COAL Update: 1963 Ford Thunderbird – The Two-Year Rule

It’s been over two years since I bought my 1963 Thunderbird, and although an old car owner’s work is never done, I’ve finally reached the point in my ownership tenure where I would call it a “turn key” vehicle.  If I feel the pangs of highway withdrawal, I can be assured that the T-Bird will most likely start, run, and get me where I’m going.  My dad always comments that it takes me about two years of maintenance and tinkering before I reach that point, and he’s basically correct.  He also claims that I buy an old car every two years, which is not statistically accurate, but not wildly exaggerated either.  This is a quick update of T-Bird time for 2020.

Winter 2020 brought about the steering box debacle – T-Birds and Continentals shared a steering box that Ford used between 1961 and 1964.  My research and discussions with experienced Continental owners exposed the shortcomings of these units as they age; in essence, the steering becomes twitchy and darty, a problem that bench testing does not expose.  The first rebuild almost put me into a ditch, a guard rail, and a giant rage.  This is also a good time to mention that the steering box on these T-Birds is almost invisible in the engine compartment, and weighs about 40 pounds.  Removing and installing one builds character and grows chest hair.  People look at you with envy.

I double checked my conclusions with an experienced alignment shop owner, who confirmed that something was amiss in the steering box the first time.  The second rebuild is much better, but still a little touchy at higher speeds; it’s acceptable, but the car certainly steered more precisely when new.  Until someone builds a new steering gear (unlikely) or I can figure out a way to adapt a different box (expensive and frustrating, with little benefit), it’ll have to do.  At the same time I was dealing with all this, I replaced the oil soaked steering box rubber mounts with solid spacers, which are available from Lincoln suppliers, and I rebuilt the rag joint.

Here is a summarized list of what I accomplished in 2020, aside from the steering:

  • Rotated tires
  • Replaced ignition switch
  • Cleaned passenger fenderwell by removing the wheelhouse shield
  • Fixed the driver’s side power window, which was sticking – a few bolts were loose on a bracket
  • Touched up the drip rails and passenger fender lip with PPG single-stage urethane
  • Replaced two heater vacuum servos under the dash after vacuum testing all four
  • Cleaned the horn contacts on the steering wheel
  • Repaired the blinker self-canceling mechanism, which required shimming a tiny spring
  • Replaced the heater core and heater control valve (aftermarket part that didn’t fit very well)
  • Rotated a heater hose bracket so the hoses wouldn’t burn on the exhaust manifold
  • Adjusted the backup light switch at the base of the steering column
  • Replaced the transmission pan gasket (see below)
  • Replaced some firewall grommets and seals
  • Welded a crack in the inner door caused by the power window motor
  • Changed the engine oil, filter, and differential gear oil

The heater core job was more annoying than difficult.  First, a portion of the heater box around the blower cage had broken off sometime in the past – I used fiberglass “tiger hair” to reattach it.  Second, there are four screws that retain the heater core to the box, and two were unreachable without disconnecting the air box itself from the firewall.  If Ford would have used two tabs (think Tab A into Slot B) instead of screws, this could have been an easy two hour job from start to finish.  As it was, it took a good part of the day.

Working on cars spreads.  Parts and tools find their way from the car and the toolbox until the garage resembles a child’s messy bedroom – “Clean up that mess, Aaron!”

Here is the new heater core attached to the box.  Two of the four heater/AC door servos are visible in this picture as well; two of the four no longer held vacuum.  As a result, the doors would not open or close correctly, and the driver’s footwell was an inferno on a hot day.  In combination with a couple of new firewall seals, my feet are now in far better shape after a long drive.

I also replaced the accessible heater seals.  Nobody makes a foam gasket kit for Bullet Birds, so I made a stop at JoAnn Fabric to buy some material to make my own (fabric stores are lifesavers for people who maintain their own old cars).  The heater is now more than adequate for cool days; the old heater core had several pieces of rust that would intermittently block the inlet, which was my hypothesis before I disassembled everything.  I had tried flushing the core to no avail.

As the summer progressed, the T-Bird started leaving bigger and bigger drops of transmission fluid in the driveway.  I’m a firm believer that an old car’s going to leak eventually if you use it as a car, but dime-sized drops (or growing drops) call me to action.  The T-Bird was starting to leave silver dollars behind.  After adding a little UV dye to the transmission, I found that the pan gasket was bad.  This was troubling, because the late previous owner had had the transmission rebuilt (and it certainly was by the looks of things).  It’s unfortunate, but the quality of aftermarket parts is not getting better.  It’s also possible that someone overtightened the bolts, although I noticed nothing out of the ordinary when loosening the pan.

The rebuilder did seem to use an unnecessary amount of gray goop (RTV?) on the pan gasket.  I usually install these dry, with maybe a little chassis grease to hold them in place.

Regarding aftermarket parts: I’m going to include this as an example; this is a tie-rod end from a well-known name brand for my wife’s 2012 Mustang.  There’s not much to say when quality control misses this.

I still have work I can and may do on the Thunderbird.  The air conditioning needs a complete rebuild, which is not a major priority for me, but as long as it’s there, eventually it will bother me that it doesn’t work.  The paint job is third-rate, as is the bodywork, but that kind of thing is what you get in my price range, and I’m not generally bothered by it, so that might be a “someday” job.  Problems often pop up with old cars; ownership is akin to playing whack-a-mole.  But for now, I hope to see you out on the road.  Other than working in the garage, there’s almost no better place to be.

I’ll leave the links to my previous two entries below: