Operation IDIocracy: The Rebuildening, Part 1

The Rebuildening post series will, without much thought to chronological order or operation precedence, recount the steps I took to bring the IDI back up to serviceable condition over the course of 2022. If you notice, it’s currently 2023. Trust me, the distractions never subside.

Broadly speaking, I approached it on a pick-at-it-when-you-feel-like basis while collecting information and parts for the future needs of the conversion. This went on from around after Motorama 2022 to July, when I really stepped up the pace because I would need to put the tools down for BattleBots in October. The engine was on a stand and running independently by the beginning of August.

August and September were dedicated to Overhaul. After the BattleBots filming ended in mid October, I did some final parts gathering and in late November, began preparing Vantruck for the teardown. In between, I of course managed to spawn even more dumb things to be revealed soon!

Anyways, let’s rewind about a year back and see where the hell this beaver lodge tunnel went.

Well, before I even take more of the engine apart, I still had to get the rest of the goods out. The E4OD weighs somewhere between 250 and 270 pounds depending on who you ask – chunky but manageable.

Unbolting everything was fairly trivial. I removed the driveshaft and yokes, then unbolted the shifter linkage (hanging off in space on the right side). I decided to just loop a ratchet strap around it twice, once in front of the oil pan and once behind it.

After putting some tension on the whole thing, I undid the cross-member bolts holding the back of the transmission on, and out we come!

I set the transmission on a small moving dolly so I could at least kick it out of the way until I get to it.

Now turning my attention to the engine, my goal was pretty much to knock it all down and do everything needed on the way out. Specifically, I was hoping to inspect the piston rings and main bearings – Snekvan never made good oil pressure, and as I mentioned before during the road testing, made more blue smoke than black smoke. I kind of assumed everything was toast down there from neglect.

I rented a harmonic balancer puller tool from the local megacorp auto parts place. To my dismay, it failed to even begin budging said harmonic balancer. Instead, what I thought I felt as progress was actually the tool itself deforming and bending the puller bolts…

…which proceeded to break off in the hole. Well, this will have to be a battle for another day. I went back and swapped it for the 7-ton 3-jaw gear puller instead, to the astonishment of the sales staff.

I figured this balancer puller was made for some small weenie engine, like maybe Mikuvan’s or something. Not this 1000 pound lump of ‘murica.

After the harmonic balancer comes off, the front of the engine is just a big plate with the water pump bolted to it. Not sure I’m a fan of this design, as several water pump bolts actually enter the coolant passages and crankcase so you have to seal the threads with silicone on the way back in. But, it is what it is.

The whole timing system is just gears. There’s almost nothing to really go wrong here!

Shifting my attention to the top side, I started removing the rest of the fittings and features like the injection lines and glow plug harness.

The intake manifold pops off after the 16 bolts holding it to the heads are removed, revealing the ABSOLUTELY FILTHY “valley pan” cover that…. okay, I guess it’s better for this thing to be filthy than the internal of the engine. It seems like most big American V8s are built this way, with the camshaft and valvetrain gear directly under this thin metal cover.

After what felt like a whole can of brake cleaner and bottle of Simple Green, the valley pan is an acceptable and somewhat presentable state. This part is almost vanishingly rare now, and being able to reuse it would be beneficial. I managed to find one for sale through calling a local Ford dealership, who ordered it for me from the depths of a forgotten Middle American warehouse. So, I had a backup if needed. Luckily, I was able to get this pan off without deforming it.

Underneath the valley pan is all the valve stuff. If you were expecting an anatomical breakdown of engine parts, I’m not your guy.

Removing the glow plugs from the heads was harrowing. Many online instructions will warn you of seizing the tips inside the head and breaking it off, and it certainly felt that way at times. There was a fair bit of carbon buildup on these glow plugs and Snekvan for sure never had a full set working (the controller would flick them on and off very fast to indicate a fault state). I usually lit it off with a small shot of the forbidden spicy air, which is said to exacerbate the deformation of glow plug tips.

I was able to wiggle them all out, though. After breaking the thread free and backing out a few turns, I soaked the whole area in PB Blaster and let it sit for a few minutes. Then I wiggled it back and forth to break up the carbon buildup with the help of the penetrating oil, and out they came.

The injectors were also kind of dirty, but came out without argument.

Here’s a shot after I removed the valve covers. What surprised me was how absolutely grungy and caked in “deposits” the outside of the engine was, but the internals were …….. spotless. I was expecting some Reddit Mechanic tier sludging!

I blame the roughly 25% Marvel Mystery Oil and Seafoam blend I ran in the crankcase after getting it running. That became my M.O. with these things – just pour in all the solvents ever, and let it snort everything out before the first oil change it gets in 17 years.

I’ve removed the…uhh, valve pushy things now in my quest to remove the heads and pistons.

Yeah! Those things. There were MANY bags labeled like this. I’m pretty sure these parts have real names.

After some grunting and prying, the ~80 pound each, solid iron heads come off! I had to throw a 4 foor long prybar onto the pivoting bracket to get it to turn, and was really afraid of tipping it over. Did you know you were supposed to grease that pivot tube? I mean, it kinda made sense, but I didn’t. Not until my friends asked if I had greased the pivot tube.

As I expected, there was a lot of carbon deposits everywhere (though maybe this is normal for a diesel engine) and some pretty clear wetting of the valves with engine oil. This told me at least that the valve seals were nonexistent, and maybe that’s where the blue clouds came from.

I put the heads on a “workbench” to mess with later.

Later came a few days after Motorama 2022 and I began by ejecting all the valves. I used an engraving bit with a Dremel to mark where they went, since otherwise I was liable to randomly putting them back.

This exercise confirmed that yes, the valve stem seals were nonexistent. They were basically reduced to hollow metal and plastic shells with some little chunks of dried rubber all over the place. I assume it all eventually ended up in the oil filter.

I also went ahead and engraved the grunge buildup on the pistons, since they were also coming out.

More bags of questionably named components later…

I discovered that the valve guides on these heads have incredible slop. Like probably 2 or 3 conical degrees of wiggle per valve kind of slop. What’s worse is they drilled these valve guides right into the head casting, meaning I’d need to get these things sent to a shop to be re-lined or sleeved or something. Nothing I could press out and do in-house. At this point, I began searching for remanufactured heads – something I could just plop on and go, and keep this set as a backup or have them reworked on a non time-critical basis.

(I had a hell of a time even finding a local automotive machine shop that was willing to work on them, actually. Many didn’t have the parts or didn’t want to work on something of this vintage.)

While I mulled over the head issue, I began dismantling the bottom side of the engine. The oil pan comes off, then the oil pump and pickup tube.

I rolled the thing over with some great difficulty again. Now it was time to eject the bearings and pistons.

This was a relatively pain-free process. I undid all the retaining nuts and then gently tapped each connecting rod cap with the brass hammer I usually use with the Benchmaster, Master of Benches. Once the mate was cracked, they were easy to pull off. Same deal with the main bearing caps, too. I tapped a little at a time on each side in order to gently move them upwards and out.

This was, how we say, not pretty.

Now, these bearings aren’t destroyed thoroughly as far as I understand, but all of the gray bearing metal had been eroded away.

It was eroded very very evenly, mind you. So it seems Snekvan had been making low oil pressure forever and ever.

The main bearing caps take the thrust load of each combustion cycle, so they see the heaviest loading. By comparison, the upper bearing halves were practically spotless. You know, if I wanted to be extra Snap-On ratchet I’d just trade sides and close it back up…

I inspected the bearing journals and found them to be Still Round with no gouging or pitting. Really, it all didn’t seem all that bad to me any more – just barely at the end of its wear life.

The connecting rod bearing halves also show the same very even wear of the bearing metal coating down to the copper layer below. Again, low-but-existent oil pressure, forever and ever.

So here I was at the beginning of March, staring at a fully torn down engine block. The order of operations was now “Do it all on the way out” – begin by replacing all of these bearings, then move onto piston rings and inspection and re-honing of the piston bores. Once that’s done, I’d hopefully have solved the replace-or-rebuild problem with the heads. I wasn’t planning on closing the oil pan up until after the entire top side is assembled, just in case I drop something.

Operation IDIocracy: THE BIRTHENING

It turns out when removing the engine from a Ford Econoline, you can’t just yank it straight up. You have to execute a series of arcane Old Hong Kong Airport maneuvers, nearly hitting everything around it, to pull it out of the front. Ford Econoline: A series of unfortunate compromises made of Ford truck parts.

People have come up with some creative workarounds to use a regular cherrypicker style engine crane. Generally, the chain that hangs from the crane boom can’t be used since it needs too much vertical clearance. It’s usually recommended to sling the chain over the boom itself instead to gain those precious few vertical inches.

