It’s a busy season for me, work-wise, so the Thunderbird has been sitting quietly for a while. It’s been damp, so I’ve had some concerns about moisture condensing in the motor, leading potentially to rust.
My plan today was to crank the motor over with the plugs out (i.e. as fast as it would spin) to see if I can get oil flowing. I’m still not convinced that the distributor fully seated on the oil pump drive shaft, so as a test, I figured I’d crank it a while, then pull the oil filter to check that the system is working.
I began by tightening up the coolant lines and adding coolant to the system, just for good measure. I got about 2 gallons in before water started to leak. Swearing, I flowed the flow of water up to the thermostat housing. The stat didn’t seat properly, so coolant was pouring out freely where the surge tank bolts to the block. (This is exactly what happened to me the last time I had this thing off. Ug.)
Daylight was fading, and I figured I could still give the motor a spin even without coolant. I hooked up the battery (fresh from the trickle charger) and turned the key.
The motor spun freely, but I wanted to be able to see what I was doing. Under the hood, I jumped the contacts on the solenoid, a trick I remembered from my youth.
Memory is strange, though. I must have gotten something wrong. Instead of cranking the motor, I fried the solenoid—killed it, in fact.
So, a bad day with the car. I’ve got a short shopping list: gaskets, solenoid, thermostat (in case the old one is bent), more coolant, and some fuel line. Tomorrow will hopefully be better.
Shortly after I got the engine installed, an unusually heavy early-season rainstorm appeared in the forecast, and I had a choice between rushing through the final steps of the engine and suspension project or preparing for the coming weather. (The car’s interior is reasonably weather-resistant, but I still have a considerable leak into the trunk.) I hated the idea of rushing things at the end, so when I found a reasonably priced car cover (only $40!), the deal was sealed.
I spent the week cleaning oil-caked parts, painting those that had never been off the car and occasionally repainting items that I’d done before, but have seen some wear and tear over the years—like the braces that run from the shock towers to the firewall.
Working steadily over the week, I closed up the motor some more by installing the carb, new spark plugs and the distributor. The most difficult task was the small shaft under the distributor that drives the oil pump. Originally, I think, there was a snap ring installed on these to hold it in place. Mine doesn’t have that, and it simply fell out when I turned the motor over while on the stand. I thought it would be easy to drop it in again. Instead, it landed slightly askew in the recess, too far down to be removed and in a spot too narrow to reach with most tools. I could touch it with a skinny flat-bladed screwdriver, but didn’t have the leverage to straighten it up or pry it back out. Finally, I used the distributor itself to ease everything into place. Everything seemed to seat properly, but it’s one of those things you can’t verify visually. I’ll have to wait until the motor is ready to turn over before I know for sure that all is well.
I also struggled with the dipstick tube. The one on the engine was in two pieces connected with a short piece of rubber fuel line. I bought a replacement and tried to install it after the motor was back in. The tube is a press fit and a pretty tight one at that. It’s curved, so tapping one end with a mallet doesn’t drive it in; it can’t be twisted in either—too many things interfere. I finally resorted to a grinder and file to shave the tube down a bit, then installed it with some sealant. I now understand why someone would cut the thing and install it the way it was. I’m not sure my way will be better, leak-wise.
By the time the rain started, I had the alternator, radiator, fan, pcv system and other items installed. I still need to crawl under the car to get the exhaust hooked up and starter installed. On top, the power steering pump is cleaned and ready to go, including all new hoses.
I broke out the compressor and spray gun last week and shot the motor with a coat of black engine enamel, then followed up with high-heat paint on the exhaust manifolds. With those installed, it was time to get the motor back where it belonged.
On the day of installation, I crawled into the engine bay one last time to remove the old seals around the exhaust collectors. The replacements are round, soft-metal donuts, but the old ones are some kind of metal tape. I used a chisel and a hammer to break them free, then just unwrapped the rusty mess.
