COAL Road Trip: 1963 Ford Thunderbird – Honoring FoMoCo And Buying Trouble In Return

A few weeks ago, I shared some images from a recent October road trip in another Ford product, my ’65 Mustang.  September and October are the best months for such adventures, as the weather is crisp and destinations, both natural and man-made, are abundant.  Because most of my seven-car fleet is effectively stored beginning in November, my intention is always to provide a last hurrah for me and my beloved old cars for the driving season.  This year, I drove the ’63 T-Bird to its spiritual home and the place of its birth, Dearborn and Wixom, MI, respectively.  We returned home on about six and a half cylinders.

My wife and I decided to visit Greenfield Village in Dearborn, MI, a roughly 240-mile round trip, which equates to roughly 20 gallons of 89 octane for the Thunderbird at its typical 12-miles-per-gallon rate of combustion.  Greenfield Village was founded by Henry Ford himself, probably as a means to escape the manic world he created with his affordable motorcar.  This time of year is fun at Greenfield – the leaves are changing and volunteers carve jack-o-lanterns by the thousands.  As a big fan of “Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” both the Washington Irving short story and the Disney cartoon it engendered, a walk around the grounds is always a good time.

I had another goal in mind, however, by visiting the Village.  Ford’s photographers would often park various ’50s and ’60s models near the wave-shaped wall that borders Greenfield Village and Ford’s test track.  The wall still stands, and I imagined that few things in life could be cooler than taking a picture of the T-Bird or the Mustang in front of it, mimicking this ’65 Fairlane from the 1965 Ford stockholder brochure I’ve had since I was little.  Unfortunately, the Mustang needs a new pinion seal/yoke/crush sleeve (long story – I had to replace the seal this spring and I think I got the preload too tight – I can smell hot gear oil, which I verified with my laser thermometer); therefore, the T-Bird was pressed into duty despite its aforementioned thirst for fuel.

I took roughly a million pictures in front of the wall.

They give me a sense of nostalgia for a time when I wasn’t yet born, but have always appreciated; of course, I’ve always enjoyed automotive corporate history, state history, and cars.  Especially cars.

I typically leave the old cars at home when visiting the Village or the adjoining Henry Ford Museum, simply because it’s typically extremely crowded, especially on car show weekends; but on October days, the parking lots are mostly wide open.

Less than a mile from the Village is Ford’s World Headquarters, the Glass House.  I don’t think I could take a more sixties picture than this; it will be a featured photograph on my personal car calendar this year.

We also stopped by the former site of Wixom Assembly Plant, which is now Wixom Assembly Park, apparently the future home of an industrial park.  Wixom built Thunderbirds and Lincolns for years before closing in 2007, although Thunderbird production moved elsewhere decades earlier.

Picture courtesy of Dwight Burdette, Wikimedia Commons

This is a picture of the plant in 2010 before it was razed.

This silent video shows 1962 T-Birds and Continentals being built; mine came from this same assembly line in late May of 1963 on its way to the Dallas area, if the District Sales Office code is to be believed.  The fact that the T-Bird could very easily have been a Dallas resident’s new car during the time of the Kennedy assassination is one of those random pieces of minutiae that I spend way too much time thinking about.

This was once attached to the coil lead.

The drive home was uneventful, with the only fill up registering a record 14 miles per gallon – not bad on a breezy day.  Unfortunately, when I pulled into the driveway, I felt the familiar lope of a dead miss.  I am paranoid about dead cylinders; when I was 17, the Mustang developed a dead miss after only two months of my driving it.  That was October 30, 1994 – 27 years ago to the day as I write this.  Cylinder number eight had only 60 pounds of compression, and the 61,000 mile cylinder heads needed 650 dollars of work in 1994 high-school-kid dollars.  Luckily, a 100-dollar set of junkyard heads came to my rescue, leading me to a life of “don’t fix what ain’t broke” problem solving (usually – I occasionally still fix what ain’t broke and break what doesn’t need fixing).

Later, in 2005, I bought my ’53 Buick with zero pounds of compression on cylinder number eight (what is it about cylinder number eight?).  It too suffered from valves that didn’t valve so well.

Luckily, that didn’t seem to be the case with the T-Bird.  I noticed right away that the coil lead had burned in half and the distributor cap terminals were also burned.  I rightfully figured I was dealing with an ignition issue, but that was (spoiler alert) actually a red herring in this case.  A quick compression test showed me that the dead and weak cylinders were fine, so I parked the car and waited until the next weekend to begin my diagnosis.  I began at the distributor; first checking the timing (it hadn’t moved) and pulling the distributor to check the advance mechanisms, gear, and shaft runout, all of which were fine.

I’ll keep an eye on the distributor cap next season.

When I bought the car, it burned points regularly, and that’s when I made a rookie mistake.  I checked the primary ignition voltage with the engine running and assumed that someone had bypassed the resistor wire, as there was evidence that someone had repaired the positive coil wire.  I therefore installed a Pertronix Ignitor I (I’ve always had good luck with them) and a coil designed for a non-resistance wire in the primary circuit.  As I discovered last week when testing voltage with the ignition on and the engine off (as one should), the primary voltage was 6.5, so the resistor wire was indeed intact.  Whether using the aftermarket coil caused the ignition problems (burned coil wire and cap) remains to be seen, but my intuition tells me I’ll be revisiting the ignition in the future, as the burn marks on the cap seem to indicate a problem with the rotor/terminal interface.

Regardless, I continued my work by replacing the cap, rotor, wires, and plugs, and swapping a stock aftermarket coil and Ignitor from my copious parts stash.  Unfortunately, the car still had a steady, dead miss.  As is often the case with old cars, I had to dig deeper.

One more time, I used a grounded test light to short out the cylinders, and reaffirmed that number three was indeed dead.  At that same time, I noticed that Ford “intelligently” drew vacuum for accessories from a port fed from cylinder number three rather than the plenum where any vacuum leaks would be shared among the cylinders.  ***By the way, I did perform a vacuum test.  It was two inches lower than normal with no severe instability in the gauge’s needle***

I pulled the hose to the power brake booster and plugged the vacuum port on the intake manifold, and the miss disappeared.  I made the check several times, all with the same result.  The booster, which had been rebuilt before I bought the car, was bad.  I verified this by trying to draw a vacuum on the booster with a pump – the pump would not build nor hold any vacuum.  Strangely, the power brakes seemed to work fine the whole time, but anyone who has worked on old cars knows that symptoms don’t always make perfect sense.

With that being said, that’s all she wrote for the winter.  I have some Firebird reassembly to do as a result of some body work that got out of hand, a ’53 Buick with a seeping head gasket, a Mustang that needs about a day of differential work, and a Corvair with a fuel pump that’s putting out too much pressure; therefore, the T-Bird will have to wait until spring.  In the meantime, I used a lot of leg on the brake pedal to get it to the storage barn on eight cylinders, and fate willing, we can get to the bottom of the problem when the calendar turns once again.  In the meantime, I can reminisce about a fun fall day of automotive appropriateness, and if that isn’t looking at the bright side, what is?