The New Ford Heritage Vault Is An Incredible Resource For Old Photos And Brochures

Ford Heritage Vault Topshot

When Ford announced it was no longer issuing brochures for new cars, I felt sad. Sure, there’s a strong argument that brochures are expensive and outmoded, but print brochures have some very real benefits. For starters, who wouldn’t want a small book about their car with cutaways, tracking shots, and beautiful typography? Print is tangible, artful, and most importantly, immortal. No, for real. As long as a copy exists, print media can be cloned and preserved indefinitely. While an automaker’s website may feature up-to-date information, that information is only there for a limited time.

2019 Ford Mustang GT
Photo credit: Ford

What’s that? Something about archiving web pages? Well, archiving a page works great, but only until the elements on the page get yeeted off of cyberspace by a format phase-out. Toyota Canada once had a Flash microsite for the 2009 Matrix that used Godspeed by Anberlin as a backing track for some reason. It’s etched permanently into my memory, yet proving its existence is a bit like proving God’s existence. I’m not a time traveler so I can’t take you back to 2008, nor do I have good enough lawyers to comfortably send you to meet God. Print though? That can be archived because paper will never really go extinct.

Fairlane Brochure
Screenshot: Ford

Ford knows about the permanence of print. A small team at the Dearborn-based automaker has been archiving materials, scanning relentlessly, trying to build something bigger than print itself. Last month, Ford launched the Heritage Vault, a digital museum featuring artifacts from 1903 to Ford’s centennial in 2003. Some of these artifacts are common. Nobody is really hurting for information on the 1965 Mustang, or the 2005 Ford GT. Details on those cars are all on the web, a simple search query away. However, some of these artifacts are rare. Artifacts of the obscure, the forgotten, and the nostalgic. Things that quench your inner thirst for knowledge. Things that appeal to me and you, for you’re on this site and are probably very well-versed in interesting cars. Let’s skip over the Mustangs, the F-150s, the Thunderbirds. Let’s look at stuff lost to time, stuff not saved by the cold embrace of Elvis impersonators and creepy car show dolls. Let’s get weird.

Ford Aspire

Ford Aspire 1 Copy
Photo credit: Ford

Right now, 50 percent of you are wondering what sort of sicko opens up with press shots of a Ford Aspire, while the other 50 percent of you are cackling and spilling Bugle crumbs into your keyboards. If you’re part of that first half, allow me to explain the perverse joy that comes with viewing these photos. The Aspire was a punchline, a disposable shitbox for 17-year-olds to wrap around trees and 85-year-olds to play bumper hockey with outside of Golden Corral. Seeing any Aspire these days is an anomaly, a glitch in the matrix. You thought all of these were killed in Cash for Clunkers? Sike!

Ford Aspire 2 Copy
Photo credit: Ford

If seeing any Aspire is enough to do a double-take, seeing one this nice is cause for proper celebration. It may be aware that it’s a distillation of motoring, but I’m not sure if it’s considering how few fucks its owner will give about mechanical sympathy. Also, look at it, it’s dorky as hell! It’s like someone took a model of a Mazda Protégé, molded it in rubber at 75 percent scale, stuck a straw in it, and went pffffft. Now that’s what I call a greenhouse.

Ford Aspire Interior
Photo credit: Ford

Believe it or not, the Aspire wasn’t a spiteful car on the inside. Sure, it may have been a bit dorky, but this dashboard design is actually pretty nice at this price point. From the driver-centric instrument binnacle to the nifty bank of central switches, you just get a sense that someone cared about every line in here. Hell, someone even managed to design a mid-90s airbag-equipped steering wheel that doesn’t look like shit. That highly-styled four-spoke design looks a good ten years newer than the brick you got in a Ford Crown Victoria. Also, what the hell is in the cup holders? I get that this was a car aimed at college students, but red Solo cups with nondescript tinted liquid are highly suspicious.

Merkur Scorpio

Merkur Scorpio 1
Photo credit: Ford

There are several words I could use to describe Ford’s American lineup in the 1980s. Most of them aren’t positive. Look, the Taurus was pretty good and the Mustang was stellar, but everything else just felt a bit mediocre. The LTD Crown Victoria appealed to the past, a body-on-frame behemoth as inefficient as it was vulgar. The Escort was a bit crap, sharing almost nothing with its European counterpart and being all the worse for it. Then there was the Tempo, once described by Beau Boeckmann as “The worst car I never sold.” Boeckmann then elaborated, “I could never bring myself to actually sell a person that car.” Ouch.

