Before it was a humdrum mid-size sedan, the Ford Contour was an angular, bean-shaped concept car on display at the 1991 Chicago Auto Show. Sure, it didn’t have the flash of the Geo Tracker dancers at the same show, but the car had something not seen in an American road car in nearly 40 years: an inline-eight engine. Unlike the Packards and Pontiacs that had come before it, however, the Contour’s straight-eight was mounted transversely to drive the front wheels. It was a strange system that regular Hooniverse readers have probably seen in a couple of Bigfoot-sighting-quality photos of a test-mule Ford Tempo from (probably) the late 1980s. But this 23-second video offers the best look I’ve seen of the “T-Drive” engine yet.
The concept behind the straight-eight is fairly straightforward, fittingly. The packaging of front-wheel-drive cars is such that—at least for most of them—the transmission is mounted to one side of the engine bay. This creates unequal-length half-shafts, which tends in more powerful front-wheel-drive cars—Dodge Omni GLHS, I’m looking at you—to produce “torquesteer,” where lots of throttle yanks the car in the direction of the shorter half-shaft.
However, if the driveline comes off the middle of the crankshaft, the manufacturer can have equal-length half-shafts that reduce or possibly eliminate torquesteer. This would necessitate mounting the engine ahead of the axle’s centerline with the transmission behind the straight-eight. While that would likely create some weight-distribution issues, it would also allow easy-to-engineer options for front-, rear-, or all-wheel drive. Additionally, the forward-mounted engine could allow more cabin space. That vaunted “cab-forward” design of the era was a major point of this Contour concept (along with composite construction and a few other things).
Ford had indeed tested a number of these inline T-drive setups with four, six, and eight cylinders. The Tempo test mule had the same 4.0-liter straight-eight as the Contour Concept while a Fox-Body Thunderbird tested a 3.2-liter six-cylinder variant. Those mules date the testing engines to the mid-to-late 1980s. Since it was never put into production, it’s likely that the idea of this engine was dead-on-arrival in the Contour for a variety of reasons.
Nevertheless, Ford put some shiny exhaust headers on the (non-functioning) 4.0-liter, twin-cam straight-eight, then mounted it low and forward in the Contour. The lack of grille was explained by the intention of drawing cooling air for the radiator from the wheel wells. The lone concept car changed hands twice, selling in 2002 for $25,850 and then tripling in value within five years. So that leaves us with the burning question: Where are the Tempo and Thunderbird test mules with their respective engines?
[Source: Chicago Auto Show on YouTube, Wheelsage press photo archives]