While there, I also checked on the torque converter. Chatting with my transmission guy, I learned that it needs to be fully seated—three clicks while pushing it in—or there’s a risk to internal transmission damage when the motor is drawn up to the bellhousing.
The most difficult part of the installation was lining up the studs on the torque converter with the holes in the flywheel. I worked underneath the car while my son operated the hoist and manhandled the motor into place. (My hoist, when pushed all the way up against the front bumper, held the engine just about an inch short of the bellhousing, so there was a lot of pushing involved at the end.)
The first time everything mated up, I could see that the converter was not in all the way—either I failed to seat it or it got pulled partially out while trying to get everything in place. We had the lift the motor away, enough to get a hand in there and push it back into place (and then start over!)
I left the motor mounts off the block during the install. It was one less thing to line up and think about. Once we had a couple of bolts holding the motor to the bellhousing, reinstalling the mounts was simple. From there, we could drop the motor all the way down and insert the bolts at the top of the housing.
The hood is heavier than it looks and is definitely a two-man job. My son lives a fair distance away, so even though we were tired, we took a stab at putting it back on. Unfortunately, we lost control of it briefly and put a scratch in the cowl as a result. Except for that minor mishap, all went well. We needed three hours, all told, to get the motor in place.
There is still quite a lot of work to do before the engine is running, and even though much of that is under the car, we took it off the stands—just for fun—to see how the new stance looks with the shorter front springs.
I don’t see a dramatic change, but it certainly looks good back on the ground. The poor bird is filthy after a few months in the elements—I hope to get it cleaned up a bit this evening.
I was a little anxious about the upper control arm shafts, as the manual is uncharacteristically detailed about their assembly: making sure that they are exactly centered, then using a spacer to hold the ends of the arm apart while bringing everything to the final torque specifications.
As is often the case when using aftermarket parts, the instructions in the manual didn’t really apply. As I understand it, the two nuts at the ends have complementary threads that are the same pitch for both the control arm and the shaft. As you thread the nuts into the arm, you are also turning the nut on the shaft at the same rate.
Over the years, at least on my car, the stamped steel arm has developed rust and pitting, so the threads are rough and degraded. Even after cleaning the arm, lubricating the threads and buying a 1 3/8″ socket (for a firm grip on the nuts), I still needed extra leverage—beyond the 100 ft/lb torque spec—to get the control arms shafts installed.
Getting the shafts centered wasn’t an issue; if you start with them in the center, even if they shift, they can be threaded back into place. Before installation, I just made sure that they were centered properly in the arms.
I did make a spacer from ¾” pipe, but only used it once. The aftermarket shafts have longer threads than stock, so installing the nuts on the ends does not compress or distort the arm—or so it appeared to me.
Before I compressed the springs, I did a quick test fit in the car to make sure the upper arm went in ok. Unlike the original, the new shafts include 90° grease zerks, screwed on to the ends of the nuts. I thought these were a good idea, until I realized that on one end, the zerk interferes with the shock tower.
I hadn’t put grease on the threads of the shaft during assembly, thinking that I would lube the entire suspension after installation. I swapped out the 90° fitting for a straight one (which is shorter, and does clear the tower). Knowing that I could never get a grease gun on this fitting once the arm was installed in the car, I tried to inject some grease into the shaft.
It turns out, I wasn’t able to get much grease in there. I’m guessing that the threads seal tightly, so the grease won’t flow into the fitting. It’s lucky, I guess, that I found this before the springs were in and the assembly all together. At least this way, I could disassemble the shafts from the arms, grease them thoroughly, reassemble, the proceed with fitting it all together in the car—without having to remove the springs a second time!
But it was a lot of extra work. And someday, someone (possibly me), will wonder why there’s a grease fitting in there that no one can reach.
Once the upper arms were assembled, I loosely attached the upper ball joint to the knuckle, set the upper arm more-or-less in place, then compressed the spring. (Earlier, I had cut a coil from each spring; not to make installation easier—though it did!—but to change the stance of the car a bit.)