Merkur Scorpio Interior
Photo credit: Ford

Across the pond, things were a bit different. Instead of the Taurus, a European family could buy a Ford Sierra. With rear-wheel-drive or all-wheel-drive, a variety of four-cylinder and V6 engines, and the iconic Cosworth variant eventually available as a halo car, it was much cooler than the Taurus. We got it as the Merkur XR4Ti. However, if you wanted an ‘80s European Ford with a little bit more of everything, you simply had to go for the Scorpio. It was a bit like an LTD Crown Victoria in the sense that it was a range-topper, but it was completely different in every conceivable way. We’re talking about independent rear suspension, radical styling, liftback practicality, and notions of handling. To complement the XR4Ti, Americans got the Scorpio as a Merkur, and it sold about as poorly as you’d expect.

Merkur Scorpio Specs
Screenshot: Ford

However, the Merkur Scorpio will stay preserved in amber due to the existence of print materials and the diligent work of Ford’s archivists. Look at the brand new interior in this brochure, all the nice satin-finish pieces of switchgear and those fabulous reclining rear seats. Bask in the presence of truly accurate specifications from curb weight to shoulder room to gear ratios. This scanned brochure is such a wonderful resource for anyone who’s owned or fancied one of these rare German Fords, anyone who’s ever wanted to see what one looked like when brand new. Fabulous.

Ford SVT Contour

Svt Contour 1
Photo credit: Ford

Aw hell yeah, it’s SVT Contour time. Sure, initial quality of the Contour wasn’t great and even these later models have a reputation for rot, but I’ll be damned if the SVT Contour wasn’t neat. A massive step up from the Tempo, the Contour was a midsize sedan that didn’t really suit the American market. I mean come on, we’re talking about a car significantly smaller than a Taurus, yet priced to compete in the midsize marketplace. However, what the Contour lacked in footprint, it gained in driving pleasure.

Svt Contour 2
Screenshot: Ford

While the Taurus was cushy like an air mattress filled with marshmallow cream, the Contour was a bit sharper, a bit more nimble, a bit more focused on the driver. Well, Ford’s Special Vehicles Team took that inherent goodness and ran with it to create the SVT Contour. Honestly, 195 horsepower wasn’t bad for 1998, especially when it arrived at a screaming 6,625 rpm. Top speed was an admirable 143 mph, and while a quoted 7.9-second 0-60 mph time wasn’t any better than a VR6-powered Volkswagen Jetta could do, the SVT Contour’s short gearing required two shifts to hit 60. Yeah, that’s zesty. More importantly, the handling matched the forward progress, clocking a quoted 0.89g on the skidpad. Nice.

Svt Contour 3
Photo credit: Ford

Oh, did I mention that the SVT Contour also looked awesome? I mean come on, it’s hard not to with a massive skirt package reminiscent of British touring cars and a set of proper lightweight five-spoke alloy wheels. Honestly, it’s joyous to see an SVT Contour in new condition. These were cars owned by interesting people, and they’ve almost vanished into oblivion. As I comb through the brochure, I can’t help but notice the massive array of specs, the period-correct review quotes, the shots of mechanical components. All things mostly absent from modern performance car brochures. Honestly, it makes me a bit sad. Automakers used to recognize that we really give a shit about driving, and that performance numbers are only one side of the coin.

Crown Vic Batmobile
Photo credit: Ford

Honestly, you could get lost in the Ford Heritage Vault for hours. Best of all, Ford’s continuing to expand it. Since launch last month, more brochures and press pictures have been added to the vault. Brochures for British Fords and Canadian-market cars, weird press pictures like this 1996 Ford Crown Victoria Police Interceptor parked next to Adam West’s Batmobile. Artifacts for cars made after 2003 and before 1903. Best of all, it’s completely free to access. Honestly, I wish more manufacturers launch initiatives like this. History is too valuable to be kept secluded.

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41 Responses

  1. I never understood why the SVT Contour remained firmly under everyone’s radar. It was one helluva good piece, both on the highway and — as I was lucky enough to discover — using up a set of tires on an empty racetrack. Ford invested some major engine and chassis development time in that little piece, and it was as delightful to flog around as the Tempo and Topaz were abysmally dull.

    The Aspire? Not the worst car in the world, and kind of a cute little blob. For the price, it gave transportation and a warranty, which was enough for quite a few folks….

