I picked up my 1965 Ford Falcon nearly a quarter-century ago, and I still own it and drive it quite regularly. It came into my life due to a string of events centered around my habit of staying out late to see live music on weeknights.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, The Covered Wagon Saloon in San Francisco had regular live music nights on Thursday nights, focusing on a variety of punk/new wave/alternative bands that were quite to my taste. Many of my friends also attended these nights – I had lived in San Francisco for close to a decade then, and many of my friendships had grown from a shared love of music or involvement in the city’s music scene, so these evenings also served as an opportunity to catch up with people I knew.
On one Thursday, near the start of the evening, I ran into a friend and former bandmate who lived near me. They asked me if I was interested in subletting the garage under their house. It had formerly been used as a practice space and recording studio, but noise complaints had ended that use. My friend didn’t have a car, but knew I frequently drove old cars (I had owned a 1969 Dodge Charger when I had been in a band with them). My car at the time was a 1986 Mustang GT, and I debated whether it was worth the $125 a month they were asking to park it off the street (this was before SF rents went skyward in the first tech boom). My Mustang didn’t require constant repairs the way my Charger had but avoiding the constant headache of street parking did seem tempting. The garage was spacious, pretty much the entire first story of the building, and could easily fit at least two cars. I told my friend I might be interested and asked if I could think it over for a day or so.
Perhaps an hour later, I ran into another friend, and asked her about her car. She had some time before picked up a Falcon 2-door sedan with a 289 V8 and Granada disc brakes swapped in. I had seen her Falcon a number of times and once caught a lift home in it, and I quite admired it – it strongly reminded me of the 1968 Falcon I’d owned earlier (which also had a 289 and disc brakes) and the boxy 1964-1965 Falcon body style has always appealed to me. She sadly relayed that the car had thrown a rod, and it was now sitting in her front yard while she decided what to do with it. A wrecking yard had made an offer of $400 to haul her dead car away and she thought that might be the easiest option.
While I’m not someone who believes in mystical signs, it did seem like the universe was encouraging me to get another old car. I impulsively asked if she’d take $500.00 for the car, which sounded good to her. I tracked down my other friend and let them know I was now very interested in renting the garage.
I touched base with the Falcon’s owner shortly thereafter and she seemed quite eager to get the non-running car out of her yard. I came by to look at it – I realized I’d only ever seen the car at night up until then. In the daylight, it still looked appealing. The paint was weathered and fading, and I could see numerous chips and scratches where the original ivy gold paint was showing through the red repaint, but the body looked straight and sound. There were some sheetmetal patches welded into the floorboards – presumably a rust repair, but other than I didn’t see much evidence of rust or other body problems. The previous owner had told her the engine and transmission were out of a 1966 Mustang. Looking under the car, I could see a nasty, jagged hole in the oil pan where the connecting rod had tried to launch itself out of the engine. She said the engine looked to be a total writeoff, and warned me that getting it running would be a big project – she had earlier rebuilt the front end on the Falcon as part of a class at City College, and her roommate was in the process of overhauling an El Camino in the house’s garage, so they spoke from some experience. Though this seemed a project neither of them wanted to tackle, I thought I could manage it one way or another and told her I was still interested. She seemed more than happy to get the Falcon out of her hair for $500.00.
I had assumed that I’d need to arrange to get the car from her house to my new garage, but she sprang for a tow on her AAA membership, and shortly thereafter the car showed up at my garage on the hook of a wrecker – the lead photo shows it as it was being delivered to me, and the photo below shows my new Falcon not long after it was rolled into my garage.
For much of the past decade, I’d been working on cars on the street in San Francisco, and having a garage gave me the luxury of letting the car sit for a few days while I figured out my next steps. I didn’t have a definite plan but I figured I could pick up some sort of used small block Ford or perhaps even find a crashed or rusted-out Ford car or truck with a good motor and get the car back to life, or as a fallback plan, pick up a “remanufactured” engine from one of the auto parts chains.
The first order of business was getting the dead engine out. I would spend a few hours after work each night working on the car. I picked up an engine hoist from Post Tools, and spent several days doing tasks like removing the hood, disconnecting the exhaust, draining fluids, disconnecting wiring, and generally getting the motor ready to be yanked. A friend came by one evening and we managed to pull the old 289 without too much drama, leaving the C4 transmission in place. A pair of bolts and a 2×4 held the transmission in place, and also held the torque converter in and the exhaust pipes up.
