Things I Wish I’d Known . . .

. . . before I bought a T-Bird.

  1. A “California rust-free car” isn’t always rust free.
  2. A 22 gallon fuel tanks may only mean a 220 mile range.
  3. A full set of stainless steel, pre-bent, ready-to-install brake lines are only $180, delivered.

A kind soul on the Vintage Thunderbird Club International forum pointed out that last fact to me after I aired my brake line woes. I ordered them immediately, of course, from

“I wish I didn’t know now what I didn’t know then.” –Bob Seger


Break Failure

I bent up a nice looking replacement line for my brakes this morning. I had gotten a decent flare on a test piece earlier, so I set up the flaring tool to finish the real thing. For whatever reason, the final flares both had minute cracks in the sealing surface–guaranteed to leak.

I had extra length to work with (planning ahead for this eventuality), so I cut the tube and started again. As I clamped the tub in the flaring tool, a pin in the clamp failed and the tool fell apart.

NAPA offered me a replacement, but I got my $80 back instead. This job will be finished by a mechanic.


The Right Tools . . .

A friend a while back use to remark to me that a man’s work was no better than his tools, a saying he picked up from his father. While that is not always the case, there are some jobs that definitely require the proper tool.

Double Flare
A look down at the double flare. This was my fourth or fifth attempt.

For the brake lines, I bought a few specialized tools: a brake line bender, a tubing cutter and a flaring tool, which is used to form the end of the line into a tight sealing surface. There are many, many options for all these, ranging from the super-cheap to the ultra-expensive. With the mid-range tools I bought, I can cobble together a working brake system, but I fear it will not have the professional look I want.

The line bender I have won’t handle the tight radii found in the original lines, so I’ll need to modify the original installation to accommodate that limitation. The flaring tool I’m using is a little clumsy and seems to work more by brute force than through superior engineering.

Break Fix
The prototype replacement, and some of the tools used to put it together. The radius on the replacement is too large, requiring the kinks to meet the old line in place.

I have enough materials on hand to replace the entire line for the right front wheel, but my plan is to splice in a new piece at the end to get back on the road, then work on a better approach for a clean replacement of all the lines. I played around with the tools I have this afternoon and built up a prototype splice–the J shaped piece in the photo. I’ll build up the actual replacement tomorrow afternoon to get the bird back on the road.

What was the corollary to Murphy’s Law? “There’s never time to do it right, but there’s always time to do it again.” In this case that’s the truth. I’d like the brakes to be done right, so I’ll need to do them again. I’m pretty sure the ultimate solution will include this awesome brake line and somehow getting a hold of this professional flaring tool, at least for a few hours.

And Yet Even More Brake Work

I thought that changing out the wheel cylinder on the right side would be relatively simple after seeing how the left side went together. And so, I approached the job with a certain amount of confidence.

Frozen Fitting
The fitting that has become one.

I got the brakes apart pretty well–no issues at all and there were less missing and broken elements on the right. But when I went to remove the brake line fitting to the flexible hose, I hit a stone wall. The fitting was (well, still is, as of this writing) completely frozen. I tried locking pliers after the nut rounded off and penetrating fluid failed. I even went to the extreme of heating the fitting to red hot with a torch.

No dice.

Cutting the fitting off seems to be the only real option, but that leads down a couple of nasty roads: either a short piece of replacement steel line attached with a union of some sort, or replacing the entire line right back to the master cylinder.

At the end of the day, I had a lot of tools out, but little progress.

Like many of the projects before this, the question is how much time and money to invest. A completely new line will take some time, and probably some trial and error setbacks while I learn technique. A quick fix still means that I can get back on the road sooner rather than later, but leave “doing it right” to another day.

Decisions, decisions.

Stop and Go

I have to confess that it wasn’t by chance that I checked the left front wheel first when I suspected a leak. There’s been a decided klunk in that wheel for some time, noticeable intermittently when the brakes were pressed. I’d also noticed a veer to the right on hard braking.

Sorta like maybe the front left brake wasn’t working too hard.

Brake Hardware
3 retaining springs and the broken helper spring.

My new wheel cylinder fit nicely into the backing plate. Then I noticed that one of the springs was just plain broken. Remembered, too, that one of the brake shoes was held on with one-pin. Referenced the manual: yeah, there should be two.

And that dangling cable? That should be routed through a guide. But, there is no guide.

Tracking down a replacement spring–once a very common part–took three trips to a local parts house, Bob’s Auto Supply, before a match was found. The new spring came in a kit that included a new hold-down pin that fit, but is not exactly the right length.

Brake Springs
The new spring, when found, was a good match.

The missing cable guide is part of the auto-adjusting mechanism and therefore not critical. The cable itself was frayed and unusable anyhow.