This time around, I used a vintage Moog compressor, which I spent a fortune to buy off of eBay.
It was worth every penny.
The compression went smoothly, and though I never feel truly safe around a compressed spring, I was able to install it in the car, lift the upper arm into place, and bolt it in securely while never feeling that the compressor was going let loose on me.
I clamped a pair of lock pliers on the spring to keep it from spinning during decompression, which worked about as well as you’d guess—just when you need them the most, they slip off and everything falls out of kilter. With patience, though, I was able to get the springs decompressed and in place. I used a jack under the lower arms to put some test weight on the suspension, and everything appeared to work normally.
By the end of the day, everything was torqued to spec, the backing plate, hub and drum were on, and all I had left to do under the car was the steering components.
I just might get this all done before the rains after all.
I disassembled the right side suspension a few days ago. With some experience under my belt (and a better spring compressor), the entire process only took 2-3 hours, most of that spent on the spring. (It took some time to figure out the compressor operation. It’s a vintage tool, and the original instructions were long gone.)
When I took apart the right side upper control arm, I was a little surprised to find it in pretty decent shape. Both ends still had a considerable amount of the factory grease and there was little wear.
With the lower arms refurbished (new ball joints and bushings) I bolted them back into the car today. Having the engine out was a bit of a help, especially when it came to torquing some of the nuts down. (More details about reassembly are on the repair journal for this job.)
I’ll be replacing the tie-rod ends before everything is said and done, but need to order a few more parts. The new ends are slightly smaller and were loose in the existing adjusting sleeve, which I thought I could re-use. I’ll have to order a couple of these before the steering goes back together.
If I can get the new control arm shafts installed tomorrow, there’s some chance the rest of the suspension reassembly will get done over the holiday weekend, on schedule.
I’ve got most of the motor back together and ready to go. I’ve had the valve covers off a couple of times when the motor was in the car, and it was always a bit of a mess trying to get the gasket to stay in place and keep sealant from spreading everywhere. The job is, of course, far easier with the motor out, and I think I’ve got a nice, tight, leak-free seal on both banks.
I did the job twice, it turns out. After I got them installed, I couldn’t recollect if I had cleaned the covers on the inside before they went on. Rather than risk running dirt, wire wheel splinters and the like through my refreshed motor, I pulled them off to check. Sure enough, they were dirty inside, so time and money well spent.
The water pump is also on, so now I just need to do a final degreasing, masking and painting.
Except for the bushing on the lower control arm, which I farmed out, I’ll be reassembling this side of the suspension myself the next couple of days with plans to have both sides done by the end of this weekend.
I’ve been making slow, steady process on the motor over the last few weeks, cleaning up parts and taking my time with the assembly. (I would really like to end up with a motor that doesn’t leak!) I had been putting off the daunting task of cleaning the rusty, greasy intake manifold. When I did dive into the project (with wire wheels, acetone, steel wool and lots of gloves) it took about 6 hours to finish. There are still a few nooks and crannies that could be better. If I had to do it over again, I’d pay a shop to clean it up for me. As it is, I think paint will stick ok.
Once I have it reinstalled , I can proceed to the rocker arm shafts and valve covers. At that point, I’ll be just about ready to paint.
With the calendar slipping into August, though, I realized I need to pick up the pace. Since I’m using the garage as an engine assembly shop and paint booth, the car is outside on jack stands. It doesn’t rain during the summer here, but it would not be a shock to have some precipitation in September. It would be great to have the ‘Bird back in the garage before that happens.
So, this morning I ordered up a whole bunch of front suspension and steering components: upper and lower control arm shafts and bushings, tie rod ends, ball joints and a center link. I’m told (and whole-heartedly believe) that replacing these parts will be far easier with the motor out. The steering box came back some weeks ago, cleaned, sealed and rebuilt; when done, the front end should be like new.
