COAL Update: 1963 Ford Thunderbird – The Cut And Try Method

It’s been awhile since I’ve read Smokey Yunick’s entertaining, colorful, and seemingly endless autobiography, but I recall his depreciating those who relied on what he called “cut and try” methods in lieu of analytical thinking and the use of data.  Unfortunately, we all fall into this trap once in a while, and that statement definitely includes DIY classic car owners and perhaps even the engineering staffs of Big Three automakers.

Those who have followed my previous COAL updates on my 1963 Thunderbird may recall my problems (that those in the Thunderbird world label “oversteer”) with the steering system.  Smokey Yunick, more accustomed to NASCAR Chevelles than slow, heavy cruisers, might scoff and say that oversteer is a loose ass end, or something else comically vulgar.  When referencing a 1961-1964 Thunderbird’s behavior, however, it occurs when a light steering input rewards the driver with a lurid, abrupt lane change that becomes more lurid and abrupt as speed increases.  It’s usually worse in one direction than another (right in my car’s case), and the steering gear is usually blamed – something along the lines of the spool valve, etc.  Therefore, after driving the T-Bird on pins and needles for a year, I replaced the steering box with (two) rebuilds, new solid mounts, and a new rag joint, in addition to replacing many of the suspension components such as ball joints and bushings.  As I previously mentioned, it was no longer frightening to drive, but also not something to which I’d throw a stranger the keys and say, “See what she’ll do!”

I’ve driven the car in this condition for a couple of years, but I have noticed that the right front tire has had an odd wear pattern on its outer edge.  It must be said that I own more home alignment equipment than most do-it-yourselfers, and I keep a close eye on that sort of thing.  I also give both front wheels a hearty shake at 12 and 6 and 9 and 3 almost any time the car’s on the jack.  I was missing something.

When I got home from a recent 100-mile trip on the expressway, I reconsidered the idler arm.  A notoriously weak part from the factory, the piece on my car had been replaced in the past, and I never noticed any play during my time underneath the car.  As Smokey might say, however, I had been asking the car the wrong questions; therefore, I jacked up the passenger wheel under the control arm, left the driver’s tire in contact with the ground, and yanked on the tire with a snapping motion in an attempt to avoid any movement at the driver’s tire.  Sure enough, there was a fairly significant amount of play in the idler arm, and at least 1/8 inch of in-and-out movement at the tire.

Looking in my 1960-64 Ford parts book, I verified something I had read online.  Ford’s engineering staff seemed to be guilty of using the cut-and-try method of engineering.  The idler arm on the 1961/2 Thunderbird was apparently so weak that it was reengineered for mid-year 1962.  For 1964, they beefed it up again (evidently not getting it right the second time), and that final version is the one that veteran Thunderbird owners recommend for all 1961-1964 Thunderbirds.

When compared to my once-replaced 1963 unit, it’s easy to see how much more formidable the 1964 idler arm is.  Saving metal in a steering component that’s tasked with guiding a nearly two-and-a-half ton car seems like false economy, but there are myriad examples of automakers being penny wise and pound foolish.  Strangely, I could not feel any play in the old idler arm once it was lying on the garage floor, but I had had to use a significant amount of force at the passenger tire to discover the problem.

The new part was an expensive piece from Rare Parts, Inc., a company that produces hard-to-find parts for all sorts of old cars.  It seems like an extremely well-built component that is the only option for those needing a new idler arm.

Needless to say, the car’s behavior is now…better than it was.  At speeds up to 50, it’s much more stable; at expressway speeds, it’s still somewhat overeager on right hand sweepers.  Sigh.

With all this being said, I must say that Ford is not the only party guilty of the cut-and-try method in this short discussion.  Obviously, it took me nearly three years to diagnose a sloppy idler arm.  It took me almost three years to notice that the passenger outer tie rod was bent (although its replacement made exactly no difference in how the car behaved on the road).  One day, I was lying under the front of the car, pondering something, when I noticed that the tie rod didn’t quite follow the arc of the lower control arm.  Oops.

This reminds me of a conversation I had with a classic Lincoln vendor a couple years ago.  He recommended rebuilding the entire front end of any old car so one knew it was right.  I tend to only replace what is obviously bad, because old parts were often far more well-built than new parts; in fact, I simply assume that I’ll have to return a new part or two during the course of any job.  In this case, however, the vendor was probably right, although I still chafe a little at spending around $250 on an idler arm.

It will take a few hundred miles or more to determine if my repair has a positive effect on right front tire wear, but I can’t imagine it won’t.  What has become clear to me is that I will never change.  I will continue to purchase relatively inexpensive cars in mediocre condition that the marketplace for one reason or another finds less-than-desirable.  Then, I will proceed to spend too much money on mechanical parts that don’t actually raise the value of the car, while completely ignoring the fact that shiny paint and arrow-straight bodywork are pretty much all that matters to the average old car buyer.  To twist one of Horace’s Epistles for my own use, “Try with a pitchfork to drive out nature, she always returns.”

As a man well known as an iconoclastic genius, Smokey Yunick would probably agree, and then he would probably cuss me out for working on a bloated plushmobile and not always getting it right.  Well, I try.

Previous Thunderbird COALs: