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