I fell in love with the car right away. I walked around, peeked inside, wondered what it would be like to drive it. The “FOR SALE” sign had only a phone number. The deal was done a week later. The year was early 2009. Seven years and 100k miles later, it’s still mine, although it’s not quite the same as it was back then.
The previous owner (herself not the original owner) had a stack of receipts dating back to her purchase of the car early in the Bush junior years. The interesting ones included body work following a crash, a paint job in the original color (which you can see in all the images, it dates back to 2004), and a coil conversion. Which effectively sold me on the car because, you know, scary air suspensions and such. Little did I know that the kid who bought the car in 2009 with little to no mechanical skills would be reinstalling the air suspension into the vehicle in late 2015. But I’m getting way ahead of the story here.
You know how they say love is blind? Well, that must have been the case here because let’s see, the following did not work: driver seat switch (8-way power of course, so there was no adjustment possible), gas gauge (ran out once before I learned my lesson), tach (those two gauges tend to die together), the switch for the outside mirrors (adjusted them by hand), both door actuators (just pushed in the rod tips to lock the car the first couple of years), and both window motors. The only way to let in outside air was by cranking the factory sunroof (which leaked, by the way). But, not only did the sunroof motor outlast the window ones, it still does work here in 2016!
A picture is worth a thousand words, so here are two – the interior the week I bought my 1990 LSC back in early 2009 and the same car in March 2016.
Since I had to replace virtually everything I basically just let my inner designer rip (you know you would too). One thing that bothers me about the stock Mark VIIs, and I’ve seen hundreds of them by now in virtually every color scheme, was that the interiors were all monochromatic. So I went two-tone with black and fifty shades of gray dominating the overall scheme, plus hazy blue accents here and there. All vinyl surfaces including the dash have been repainted. The LSC buckets and the backseat are from late model run Fox Turbo Coupes (two different ones), those of you who know ’87-‘88s will recognize the color scheme and material. The front seats have a unique story: these were special ordered and built for a Turbo Coupe by someone who wanted cloth Mark VII LSC buckets in his Thunderbird.
That is something that otherwise doesn’t exist, all LSC buckets were either leather or leather/cloth. But Ford built at least one pair like this, for a T-Bird no less. 25 years later those seats showed up on ebay… where I noticed them on the eve of my birthday. Not a bad present.
My car had very few options from the factory (the sunroof was the big one and did I mention the original motor still works?) but Mark VIIs already came pretty loaded. I spliced in the optional auto-dimming mirror, and also searched out and plugged in (that’s all you have to do) the optional Sony CD player (rebuilt) and its partner the JBL amp. Those, however, were all icing on top of the actual repairs which can be grouped under “vanity” and “real stuff.” The former category included all of the small annoying stuff that was broken when I bought the car, plus something like running new wiring for the fog lamps which didn’t work (and acquiring new fog lamps for that matter, because the old ones had been sold by the previous owner – all I had were the empty brackets)…
Most of that had to be acquired used or new. But some items, as I learned, could be restored by simply opening them up and cleaning the metal parts serving as conductors: such is the case for the fuel door release switch and for the underhood mercury light switch (the trunk release switch too, but that one never broke).
Speaking of under the hood, that’s where the major repairs were done. My initiation into DIY mechanics began within weeks of purchasing the car when the water pump blew, a good baptism by fire. The more serious engine work was done in two stages, the top was done in 2010, the rest of it (with the engine coming out) in 2011.
The engine itself has not yet been rebuilt and now has close to 270k miles, myself being responsible for the last 100k. It burns virtually no oil. Every gasket other than the heads was replaced (most of them leaked when I bought the car or started shortly after), along with all the accessories. The car had lived mostly highway miles prior to 2009 and that has continued on my watch, partly explaining the remarkable mileage. That being said, there’s simply no getting around the fact that the person who built this engine at the old Wixom plant 26 years ago did an incredible job.
The trans was rebuilt before my ownership (the incorrect bolts on the torque converter gave away the secret) and the rear axle (3.27 gears) was done on my watch after it developed a howl with the trunk loaded (at around 200k miles on the original axle). The fuel tank was swapped when we dropped the axle. The steering rack was replaced with the engine out and went in with poly, as opposed to rubber, bushings.
Which brings us to the suspension. Early on in my tenure every suspension bushing was replaced (all poly) and since I was stuck with a punishing coil ride I figured I might as well get some handling from my toy. Throwing suspension upgrades at a Fox body is easy, there exist: stiff shocks, aftermarket rear control arms, caster plates, thick sway bars (mine has a Turbo Coupe bar in the front and a special Addco one in the rear), and these cars also really benefit from subframe connectors. Held together by all of the above and steered by a humble AutoZone reman rack (probably out of a Fox Mustang) my LSC lost virtually all of its body roll and turned into a 6-series fighter. Well, almost. It still had a brutally punishing ride.