    Ford was building — and importing — some dandy cars back then. Too bad they got out of the car business.

    1. Well, limited production would have been a factor. There were only around-ish 2500 per year for the US, and 250 for Canada. Then there was the oil starvation at 6000 RPM when turning right that cooked a few engines. Lots of 3.0 Duratec swaps as a result.

      Nowadays they go away because the insulation on the wiring in the engine bay rots causing all sorts of issues.

      Also, the cupholders both sucked and blowed.

      Mine was a 98 in Silver Frost, and it remains my favourite car I have ever owned. If I could find one in good shape, and find someone who could build me a new harness for reasonable money, I might get interested. The sound when the secondaries opened under load was glorious. It egged you on.

      And the 7.9 0-60? Most magazines got between 6.9 and 7.2.

    1. “…wasn’t THAT bad.”
      That made me smile as someone who has almost always driven cheap shitboxes. I’ve said pretty much the same thing many, many times: ‘Well, yeah, it’s a cheap POS, but it works. Usually. Mostly. Ok; only time I had to walk was completely MY fault!’

      1. The trouble is that mine wasn’t a cheap beater; it was the first car I ever took out a loan on ($5000). Five years old and maybe 60,000 miles when I got it. I was driving from Chicago to Milwaukee every weekend and needed something relatively comfy and reliable that was good on gas. And really, it held up fine, mostly. It ate HVAC fans, and the cruise control only worked for the first month or two, but I put 70,000 miles on that car in a year amd a half without a single notable mechanical failure. So I guess I can’t complain.

        Then I sold it to my brother and he ran it out of oil and it threw a rod six months later…

  2. I much preferred the lines of the Festiva to the round, blobby-ness of the Aspire. For such a cheap car they were exceedingly reliable and surprisingly durable. The number of discarded Festivas that show up on Copart, Craigslist, or the junkyard gem section of sites like Autoweek or Autoblog with well over 200k miles is an amazing tribute to this. I wouldn’t call them dangerously slow, either. Sure, they weren’t race cars, but they were plenty nippy in typical town traffic, and I had no issues cruising the PA turnpike at 65 – 70 mph. This is with the 5-speed of course. Cable operated clutch was very light, making it quite enjoyable to drive, and probably the main reason why ours was still on the original at 219,000 miles when I donated it 16 years ago.

  3. I loved the Merkur siblings, and as I grow older, appreciate the Scorpio more and more (it’s easy to love the XR4ti, esp the early versions with the biplane spoiler setup).

    But the comparison Taurus mentioned was hardly a terrible car, esp. for the price. Wasn’t the Scorpio nearly double? And the 1st gen Taurus SHO version was and is pretty damn cool with that engine and 5-speed.

    1. In the mid 90s I picked up a 1985 Merkur XR4ti dirt cheap from a guy in Trenton, and really enjoyed driving it. Coming from my MG it felt like a starship, capable of warp speed. Two issues encountered ultimately made me let it go. First, was the well-known weakness of the rubber donut style u-joint between the gearbox and prop shaft. They are prone to deterioration and can self-destruct without warning. Mine did, and I needed to get a secondhand gearbox to replace the one that had its tail piece cracked as the drive shaft flailed about when it broke free at speed. The second was the coolant overflow / expansion tank cracked. In pre-Internet time I had no idea where to obtain another one, so I bypassed it which led to an overheating incident. Stupid, 20-something me should have taken better care of it, and I miss it to this day.

  4. We had a black 1998 Contour when we were first married. It was my wife’s first car that wasn’t purchase by her dad for $1000-$1500. Those cheap cars would typically last 6-9 months or so when the engine would throw a rod, or they would succumb to rust to the point where they weren’t safe anymore. It was nice to have a dependable car for the first time. It wasn’t the SVT, but it was the V6 with 170 hp. It was pretty quick, handled well, and had a very European feel to the driving dynamics. I thought it was a pretty good looking car too (the refresh in ’98 really improved the looks), but the interior packaging was pretty poor. It didn’t have much room inside and the legroom in the back seat was tight. Once we had a baby carrier, it had to go, because the passenger seat had to be so far forward that it was usable.

  5. The Aspire was a good car for the price point. The ads proudly proclaimed that it was the cheapest car you could buy with dual airbags (before they were required), so they weren’t cheaping out completely.

