A new car was a monumental occasion in my family. The fiscal conservativeness of my parents had done them well in their lives, but driving second-hand cars can only go so far. By the turn of the millennium, my father decided that all the hard work he and my mother had accomplished meant he didn’t have to wrench on broke cars if he didn’t want to. My mother’s new Buick was a good example of this, but as a recent graduate from Florida State without a solid job, did I really deserve to have a new car myself?
Doubts about my worthiness aside, I was excited beyond belief the day we went to pick up my new Focus. My girlfriend at the time, A.R. had made the trek from Tallahassee to New York, where we would join my parents for a holiday week at Northampton Beach, MA. The Contour had made the trip without any fuss, but as noted in my previous COAL entry, the car was mechanically iffy.
We picked up the Focus and tooled around the far northeast corner of MA, crossing over into New Hampshire and up into Maine. The idea being that we would drive my new car in every state on the Eastern Seaboard. Nevermind that I was driving a car that had plates still registered to the Contour, we were on a road trip in my new car!
We made it successfully back down to the Sunshine State without any incident (at least not involving the police). This trip would be the start of a love affair with the Focus that remained unabated.
So what did I sign on the dotted line for? A 2001 Ford Focus ZX3 five-speed with the 2.0 Zetec motor. AC, cruise and CD player, power windows/locks, fat tires on chunky alloy wheels, and a host of neat little design features that I would come to love over the years. The low beltline of the windows made visibility excellent, and I never regretted the choice of silver for the color. I’ve seen plenty of Foci over the year, and I think silver still looks the best. I soon christened the car Tabitha (or Tabby).
The Focus, A.R. and I enjoyed the cool AC in the Florida heat. With the five-speed transmission, A.R. was unable to drive the Focus so I drove her to work every day. Any road trips that we took meant that I was the left-hand seat, but I have never minded driving so this wasn’t a problem. Tabby and I ventured home to New York for Christmas and occasional summer holidays, and we took the car down to Orlando to Disneyworld several times. I had always wanted to go to the Florida Keys, so we decided to venture to the furthest point South in the United States.
I had never imagined that Florida was as big as it is (Pensacola is even in a different time-zone as the rest of the state!) and the trip from Tallahassee to Key West took something on the order of 11 hours. We had a friend R. with us who could drive a manual transmission, so I didn’t have to take the entire trip myself. We made it down after driving overnight on a Friday night without incident, although I did pass out for the last leg of the trip from Marathon to Key West itself. I woke up to the sounds of roosters crowing, abandoned in the car while R. and A.R. wandered around looking at free-range Key West fowl.
We spent two days in the Keys camping, and it was on one of the long stretches of bridges leading up to Key West that Tabby would see her first run-in with the law. Reminiscent of Walter, the words “How fast will it go” were uttered. Fortunately for me, I was the one who spoke the words and my friend was in the driver’s seat. The nice Florida Highway Patrolman clocked us at 106 miles per hour. (I would much later find out that like most Ford products, it was governed to 110 mph. The law would not be involved in that speed run, however.)
One minor problem that was never properly resolved was a very uneven idle. I took the car back to Tallahassee Ford numerous times and they seemed unable to recognize the problem, let alone fix it. To say that I was unimpressed with Tallahassee Ford is an understatement, both with the mechanics and the salespeople (they had the chance to sell me a Focus but lost it, assuming I wasn’t sincere in my desire to by a new car).
A.R was born and raised Florida woman and had never experienced snow before we started dating. I had taken her home several times, and she liked the idea of living in a place that had different seasons. In need of a change of pace and more employment opportunities, we settled on Rhode Island. In February of 2005, we packed up our house and cats into a GMC Budget box-van with the Focus on a dolly and A.R. in her Accord. We caravaned back up the Eastern Seaboard with only minor issues, finally landing at our new apartment in East Providence, RI.
We quickly adjusted to living in the Northeast, and I was happy to have snow for a change. One new thing I learned about (the hard way) was parking bans during snowstorms. The Focus was towed prior to a snowstorm much to my chagrin, and to double the misery, one of the rear windows was broken while in the tow yard lot. Of course, they denied that it was their fault, so I was left to sort it out on my own. I didn’t have a lot of money at the time and while the window was completely shattered, it was miraculously still in place. I bought a roll of clear packing tape to secure safety glass and left it that way for several months until I could afford to get the window replaced. This meant that I was once again illegally driving the Focus, this time on expired Florida plates. If I had a 5-minute commute this wouldn’t have bothered me, but the 50-minute drive from East Providence down to Newport (and into neighboring Massachusetts) every day made me nervous.