Checking the Classified Flea Market (a weekly free classified paper), I saw that Cypress Auto Salvage in Oakland was having a sale on Ford 5.0 HO V8s, as used in late 80s/early 90s Mustangs, and they were charging all of $400 for complete motors. As I owned an 86 Mustang GT I was familiar with the 5.0 motor – a fuel-injected evolution of Ford’s venerable small block. After some research on the internet, it seemed like Ford’s 5.0 motor was not all that difficult to convert over to carbureted operation, although there were a number of quirks and gotchas that made it not quite a straight-up swap. Nonetheless, it seemed like the best course of action, and I figured I could make it work. I had confirmed that the transmission in my Falcon was a 1966 C4, and would bolt up to a 5.0 or other later-model Ford smallblock.
I had planned to rent a pickup truck to get the motor as I didn’t want to deal with dropping a used engine in the hatch of my Mustang, but a friend offered me a lift over to the dismantlers in his forward-control Econoline pickup – he was running some errands in the East Bay and was willing to pick up an engine as part of his rounds for the day.
Cypress had numerous 5.0 V8s to choose from. I was familiar with the various iterations of the engine and knew I wanted the HO version from 87-92 (skipping the 93-up as it had cast rather than forged pistons). After discussing it with the counterman, I opted for one out of a 1989 Lincoln LSC — the “Lincoln Sport Coupe” version of the Mark VII which had an identical 5.0 HO motor to the 5.0 Mustang of that year, with the roller cam and all the other goodies. I figured a then-9-year-old luxury car had probably been more gently used than a Mustang. The motor was brought forth on a mechanical hoist and lowered into the back of my friend’s Econoline. The salvage yard provided an old tire to rest the motor on, and with a motor sticking up in back, his red Econonline unintentionally looked a bit like a Ford version of the Little Red Wagon as we headed back across the Bay Bridge.
Unloading the motor at my garage, I bolted it onto an engine stand and began the process of stripping all the fuel injection hardware and other accessories off of it. The engine had a 60-day warranty, which meant if it was a dud I could bring it back and get another of the many 5.0 V8s they had, so I felt the clock was ticking to get it into my Falcon and fire it up.
I soon had the engine stripped down — the mostly bare long block can be seen below — and I started building it up with a mixture of junkyard parts, new parts, and parts stripped off of the dead 289. Although I wasn’t doing a complete rebuild, a copy of the “How To Rebuild Small Block Ford Engines” book was invaluable in walking me through the different variations of Ford V8s and how everything went together.
While the engine was out, I scrubbed the engine compartment and painted it with black POR-15. This had started as a project to treat a few rust pinholes near the battery compartment and had expanded to repainting the entire compartment.
While I was tearing down the 289 to salvage usable parts, I decided to pull the oil pan to see how bad the damage was. A connecting rod was in the bottom of the pan, and the piston had shattered into numerous shards. The cylinder was scored, and it looked like the crankshaft had been dinged repeatedly from everything flying apart. The former owner’s assessment that the engine was toast proved correct. Were it a rare and valuable motor, I suppose the cylinder could have been sleeved and a new crank and reciprocating assembly fitted, but for a pedestrian motor like this Ford V8, such damage was terminal. I hung on to the connecting rod for some reason, and you can see it in the photo below:
Adapting the 1989 5.0 motor to the 1965 chassis presented a number of challenges. 1960s 289 V8s had front-sump oilpans and a dipstick on the timing cover, whereas the 5.0 motor had a double-sump oil pump (with two drain plugs) and a dipstick on the side of the block. I found a decent-looking oil pan on a late-60s Cougar at a pick-and-pull (I had noticed not one but two oil pump driveshafts in the bottom of the Cougar’s pan on pulling it), and I swapped over the timing cover from the dead 289 as the 5.0 timing cover didn’t have provisions for a fuel pump or a dipstick. I plugged the dipstick hole in the side of the 5.0 block by pounding a piece of hardwood dowel into it – not a very elegant solution, but it has held up for a quarter-century. The 5.0 motor has a different primary imbalance than older small-block Fords, so I needed to use a flexplate that would fit a C4 but was balanced for the 5.0 – fortunately, B&M made an adapter flexplate intended for 5.0 Mustang racers who wanted to run a C4, but it worked for my application as well. The different imbalance issue meant I had to use the 5.0 harmonic balancer, which was thicker on the 5.0 motor, making lining up the accessory drive tricky, even though an alternator and water pump were my only accessories. After digging through various self-service salvage yards trying to find a crank pulley that would line up, I ordered a billet pulley from March Performance that solved the problem, though the lone billet part looked a bit out of place on a motor that was otherwise mostly greasy secondhand parts.
