Home » My Extremely Reliable 1989 Ford F-150 Had Another Problem And It Involves Broken Teeth

My Extremely Reliable 1989 Ford F-150 Had Another Problem And It Involves Broken Teeth

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Have you ever had a car that you know is incredibly robust and reliable, but your partner or friends don’t agree, just because of bullshit like “things that actually happened” or “all the times it’s let them down?” I’m in that situation right now with The Marshal, the wonderful 1989 Ford F-150 that David bought me with the un-killable 300 cubic-inch inline six engine. The only problem is that a number of the things bolted to that un-killable engine have proven themselves to be quite kill-able. The most recent example of this phenomenon has once again rendered my truck immobile in my driveway, but at least what’s wrong is very easy to understand, visually. I’ll show you.

This started a couple weeks ago, when, after a canoeing outing with my kid, the truck refused to start again in my driveway. This had happened a few times before, but had always eventually restarted, but not before, say, stranding my wife and myself at a gas station with a pristine mid-century couch in the bed and a rainstorm looming. I finally figured that it could just be a bad starter, so I replaced the starter and then all seemed right with the world once again, at least as far as having a running old truck goes.

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Cs Marshal Canoe

When I looked at the old starter I replaced, I did notice that the little gear was either really chewed up after all those years of use, or, less likely, that gear was hand-carved from a lump of iron by a tiny gnome. It looked rough:

Chewygears

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Not great! But, I figured that was all behind me now that I had sent that old starter back to the Earth from whence it came, or whatever the hell Advance Auto does with the cores when you return them. Maybe they melt them down and make bondage gear. That’s on them.

So, I had a new starter in, and it seemed to be working great! I’d turn the key, 12 delicious volts would get sent to the starter, the little gear would turn the ring gear on the flywheel, the engine would fire, and off I’d go. Then I took another canoeing trip with the kid – the one where I almost got lost on the Eno river – and as I was backing the truck into the driveway to unload the canoe, it stalled.

Okay, no biggie, I’ll just re-start. But, nothing. Hm. Sometimes the battery terminals get wonky? So, I got out, reseated the battery terminals, but it wasn’t getting the starter going. I tried a few times, and I think once I cranked it in gear, with the clutch out by accident, and I think that was my major mistake. Normally, when this happens, the car just lurches a bit as you realize oh, crap, it’s in gear, and you almost turned your car in to a really crappy EV, lurching along by the starter motor.

So, I took it out of gear and tried again, only to hear an unpleasant, rattly whirring sound. I thought maybe the starter had become un-meshed from the ring gear? Maybe I didn’t tighten a bolt well enough when installing? Whatever it was, I wasn’t going to get the truck started without a hand crank, so I was lucky enough to round up some neighbors and we laboriously pushed the truck into the driveway.

At least the Marshal has the grace to always seem to fail right at or in my driveway, which I do appreciate.

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This past weekend I decided to see what the hell went wrong, so I rolled under the truck. The starter was still installed properly, so it wasn’t that it worked loose or anything, as I could see it was still sitting right where it’s supposed to, all nice and snug:

Starter Inplace

I unbolted the starter and pulled it out, revealing the real problem:

Brokenteeth

Well, shit.

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Look at that! five whole teeth snapped off the ring gear! How the hell does that happen? It can’t be when I tried to start it in gear, can it? I’ve done that at least once on every manual car I have, from my old Beetle to my Yugo to the Pao to the Scimitar (the Scimitar even had a 3-liter V6 making almost the same ravenous 140 hp that the truck makes, so it’s not like they were all tiny, low-power engines) and never once have I snapped off flywheel teeth. Can that really be what happened? What is this thing made of, matzoh?

Also, I would at least like to give a shout-out to that one tooth that refused to quit, even while surrounded by brittle, quitter teeth. I see you, buddy, and I appreciate how hard you’re trying.

Based on how chewed up the old starter gear was, maybe the old one was slowly wearing down teeth over years and years and this is just the inevitable result? Maybe the new starter is more powerful and pushed those old teeth past their limits? I wish I knew. If anyone has any thoughts on what causes this, I’d love to hear them.

If it was just a tooth or two I could probably ignore it, and the starter could still grab enough teeth to spin the motor, but the gap here is just too vast. Luckily, David said he’d fly down here and help me drop the transmission, and while we’re replacing the flywheel, we can replace the clutch and get the new clutch hydraulics installed, finally.