Time and the Focus marched on. After a tumultuous relationship, A.R. and I split up in the summer of 2006, and I moved out of our shared apartment down to Newport, RI. It was a good thing that our relationship ended as neither of us could see past our own mistakes, but it was still rough transition moving from a 2 bedroom apartment with two cats to a shared apartment and one-room of my own. I enjoyed Newport and made good friends with my roommates, but I missed having my own space.
Much like my personal life, the Focus needed some mending and repairs. We had to replace the gas tank as there was a design defect that caused the strapping that secured the tank rubbed a hole into the top. The rear wheel bearings also needed replacement. Ford issued a recall for cars in certain states that used road salt, but because my car was originally registered in Florida they denied the repair. The bearings would be a constant source of grief as we needed to replace them with annoying frequency. Quality is Job #1, indeed. We also had to replace a broken coil spring, destroyed by the potholed roads of New England.
By 2009 I had shifted gears away from the museum world and had found employment in the toy industry (science toys to be specific). I had also started dating A., and we had in fact decided to get married. We tied the knot in July of 2009 and moved in together in an apartment in Providence, RI. Life was good and A. and I took many road trips together. Unfortunately, the Focus was sidelined for most of these trip as A.’s car was a Honda Element. The Element was much more practical as a road-trip car, so Tabby was relegated to a commuter car.
By early 2011 things the Focus was ten years old and while I still loved the car, I was itching for something different. I still had the conundrum that I didn’t have the resources to do the minor work on the car that needed to be done, but being closer to my parents made it feasible to get the car home for major work. But honestly, I just wanted to be driving something different. My next COAL would be in my driveway before the end of 2011, but this wasn’t the end of Tabby.
I didn’t want to trade in the Focus, so it went to my parent’s house in Upstate New York. My dad drove it for a little while, but then it was tucked away in long-term storage. This ability to keep my old cars is a wonderful luxury, one that would allow me to bring the Focus back to life several years later. After a year or so of sitting outside, we finally made enough room inside to store the Focus.
After a few more twists and turns in life and the realization that I could have more than one car registered and on the road, I went back to NY and retrieved the Focus. We put new tires and did a few other deferred maintenance jobs to it and licensed and insured it. I was amazed at how simple and basic the Focus was compared to newer cars, but it also felt more direct with go-kart-like handling. Driving the car, even today brings back many wonderful memories. Of all the cars that I have owned and loved, This Focus is truly a Car Of A Lifetime.
Very nice post.
Speaking from further down the turnpike than yourself, I’ve found that the personal life needing “mending and repairs” has turned out to be a life constant. Apparently happens to all models of human, I’m told, till the wrecker calls.
Those first-gen Focii are properly sweet to drive. They have seem to have a lot of the old little RWD Ford’s DNA, good seats, excellent gearchange, superb steering, and a general feeling of feeling wanting to be driven. Ofcourse, by the era of their release, with airbags and crashworthiness and what have you, to achieve that fun in operation was a considered engineering exercise, and they are a vastly more sophisticated thing than a leaf-sprung Euro Escort, but the result is as you have described. Consistent with their forebears, never quite Japanese levels of reliability either, but more in the category of niggles than major: wheelbearings and idle for you (same complaints in Oz too), and add varied electrical farts and unsolvable aircon floor-wetting too. (Rather incredibly, the 2nd gen we got here was worse for such stuff).
They also looked good. A bit odd or challenging when new, but it has aged with great grace. As has yours generally, it seems.
There are two models of Euro Escort between the last RWD model and the Focus, my BIL was issued Escorts as company rep cars in the 90s initially petrol cars the replaced with diesel because they had AC, the Focus was a continuation of those cars,
Australia missed out on those Ford AU sourced its small cars from Mazda in Japan, Ford NZ did the same until the 2nd gen FWD Escort and brought them into the Kiwi market, there are still survivors on the road even today.
Yes, that’s quite a leap from the seventies’ leaf-sprung RWD Escorts Mk1 and 2 to the 1998 Focus….
Inbetween the 1980 “Erika” and the 1990 model prior to the Focus. Never mind the permanent updates and facelifts of -especially- the last 1990-1998 Escort generation.
I had both Euro-FWD models, a 1987 Escort 1.4 (carb, 75 hp) and a 1995 Escort with the 1.8i 16v Zetec engine (105 hp), both 3-doors with a 5-speed manual.