Two topics inevitably come up when a Mark VII is discussed. Brakes (which combine the actual power assist with the ABS in one unit) and air suspension. Indeed, those were both unusual systems for their day, though not unique. Many a Mark VII ended up in a salvage yard because of one of those two areas could not be properly diagnosed and serviced. In reality, both systems are fairly simple – especially by modern standards. But they do contain critical wear items that will park the car at the end of their useful service life (which is more than most owners expect from master cylinders and suspensions in general), such as the brake accumulators and, of course, the air springs and compressor dryers.
Typically under-maintained, both systems caught up with my Mark VII – the air suspension with the previous owner who converted it to coils, and the Teves ABS system with me in my first year. Keep in mind that I had no automotive experience whatsoever early on, so when the yellow and red brake warnings lights went on and stayed on I did not know that’s when you pull over to the side of the road. A complete failure of the brake system followed shortly (fortunately in an empty parking lot), and I piloted the car into a wall at a reasonably low speed, although still fast enough to bend the bumper and do a good deal of cosmetic damage to most of what’s around it. I still remember the embarrassment and frustration of that moment. And for most Mark VIIs that would have been the end of the road. But not for this one.
The following picture was taken in a storage facility 4 months after the accident, in the town where it happened. In a way that I still don’t entirely understand, the unit regenerated enough braking ability for the car to be driven to a nearby storage; since at the time I did not yet have a garage at home there was nowhere to tow the car back to.
Over those 4 months I not only learned about the Teves system and how to repair it, but acquired several spare working units as well as the new body parts (all of which were shipped courtesy of my friends from the West Coast, some parts by plane, the big ones like the rare Special Edition bumper by Greyhound). The above picture was taken on my cell phone prior to leaving the storage and the car would be repaired that day by me and a good friend in a nearby AutoZone parking lot and driven 60 miles to my new home which now included a garage. The red brake light was off but the yellow ABS light stayed on. I later found out that one of the bumper mounting studs, when pushed inboard, pierced a section of the main harness and took a couple of ABS wires with it. The EVTM soon became one of my favorite books.
Fast forward to a repair that involved the other famous troublesome Mark VII system, its air suspension. The same garage, 6 years later. All of the components have been restored to the car, the coils are gone, the new rear airbags have been filled up. I’m lying on the ground, listening to the compressor run and watching the front air springs fill (the car is supported by a floor jack under the K-member). The springs looked full to me but compressor just kept on running! “Is there a leak,” I wondered for about 30 very long seconds, “but I have gone over everything!!” And then the compressor stopped and silence set in inside the garage. The springs looked exactly as they should. I gently turned the jack handle counterclockwise and it slowly separated itself from the chassis. The vehicle remained trimmed! I stepped back from the car and admired my Mark VII at its proper trim height for the first time in 7 years of owning it, and for the first time since 2005 when the coil conversion was made.
A test drive followed, first at gingerly low speeds around the block, then within a 2 mile radius from home, over all the familiar potholes and brutal road imperfections which now… suddenly felt much more livable. I kept the window cranked (fortunately it was a warm evening), listening to the car. Then, about 30 minutes into the test drive, when it became clear that everything worked as it should, I fired up the Top Gun Anthem. Just because.
So many more stories could be told here, but I’m at the word limit so I’ll just conclude with three things. First: while I may have made it sound like it was all work, consider that this was (a) a vehicle which I have owned between 170k and 270k on the clock – you’d expect some work to be done there – and (b) I still drove it for 100k miles in 6 years, most of those miles glorious road trips (the work would be done in between). Second: the total approximate cost of maintenance has been roughly half of the price of a 2016 base Toyota Corolla (granted, I DIY’d most of it). Which is still more than a nice low mile Mark VII costs these days.
But for me this was never about being practical. It was about taking this particular car and seeing how good I could make it and how much fun I could have in the process. Third but not least: this was by no means a lone wolf project, at virtually every step of the way and especially early on when I still was developing wrenching skills there were people without whom this project simply would not have materialized. If they read this, they will know who they are, and I remain grateful to them for making a semi-decent mechanic out of me and for helping me see this adventure through.
And there’s more to come. So perhaps we’ll call this installment Part 1 – I have a lot still planned for this car. Thank you for reading and, hopefully, to be continued in a couple years.
PS: After 7 years of living with and restoring a Mark VII I feel that I now know these cars fairly well, so if there’s anything you’d like to ask Mark VII related, I’ll do my best to answer in the comments section!