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…