COAL Update: 1963 Ford Thunderbird – “On Duties” (And The New Parts Blues)

In anticipation of a new COAL subject coming soon, I plan to update my fleet adventures of the past year or so.  Given the propensity for my mind to wander, we’ll see how it goes.

In an essay to his son titled “On Duties,” famous Roman orator and senator Marcus Tullius Cicero said that “no phase of life…can be without its moral duty.”  While keeping a ’63 Thunderbird on the road has nothing to do with morals, it has everything to do with phasing, as I discovered during a marathon tinkering session over the 2022 driving season.

About a year ago, I wrote about a fun trip down to the home of Ford Motor Company with my Bullet Bird, and the ensuing debacle that proved that it is numbered among the malcontents of my antique car fleet.  Burned distributor cap contacts and high tension leads conspired with a ripped brake booster bellows to ensure I almost didn’t make it home.  As you may expect, the problems took some sorting out.

I began the brake booster rectification project by purchasing a rebuild kit from Harmon Classic Brakes in Georgia.  Unfortunately, upon reassembly, some clearance specifications didn’t check out, and not wanting to take a chance with my brakes, I sent the booster to them to repair.  They confirmed that someone along the way (the booster was a remanufactured unit) had installed a pushrod from a newer booster, and they couldn’t believe it worked correctly.  This was obviously a fairly new booster, as the previous owner had apparently had it installed before he passed away (bad parts are a theme of this car).

As I mentioned above, the substantial vacuum leak that killed cylinder number three on my way home last fall was caused by a torn bellows, which bled engine vacuum straight to atmosphere.  Harmon’s did an excellent job on the booster rebuild and it works as it should.

The next and perhaps more troubling issue to tackle was the ignition system.  Upon my return from Dearborn last fall, I aimed the parts cannon at the car and replaced plugs, wires, Pertronix module (I always carry a spare), coil, and distributor cap.  Still, the distributor cap terminals started to burn almost immediately upon driving the car again this past spring.  Commenter JimDandy did me a huge favor by bringing something up that I hadn’t yet thought of, saving me a bunch of time.  He mentioned that the distributor might be out of phase; in other words, the distributor is being fired (by the points or module) when the rotor is not quite lined up with the corresponding terminal on the cap.  This is where I made a mistake by not using the tools I have at hand.

I would have been able to test firing voltage at the spark plug (large air gaps between two points will raise the firing voltage at that cylinder because the spark is forced to jump that larger gap) in five minutes using my gigantic old Sun oscilloscope…if only I would have thought about doing that when the old distributor was still in the engine.  Long story short, I had bought a new, not remanufactured, distributor when I bought the car back in 2018, and instead of using the Sun machine to verify that it was out of phase, I simply ponied up 60 dollars and bought a remanufactured distributor.  And that solved the problem.  Again, one can never count out bad new parts.

This is what an oscilloscope image might very well look like.

This summer, I did use the Sun machine to verify firing voltages with the new distributor, and they were well within the normal range. (Watching the oscilloscope, I also discovered that my two Pertronix magnetic “rings” fire certain individual cylinders a couple degrees out of time compared to the others, and that individual cylinder changes depending on the ring, but not enough to make much of a difference in how the engine runs.  It’s not something you’d even know about without an oscilloscope, which may or may not be a reason to get an oscilloscope.)

After fine tuning the distributor’s mechanical and vacuum advance rates (remanufactured distributors are usually set conservatively for safety from detonation on almost any engine), the T-Bird has more power and less terrible mileage.  I can brag of 15-miles-per-gallon economy on a 200-mile trip this summer, which sounds bad until you remember that this is a ’63 Thunderbird.

There are still problems, such as a perennially-leaking-but-only-at-freeway-speeds distributor o-ring and a seeping radiator that I paid a ridiculous amount of money for three years ago (more bad new parts!). But a man’s work in the garage is never done, and Cicero might agree that it’s a classic car owner’s duty to keep his heaps on the road, regardless of cost or frustration, simply because it’s the right thing to do.  Thus, Cicero may even say that I’m doing my duty, if he were alive today and his mind weren’t fixed on greater things.