The M3 was not my first engine swapped car. This was.

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There must be something about silver cars from the ’90s that just makes me want to rip an engine out and shove something else in its place. Well, this one was a little bit different than the M3. You see, I planned on engine swapping the M3.

It was a 1999 SVT Contour and I found it on eBay for sale at a dealership in Illinois. The auction ended on July 2nd, when I was going to be on a trip to the Boundary Waters the summer before my senior year of college. So I gave my sister my eBay password and while in a canoe with surprisingly good cell reception I talked her through some sick last second bidding strategies that won me the car for the low low price of $4650.

The next few days were a whirlwind of driving 9 hours home to Iowa, then the next day bumming a ride another 5 hours over to Illinois to pick up the car. I was pleased. I mean, just look at it!

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A marvel of ’90s engineering and design, with that killer body kit, dual exhaust, sporty 16″ wheels (Sixteen! Inches!) and a 200hp 2.5L V6 under the hood. Remember when small cars used to get V6s? MikaelVroom remembers.

Ironically enough, the SVT Contour was occasionally referred to as the “poor man’s M3,” which is some foreshadowing heavy enough to make Christopher Nolan jealous. It was a contender for Car and Driver’s 1997 article on “Best Handling Car Under $30,000” (and the M3 won their next comparison, “Best Handling Car at Any Price” – suck it Nolan).

I was in SVT heaven, at least for all of about two months, which is as long as it took for the original 83,000 mile engine to spin a bearing and crunch up the insides of the engine. You see, the SVT’s 2.5L Duratec has a propensity for spinning rod bearings. Depending on which religion forum you subscribe to, it’s either due to the poorly-manufactured sintered rods fatiguing over time or poor oil drainback causing starvation. Either way, these thing spin rod bearings like a campaign advisor discussing a candidate’s latest tweet.

What’s a broke college kid to do with no garage, no tools, no skills, and no money? Engine swap!

Well, it gets a little more complicated than that. I called my dad’s normal mechanic, the guy that had, over the past three years, changed out 6 failed oxygen sensors on my Mercury Mystique, a car that has 4 oxygen sensors. The best price he could find on an SVT 2.5 was $1900 for a 90,000 mile example, which is more miles than the original engine had. BUT. Taurus 3.0 Duratecs with 30,000 miles on them were going for $500 all day long. SEEMS LIKE A NO BRAINER.

It’s mostly a bolt-in swap, with only a couple little bits of fabrication necessary – a little grinding on one of the engine mounts, a little throttle body bracket work, throw some of the 2.5 parts on the 3.0, an adapter for the fuel system – then BLAM THREE LITERS!

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The shop that my car was towed to agreed to do the swap and thus began the six month project. The car broke in August of 2007 and in January of 2008 it was finally done, after being in and out of the project bay numerous times with mechanics starting and quitting and just a general yanking-about by the shop. Also the total was $1000 more than the estimate I was given even though, “I always stick by my estimate even when it hurts, because that’s what having integrity is all about.” SO YEAH, they didn’t get five stars on Yelp.

Of course, no project gets done without a few “while I’m in here”s, and mine were:

  • MSDS headers and y-pipe
  • SPEC Stage 1 clutch and TOB
  • Quaife LSD for the transaxle

The Contour’s stock MTX75 is known for having a weak open differential, and adding 30% more torque to what the transaxle already can’t handle surely wouldn’t do it any favors. Turns out the LSD was a good idea, because when pulled out the stock differential we found this:

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That thing was more chewed up than an Louis C.K. comedy special.

By the time the car was finally finished, I had moved several hours away to do an internship in Missouri. Once the car was eventually back in my hands, I took it to a dyno shop in Kansas City to see what kind of power this thing was putting down. While I was pursuing the Polaroids of Corvettes, Vipers, and other exotics getting tuned at this shop, a couple guys stoped by the shop and suggested the dyno operator add a few more straps to my car so that it didn’t go flying off the rollers with all of the mad power it was making. Ha. Ha.

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The dyno operator was able to overlay my dyno plot with one from another SVT Contour that had an intake and catback installed on an otherwise stock 2.5. Note the bonus from 3000 to 5500rpm – hhnngg so much midrange punchhhhh. Stomp on the gas at 3500rpm and this thing FLEW. It may or may not have hung at the back bumper of a cammed Fox Body from 45-135. On snow tires. He was sure I had nitrous.

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So what’s the next best thing to do with a FWD compact car putting less than 200hp to the ground? Take it to the drag strip, of course.

I ventured down to Kansas City International Raceway for a Friday night test and tune. In all, I think I got 13 runs in, which was more than enough to take most of the life out of the nearly new clutch that was installed when the car was put back together.

I was car #577.timeslips

These three runs represent my best mph (96.6), my favorite win, and my best e/t (14.6). My opponent in the center time slip was an automatic ’99-04 Mustang GT on drag radials. You can see he had a faster e/t and mph, but I edged him out by 7 hundredths due to a better reaction time.

I spent most of the night getting smoked by various cars actually meant to spend time on the drag strip, but I had a blast and it was a lot of fun to be able to put some more numbers to the actual capabilities of this car. To put its performance into perspective, a modern Focus ST runs 0-60 in 6.1 seconds and does the quarter mile in 14.7 seconds at 96mph, with a slalom speed of 65.8mph. My 1/8 mile time and speed correlates to a 0-60 of roughly 6.2 seconds, with a 14.6 quarter mile at 96mph, and the stock SVT Contour slalomed at 67.7mph. I basically had a Focus ST 7 years early.

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Of course, this isn’t a story about a car that I currently own, so clearly at some point in time I made the decision to get rid of the car. After a six hour alternator change and a multi-hour starter change, both of which left me riding a motorcycle to work in a cold Iowa winter, the passion was drained.

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Can you spot the alternator peeking out?

And remember that stage 1 clutch I roasted with an ambitious night at the drag strip? It wasn’t but a few months later when the clutch started to let go in fourth gear. Time for a new clutch.

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…which turned into the world’s longest clutch job, starting in March and finishing in…like…late May I think? I had trouble getting the transaxle mounted back on the engine and I had way more fun playing with all of my new (old) motorcycles than wrenching on this stupid broken car, so there it sat where I’d half-heartedly try to get it put back together about once a week. Eventually I had a friend over that smashed the trans back on the engine in literally 25 seconds.

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It was embarrassing. I’d been complaining for months about how it wouldn’t go back together.

Many times during the clutch job I got very cold and very wet trying to motorcycle to work, to the laundromat, and to visit my family. Then came me getting married, and the realization that the project car and the car that get you to work should not be the same car.

Add to that an honest evaluation of the car’s performance ceiling – it’s front wheel drive, so it will never be a great drag car, and even the turbocharged examples pushing 400+ horsepower had yet to break into the 12s (and still haven’t, last I checked). And though it was a good handler when new, it’s nothing actually competitive. I browsed SCCA Autocross Nationals results from 1998-2004 and only found a single Contour in attendance – the podiums were full of Integras, Celicas, Neon, Focuses, and even the Probe/MX-6. For a front-wheel-drive car, you can find much better handling examples.

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But not much better looking, I’d argue.

The cherry on the cake is the platform, which is from 1992 – the car hasn’t been produced since the 2000 model year, and there’s just not much of an aftermarket outside of a couple independent guys.

So up on Craigslist the car went. It sold for $4900 and I turned around and bought my dad’s 2001 Mercury Sable – the antithesis of fun to drive, and the exact car that would provide exactly zero temptation to waste time and money modifying it. It’s like the serpent offering Eve a durian.

That’s the story of my other silver, engine-swapped, unreliable, critically-lauded, ’90s car. Clearly I have a type.

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