So I Re-Wired It

My plug wires arrived this week, so I spent a couple of hours yesterday cutting, stripping and crimping. I did this job once back in 2012 with the same kind of Accel wires, but those only lasted a year. (The muffler shop that sealed up some exhaust leaks said they were burned and replaced them with generics.)

I worked carefully, one wire at a time, trying not to nick up the wire cores in the stripping process (and not always successfully either). At the distributor cap, these wires snap in place with a satisfying click. I wish that was the case at the spark plug end, where there’s always a little guesswork about the connection.

One wire at a time. I even labeled them all.

Some time back, I think while working through a hot start issue, I replaced the coil with one of those big, yellow, performance units that Accel sells. I mounted it where the washer bag would normally live and it’s been sitting the, all ugly-like, for over a year. I came across the old-but-still-good coil while cleaning up after the engine refresh and decided to install it (knowing full well it adds an air of uncertainty to change two things at once).

New wires and the “old” coil. I had to re-run the primary wires for the swap. Also, wow, engines get dirty fast.

I was not surprised that the motor started easily—still loving the new camshaft—and the car didn’t feel all that different as I puttered around the neighborhood. Once I got out of the residential area, I was able to hit the gas . . . and the old ‘Bird took off! Response to the throttle was smooth, silky and strong.

Frankly, I was a little shocked. I was fully prepared to check the wires off my list and move on to a new distributor—possibly even another carb. I’m pretty happy, though, that I can instead move on to driving and perhaps fixing up a few cosmetic things along the way this summer.

Replacing these lenses are first on my list. (Well, right after getting the rear view mirror reinstalled.)


I’ve been around the block with the car a number of times now, trying to diagnose the high-speed engine miss and finally decided that it’s not something that will tune out. Nonetheless, it does ok at slow speeds, so I figured I wouldn’t have any trouble getting across town for an alignment.

I took it slow, stopped for gas and brought along the center link I bought but never put on. They got the car done in about an hour. Since I replaced the shims under the lower arms exactly as they were, my “eyeball” alignment was pretty close—saving them some time and me some money.

Cost to install the center link: $25. (I would have happily paid twice that.)

Alignment specs

I chatted with the shop owner, who happened to have a few vintage cars himself, about my engine woes. The usual culprits came up: carb, plug wires, distributor. Since there’s no easy way to test any of these individually, the only recourse is to start swapping parts. Plug wires are the cheapest, so I put a set on order.

For the moment though, I can still manage a slow cruise around town, now and again, which makes me happy.

Eight Degrees

It was briefly and unexpectedly dry today, so I fired up the T-Bird and broke out the timing light.

Back when I bought this car, it was a bear to start. Things improved over time, but it never lit up as easily, the way the Y-Block did, when I had my old truck. Before the refresh, a week long sit would have meant a few minutes of cranking, with possibly a few cough-sputter-try-agains thrown in for good measure.

Ol Red wasn’t pretty, but oh so reliable.

After the refresh, it fired after about 20 seconds of cranking—just long enough to get the gas flowing—and it stayed running, nice and strong. My sense is that, yeah, that was one tired old cam, and it was good to get it replaced.

I’m also getting the sense that in the time-honored Thunderbird tradition, there were multiple overlapping problems with the motor when I started this project. Solving one, as usual, has just uncovered another.

While the motor warmed, I poured in a couple gallons of gas from a 5-gallon jug. (Not an easy thing, they way that fill tube is arranged.) With a tach and timing light, I set the idle to 800 rpm and dropped the timing down to about 8 degrees advance. There was still some vibration at high revs, but overall, things were smoother than before.

I took it out for a 2 mile spin and what felt like vibration in the garage was more like an occasional misfire or hesitation under moderate acceleration. At cruise, around 40 or less (I didn’t go any faster) it seemed smoother than it ever had. Looking back over my notes, I had bucking, heavy misfiring and even some backfires, not to mention a suspicious ticking sound in the motor prior to this evolution. Most of that is gone, so the work was not without some reward.

I’ll be trading in the ‘Bird for an ark shortly.

The ride, with the new suspension, was sweet. And the lowered stance is pretty much perfect—exactly what I wanted. Oddly enough, it tracks arrow straight, at least at low speeds. (I have no idea how that happened.)

For now, at least, everything seems ok for cruising around town. Rain is forecast for, well . . . pretty much forever, but when it breaks, I’ll run in for an alignment. After that, it may take some new parts, but I’m pretty certain I can tune out the last of the misfire. It looks to be a fun summer with the car.

A Lot of Things Went Right

I actually took the car out for a spin yesterday—not far, and not fast, but still a good feeling to feel it moving again.

It took the better part of the afternoon to get the last bits and pieces in place. Earlier in the week, I installed a new solenoid, fixed some broken wires at the alternator and lubed the new suspension pieces. Yesterday, with my son helping, we located TDC and installed the distributor with a few degrees(more or less) of advance. Those were the bigger hurdles.

