COAL: 1997 Ford Contour SE – Replacement Ride

Ford Contour SE

Saying farewell to our troubled Taurus was not exactly the saddest day of my life, especially since there was a new car coming to replace it. Of course, the biggest challenge was choosing what from the Ford stable to take over that garage space. As the Taurus was a bit expensive, the options were pretty appealing (and fairly costly, too).

At the time the Ford car line included the Taurus (which I wasn’t about to choose twice, thank you), the Aspire compact (replacing the Festiva), the Escort, the Contour, the Probe, the Mustang, and the Crown Victoria. I did think briefly about the Crown Vic as I have always liked the big barges but decided that I was a bit too young to be driving something like that. Why not pick a Mustang, since I was young with no kids? No idea…but I didn’t. (Looking back, I probably should have!)

I wound up with the Ford Contour. The Contour replaced the much maligned Tempo/Topaz in 1995. It was a global European platform design (known as the CDW-27 platform), but as a new design it was more expensive than the utilitarian Tempo-paz. Although Ford was using a “global platform” the company tailored it to individual markets. The Contour (and its Mercury sister, the Mystique) were well-received by the motoring press but less so by the consumer. The combination of the higher price and relatively small interior meant that a lot of returning Tempo customers decided to step up to the Taurus as it was fairly close in price (as I figured out when I was looking for a similarly-priced replacement for my ill-fated Taurus.)

Red Ford Contour SE

I picked the Contour SE, the highest trim level, and chose a car on the lot that had most of the available options except CD and sunroof. The car color was the ubiquitous mid-90s “champagne” (instead of green as I had to choose from what was on the lot to facilitate the buyback transaction). The SE I chose came with the Duratec V6 and 5 speed manual transmission with 170 hp, which was pretty good power for a car this size in the mid-90s. The interior was Fat steering wheel, responsive handling, good power for the car size (170 hp). Motor Trend said 0-60 times were in the 9 second range with an automatic, so the manual was probably a bit quicker.

The interior was well-appointed with a fat leather-wrapped steering wheel and chunky shift lever, both of which felt expensive. My SE had a leather interior (very similar to the photo below) that looked and felt upmarket, particularly in comparison to the cloth seats in the Taurus. Interior space was tight as the car magazines had said but that wasn’t a great worry for us. By the 1997 models, Ford had developed a front seat design with a hollowed-out back to increase legroom somewhat. The interior door locks were somewhat odd as they were motor driven swiveling lock buttons next to the door handles – they moved more slowly than the old-school solenoid-driven locks. One nice feature that I had for the first time on this car was remote keyless entry. I had the keypad keyless entry system on my Thunderbird, but this was the first time I got the key fob remote system. My father found it greatly amusing to push the “panic” button and set the car alarm off in the garage (with his typical “What does this button do?” remark).

Interior of Ford Contour

On the outside, the SE came with a set of “ground effects” rocker panel skirts (with cutouts for the tire changing jack pads that usually went missing when the cars got older). The SE package also came with a tiny rear spoiler and a set of nice 7-spoke wheels that were later sold with lower-level trim packages.

This was the first car for which I purchased an aftermarket in-dash CD player to replace the OEM Ford cassette stereo from a well-known catalog retailer. Their easy-fit wiring kits made installation of the aftermarket head unit vastly easier. I spent many an hour with my father under the dash of various cars trying to wire up stereos, holding a flashlight to see which wire to connect next (with much cursing as wires tended to slip out of hands when you were trying to hold the stereo with one hand while you tightened wire nuts with the other).

Being able to lay out the easy-fit kit next to the aftermarket unit’s wiring and connect up all the wires on my dining room table made the installation a 15-minute affair – just connect the two harnesses together and plug them into the car. My Contour didn’t come with the Ford “premium sound” system so there were no external amps to bypass. This kit made it ridiculously easy to remove the aftermarket unit when I went to trade the car in – just unplug it and plug the OEM unit back into the dash. (This, of course, was back when replacing the stereo was easy to do, before the stereo was integrated with the navigation system, the Bluetooth unit, and sometimes even the HVAC controls. The price of progress…)

Ford Contour SE

I had a lot of fun driving this car, especially with the manual transmission. I had fairly good luck with the car as well (great luck relative to the previous two cars, the Taurus and Civic). Someone did key the car in a parking deck near the urban office where I worked at the time. The person who did it certainly took their time to do it right – they damaged every panel on the driver’s side of the car.

Luckily our insurance company picked up the tab. Unluckily, I picked a mediocre body shop to repair the damage, so I got wavy and dull doors and fenders with obvious paint runs. I took the car back to the shop several times, and I believe they tried to fix the problem by simply rubbing the paint out with polishing compound. I knew full well that wouldn’t even remotely fix the problem, but I had to let them do it and then say “Nope, not good enough.” Even after a second repaint the side of the car wasn’t right but I mostly gave up as it was too much work to continue complaining.

The other problem with the car (and more with a repair shop) came when a rock hit the windshield and chipped it. Being still young and a bit unwise, I made an insurance claim to get the windshield replaced (nowadays I typically pay for window repairs myself as many of them are less than my deductible). I contacted a company to replace the windshield in my driveway, and that didn’t go well at all.

First of all, the repair technician showed up wearing jeans with an enormous belt buckle that seemed poised to scratch the car. Next, they replaced the windshield with off-brand glass (since my insurance company was paying the bill). The windshield was very cheap and was so wavy and distorted that it was virtually impossible to see out. Lastly, the belt buckle technician slopped windshield cement across several areas of the interior, including the front seats.

Needless to say, I was fairly furious and made my objections loudly known to the company. After much “discussion,” the windshield company agreed to replace the funhouse windshield with an OEM Ford part. At the time, the mobile windshield installation system didn’t include the same tools for maneuvering the windshield around (arms, suction cups, etc.) so the technician had to lift the windshield into place by hand after applying the cement. His mistake was to lift the windshield near one side instead of in the center, and as a result the windshield broke from top to bottom between his hands. The sound of that glass breaking was audible from inside the house where I was, and I saw him ruefully set the broken windshield down and trudge toward the house to let me know there’d be a delay while they brought another replacement.

I really enjoyed this car as it was fun to drive, it was well-assembled, and it was pretty good looking for the day. However, I couldn’t quite escape the negative feelings from the Taurus that came up sometimes when I drove the Contour. I decided to trade it in not long before the lease was up just so I could close the door on the whole affair and walk away. Unfortunately (a common theme in my COAL history), I didn’t like the Contour’s replacement any better, as we will see in the coming weeks.