  6. The discontinuation of printed brochures is disappointing, but I understand it. I got into cars because I enjoyed reading the brochures. I went to the auto show (the big new car show in a city convention center where all the new models for the year are on display) and collected brochures and giveaways from each manufacturer. Between shows, I’d call the 800 number at the bottom of the TV ads or go online* to request brochures from new cars to be mailed because what kid doesn’t love getting mail?

    Now I get it. Few people still want paper brochures when you can just go online and get all the information plus more multimedia resources. Still, there’s something to be said for the old fashioned paper.

    *Back then, car companies had websites, but there wasn’t much information available, and my dial-up connection didn’t provide the bandwidth for high quality images even if the car companies were to put information up there.

    1. I’m with you 100%.

      As I kid, I used to love pouring over the colored pamphlets with their cars posed dramatically against a dark city street or the obligatory shot of the interior with the manual transmission that very few people ever bought. And loved how the color swatches were always super glossy, so you felt like it was actually the real paint.

      They seemed to be a tangible piece of a potential cool-but-accessible future you could have.

      Whereas now we have all the latest info we could ever want, but nobody feels nostalgic about old web content.

    2. In a small town of less than 1400 people there used to be three dealerships, Ford, GM and Mopar. I used to ride my bike to all of them, check the showrooms and used lots out and invariably end up asking for brochures. Since all of the dealers knew my parents (and grandparents and aunts, uncles, etc) I used to get brochures for pretty much everything. And I grabbed them all, even stuff that was boring as hell. Sure, there was the occasional Corvette or Mustang brochure but it always amazed me that even the most mundane 4-dr sedan had a ton of color and interior options.

      Wish I had all of those now, but they ended up being cut up and taped to my wall along with pictures out of all of the car buff magazines. Understand that it makes sense now to go all electronic, but something’s going to be missing. Then again, there aren’t any manufacturer dealers in my old hometown anymore, so times change.

  7. A few years ago one of my neighbors had a pink Ford Aspire which had a ton of water in the taillights. It was always weirdly comforting to see it driving around, still trucking on, water sloshing around when they went around a corner.

    It also had an odd, one year only facelift in ’97.

  8. VW UK had a gorgeous, ridiculous Flash website for the Phaeton called “Phaeton Universe.” All of the facts about the car were scattered about as points in an impressively-simulated three-dimensional star field. The dots were tiny and the text often hard to read, but they would pulse to life when you clicked on them and, if I remember correctly, you could zoom in and out and pan around the “universe” in a very engaging way. There was so much information in there as well – everything from the history of the term “phaeton” to details about the available drivetrains. As a piece of design, the website was as fascinating, precise, and maddening as the car itself. And, with the phase-out of Flash, gone forever.

  9. Growing up in the suburbs of Chicago, one of our more well-to-do neighbors had a Scorpio. I liked the design then, and I still kinda dig it now – even back then, seeing one was a rarity. That and the XR4Ti were probably the only Ford products aside from the Mustang I would’ve been caught dead in were I of driving age (and possessed the requisite funds) in the 80s.

    I am often nostalgic for the 80s, but usually not in automotive terms. Whole lotta meh back then.

  10. I’ve owned plenty of Fords over my 20 years behind the wheel, and this site is a total trip down memory lane.

    Just don’t try to open any of the brochures, get a cool “asset access unavailable” error.

    Sadface.

  11. I had a 1995 Mercury Mystique manual with the Young America Edition package. The car was white with custom painted pinstriping. The interior was blue with white leather inserts on the blue leather seats. There was an embroidered Young America Shark logo on each of the seats. Such a nice interior.

    I threw on an SVT upper intake manifold with fuel injects, SVT exhaust and SVT rims.

    That car was awesome!

    Unfortunately, the underhood wiring harness was delaminating from itself. I ordered a new harness and ran all 4 harnesses through the engine bay and firewall. That fixed most of the issues. However, most of the switches inside the vehicle had issues as well (windows, locks, AC Fan speed, etc).

    Great car with poor quality.

  12. The Aspire was better than most “real” Fords.

    The Probe was the best US-market Ford at the time. The Apire was second. Third best was the Contour/Mystique, but that was just an Americanized (aka cheapened) version of the Mondeo.

    1. I’m always sad the Probe doesn’t get more general love. Or that I never ever see them on the road anymore.

      Cool car, and the second generation styling was truly beautiful, so well-proportioned.