Looking around, there was still plenty to do: throttle linkage, vacuum hoses, coolant, etc. For most of these, the hardest part was actually finding the bits and pieces in the shop. It was about 3:00 when we stood up and realized there was nothing else left to do but crank it over.

Fuel pressure—right on the mark.

A few shots of starting fluid in the carb, turn the key and—it caught on the first revolution. It took a few starts to get fuel flowing, but within a minute or two, the motor was purring at idle. Oil and fuel pressure were both good, so I set the timing around 18° and let it warm up.

Once up to temp, I revved it up to moderate rpm’s, where it stumbled, shook and backfired—similar, but not identical to the symptoms I had before starting this project.

The oil pressure gauge isn’t accurate by any stretch, but a needle in the range indicates that all is well.

A little dismayed, we shut it down and installed the power steering pump and the new hydraulic lines I bought months ago. The car was still on jacks in front, so it was a simple matter to start the motor up and bleed the system. (It took about two quarts of fluid before the wipers and power assist were working normally.)

Motor back off, jacked the front end down, kicked the chocks away from the rear wheels and down the driveway we went. The brakes were a little grabby at first—not a surprise—but otherwise the ride was smooth (and it even tracked straight). I took it a couple of blocks up and down the street at parade speed before tucking it into the garage.

Out of the weather, finally.

It’s pretty remarkable how much went right. From the camshaft to the radiator to the steering box and suspension—a lot of parts were replaced or refurbished. Except for the high-speed stumble (which is a big except), I’m pretty pleased.

I now know that, mechanically, the motor is sound, so the stumble has to be an issue of fuel, or (more likely) ignition. In any case, the goal is to have it sorted out by the time spring rolls around.

High speed stumble.

Spin Class

The arrival of the (surprisingly very wet) rainy season and a busy Christmas (work-wise) has kept me away from the Thunderbird for a few months. I realized the other day, though, that the least I could do while waiting for a break in my schedule (and the weather), was spin up the oil pump and lubricate the motor.

Looks official enough.

I got on Amazon and picked up a priming tool. The description didn’t say anything about application (beyond “Ford), but the comments on the product indicated that this model, with a 5/16” drive, was correct for FE motors.

Can’t say for sure yet, but a quick Google search suggested that the pump spins counter-clockwise.

I gave it a try yesterday and discovered after a little trial and error that my FE, at least, has a ¼” oil pump drive shaft. Amazon refunded my purchase, and the correct primer is now in the mail.

All was not lost, though—even though it’s the wrong size, the primer tool is the only thing in my garage slim enough to fit into the recess where the shaft lives. While trying to turn it, the tool jostled the shaft enough to engage it with the oil pump. I was able to drop the distributor right into place as  I was buttoning things up, which was a relief.

Looks about right to me.

The weather forecast today is for eight straight days of rain (and widespread flooding)! Hopefully there’ll be a 15 minute pause in there somewhere to give this project another go.

Turnover Fail

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.)

I'm blaming my multiple failures with this thing on a poor design.
I’m blaming my multiple failures with this thing on a poor design.

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.

At the end of the day, some barfed up coolant and not much closer to running.
At the end of the day, some barfed up coolant and not much closer to running.

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.

Under Cover

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.

PCV system, before . . .
PCV system, before . . .

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.

. . .PCV system, after.
. . .PCV system, after.

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.

While the garage would be better, this will do in the short term.
While the garage would be better, this will do in the short term.

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.

Ready to go with a coat of fresh paint.
Ready to go with a coat of fresh paint.

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.

Gloved hands are best for working with this.
Gloved hands are best for working with this.

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 load leveller is a huge time-saver
The load leveller is a huge time-saver

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 motor back in place

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.

New stance

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.

Re-Suspending, Part 2

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.

Perhaps this is why Ford didn't include zerks here. They just don't fit.
Perhaps this is why Ford didn’t include zerks here. They just don’t fit.

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.

This is how much grease I was able to force into this joint with a grease gun. (Photo taken after disassembly. I added more grease and put it all back together.)
This is how much grease I was able to force into this joint with a grease gun. Pitiful, isn’t it? (Photo taken after disassembly. I added more grease and put it all back together.)

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.

I cut a single coil from each spring to lower the car about an inch.
I cut a single coil from each spring to lower the car about an inch.

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.

Full compression for installation. Terrifying to look at, but about as safe as it gets.
Full compression for installation. Terrifying to look at, but about as safe as it gets.

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.

Re-Suspending, Part 1

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.)

Original factory grease on the control arm shafts on the passenger side.
Original factory grease on the control arm shafts on the passenger side.

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.

Standing over the car to do a job is always better than crawling underneath.
Standing over the car to do a job is always better than crawling underneath.

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.)

Old vs. new tie-rod ends. Just slightly different.
Old vs. new tie-rod ends. Just slightly different.

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.