With the engine out, I’m in full mission-creep mode, and I’ll be attempting a lot of work on the front suspension this summer. First on my list is getting the steering box rebuilt. I never found the steering all that loose, but it leaks like crazy and I’m pretty tired of pouring Type F in the top of the system only to clean it off the floor a few days later.
The steering box in held on with three bolts, though you need to detach hoses, the steering column and the inevitable ground strap to make sure it actually comes out when the bolts are removed.
It is, of course, also attached to the suspension via the pitman arm, which requires a special puller to remove. I tried to use my steering wheel puller for the job, but quickly realized it wouldn’t work. A local auto parts store loans the proper tool for free, but I had to wait a few days for it to become available. Once I had it, the arm came off in just a few minutes.
I thought at first that I could use a jack to lower the box when it was loose, but there’s no real flat surface on the bottom to rest the jack, and it appeared that the box needs to slide sideways a bit before it drops down. The darn thing is heavy and I didn’t want it falling to the ground, so I wrapped a chain around it and hooked it to my engine hoist, which worked pretty well: with the bolts out, I could lower the box a bit, maneuver it around obstacles, lower again, rinse and repeat.
When it got close to the ground I slipped the chain off and lowered it the rest of the way by hand, where it fell over a barfed up a few more ounces of fluid (of course!) I’ll be off to the rebuilders a little later this week.
As it turns out, I will likely leave the bottom end of the motor alone. I’ve had a chance to examine things more fully and discussed the engine with the owner of a local machine shop.
First, I saw that the pistons are marked “60over”, so the cylinders have been bored .060 inches oversized—as far as they can be taken. Likewise, the valve guides were simply bored out and replacement valves with oversized stems (now long since discontinued) were used. I have no doubt that the crank was turned down as far as it could go as well.
I doubt that a valve job is absolutely necessary, since the engine was not using oil, but if it is, it will require new guides and new valves—pretty pricey. Likewise, once the cylinder walls are too far worn, sleeving and new pistons will be required. I think the only option for the crank, when the time comes, would be to find a new one.
What this adds up to, sadly, is an engine nearing the end of its service life It’s not there yet, though. With reconditioned heads, a new cam and proper maintenance, I can still get a number of good years out of this motor. However, there’s certainly no reason to pull it apart further right now.
I’ve spent some time this week pulling the 390 apart, a task that was not as easy as I expected.
I think the intake manifold is actually heavier than the heads. I had to use my hoist to break it free and lower it to the ground. The head bolts came free easily using a breaker bar. I also used the hoist to separate them from the block and lower them to the floor. (I know from my younger days that it’s a terrible feeling to drop one of these.)
I discovered that the water jacket openings at the back of heads, by the #8 and #5 cylinders, were full of debris and completely blocked. Also, the intake valve in the #8 cylinder is discolored like an exhaust valve—yet another reason to suspect that it’s the source of the misfire.
It took a few days to get the harmonic balancer off. I couldn’t budge the bolt with just a breaker bar. I finally found time to pick up a piece of pipe I could slip over the bar to get more leverage. This is normally a terrible idea, since breaking the bolt or the tool is a strong possibility. In this case, I got lucky and the bolt groaned free.
After that, it was pretty simple to get down to the thrust plate, which is held on with big phillips-head screws. I had to give these a tap with a hammer before I could turn them.
Thrust plate off, I was able to remove the camshaft. I expected it to have some problems, especially down on the end where #8 lives, but it was pretty horrible along the whole length. There was corrosion, pitting, flat spots and uneven wear on every lobe.
I don’t exactly know how the condition of the cam relates to the misfire I was experiencing, but I do know that it needs to be replaced. It also looks like a lot of debris (rust?) has worn off the cam and has been circulating in the oil, so I’ll tear down the rest of the block so it can be thoroughly cleaned and inspected.