Monday, August 2, 2010

If you lack patience and perseverance, don't ever buy an old old car

Take it from me, owning three old cars that are all projects can suck all the optimism out of even a saint, and I'm no saint.

I've been struggling to get this '63 Mercury Comet wagon on the road for 18 months now, it was supposed to be a six month project.  The Comet, like the Falcon, is only slightly more complicated than a Model T Ford, and definitely easier to drive.  But even though the parts supply for these cars is pretty darn good because so many were sold back in the day and lots of new remanufactured parts are available, you still have to either pay someone to fix and maintain things, or do it yourself.  Guess which of these is me.  :-D

Multiply these woes times three cars, and factor in that when you don't use a car and it sits, rubber seals start to break down in transmissions, brakes, and engines, batteries begin to lose their charge, mice start to chew on the wiring, and little gremlins move in and take over.

Anyway, I had a breakthrough on the Comet over the weekend.  The engine ran pretty good, but the carhas  had a broken cast iron exhaust manifold, which spewed poisonous carbon monoxide under the hood.  Driving it more than 200 feet gives you a headache.  Had to fix it.  But the bolts that hold the exhaust manifold to the engine's cylinder head tend to rust really badly.  So when you go to loosen the bolts, the bolt heads get rounded, or worse, they snap off.  And that's if you can even reach the bolts to be able to snap them off.

I puzzled over this for months.  Had a good unbroken exhaust manifold, but I was struggling with how to get at those bolts.  I talked to a mechanic we use, and he said he could try it, but if a bolt broke, the engine might have to come out.  (I envisioned making his next six boat payments).  So I waited some more.

Finally while checking craigslist for Comet/Falcon parts, I stumbled across a rebuilt cylinder head with an unbroken exhaust manifold.  Hmm.  I did a little reading and decided I could more easily pull the head off the engine and replace the head and the manifold at the same time.  So I bought the rebuilt head.  Bought a head gasket, and new bolts.  Read up on what to do.

Pulled the old head and exhaust manifold, cleaned up the mounting surfaces on the engine, and installed the new gasket and head.

Without getting too detailed, some parts didn't go back in the way they should.  Took some more days to think about why this was.  Read more online forums looking for clues.  Finally sorted out where the problem might be, and decided to take the 80-pound head back off and look deeper into the engine.  Found the problem.  Put the head back on.  Screwed up installing a part and had to pull the 80-pound head off AGAIN.  Finally got those parts lined up, and carefully bolted everything back together according to instructions.  Then I went to reattach the carburetor.  It didn't fit.  :-P

Luckily I had some extra parts and a similar carburetor base.  I studied both and figured I could unbolt the base off the parts I had and swap bases and it should fit.  It did, but when I finally tried to start the engine, it made some horrible clattering noises and I freaked out.  Shut it down.  Took the valve cover off.  No broken parts I could see.  So tried starting it again, fearing the worst.  Still sounded awful, revved way to high and clattered some more.

So I took a deep breath, shut the hood, and put away the tools.  Thought about the problem some more.  Read some more.  Decided I needed to check the spark plugs, then check the timing (the distributor is held down by a bolt - with a timing light you can start the car, loosen the distributor, and turn it to adjust the timing so it runs more smoothly.  It's a little more complicated than that, but that's basically what you do).

Yesterday I checked the spark plugs, they were OK.  At least I eliminated that as the problem.

Tonight I adjusted the timing, and that made the car smooth out some.  But it was revving too fast and the gas pedal was causing the carburetor throttle to stick open. Not good.  Figured out how to make some adjustments to the carburetor.  Great!

But I'm seeing a leeeetle bit of gas dripping near the hot engine.  Not good.  Great way to catch the car on fire.  And, the new radiator hoses I put on the car appear to have a leak somewhere.  So now I need to deal with these issues before I can try driving the car around the block. Assuming the transmission doesn't crap out.  Or my brake repairs don't work.

Oh, and the new ignition switch I put in the dash?  It works about every third time you turn the key.  :-P

Anyway, I guess my point is, if you love old stuff, it's fairly easy to fix a lamp, or get a chair reupholstered.  But before you buy an old car, have a nice pot of money to pay someone to keep it running.  Or plan to really test your patience.

(Oh, and don't even ask me about the tailgate issues I've had...)


  1. Ahhhh my mind glazed over by the fourth paragraph =O

    I've had a couple offers to buy vintage fixer-uppers, but I slapped myself and reminded myself, a car has to be in great shape to begin with, or it will never get running. =/

  2. While I don't have MCM cars like you do, I have a 2001 Monte Carlo that I just put a grand into to replace the computer modules.

    Ah, the old days when it was just the carburetor!

  3. Our trailers give us enough trouble just with electrical issues. I can't imagine dealing with "vintage" engines. The car sure looks pretty. Maybe you should use it for yard art. Yikes. BTW...I replaced your vowel.

  4. We used to have 2 British vintage vehicles, a 1957 Standard Ten and a 1956 Austin Cambridge, we used to find them easy to work on but then neither myself of my OH are mechanically minded at all! however the breaking down all the time finally got to us, we now drive modern!

  5. Good lord! You have the patience of a saint.

    I too, love old cars but know I have no way of sorting them out when they go wrong. I saw a vintage car getting pushed on the weekend which reminded me why I don't have one.

    I'm impressed by your dedication and perseverance.

  6. Midcenturymadam, thanks for the "A" !

    I'm feeling a little better about the Comet this morning, going to dive back into it again, maybe even tonight. I'm so anxious to drive it around and have some fun with it, even though it still needs a ton of work inside and a little more outside. I know when I get it going I'll be smiling big time, just hope it's soon!

  7. Love the Comet Wagon. I had a '64 Comet wagon but sold it about 4 years ago. I miss it.

    Loving old cars is an affliction many don't understand. But as a fellow sufferer, I feel your pain.

  8. Thanks ranchwagon, I'm really enjoying your blog on your 58 Ford 2-door wagon. The silver dollar find was amazing!