Being friends with my co-founder, David Tracy, has some serious advantages, if you’re willing to really exploit some of David’s core traits. First, he’s incredibly — even selflessly — generous, and second, he has an almost uncontrollable compulsion to buy old cars. He can’t help himself, from either of these things. If you are lucky enough to be in his line of sight when these two urges surge up in his brain, consuming his thoughts entirely, making his hands ball up into fists and his mind attempt to probe Facebook Marketplace via sheer force of will, then you can make out like a bandit. I know because I did. You see, David bought a 1989 Ford F-150, and I get to effectively own it. Of course, nothing is ever truly free, as I paid significantly in shitshowery getting it back to my home.
David Could No Longer Resist The Legendary 300 Inline-Six
As you may know, David has been making a concerted effort to thin out his flock of cars, because he’s either thinking of moving or joining some cult or joining the Navy or some bullshit; I’m not entirely sure, as the plans change hourly and it’s pretty easy to tune it all out, but the point is David has decided he’s not in a place where he wants to add more cars to his fleet, but that does nothing to quell his powerful old-car-buying urges.
So, when David came across this “Bricknose” 1989 Ford F-150 on Facebook Marketplace, it had all those traits that his own peculiar set of pleasure neurons need to fire: a combination of honest wear, a certain workhorse sensibility, just the right level of mechanical stoutness, and a bunch of other ineffable but powerful traits that combine in David’s mind under the vague automotive category he calls “soul.”
I think it’s different for everyone, but in this case, for David, it worked out to a T18 four-speed manual transmission (the almost tractor-like kind with the ulta-low first “granny” gear); a bench seat; a rough, home paint job (in the pictures it looks burgundy but in person it’s very purple); and, I think most importantly to David, it had Ford’s 300 cubic inch (4.9 liter) inline-six engine, one that David has held in reverence for years, as you can see here.
It’s a legendary engine, known for its incredible indestructible nature, and I think David just desperately wants one to tinker with. So, now he finally has a chance to get one, and it’s conveniently wrapped in a whole truck, too.
I spoke with the seller, a nice man named Clark, who showed me around the truck via Facetime and confirmed that this old brute indeed had a mere 159,000 miles on it, which is pretty much just a healthy middle age for one of those Ford inline-sixes. We agreed on $2,500 for the truck, and and I made a plan to get a friend to drive me the three hours from Chapel Hill, North Carolina to the truck in rural Virginia.
David and I were as excited as a couple of schnauzers who’d just chewed through a plastic bag of frozen meatballs, and almost as smart.
My 11 year-old kid Otto came with me for this little adventure, and I loaded up all the supplies David demanded I bring: two gallons of motor oil, an oil filter, a gallon of this expensive gear oil that looks almost exactly like honey, my socket set, an adjustable wrench, an oil catch pan, and some other crap.
My friend T.Mike drove us up, and proved the fundamental tenet of truck ownership – that once you have a truck, everyone is going to want to borrow it – by asking me to move some furniture from his mom’s house (not too far away, in Virginia) before I even actually took ownership of the pickup. That’s impressive.
Our First Look At The Farm Truck
We got to where the truck lived, and found a verdant little bucolic wonder, complete with geese and chickens that my kid found delightful.
Oh, and there were friendly, dirty little pigs, too:
And, of course, the truck looked very much at home in this storybook environment, complete with FARM USE license plates, front and rear:
I looked it over, rolling under it looking for rust (minimal! Frame rails look great!). The interior was quite clean, with its vast bench seat free of tears and the dash free of cracks. That inline-six started right up, I drove it around the block, and everything checked out just fine. Yes, I think this big old grape/eggplant/aubergine/Grimace-colored truck will work just fine.
I handed Clark an envelope full of cash, we did the traditional key-exchange/handshake photo, and I was now the owner of a truck someone else paid for — the American Dream.
At this point I was also told that the truck had a name: “The Marshall.”
As an aside, one of the details I like best about this era of F-150 is the badge typography, which is surprisingly whimsical and kooky for such a work-oriented machine:
Modern F-150 badging is much more serious and industrial-looking, without the odd, friendly curves and top-heavy look of the ’89 F-150:
I kinda like the goofier old badging, but that’s me.
Changing The Transmission Oil
The first thing David demanded I do was to change the gear oil in that old tractor-like T18 four-speed transmission, and since he’s the man who coughed up the money for the truck, I have to listen, so Otto and I found an empty industrial facility’s parking lot and crept into a corner where I could perform the oil change.
I haven’t done this sort of transmission gear oil change before; I’ve changed transmission oil before, but not this one, and doing it out far from home in the middle of nowhere wasn’t exactly my first choice, but what David wants, David gets. Well, at least for this.
Changing gear oil in these transmissions always requires use of a pump, and the thick, creamery gear oil we were using takes a good bit of firm pumping, which was kind of awkward under there, trying to keep the hoses from popping out and just the tiring muscling of that pump, in and out, in and out. I didn’t get a picture since I was, you know, under the truck, but it looked sort of like this:
Otto was surprisingly patient, for an 11 year-old, which I attribute to the wonder of being in an industrial parking lot full of strange, new forms of gravel and the occasional partially-crushed bit of metal.
I got the gear oil in (special “yellow metal-friendly” GL4, as David – who had seen too much water contaminated transmission oil in his day to let me drive three hours on whatever was already in the case — had requested), and was ready to head out on the road. My friend who’d driven us up texted me the address of his mom’s place where I would pick up the furniture, so we headed off.
This is the point where everything started to go to shit.
The Truck Won’t Start
For some reason, my phone wasn’t getting charged by the cigarette-lighter USB plug I had, and soon died. I needed it for directions, so we found a gas station where I could either find a little USB charger or steal some electricity from an outlet, which I eventually did. With the phone back on, I clicked the address link in his text, saw it was about two hours away, and followed my navigation.
But the truck wouldn’t start. The battery was dead. I wasn’t in a position to roll-start it, so I asked a guy with a new F-150 for a jump; he thankfully obliged. This is what your 9th grade English teacher would have called “foreshadowing,” and then underlined twice on the blackboard before turning his chair backwards and telling you that poetry is really just like rap, and old Bill Shakespeare is the baddest MC there ever was.
Driving Two Hours In The Wrong Direction Cost Me Big
We headed off, following the directions, and I was paying special attention to how the truck ran and shifted, which was very well and with some difficulty, respectively. I mean, I think that’s just how this very rugged transmission is – it takes some force to get into gear, and I think the clutch adjustment is a bit off, because it creeps a bit even with the clutch all the way in.
But, otherwise, the thing runs like a champ! It’ll do a comfortable 65 at about 2000 RPM in 4th which is better than I expected. It doesn’t feel nearly as sluggish as I thought it might, but then again, remember my usual daily driver makes about 53 hp.
The trip went fine, and we eventually got to the address and looked around to find that…it was the right address in the wrong fucking city.
I have no idea what happened, but when I clicked the link, it sent us two hours in the exact wrong direction, and I had no idea, being unfamiliar with the area and where my friend’s mom lived, and kind of focused on the truck. So all I could do when I realized what happened is to really swallow that gut-kicking slow burn of acknowledging a substantial mistake, and the parallel realization that there is precisely fuck-all you can do about it other than to just keep going.
I had to explain to Otto that our plans were going to be a bit shifted now, since we had a four hour drive back to get to where we needed to be, and then still two or so more to get back home. Luckily, I remembered some friends of mine were at their family’s farm which was on the way home, so Otto and I could get there and crash for the night, and Otto could get to see some Italian donkeys, too, so that seemed like the play.
I pushed down the pain of a dumb mistake, and we headed back, now on the correct path.
A couple hours in, we stopped for some gas and food. I foolishly turned off the truck to fill up, out of more muscle memory than anything else, and we needed yet another jump. At this point I was still thinking maybe the battery was just not holding a charge well, because of age? It took a bit to find someone to jump us, but we eventually were able to borrow a dozen volts, and off we went.
This time, though, things didn’t seem quite right. The voltmeter gauge in the dash’s needle wasn’t pointing where it was before, and night had fallen, so I had the lights on. As we were driving, the radio abruptly cut out. Then, I noticed the dash lights were dimming, and, really, all the lights were dimming. Quickly.
I realized that this wasn’t a battery issue, because it wasn’t an energy storage problem, it was an energy supply problem, because the alternator was clearly dying. Not wanting to lose all power – and with it the power steering and lights and everything – on a dark highway in the middle of nowhere, I made for the first exit I came to, which thankfully had a gas station.
I pulled in, drove into a parking place, and the truck promptly died.
Stranded At A Gas Station In Rural Virginia
So, now I’m pretty boned; the truck isn’t going to start again, and even if I could get a new battery in there, it’s not going to do much without an alternator to charge it, all of which just means that even though that straight six under the hood may be one of the most unkillable engines ever, you can sure do a good job of making it seem dead by denying it any electrical power.
I was trying to convince Otto that sleeping in the cab wouldn’t be so bad, when my friends Marian and Jeremy, of the farm with the Italian donkeys, called to tell me they found a nearby hotel and got us a room, which is a great reminder that everyone should have such good friends.
Otto and I walked to the hotel in Raphine, Virginia. Once there, Otto was excited to discover The Backrooms:
Find some kid to explain it all to you. Otto already explained it, at length, to me, but I’m not up to retelling it.
The Wrong Alternator
The next morning we went back to the truck to see if we could figure out some kind of plan: Would a jump get us to a Walmart for a battery? And with that battery could we make it to an auto parts store? I did have a stroke of luck when I found that behind the gas station was a repair shop for big rigs, and in this shop was Aaron, a Genuinely Good Guy:
Give it up for Aaron, everybody, because everyone should be so lucky to know an Aaron like this Aaron. He’d had a truck with the same Ford 300 I6, and respected the machine, which I think provided some of the willingness to help, along with what I assume is some innate kindness. He got me started with a jump box and let me park the truck by his shop. He then arranged for his wife, who was near the auto parts store about 15 miles away, to bring the alternator (David called in and ordered it, another big help!) to me so I could install it. She was heading over anyway, but still, what an incredibly kind thing to do for a stranger.
Oh, and Aaron’s wife drove this Jeep that she absolutely adored, so I’m going to include a picture of it because I think that might make her happy if we all appreciate it as well:
Lovely Jeep! Looks like it actually gets used for what it was designed for, too. I’m going to have David send her some Jeep PR swag he’s collected over the years.
Anyway, what luck, right?
As you can see, the alternator that was sent over (on the right) was the wrong one. Crap.
Some Janky Alternator Wiring Got Us Back On The Road
Okay, so, Otto and I arranged for an Uber to take us to the auto parts store where we swapped the wrong one for the right one, except for some reason I can’t quite fathom, the right one had a connector different from the one that was in the truck:
Where the one in the truck had a three-prong connector for the upper connection, this new one had three separate wires. But it was all they had, and electrically, these wires must do the same things as the ones connected to the connector pins, so I had to make do.
Of course, that didn’t stop me from complaining:
Even though I complained, and was certainly not happy to be stuck because of a bum alternator, I do have to say I actually learned to appreciate a lot of the qualities of a dirt-common F-150 from all this. First, as someone who is more used to having to scour the internet for parts for my Nissan Pao and then have to pay crazy shipping money to get them from Japan or the U.K. or wherever, you can find an ’89 F-150 alternator in stock at a random auto parts store, no problem. On a Sunday. And it’s cheap.
Plus, it’s not that big a deal to install! It’s right there, on the top front of the engine, and while it looks like there’s a lot of stuff you’d have to remove to get to it, you don’t, because the alternator is housed in its own little C-shaped mounting bracket:
Two bolts, two plugs, and then someone with a pry bar to help you move the pulley tensioner (again, thank you, Aaron!) to get the belt off, and that’s it! This was a way harder job on my Yugo, which has the alternator on the bottom of the engine, or even on my Beetle, which has it in a good position, but the alternator shaft also is the shaft of the engine’s cooling fan, so that’s a whole other deal.
One other note about working on this F-150: As a short dude used to working on tiny cars, this was an adjustment. I’m used to looking down into the engine bays of the Pao or Yugo or Beetle; this one was at the sort of height that made me feel like a little kid trying to steal candy off a high counter. Plus, all the components are so much bigger than what I’m used to; everything feels like it’s made of locomotive parts. It’s just all about 40% bigger than everything I’m used to. But, I adapted. And stood on things to reach stuff.
I got the old alternator out, got the new one in with a bit of crappy wire-splicing, had Aaron correct my belt routing, and holy crap, it worked:
Just look again at how janky this connector solution is:
I’m still kind of amazed that held up.
[Editor’s Note: I’m Fixing this ASAP. There’s too much current going through that for me to deal with that level of jank. And I’m a jank connoisseur, as you know. -DT]
But hold up it did, and we finally made it to my friend’s donkey-haven about 15 minutes before they left, so we got to see donkeys, and I regret I didn’t take a picture of that. Sorry. But here’s the truck at the farm, victoriously, next to my friend Jeremy, and Franklin, his dog/accountant:
From there, we made it home without incident, though I didn’t turn it off when we got gas, because it just wasn’t worth the risk. We were tired and I was very, very filthy from being in and under that thing, but I’m very excited we made it home, safe-ish and sound-ish enough, and I look forward to doing all kinds of things – including Changli hauling – with this truck.
Oh, one little post-script to the story: after driving it around a bunch today, just enjoying it and getting used to it, I was heading home when I heard a god-awful sound, like I ran over a robot who was now struggling desperately to get free. I pulled over and looked behind the truck and saw this:
Yeah, that would be the muffler. Honestly, I can’t tell any difference in sound with it off, so I’m wondering if it was ever really connected at all.
I have a feeling The Marshall is going to keep things exciting for me.
Nice! I had a similar experience with a 1990 302. You will quickly weed out everything wrong with it that you can’t live with if you drive it regularly and then it will be indestructible. I went through this in a period of about 6 months and $500 in parts and never did anything but change oil annually and one set of new tires for another 10 years. It ended up being more reliable than anything but our 2010 Sienna.
The Haynes manual is actually useful (not sure they can say that for these or the Chilton’s manuals for newer cars).
Also, I’m 5’11 and I still had to buy a folding stool to put behind the seat to work on anything much in the engine bay.
Alternators are nice, yes, but you can go quite a ways with just frequently recharging the battery. I have done that with a SEAT 600 across the plain of Spain (no rain) and up from your neck of the woods to NJ in a ’65 Ford LTD. Just unplug as many lights as you can get away with. You have renewed your proud membership in the Press On Regardless Rally Team. BTW, did you ever get the furniture?
Came here to see if Jason was still Jason, hopes and dreams realized, also I love that the shitshow seems to be universal in older cars. PS. it would have been helpful if you guys would have emailed me when you cranked this up. Now there is so much to read, but it is summer in WI.
These trucks have a hydraulic clutch, so no adjustment. These trucks did however have a big issue with the firewall cracking around the clutch master cylinder which gives the precise symptoms you described. The fix is to cut a steel plate to bolt to the area. If you search, you can find templates.
So you just wrote about that particular F-150 design the other day, and David Tracy bought one for you?
Maybe you should have written about the beautiful Lamborghini Urraco?
I say the truck should instead be called “Marshal Mathers” Because any hopes of it being reliable are “Slim Shady” 🙂
(Sorry, I just could not resist)
I say the truck should instead be called “Marshall Mathers” Because any hopes of it being reliable are “Slim Shady” ????
(Sorry, I just could not resist)
Edit: spelling of Marshall,
p.s.. when the heck are we going to be able to edit our comments?
I’d probably remove the connector entirely from the alternator and splice the appropriate wires together with the appropriate connectors (butt connects are fine, wire nuts are not), do the same on the other side and wrap both ends with heat shrink. That’s assuming the wires are epoxied into the case under the connector. If not try to put it all back together and swap it for the right part. If it’s just an opening with wires poking out it won’t be waterproof. Unless you’ve got to make a trip for the electrical supplies, then you might as well get the right part if you have to go out anyway.