COAL Update: 1963 Ford Thunderbird – No Pain, No Gain

I am not a mechanical engineer, nor a professional mechanic.  Having maintained a growing fleet of mid-century Americana from Detroit’s Big Three longer than I’ve been driving, however, I am in a unique position to judge such sundry criteria as the ease of maintenance, parts availability, and general functionality of the cars that collectively form our automotive heritage and landscape.  Therefore, I’ve certainly had a few late to the game questions for Ford’s engineers since I bought my ’63 T-Bird last year, questions that mostly start with “Why?”.

If you’ve ever been to a doctor’s office, the pain scale will be familiar, although I’ll never understand how someone suffering from “discomforting pain” could be smiling.  Such is a sunny disposition, I guess.  If we instead modify the pain scale to relate to antique car ownership, I can simply and directly relate my thoughts and emotions regarding the “ownability” of my fleet.  For example, my experience so far with General Motors products of the 1960s and ’70s that aren’t Corvairs has been on the green side of the scale, maybe a 2 or a 3.  My experiences with the Thunderbird, however, have been a little more frustrating, maybe a 5 or a 6.  And while “intense” may be a strong adjective to describe a nice year in the garage (a bad day in the garage, and so on and so forth…), I have found some of Ford’s engineering choices “very distressing.”

My first example is pictured above.  This fuel hose, one of three, is completely hidden from sight behind a splash shield.

The cavity behind the aforementioned splash shield is a nice home for 50-odd years of detritus, the kind of detritus that will rust fenders, causing previous owners to bondo over said rust and not look any further into its root cause.  Additionally, noxious gas fumes emanating from hidden 50-year-old fuel hoses with rusted twist clamps can be hard to find when many mechanics, both amateur and professional, would never expect them to be hidden in such a manner.

My experience tells me, however, that when the good Ford taketh away, the good Ford also giveth.  The trunk floor has a built-in access door for servicing the fuel sender so one does not have to drop the fuel tank.  Unfortunately, prior mechanics had not taken the time to use the access door for its intended purpose, as the fuel hose at the tank was also (almost certainly) original to the car.

Another curiosity on the ’63 model is the motive power behind the operation of the windshield wipers–the power steering pump.  Yes, the wipers run on transmission fluid rather than fast moving electrons or engine vacuum.  Occasionally, I’ve found that turning off the wiper switch just doesn’t take, allowing the blades to tentatively climb the windshield in a most unsettling fashion.  Or better yet, I’ll find the car parked later on, the wipers having mysteriously risen without my having touched them.  Spooky!

The next problem is not Ford’s fault at all, but it was frustrating all the same.  The engine in my ’63 is from a ’61 Ford, a Ford that came standard with a generator, thereby having no provision to attach an alternator to the cylinder head.  A past mechanic rigged up a system of brackets that not only held the alternator at a strange angle, but would also not allow the belts to be tightened, leading to an odd honking as if a goose were trapped under the hood.  I ruminated on this issue for weeks.

Fortunately, a company called CRAP (no kidding, they’re on eBay), makes a conversion bracket to convert early FE Fords from generators to alternators.  It was expensive, and I still had to use a few washers to shim the alternator position, but it was a fairly elegant solution to a problem I didn’t know I had when I bought the car.

The ’63 model has a one-year-only alternator, and since mine looked like it was due for a replacement, I also installed a much less expensive ’65 model alternator and changed the wiring harness to accept the updated terminal designs.

The next job resulted in few major issues, other than having to reweld some broken spot welds on a front leaf spring hanger bracket and having some u-bolts bent at a heavy truck parts supplier.

New leaf springs and bushings added a needed inch or two to the rear ride height.  Thunderbirds didn’t exactly sport a hot rod rake when new, and old leaf springs shackled with ancient helper springs rendered my back bumper in danger when I backed out of steep driveways.

The front suspension is mostly standard Ford, with the coil spring perched atop the upper control arm, requiring giant spring towers under the wide, wide hood.  I had to press in new upper ball joints (using my 12-ton Harbor Freight press).

I also had to press in new lower control arm bushings AND replace the (expensive!) lower bushing brackets, as the stud holding the entire apparatus to the car was dangerously rusted, and hidden from plain sight when the pieces were assembled.

Replacing the lower ball joints was an easy task, but Ford struck again here.  The front drum backing plate has to be unbolted from the spindle to remove the lower control arm, because the two parts won’t otherwise clear each other.  Come on, Ford!  Additionally, the caster is adjusted by moving the lower control arm against a serrated strut rod that is bolted to the lower control arm with huge bolts and nuts.  To adjust the caster, I fashioned a turnbuckle that pulled against the subframe.  Shims or a threaded strut rod (like Corvairs have) would have made fine adjustments much easier.  Brute force, as it does in so many other human pursuits, prevails here.

To me, however, the most egregious fault with the car is how difficult it is to get to anything.  The steering box is buried beneath the engine and those HUGE suspension towers (have I mentioned that?) in the engine compartment, and I am heading out today to buy a few cores from a guy who has a lot of cores.  This is, unfortunately, my winter project, because the steering box is worn to the point that the car is less fun to drive than it should be.  Course corrections are constant and mildly terrifying, although I’ve managed to put over a thousand semi-white knuckle miles on the T-Bird this year.  It’s not really dangerous, only discomforting; therefore, I still had a smile on my face.

At the local O’Reilly’s, the core charge for a rebuilt steering box is $500, hence my buying a couple of cores, and this brings up another thing about which I’d like to question the engineers.  Why the constant running changes?  Steering boxes for ’63 models are, from what I’ve been able to glean from my research, one-year-only parts, thanks to a new rag joint in ’63.  In fact, A LOT of parts on the ’63 (again, including the alternator) won’t fit ’62s or ’64s, so it looks like I bought a bit of a mutt.

I’m also going to rebuild the power steering pump this winter, but Ford strikes again.  It looks like I’ll have to move the air conditioning compressor and brackets to get it out, because there doesn’t seem to be room underneath.  My alternative is to remove the lower radiator hose, something I learned to dread this summer when I replaced the radiator.  I also learned to dread installing the fan, which uses a ’61-3 Thunderbird specific fan clutch, because the radiator is so close to the engine…somehow!  How is a car this big so cramped?

Speaking of the vagaries of the power steering pump: To tighten the power steering belt, something that should really be a straightforward job, I have to use a jack and a block of wood, which seems to be the most common method according to the Thunderbird forum I’ve found.  Come on, Ford!

Of course, complaining about my machinery is nothing new, because I’m kind of a complainer, and it’s obvious that I bring this stuff upon myself.  And I love it.  Even when things aren’t really going my way, and the cars seem to hate me, there are few things I’d rather do than turn a wrench.

And although fixing the warm yet fully charged air conditioning is likely going to require my completely disassembling the dashboard (Come on, Ford!), I’ll probably do it with a smile on my face, love in my heart, and profanity on my lips.

Even if the T-Bird may not be the engineering marvel of the 1960s, and even if 12 miles per gallon is cause for celebration, and even though my knuckles get scraped if I look at it wrong, it’s such a cool car.  The hood scoop, the huge windshield, the fender skirts, the taillights, the X-100 style finlets that should have looked out of date but didn’t…these are all reasons to love old cars in general, and old T-Birds in particular.

And even though having a fleet that requires some off-site storage makes no sense at all, I don’t think I’ll be changing anything any time soon.  More updates to come, when I’m struck by a whim.