Rigging an ignition was another snag. The 5.0 motor had a billet steel cam, which didn’t work with older distributor gears, and the 5.0 distributor was set up for fuel injection, having no advance mechanism at all. One could either press a bronze gear onto an older vacuum advance distributor, or use the distributor from a stickshift 1985 5.0 Mustang – which I was able to locate online (stickshift 1985 Mustang V8s had the rollercam 5.0, but with a 4-barrel carburetor, in a one-year-only configuration). A mid-70s LTD in a Pick & Pull gave up its Duraspark box and wiring harness which I used to piece together a junkyard electronic ignition. This was at the end of the 1990s, and finding online information like the diagram below made this job far easier than it would have been only a few years before in the pre-internet era.
The engine was eventually back together – the valve covers in the photo below were a last-minute purchase, picked up at the now-closed Gotelli Speedshop in South San Francisco, as it turned out the 289 “Power by Ford” covers from the 289 wouldn’t clear the 5.0 rocker arms, and the 5.0 valve covers didn’t have provisions for a breather on one of the covers.
If I had to do it over again, I would have paused here to clean and paint the motor — as you can see, it’s not very pretty, and spending a day or so degreasing and hitting it with a spray can of engine paint would have been well worth the effort. I was, however, very eager to get the motor back in my car and fire it up.
Two friends and I spent an evening wrestling with the motor on an engine hoist, and after a few tries got the engine in and bolted to the transmission. Another thing I’d do differently if I had to do it over again would be to pull the engine and transmission as one unit, as it’s much easier to mate the two outside of the car rather than trying to lower an engine into the engine bay and get it to line up with the transmission.
With the engine in place, I began the process of hooking everything back up. My immediate goal was to just get the car running and confirm that the new engine was a good runner, and I reused many additional parts from the 289, so my 5.0 initially ran with the 2-barrel carb & intake, the cast iron exhaust manifolds, and numerous other parts scavenged from the dead 289.
After several more evenings in the garage, it was approaching completion. I had decided to try priming the oil pump which involved pulling the distributor and using a priming tool attached to an electric drill to spin the oil pump driveshaft. When I attempted this, I couldn’t get the tool to engage with the pump’s driveshaft. Looking down the distributor hole with a flashlight, it became evident that the driveshaft had come loose and fallen into the oil pan – quite possible when the engine was being wrestled around on the hoist without a distributor installed. I should have taken the two shafts in the Cougar’s oil pan as a warning.
The easy solution would have been to try to drop in another driveshaft through the distributor hole, but I instead pulled the oil pan and put in an aftermarket shaft that was wider diameter in the middle which would prevent any reoccurrence of the problem. Thankfully, you can drop the oil pan on a Falcon with the motor in place. After buttoning the engine back up and refilling the crankcase I again spun the oil pump and felt my drill slow down as the engine built pressure.
With the new engine back in and hooked up, it was finally time to fire up. My friends Nate and Bill who had helped me drop the engine in came by. I had a fire extinguisher at the ready as I’d known a few people who had had initial fireups go very wrong.
I took a deep breath, crossed my fingers, and turned the key. The engine turned over a few times and caught. Bill adjusted the idle jets on the 2-barrel carb and the car settled into a steady idle. We climbed in and took my Falcon for its first ride. It ran well, and I stopped at a gas station figuring I should top off the tank since I had no idea how long the car had been sitting. It turned out tank was almost completely full – even back then, a full tank of gas was a nice bonus.
After driving my Falcon around San Francisco for a while that evening, I pulled back into the garage. I had done an engine swap! And it seemed to run OK!
I popped the hood after my initial drive and saw that the radiator had a pinhole leak. Within a few days I had pulled the radiator and replaced it with a new 3-core. I kept the receipt and ended up taking advantage of the radiator’s lifetime warranty many years later.
Below is a photo of the car a few months into my ownership. I was now driving it regularly, but I continued to work on it and address various issues. Slot mags replaced the steel rims, and you may notice that the front seats look different than in earlier photos. When I bought it, the front seat was a bench seat out of a 4-door which didn’t fold forward, so the back seat was very difficult to use. I replaced it with a pair of buckets – after scouring several pick & pull lots for a nice set of buckets in black, I found a set from a Dodge (or perhaps Plymouth) Colt of indeterminate vintage.
The photo below is how the car looks now. The slot mags were first replaced by a flaking set of Cragar SS rims, which were in turn replaced by a new set of Cragar alloy rims, and I eventually painted the car. The paint job you see below was done at Earl Scheib for a few hundred dollars, though I did all the prep work myself in my garage. I drove the car to Earl Scheib with the bumpers, grille, door handles, and all trim removed, leaving only the taillights in place. These were unscrewed and put in the trunk once I arrived at my local Earl Scheib. It’s not a perfect paint job, but it’s pretty nice for a driver and has held up well for close to two decades. The 2-barrel intake and carb were swapped for 4-barrel pieces (and, despite knowing better, I initially put too big a carb on the car) and headers replaced the cast iron exhaust manifolds. Interestingly enough, the Falcon got around 20mpg when I was running the 2-barrel carb on the 5.0 – the relatively tall rear axle may have played a part. I’ve since swapped in a different rear axle as well – the car had an unusual “WER” integral-carrier rear axle that was only used in a few years of Granadas and which I eventually replaced with a rather upgraded 8″ Ford that I built up.
The suspension has also received a lot of attention over the years. Falcon suspensions are crude even by 1960s standards, but my car’s suspension is essentially the same as was used on the 1965-1966 Mustangs, and most anything that can be done to a Mustang’s suspension can be done to a Falcon’s. I’ve used the Monte Carlo Falcons of 1964, the Shelby GT350, and the Boss 302 Chassis handbook as guidelines to getting the most out of the car’s fairly basic suspension, and after some trial and error, the chassis seems dialed in and not overwhelmed by the motor, and the car corners surprisingly flat for a vehicle of its vintage.
Detailing everything I’ve done to the car over the years would take an article the length of a book – I may follow up with additional COALs detailing different chapters in my life with the car. Below is a shot of the interior as it currently stands. Some time back I replaced the ineffectual pull & twist underdash parking brake with a lever mounted between the seats, making it much less nervewracking to park the car on San Francisco’s numerous hills. I found the chromed glovebox door on a table of random chrome parts at a swap meet some years after putting the Falcon together – it was unlabeled but I happened to recognize it as a part for my Falcon. The steering wheel is a Moto Lita that I found used and stitched on a new leather cover. The seats are the same buckets I found at a pick & pull years ago, but they’ve gone through several sets of seat covers over the years.
I still use my Falcon as a regular daily driver and it has several times over the years been my only car. I often run across people who share fond memories of Falcons from their past – often family cars, although I’ve met a surprising number of people who owned hot-rodded Falcons back in the day.
I’m now well into middle age, and have owned my Falcon for a good portion of my life. Some years back, I remember putting in new door panels, and realizing that my car was, at that moment in time, “done”. Everything that needed to be fixed on it had been fixed. But a car like this, with an owner like me, is never truly done, and I still put in the occasional repair or upgrade, often finding myself redoing something I had done years earlier. A few months ago, I replaced the harmonic balancer which had started to separate. Autozone rents balancer puller/installer sets, so this was in theory a simple job. As is often the case with repairs I do, there was some mission creep – as long as I was pulling the balancer, I decided I might as well replace the timing cover, which I’d noticed had begun to weep coolant out of one of the cast passages. And for good measure, I put on a new aluminum water pump, which bolts to the timing cover – I figured why not, as the existing water pump had been on there well over a decade, and pulling and replacing the pump was part of the timing cover job. When the timing cover was off, I also checked the timing chain slack, and found that the 5.0s stock double-roller chain was holding up well and was within tolerances, thankfully avoiding the need to replace the timing set. And with the timing cover off, it briefly crossed my mind that it would be a good time to swap the cam — I’d read an article about using a magnetized set of tools to lift the 5.0s roller lifters so a cam could be swapped in without pulling the intake manifold. I nipped that last impulse in the bud, though, as I could see myself taking weeks to research and decide on a cam, and I was sure my Falcon would present me with more opportunities to get my hands dirty in the future.