Six Months

I pulled the Thunderbird out of storage yesterday.

I have to confess, it wasn’t a strong desire to get behind the wheel that motivated me, but a need to get at my shop hoist, trapped behind the car. As it turns out, there really wasn’t much needed to get the car back into running shape even though I’d let it sit for six months.

I never did find the horn brush that vanished, but I did pick up another one (and put it in a safe place). The steering wheel was still loose on the shaft, so it was a simple matter to pull it, install the brush and secure it back in place.  The horn still didn’t work—I suspect I’ve got the connection crossed in the harness at the base of the column. The turn signals, running lights and brake lights are are working properly, though.

Super glue for the mirror. Nice to do a job that doesn’t require crawling on the floor or stooped over the fender.

I also re-glued the rearview mirror button to the windshield, I think for the fifth time now. This time I scuffed up both the glass and the button before securing it with thick super glue and some activator.

Last, I topped off the coolant. The system took about a gallon and a half of the stuff, so I think I need to check for a small leak.

I had the battery on a trickle charge; the motor fired up on the second try. So, I got to the hoist pretty easily. Also, it was date night, so we turned a few heads cruising downtown for dinner and drinks.

The ride awaits.


There’s trouble with summertime work on the Thunderbird. Outside, there’s room to work, but no shade from the intense California heat. In the garage, it’s nice and cool, but I can barely move around the car, let alone open a door wide enough to crawl under the dash. To get the turn signal switch swapped out, I stored the car outside, under a cover, reserving the last few (cooler) hours of the day to do what I could. The job took longer that way, but it was a lot more comfortable.

I thought I was brilliant, hanging the collar on the shift lever like that, until the wires pulled back through when I tried to slip it off.

I was able to locate the aftermarket turn signal switch I used a few years back (but not the wiring diagram that came with it). The old switch came out pretty easily, especially once I made the decision to simply cut the bullet connectors off before pulling the wires through the column. A wire in the switch had clearly failed, so I knew I was on the right track.

In the coming years, I expect more wiring failures like this.

I had to remove the collar to thread the wires for the new switch. That done and attempting to mount it in place, I was reminded of the repop switch’s shortcomings: the mounting plate has to be ground down to fit, as did the steering collar where the turn signal stalk exits (the new switch holds the stalk at the wrong angle), and the self-canceling nylon arms catch on the trigger in the wheel with even the slightest turn—click, click, click, click.

This was the worst part of the job, grinding the original collar to make up for the poor design of the replacement switch. I still have some sanding and painting to do here.


On the plus side, Bird Nest was able to email me a new wiring diagram. (Clearer and easier to read than the original, by far.) And, it only took me two tries to get the switch wired up correctly.

I took this photo as a way to remember how the old wires were installed, but looking at it now, it’s a grim reminder of the cracking, aging electrical system.

Last time I used this switch, the horn worked, at least sporadically. I removed the old horn brush (which was stuck), ordered a new one, and immediately misplaced it. For now, the steering wheel is loosely installed in the hopes that the new brush will materialize.

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.)


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.