Then, maybe, just maybe, everyone will believe me when I tell them, as we’re sitting stuck by the side of the road or pushing this heavy beast into the driveway, that this is a fantastically reliable vehicle.

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Maybe.

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Cheap Bastard
Cheap Bastard
10 months ago

“….pushing this heavy beast into the driveway…”

This kinda reminds me of the time I was in Santa Cruz and saw a hippie pushing his old aircooled VW van in a parking lot. He was pushing it up a slight incline with one hand and holding his pants up with the other.

Suddenly the van started rolling backwards and he instinctively threw both hands on it to try to stop from getting rolled over. He stopped the van but his pants fell like a stone.

He wasn’t wearing underwear.

Austin Vail
Austin Vail
10 months ago

Yeah I’m familiar with the phenomenon. My ’66 Thunderbird has had numerous problems, the engine and transmission themselves have simply never given up. This kind of reliability though is more along the lines of “How the heck is this thing still running and getting me to my destination despite (insert problem)?”

It’s only left me stranded and needing a tow once, due to a bad alternator made of Chineseium. When it had a problem with stalling during right turns, that turned out to be the starter solenoid. Even so, as long as I could get electricity to the thing, the engine would always start back up again no matter what condition it was in.

I finally rebuilt it after it was getting 5 mpg, running on seven cylinders with excessive blowby in all 8, valve guides completely shot, and bearings all worn down. But even in its horrible condition, it never once failed to get me to my destination, never put up a fuss – aside from taking ten minutes to start and warm up every morning, but after that first cold start it was fine and would fire up again instantly.

Sometimes I feel like the rest of the car is falling apart around me (it’s 57 years old and unrestored, cars like that do things like this), but the engine and transmission have always worked impressively well despite decades of neglect and abuse from previous owners and some truly shocking internal problems.

My family is convinced it’s unreliable and I shouldn’t take it on any long trips or even the highway, but in my experience all the parts that matter have a fighting spirit to them. The odometer broke at 91,652 miles, I think it’s actually over 100,000 now, and I’m convinced it can be dependable for 100,000 more 🙂 Not bad for a mid sixties car.

Last edited 10 months ago by Austin Vail
Steve Walton
Steve Walton
10 months ago
Reply to  Austin Vail

Only 100K?? Good Lord, man! It’s not “used up” until well over 300K. I have a 1992 Dodge Ram 3/4 ton that has close to 400K on it, and it has never refused to start up and go wherever I tell it to. I did have to replace a muffler that fell off, once, but technically that didn’t stop it from going down the road.

Aaron Libby
Aaron Libby
10 months ago

Do the clutch slave and oil pan gasket while you’re in there. Never seen a 4.9 that isn’t at least weeping oil out of the pan gasket.

Acid Tonic
Acid Tonic
10 months ago

Missing teeth are like Cotton Eye Joe.

Where did it come from?
Where did it go?

Lava5.0
Lava5.0
10 months ago

The problem with every “reliable” or “Un-killable” car is exactly that: they are un-killable. They can always be fixed. It’s “just” a vacuum line, “just” a water pump, “just” a bushing. It is literally death by 1000 repairs and they just creep up on you. There is never the catastrophic failure that says you should give up and move on. Yes its amazing that the engine and differential went 300K – you know what wasn’t amazing – the 3 radiators, 4 control arms, the leaking sunroof and 5th PCM module you needed on the way. Un-killable cars do not go forever, their owners just refuse to let them die.

Dumb Shadetree
Dumb Shadetree
10 months ago
Reply to  Lava5.0

The problem is that Torch and David (but mostly David) refuse to buy reliable cars. They buy cars that were legendary for having been reliable for their time. There’s a big difference between a reliable vehicle and “good for the 80’s but now it’s clapped out and nearly old enough to run for president”.

I understand the joy of keeping an old car on the road, but let’s not pretend it’s still reliable after decades of neglect.

Last edited 10 months ago by Dumb Shadetree
Mr. Canoehead
Mr. Canoehead
10 months ago
Reply to  Dumb Shadetree

Didn’t Mercedes already cover “Why you need one reliable car”?

https://www.theautopian.com/the-art-of-having-a-car-that-just-works-cotd/

Once again, Mercedes has all the answers….

Ian

Mike B
Mike B
10 months ago
Reply to  Mr. Canoehead

As boring as it is, this is why I keep my ’13 4Runner rather than buying one of the 20–30-year-old shitbox 4×4’s that I drool over on Marketplace everyday.

Like what could possibly go wrong with replacing the 4R with a 35 year old K5 Blazer bought for 5K??

JDE
JDE
10 months ago
Reply to  Lava5.0

7.4 powerstroke, 2000 F350. Trans had to be bulletproofed, dip stick into the oil pan leaks no matter what you do, turbo’s leak, batteries drain, water pumps fail, but she does go when you need it too.

Bongo Friendee Harvey Park
Bongo Friendee Harvey Park
10 months ago
Reply to  JDE

Does it go when you need it to if the battery depleted itself overnight?

Boxing Pistons
Boxing Pistons
10 months ago

Another “reliable” car I had a bunch of trouble with early in my ownership was my ‘06 TSX 6MT. I did a lot of research before buying the car and found several owners bragging about the astronomical mileage they were putting on these cars. However, the previous owner was apparently hard on the clutch, so it needed replacing at 80k. I got it done at the dealer where my brother-in-law works, and then had a slough of issues with half-shafts, intermediate shafts, etc. I had to get it towed 3 times in one year. I explained to my wife that I thought the dealer screwed up the job, and that it wasn’t how the car was built, but she still thought it was just a piece of junk. It also had some other little stuff go out. Luckily, after that horrible 1st year it has been trouble-free for the last 5!

Boxing Pistons
Boxing Pistons
10 months ago

I have the same “unkillable” 300 straight 6 in my ‘94 F150, and can relate to your “reliable” vehicle leaving you stranded. Mine has luckily only stranded me once when a cooling hose burst about a mile from the house, but there have been so many other things that have required replacement. Most of it is age-related (only 140k on the clock) and can be hard to keep up with sometimes. The latest thing was the speedometer/odometer unit going out which also informs the transmission when to shift. I had to fork out $150 to have it rebuilt at a shop in CO. It is stupid stuff like that all the time. My wife thinks it is just a bad vehicle, but the way I look at it, everything I replace strengthens the relationship with the old girl (truck) and makes her stronger. As long as I can still get parts, I’ll keep fixing her.

Sundance
Sundance
10 months ago

When I had a look at the pic of your old starter, I asked myself “Did he investigate where this crunched metal came from, before installing the new one?” He did not, obviously.

This usually (from my experience) comes from a starter which doesn’t get in or out of the flywheel properly. Normally you can hear that happening.

Mike B
Mike B
10 months ago
Reply to  Sundance

The K10 squarebody I had as a kid had this problem, luckily, I realized it and shimmed the starter correctly before it damaged the flywheel.

I miss that truck. It was already 20 something years old when I bought it (and 5 years older than myself) and though it was mechanically simple, it always needed some sort of attention.

Cal67
Cal67
10 months ago

Short term or if the truck leaves you stranded, pop the hood, grab the fan belt and push it down to put more tension on it and push or pull to rotate the engine enough to get to some actual teeth on the flywheel and it will crank the engine.

Torque
Torque
10 months ago
Reply to  Cal67

That IS a good idea. I’m guessing Jason will let the truck sit parked until David gets there to help replace the flywheel (+ clutch, pressure plate & throw out bearing), which for us will be another article 🙂

Mike B
Mike B
10 months ago
Reply to  Cal67

Either that or park on an incline if possible and let the truck roll to either use the clutch to either pop start or just slightly turn the motor.

Bongo Friendee Harvey Park
Bongo Friendee Harvey Park
10 months ago

I’ve started manuals in gear hundreds of time and it’s fine if your foot is on the left pedal. Euros do, or used to, park in gear and start the car in gear.

Bongo Friendee Harvey Park
Bongo Friendee Harvey Park
10 months ago

> incredibly robust and reliable

> the truck refused to start again in my driveway. This had happened a few times before, but had always eventually restarted, but not before, say, stranding my wife and myself at a gas station with a pristine mid-century couch in the bed and a rainstorm looming

I know you’re David’s bestie, but that’s not reliable. A car that leaves you stranded is not reliable. That’s what reliable means. Surely a man with your style and extensive vocabulary knows this.

That said I enjoy reading stories at y’all’s expense so do carry on

notoriousDUG
notoriousDUG
10 months ago

You would be well served to check the crankshaft endplay while you are in there; it can exacerbate started alignment and wear issues.

Shooting Brake
Shooting Brake
10 months ago

I’m not going to comment as to the root cause of the missing flywheel teeth, but I am going to comment on the fact that D.T. is going to fly to your domicile to assist you in repairing this vehicle , which he gave you for free,You have no idea how lucky you are! This really is a true friend!

(•‾⌣‾•)و ̑̑♡

Last edited 10 months ago by Shooting Brake
MaximillianMeen
MaximillianMeen
10 months ago
Reply to  Shooting Brake

I’m just assuming that Torch has some incriminating pictures of David. Probably of David all dressed up and clean shaven, driving to a French restaurant in a Bentley, with nary a speck of rust in sight. Or something similar that would totally disillusion our perception of the man.

StillNotATony
StillNotATony
10 months ago

SCANDAL!!!

Bongo Friendee Harvey Park
Bongo Friendee Harvey Park
10 months ago

After a manicure that removed every last speck of fossilized grease and fine steel shavings embedded deep inside his scars and nail beds.

Shooting Brake
Shooting Brake
10 months ago

I’ve heard that D.T. actually is an eccentric millionaire having made his millions with his invention of the 3 legged plastic pizza saver! ( ͡ᵔ ͜ʖ ͡ᵔ )

Freelivin2713
Freelivin2713
10 months ago
Reply to  Shooting Brake

I always called those tables!

Masterbuilder
Masterbuilder
10 months ago

Fortunately for you, with a capable assistant it’s an easy one [long] day job. No transfer case to deal with makes it that much quicker.

You’d might as well do the clutch, pressure plate, throwout bearing and pilot bushing while you’re at it. Is there a shop close by that can surface the flywheel while you wait?

When are you going to be in there again? Do it all now and be done with it.

Mr Sarcastic
Mr Sarcastic
10 months ago
Reply to  Masterbuilder

That violates the Autopian Principal of only fixing it just enuf to get it running.

Doug Kretzmann
Doug Kretzmann
10 months ago

I was expecting something different from the broken teeth in the story title..
my front incisor is only half a tooth, the other half is up in Alaska on the Dalton highway.. changing the third flat tire for the day, jack handle slipped and smashed off a bit of tooth. That old Ford Econoline always started though 😉

aSAABforever
aSAABforever
10 months ago

Remanufactured Ford starters(see cheap), are notorious for not aligning properly, due to any number of factors, like the cleaning, machining and assembly process. Odds are, given, the age of the truck, that it’s on its third starter. The last one was probably just thrown in, without the clearance being measured and then properly shimmed. Too little or too much contact patch between the gears will prematurely wear the teeth to a point that they break off. It’s less a question of the age of the truck, then a question of how many starters it has had installed poorly.

Cal67
Cal67
10 months ago
Reply to  aSAABforever

Ford doesn’t use shims on their starters.

PaysOutAllNight
PaysOutAllNight
10 months ago

This is an entirely normal transmission problem in big Fords when they get old. GMs and Chryslers, too. The gears on the flywheel aren’t as strong as they probably should be, but they’re typically way stronger than they need to be to outlast the warranty multiple times over.

By my reckoning, this long-term “flaw”, if you must call it that, is pretty common on Fords with automatics from the late 1960s through 1995 or so, so don’t blame yourself too much, Jason. It’s not just manuals.

And this often happens in the dead of winter, when the gears are brittle from bitter cold, so you’re lucky you don’t have to deal with that…

Big engines, big starters, big impact to the gears when they start. It eventually catches up to the metallurgy at a given price point.

Bizness Comma Nunya
Bizness Comma Nunya
10 months ago

This is true, even for the automatics with flexplates vs the flywheel in this case.

Just like you said, colder weather = Colder/thicker oil=much more strain on the teeth multiplied by how old that particular part is (how many winter)…. which in this case I’m assuming it’s original or close to it.

Hoonicus
Hoonicus
10 months ago

Looking at your YIKES photo, the shock load on that old starter was severe enough to not only knock the drive gear off center, but crack off a piece of the motor housing at the shaft bearing. a little research on F150 forum – Fords don’t use starter shims. But the starter for manual transmissions is different from that for autos. Make sure you install the correct one.
Obviously a new flywheel is required at this point, and probably yet another starter.

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