Another enjoyable tale – except you left us hanging with one question: What is the happy circumstance that found your father to be in possession of a lift? Wow, I am so jealous. I think of how different my life could have been had I possessed a relative with a high quality lift like this. How many times would I *not* have been lying on my back in the cold or wet doing crap jobs like exhaust pipes and such.
I have read so many times how great these were to drive, but I have never had the pleasure. I must also be the odd man out on the looks of these cars. People seem to love the styling, and you certainly do. But I have never found an attractive angle on these. I dislike the front, dislike the odd creases around the wheel openings on the side, and can’t stand the C pillar treatment. Fords of the early 2000s are a challenge for me. But none of that matters here because you seem to have gotten yourself a keeper.
Yes, me too.
A car lift of one’s very own. And extra indoor space for storage, plus what looks like a whole lot of tools and such.
Looks like CC heaven to me.
… and, another great COAL story from Tj1977.
My father (with some help from myself and a bunch of friends) built a two-story 3600 square foot garage of his dreams. As I write this I realize I have enough photos of the entire thing to do a post itself, so your wish is my command!
I’ll leave you with this little teaser:
This is a strange thing to say, but the best I can describe driving them is “Volkswagen-like”. Not as solid as something like a newer Golf, but more like the 80’s Jetta. The interior plastics were just minimal and came off in your hands, but the handling was really delightful. Considering it was a Ford of Europe car IIRC, that makes sense that they tried to copy the leaders in feel. Also, you could run it for miles on a thimble of gas, and I bought my one-year-old ex-rental sedan with 19k miles on it for $7999. That included power accessories, a/c, decent CD-radio, and even burgundy paint. One of the least expensive cars I’ve ever owned (but cheaply made, as everything began to fall off around the 100k mile mark).
If I were to ever own an actual “car” (I have a Ranger & an Astro), it would be one of the Focus ZX3s anywhere from 1999-2007. You indeed found a good one for what’s now an 18-year-old car; it’s essentially a modern descendant of your old Escort. I believe all the American 1st-generaion Focuses shared the same speedometer as my mom’s ’07 SE has it. Technically hers is a ZX4 as it’s a sedan like the one below except white but Ford quit using the ZX badges after 2006. Interestingly, the US never got the official 2nd-generation Focus; instead, the body from the 1st-generation model was modified in 2005 (which would reflect my mom’s as well as the one behind yours) & again in 2008 while still using the original platform which lasted until 2011. I actually considered a ZX3 as my secondary vehicle when I found the Astro, but I think I made the more sensible choice with how I intend to use my vehicles.
I actually drove the Astro using my Ranger’s license plate until the permanent tag FINALLY came nearly 3 months after I bought it (the dealer tag had already expired in that time). Cops never caught me but I would NEVER do it again. It helped that I only drove & still drive the Astro on weekends & holidays.
My 2001 had every option except ABS, including the 1 year only manual hand-crank sunroof. Bought with 9 miles from new. As I’ve posted before here on this site, my yellow Focus was the absolute definition of a lemon. Constant problems, both major and minor. You weren’t alone in having headaches from indifferent Ford dealers unwilling or outright refusing to perform warranty work on these things. I saw the writing on the wall before the 3/36 warranty expired, and got myself into a Toyota before said warranty expired. Best decision I could have made. Sad, really, because that Focus was roomy, and drove amazingly well for a car of its class; leagues beyond what one would expect. Many memories of Brandon, the car, and I at the time. When we occasionally reconnect he still brings this car up with fond reminiscent stories. I kind of miss mine, but being stranded twice combined with the outright disrespect Ford continually gave me when I kept showing up with broken again Focus really taints those good memories. Hard pass. Would never part with my money for a new Ford again.
I have also had the pleasure of early Focus handling and responsiveness. Only had a short term relationship with Franklin. Quite elderly when acquired, when his bones were fully warmed up, he still rewarded tugs at the wheel and rowing of the trans with the alert response that early Foci were famous for.
Franklin did suffer some common Focus issues, like a corroded antenna that snapped off one cold day. As the Focus carries it’s antenna at the front of the roof, replacement was a snap as removing the dome light exposed the mounting bolt for the antenna base.
One section of road near casa del Steve has a ripple to the surface, which produced a steady squeak, squeak, squeak, in the Focus. The net is a wonderful thing, as a quick search revealed the squeak is due to the rubber coating of the e-brake cable conduit wearing through and the metal inner layer of the conduit rubbing against the metal hanger that supports the conduit. A quick visit to my what-not box to retrieve suitable materials, and the squeak was eliminated.
In the old days we had duct tape for things that should not move and WD40 for things that should move.
