Vapor Locked

It’s spring, the weather is warm, rain has stopped and it’s time to be out driving.

I’ve put a couple hundred miles on the car in the last weeks; by and large, it’s running well. My nemesis, vapor lock, still haunts me though. After a longish drive, at speed, the motor refused to fire up until I shot a few doses of starting fluid into the carb. (I still don’t know why this worked, but now carry a can in the car in case of relapse.)

The Thunderbird is never difficult to spot in the parking lot.

I tuned up the motor a little more finely after that episode, backing the timing off a few degrees and raising the idle a bit. Since then, hot starts haven’t been an issue (though I haven’t yet tried to recreate the exact conditions of the last episode), but I am still experiencing rough running and stalling after long periods of idle (stop-and-go traffic) and after hot starts—classic vapor lock symptoms.

Researching the topic: EFI, electric pumps and recirculating fuel delivery systems appear to be the only real solution—none of them in the budget in the foreseeable future. Long time readers will know that I already run with a phenolic spacer under the carb to fight heat soak. Other, less costly, remedies to try include an electric fan (which I’m resisting as a matter of Thunderbird purity) and an insulated metal fuel line from the pump to the carb (probably my first step).

My tune up was inspired by an observation that the distributor vacuum advance line was plugged into the wrong port on the carb.

A friend following behind me last weekend noted that the right rear brake light cluster is not coming on when I stop. (The highway patrol officer who followed me for a while yesterday did not stop to mention this, thankfully!) I believe the issue is with the turn signal switch. I also believe I have a spare aftermarket switch in a box somewhere.

The current switch is original and was salvaged from another car when I did my dashboard swap. Frankly, I won’t be sad to see it go. The horn brush is stuck in it (so no horn) and recently it stopped canceling right turn signals (always embarrassing). If I get really enthusiastic, I may even tackle the back-up lamps (which have never worked) while I’m replacing the switch.

A Few More Odds and Ends

Our rainy season is finally beginning to wind down, so I’ve been out and about with the ’Bird on a regular basis—just enough for little stuff to start bothering me.

You can tell when it’s on, but it sure isn’t pretty.

At the top of that list was the right turn fender indicator. It was working intermittently, but finally stopped altogether a month or two ago. I picked up a couple of good used units from eBay, stripped them for parts and learned a great deal about how they go together.

The left lens had completely disintegrated

I made a tool from an old washer and used it to unscrew the bezel. Inside the bulb, socket, lens and gasket are all spring loaded. The spring is pretty strong, but I had to use a pick to scrape out dirt, corrosion and lens fragments to free everything up and allow the spring to work.

A bright and shiny new/old lens. Spiffy!

On the right, the bulb was still good (a surprise), but the corrosion apparently kept the unit from grounding properly. Once cleaned, functionality was restored.

The indicator bulb on the right surprised me by lighting right up on the test bench.

On the left side, I only had to replace the lens. The most difficult part of this job is getting the assembly back together against the pressure of the spring. I used a small stick to push the lens and socket into the housing, then did my best to get the threads on the bezel started by hand.

The small, fragile lenses have a small plastic tab meant to key into a slot in the housing. In a perfect world, the tab and key would keep the lens properly oriented. In my world, the tab was broken off one lens and barely registered on the other, so both lenses spun during assembly.

Still, I have bright, clean indicators now (and can stop driving around with the right indicator mindlessly blinking away).

…but the corrosion in the housing, spring and socket was severe. I replaced all these parts with good used.

 

Under the hood, I noticed a while back that I had mis-routed the pressure hose from the power steering pump to the steering box. It should run outboard of the master cylinder, but it was on the wrong side. In that position, it can’t be clamped down securely without the hose rubbing on something.

Clamped down and done.

Getting to the fitting on the steering box is not easy, and it’s one of those operations where you have to move the nut, flip the wrench over, move it slightly again, flip the wrench…etcetera. Ug. I was there for a while, and when it was done, my lower back was acutely aware that I had dropped the front end of the car an extra inch.

I lost a little fluid in the process (messing up my pristine rebuilt steering box a bit), but once it was in place, I was finally able to secure the hose to the brace and inner fender—the final, final step to the engine removal and refresh project.

Lastly, I replaced a missing snap ring on the kickdown linkage. Fun fact: if the kickdown linkage comes apart at speed, it can jam the throttle open. Go check yours right now.

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.)

Re-Aligned

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.

poster
High speed stumble.
00:00
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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.

Re-Engined

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.