I bled out the new cylinder with my wife’s help after the shoes and drum were back on. (Criminy! Could the bleeder screw be any less accessible?) The brakes were firm and the pedal didn’t sink any more. Also, the klunking and pulling were fixed as well.

I purchased the right wheel cylinder with the left, but it appears I got the wrong part in the right box. The nice folks at O’Reilly’s are working on a replacement. New rear cylinders were in stock and are on my bench, waiting for next weekend. The rest of the hardware bits (correct pins, cable, guide, a few extra springs, etc) are on order from Bird Nest.

It’s been the pattern on this car that fixing a weak link only exposes the next weakest link. This time, I’m ready for it!

Wheel Cylinder Madness

Push the brake pedal on an old Thunderbird and you activate a hydraulic cylinder at each wheel that presses the brake pad against the drum. In my case, for the last few weeks, I’ve been running around with three good ones and one that just leaked fluid when the brake was applied.

Wheel Cylinder Project
Everything has to come off to get to the wheel cylinder

I pulled off the front left wheel and drum; found fluid pooled up inside. The more I dug, the more fluid I found.

You have to dig deep to get the old wheel cylinder out, starting with the drum (held on by the wheel bearings); the brake shoes, springs and accouterments; the rubber brake line; and the backing plate.

Most of this came apart pretty easily, nothing broke and I didn’t walk away with bloody knuckles this time. The four nuts holding the backing plate are pretty hefty and were torqued down pretty good. I had to get the big tools out to get them moving. One of them stripped, or nearly so, and will need to be replaced.

Wheel Cylinder Project
No, it's no supposed to look like that at all!

This is a job that needed doing. What fluid there was left in the cylinder was a watery, rusty mess. New wheel cylinders, available locally: $32 each. New rubber lines: $22 each. Being able to stop: priceless.

I’ve posted a photo journal of the removal process, too.

Two Steps Forward, One Step Way Back

I modified a woodruff key from one purchased at the local hardware store, installed it and fired up the car with the new power steering pump. The manual says you need to bleed the air out of the system by jacking up the front, turning the windshield wipers on full and turning the wheel from stop to stop.

I did that, but it didn’t seem to bleed much out of the system. A quick test drive and everything worked normally.

I took a couple of trips with the car, checking for leaks. Only found one small coolant leak, the result of a loose hose clamp. A few twists of a screwdriver and all was well.

On the last trip I took, I noticed a decided squishiness to the brake pedal, though the car still stopped ok. Brakes are a big deal, especially on a car of this weight and ungainliness. Way back in the archives, I wrote a lot about my frustrations with the master cylinder and the brake booster. Both absorbed a lot of time and money right after the ‘Bird arrived. Little time was spent on the brake system at the wheels, though they were inspected and pronounced sound.

Not to take away from today’s success, but it sounds like a little more brake work is in order. Maybe it’s a good time to remove and polish up the wheels, too.

Key to Success

The buttoning-up process accelerated this weekend. The water hoses went on easily, as did the peripherals I removed like the carburetor and the vacuum canister. Getting the

Surge Tank
Surge Tank: harder to install than it looks

surge tank on was a bit of a struggle. The thermostat is sandwiched in between the tank and the fitting on the manifold, but there’s nothing really to hold it in place. Even with a little sealant on the ‘stat, it slipped while we put the assembly together.

Out of place like that, it looked like everything was ok, but we poured water in the top, only to see it leak out the bottom.


1. Swear.
2. Remove
3. Try again.

The second time we moved faster and things seemed to go together ok. (This is something I notice more and more about this car. It’s hardly the precision engineering we see today, so you have to take it on faith that inside the parts you just put together, everything really did go together right.)

Almost Finished
Almost finished.

With everything in place, I started up the car and let it heat up to normal operating temperature. (Starting the car, thank God, is no longer the drama it once was!) It took a little extra coolant, as expected.

I noticed a steady drip on the driver’s side, crawled under the car to catch some of it. Coolant it was, but all the normal suspects were dry.

When the coolant was drained, it pooled under the radiator, so I finally concluded that the fan was blowing it around, causing the drip. In any case, it stopped after a while, so I’m going with the theory that everything¬† is ok.

Restored Parts
Pumps, water and steering, and the surge tank, ready to install

After that test, I bolted in the power steering pump, which went together smoothly, sort of.

The pulley on the front of the pump is held on with a single bolt and keyed with a woodruff key. I pulled the old key, just a sliver of metal really, off the old pump and put it in a safe place. It’s probably still there, wherever that might be.

Woodruff keys can be fabricated, but I’m going to try the hardware store first.

With a little luck a test drive with the new parts will take place tomorrow.