Enter cable ties and now we have two solutions for the do-not-move issue.
For 21 years I have had a cable tie holding higher the Miata’s hood release cable so the tip of my left shoe doesn’t hit it when lifting off the clutch pedal.
In the old days we had duct tape for things that should not move and WD40 for things that should move.
That’s what my brother insisted on me carrying two most important things along with tool set in my Chevy when going on the road trips. I can’t tell you how many times they had saved my skin…
I had an ’06 Focus SES four door for a number of years and it was, full stop, the most fun to drive car I’ve ever owned. I had a ball driving it on back highways, and it made my commute more fun.
But it was easily the car that had the most things go wrong with it. None was serious, but some were surprisingly expensive, such as the $800 new alternator because you have to tip the engine out of the car to do the job.
I’d buy a 1/1.5-gen Focus again as a backup car, or a kid car.
They should be focusing on trans failure nowadays!
I actually liked Ford’s “New, Edge” styling, so individualistic, though the smaller bumpers in the SVT models look better. I keep looking at wagons but they are rare as hen’s teeth if you want one with a manual transmission.
I was so excited when the Focus came out the U.S.. I had a friend that had a Contour and i liked the more “Euro”. Another friend had bought a new ZX2 a year or so before the Focus came out and he really felt that he missed out… and I believe a new Focus was a lottle cheaper too.
Unfortunately, I puked in my own mouth when the 2nd gen U.S. Focus came out (or face-lifted model, I don’t think Ford considered it a 2nd gen). I can’t figure out what Ford was thinking. It was like they were trying to Americanize the styling away from its Euro origins. It also reminded me of a Tempo which isn’t a compliment.
I’ve never been a big fan of Fords but i really like the Focus and feel that Ford was back on the ball when they came out with the latter Focus’ and Mondeo/Fusion. Now we’re left with crossovers and “Bro Trucks”. Sad. RIP Focus.
The Focus build quality, while not horrible, was nothing to write home about, either. I vividly recall finding several on dealer lots where the rear hatch would not latch properly. How they could ship a vehicle with a defect like that is beyond me.
I once rented a Focus and the driver’s seat was so bad, I couldn’t drive more than 30 minutes before my back began hurting. Maybe the seat cushion had compressed.
The only other memorable thing about the Focus was it was possible to play the radio without a key in the ignition.
That radio playing without the key was a neat feature, I thought. It would only play for 30 or 60 minutes, I forget the time limit.
Don’t know about the Focus but our C-Maxes and MKZ play for 10 minutes before shutting off.
Same for the 2007 Mustang. The radio will play for 10 minutes after you remove the key from the ignition. Other accessories work as well during this time like the power windows. They’ll continue to work for 10 minutes, or until you open the door, whichever comes first.
In many older cars it was pretty easy to have the radio/tape player play without the key. Especially in after market installations the radio was powered simply by running a wire to the fuse box. With a little searching it was easy enough to find a fuse that was “hot” all of the time and not just when the ignition was on. The only real downside to this was one had to turn the music on and off in a separate operation as it was no longer tied to the ignition switch. I haven’t had to install/fix a radio in a car for many years but I would assume the power supply is more complicated these days.
TJ I have to smile every time I read about your dealings with Tallahassee Ford. My aunt (and now late) uncle moved to Tallahassee after my uncle retired. At some point in the late nineties they decided that they “needed” a truck and purchased a new F150 from Tallahassee Ford. I don’t remember the specific details but there were some minor problems with the truck that the service department at Tallahassee Ford was unable to diagnose and correct. Finally the frustration grew to the point where they decided to take the truck to the Ford dealer in Thomasville, Georgia, which is about an hour away. My aunt still has the truck to this day (it only has about 32k miles), presumably with its faults now corrected.
Tallahassee Ford East and Tallahassee Ford West were both equally as bad (they were owned by the same people so that doesn’t surprise me). I once had the car in for a warranty repair and their shuttle dropped me off at work, but getting back to the dealership to pick the car up? No way. I had always heard good things about the Thomasville GA dealership, it was just too far away to make it practical, especially when I was in school.
I will say that my dealings with Wall Ford in MA (since closed) and at Tasca Ford in Cranston RI (with one massive exception) have been nothing but positive.
My mother purchased one of these, the exact same car and trim level except hers was white at around the same time, as her first new car. It served her extremely well and I can’t recall it ever having any trouble. Eventually it was replaced by an Outback here in CO but she still speaks fondly of it. On the occasions I drove it it always impressed with its tight feel and like yours, was the looker if the range with two doors and those chunky alloys.