  13. Man, a lot of people here have more fond memories of the Aspire than I do. It was a penalty box if I ever saw one. About the only good thing I can remember about it is that the seats were pretty easy to remove and I was able to cram my moped into the back of it when I moved home from college one summer. It made a better beater mini-truck than car. 😛

  14. I wonder if that site is really everything they had in the archives. I have brochures for the Japanese spec 96 Taurus, Japanese spec Mustang II, and the 78 Ford of Japan lineup that I can’t find in their archives. I’d be happy to let them borrow them to scan if they took submissions.

    Anyway, I miss brochures so much. I have a huge bag of late 2000s/early 2010s ones in the basement from when I really started going to auto shows in high school and even then they felt much less substantial than the few 80s and 90s ones I already had at the time. I remember requesting one for the 2012 (I think) GT-R and Nissan sent me a brochure from the previous model year and a note saying they didn’t have any current year ones printed yet but they’ll send me one once they have them. That ended up never happening.

  15. If you’re going to namedrop Cash for Clunkers, at least get it right. Not one single Aspire was sacrificed to it since there was a maximum MPG limit. Indeed, at the time you could probably get more for it than the C4C price; Geo Metros were worth gold and a Festiva was the next best thing. The Aspire was heavier than the Festiva it replaced which dinged mpg, though.

    1. You’re entirely right about America’s C4C program having an MPG cap. However, I’m not hugely versed on the American used car landscape circa 2008 because I live in America’s hat. Please allow me to pour you an imaginary pint of Sleeman and offer a quick history on Canada’s cash for clunkers cyclone. It’s a bit too short for a proper article, too much of a tangent to make it into this article, but just right for the comments.

      Here in Canada, any running, driving, insured 1995 model year or older vehicle was eligible for a $300 cash for clunkers credit. Technically it was called Retire Your Ride but that’s so corny that nobody remembers it. While $300 was a pittance for a nicely-kept Ford Aspire, OEMs often threw between hundreds and thousands of dollars on top of that $300 hook to spur on new car sales during the Great Recession. Ford has this whole program with up to $3,000 in cash on the hood for scrapping an older car and buying a new Ford. Not a bad deal if you were looking to move up from an old beater.

      In addition, certain new fuel-efficient vehicles were subject to a $1,000 federal rebate called the ecoAUTO program. I say fuel-efficient vehicles, but that’s a bit of a lie because that program was a bit of a disaster. Certain real fuel misers like the Honda Fit weren’t initially eligible, but the four-cylinder Chrysler Sebring was because it ran on E85. Flex fuel infrastructure in Canada is a bit like mountaintop views in Kansas, it doesn’t really exist. Anyway, during the Great Recession, you could suddenly get lots of money for what would’ve been an $800 car on the used market. As a result, cars like Aspires and early Hyundai Accents disappeared from Canadian roads overnight thanks to massive cash for clunkers rebates that were part of an environmental and economic stimulus push.

  16. So, this is the article that gets me to signup for an account? I’ve had two Aspires, a 95 and a 97. My Dad found them cheap (he has a knack for that, and is retired with nothing better to do!). The first one served me faithfully for a couple of years. 100mile/day commute, 40+mpg from a $400 car! Was, unfortunately killed by a deer. (RIP Suzy Aspire) Replaced with a 97, that consistently got better mileage, and had A/C! But, you couldn’t have both at once! It finally rusted to the point that the rear suspension was falling out. (RIP Suzy II) At the end, it was impossible to get parts. I think I bought up everything RockAuto had!

    1. With a story like that about cars like this, it took you until NOW to join up?! 😉

      I’d have figured someone with those kind of hard-core automotive bona fides would have been counting the days until this site went live.

      And this definitely feels like the kind of story that I look forward to in the “thank you RockAuto for selling me all this stuff” segment of the quasi-weekly email blast. I’d have treasured a magnet with your car on it.

  17. This has inspired me to search for the huge stacks of brochures that I collected from the annual auto show when I was a kid in the late ’80s. My friend and I would attend before we were old enough to drive and it was a thrill to sit in the driver’s seat and rip through the gearbox of a car we’d seen in magazines. By the end of the day we’d have several bags of these beautiful, glossy brochures to enjoy and cherish. There’s a chance they are still stashed away somewhere. Let’s hope…

  18. I didn’t hate the Aspire. It shared a lot of qualities and parts with the Festiva, so it was reasonably durable. It got a halfway decent interior. Aside from being hilariously, dangerously slow, they were reliable transportation for people who couldn’t afford more, and I think that deserves a certain respect on its own.

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