist despite being a lot newer and theoretically nicer than a lot of other stuff being advertised. So it sounds like you made a great decision on moving it along when you did.
This was my first “modern” car. It wasn’t all that powerful but technology had advanced so much that the car made the best use of the available power. Wikipedia states it only had 125 hp which isn’t a lot, but with the four-speed auto, it was a great highway cruiser. Once, when I couldn’t sleep late at night, I took Leon out to US 27 / US 19 between Tallahassee and Perry, FL for a high-speed run. I think I chickened out at around 100 mph, but I remember the car shifting into top gear and feeling like it was ready to go for another 10 or 15 mph. It was probably governed for 106 like every other Ford from that era…
Adequate rear seat head room only if you’re a dwarf.
But they “recontoured” (hehe) the rear seats for 1997 to make more room! Surely that was sufficient, right?
I had one of these as a business trip rental in about 1996. I remember being astonished at the lively handling and responsive drivetrain, even though it was fitted in normal rental car fashion (base 4-pot and auto-box). The seats were comfortable and supportive, the interior well fitted and the gauges clear and complete.
It was always a puzzle why Ford was so ham-fisted with the Americanization of these. I read that the North American sedan adopted more closely-coupled styling than the Mondeo, pushing the rear seat forward and compromising rear leg room. Both the 323-based Escort and it’s replacement Focus were better. The high pricing – especially compared to the Tempo – plus the ongoing recalls, doomed it in the market place.
If you look at the Mondeo and the Contour, other than the sheet metal at the ends, they’re the same. The Europeans just didn’t have the same expectations for rear-seat space as the USDM did, I think, and Ford paid the price for it. I’ve ridden in the back of a Tempo and it wasn’t much better, but I guess the price differential was what really caused problems.
I also remember there being a lot more recalls for the 98 and up model years. For sure it seemed from a technician standpoint (they were affectionately called Mercury Mistakes by a lot of the guys I worked with) that the 95-96 ones were relatively trouble free, but we had a ton of electrical issues, like melted blower switch connectors and such on the later ones. They also had issues with the variable valve timing on the Zetec engine, which the original generation engine didn’t even have as a feature.
I had a 1994 Mondeo in 2006/2007 that I bought for £250. It had maybe 105k miles and all the lacquer was peeling off the paint on the bonnet, but it ran, stopped and everything still worked. We spent maybe another £75 getting it through the MOT. It provided me with 2 years of trouble-free transport and cost no more than £300 to keep running throughout that time (which included another year’s MOT). My wife still reminisces about the hugely comfortable, blue velour seats in it. It wasn’t exciting or even great, but I loved it. I ended up giving it to my friend who ran it for two more years, until it finally rusted through at the rear spring hangers. I then flirted – disastrously – with Rovers for a few years after that, but that’s a story for another day
I looked on Gumtree last night for Mondeo’s of this vintage, and they just don’t seem to exist! I’d love to find a wagon version and import it.
I rented one of these on a business trip to Detroit in 1995. I now live in the south (for many years) but when the woman I was traveling with found out at least I had driven in snow before, made it known that I was going to do all the driving on the trip (it was February and she was from the south). The trip went well, we were visiting a supplier of body parts to a major manufacturer, which I’d never been to before…though the rental was a base 4 cylinder/automatic as you’d expect to find, the car drove very nicely.
At this time my Mother had her 1988 Tempo, bought new, which I was much more familiar with, also 4 cylinder automatic (though my Mother’s car was a 2 door, which was never available in the Contour)…so I couldn’t resist comparing them. The Contour drove much nicer than the Tempo, and had a much nicer interior (though it seemed a bit smaller than the Tempo)…as it should as I believe it priced out much higher than the Tempo. However crude the Tempo was, it served its purpose as an inexpensive commuter vehicle for my Mother while she was still working (though she’s been retired 25 years now) and when my sister’s family moved in with my parents I spiffed up the car a bit, fixing things like the power locks and remote gas filler release which had stopped working…my sister was sharing the car with my Mother, as my sister used it to go to her job since my Mother stopped working and only needed occasional use of the car..got everything back to working (for awhile) but after that the car fell into neglect, my sister isn’t big on cars and she never got things fixed…though the car had low mileage (I’m sure it was never past the state border) eventually the AC compressor went, and about that time we had a state version of the cash for clunkers program, and my Dad bought a new 2009 Ford Focus for my Mother and Sister to replace it as we didn’t want to replace the compressor despite air conditioning being just about required as we have hot weather most of the year. Kind of a shame, the Tempo was running as good as it ever had (which wasn’t that great frankly) but it was inexpensive and pretty reliable….and still running. At the time the guy who cut my Parent’s grass wanted to buy it (cheaply) from them, but that never happened…too bad, since someone can make use of a still running car, even if the air conditioning did need service (thinking back to when I moved south and drove my non-airconditioned car for 3 years before saying “uncle” and treating myself to a used car that was my first with air-conditioning (and the car that immediately preceded my current car, since I tend to keep cars awhile).