Another great article!
I remember that “cold weather states” recall for the wheel bearings, since the Contour was subject to the same recall. I was annoyed because my Countour was a Ford program car that was driven around Detroit for two years before I bought it (I found oil change receipts from a Detroit-area Ford dealership, so I know it was really used there).
When the recall occurred, I was living in Maryland, not considered by Ford to be a cold weather state, despite lots of road salt used during winters. Ford wouldn’t do to the repair under that recall, however. Predictably, a few years later, the car developed the issue that recall would have resolved. Grr.
I’m impressed, also, at the number of pictures you’ve taken of your cars. Sometimes I’ve managed to go a decade of ownership with hardly any pictures.
Even after all of the troubles I’ve had with Ford I still buy their products. My parents just bought a 2019 Edge that they seem to like so far. I know how to deal with dealerships and warranty repair now, so I’m not scared of getting what I need to be done from Ford or any other dealership.
Thanks for the compliment about the photographs of my cars. I got that habit from my dad, he always took “formal” portraits of his cars and I emulated that act. As I move into the cell-phone-camera era I have more and more photos of my cars. I fear that I’m too photo-heavy in my COAL’s, but at least with the older pictures it’s neat to see the cars “in situ”.
Thanks for reading!
We’ve gone the opposite direction regarding Ford. At one point my wife and I had three Fords (Contour, Thunderbird and Crown Victoria), and my since my wife’s grandfather had worked for 30 years in a Ford factory in Michigan, Ford has always been considered their family’s brand. Now only our Thunderbird is left… we haven’t been too impressed with Ford’s recent quality, and our Crown Vic had more than its fair share of problems. Our last two purchases have been a Honda and Kia.
The pictures add a thousand words each. No worries about too many, they help flesh things out. But even if pix aren’t available the text by itself works too. No right or wrong here…
When the focus came out I was in college driving an 85 plymouth reliant and this is the exact one i wanted. Ztec powered zx3 with a 5 speed manual. They were everywhere in Massachusetts and alot of guys riced them up too. Then it seemed overnight they were gone. I never got to enjoy one though. I was too cheap for way too long and by the time they were cheap enough for my cheapness they didn’t suit my needs. Glad you loved yours and were able to keep it for so long cuz those early zx3 focuses are a rare sight today.
Had a 2004 ZTW, 5 speed. Traded it for a Mazda 5 when one child became two and the car seats left us no room for anyone else. But I still miss it: the sharp handling, the directness of the drivetrain, and the simple utility we’re unbeatable.
To diss on gm and how backwards they were…its mind blowing to see the focus came out in 99 and gm kept making the same j body crapalier through MY 2005. That just shows how much contempt gm had for small car buyers.
We had a 2003 ZX5, 5speed in black. Fun to drive, 36mpg and oh so practicle. Just a great car. Forced to sell it due to a layoff. Sometimes life sucks. If that’s as bad as it ever gets, you’re still doing pretty good.
I had a 2001 ZX3 in Malibu Blue I bought CPO in 03 and drove until 06, the first decent car I owned out of college. A fun little car that got great mileage rode and handled well on those 50 series tires, but one that always seemed to have some little annoying issue that needed fixing, unfortunately.
A 2002 Malibu Blue ZX3 was my first-ever new car purchase. Ford Motor Credit approved me for a fixed amount (I believe $13K after trade-in and incentives) that limited me to a lightly-optioned auto-equipped car with cruise and tilt.
In hindsight, I should have pushed the dealer to trade for a 5-speed with power equipment instead, especially as the automatic transmission proved to be highly problematic over my two years and roughly 24,000 miles of ownership, slipping between gears and revving madly instead of downshifting at times. It also needed three radios over that time. I was glad to be rid of it, although when it worked it was a fantastic driver.
I owned a red 2007 Focus wagon for a couple of years. Not a perfect car, but practical, full of personality and fun to drive.
On the rear hatch, the left of the license plate, there was a strange indent that bothered me. I assumed it was body damage and even tried to push it out from the inside (unsuccessfully).
I then noticed that other Focus wagons had the same indent. A factory issue. As much as I loved the car, I couldn’t imagine any import with a flaw like that.
Or a worse interior, for that matter.
The seats forced me to slouch, so I stuffed some memory foam in the back to give it some lumbar support. Quite comfortable after that.
I also fixed the heater controls, which were always getting stuck, by using spacers to keep the mechanism from being thrown all the way.
I miss it, but I can live without it.