Also, it would seem like this type of buffoonery crosses oceans, as people also have made special low-profile lifting hooks for European vans!

What makes it even more awkward is that with the usual Harbor Freight 2-ton class crane, you have to do the initial lift at full extension because otherwise it doesn’t reach far enough to get to the center of mass of the engine. And, to make it still worse than that, I had bright ideas of lifting the engine and transmission out as one unit down the road. I still have the #OSHACrane boom from lifting Vantruck’s bed, so I decided to go ahead and cut it up to make a lifting appendage.

Here’s my mockup so far. I was going to just weld this chunk of C-channel on top of the boom and be done with it. However, since I have the fabrication ability and facility, I decided to trade some complexity for newbie maneuvering space – I’d never done this pull, so I’d rather have the extra 2.5 inches if at all possible.

The plan is to sink the C-channel into the 2.5″ square, 1/4″ wall steel tube that made up the #OSHACrane. I wasn’t concerned about the weight of the whole engine causing issues here, since it’s a lot of steel remaining. I made the cutout using an angle grinder and cutting disc, then blazed it on with Limewelder running on its deserved 240 volts, which actually made very quick and smooth work of the 1/4″ steel.

Using a length of Vantruck’s everyday-carry 5/16″ tow chain, I wrapped it around all of the OEM lifting loops as well as a 4th lift point that I invented out of a 1/4″ thick barstock. That mounts to where the OEM fuel filter fitting was. I wasn’t confident that the three point right-triangle lift points would result in any sort of stability. It can be seen here that the crane boom pretty much rests on the intake manifold.

(Incidentally, Ford has a part number T75T-6000-A for hoisting up the 460 by its carburetor bolt holes… which seems a little wrong, but it was what I was recommended for yanking the engine from Vantruck.)

We begin the initial lift – a few pumps of the handle, and the engine has popped off its mounting slots.

At this point, I dive under to brace the transmission with a jackstand and remove the bell-housing and adapter plate bolts. I’d already removed the torque converter bolts holding it to the flywheel a few days before.

I then pumped the crane just enough to see that it was relieving the weight of the engine and transmission some. One good pull later, and the engine is free of the transmission after popping the dowel pin mate.

I realized the lift location I chose was slightly too aft – the engine rocked forward as I was pulling it up. The center of mass is more towards the front of the air intake, not the dead center.

To remedy this, I added an “attitude control” ratchet strap so I could adjust the tilt of the engine as I went.

So here’s what goes on with an engine pull:

  1. Lift upwards from mounts until the mounting studs clear the engine cradle crossmember
  2. Pull forwards until the lower engine oil pan hits the cradle
  3. Lift upwards to barely clear the oil drain plug over the cradle and no more – if you have rear heater lines that run across the underside of the engine cave roof, the hookup fittings might get in the way if you lift further. Snekvan has these (Vantruck and Spool Bus do not), so I had to actually swivel the crane a little on the ground to avoid them
  4. Pull forward all the way until the harmonic balancer or upper oil pan face starts hitting the lower sheet metal sill of the body.
  5. Lift upwards to clear the upper oil pan over the sill, and you may also need to tilt the engine to avoid the heater lines (Nick’s site is a great explainer for this)
  6. Pull forwards until the lower oil pan reaches the sill
  7. Lift upwards to clear the oil drain plug and lower oil pan
  8. Finally, pull forwards to exit out!

Yeah, that’s a lot of maneuvering. Luckily, I greased the crane wheels beforehand so it was possible to do by my not too engorged self.

And just moments before 2022 hit, the 7.3 IDI was birthed successfully.

The van went up like 3 inches and got all pigeon-toed doing this. That’s a lot of weight coming off the front suspension there!

There was now a new problem.

The Harbor Freight crane and 1-ton engine stand do not mate to let you perform the handoff. This seems like an OVERSIGHT.

Alright, so now what? I had to come up with a way to attach the stand to the whole thing first, then slowly back it off while supporting the engine so I can remove the crane.

Step 1: Unlock the legs of the stand, and sling them upwards over the crane. This lets you attach the engine using the bolts and standoffs.

I picked this configuration of the little standoff arms. Notice that the faceplate is actually upside down – the other orientation could not produce a solution.

Next, I introduced the floor jack in the middle in order to prop the engine up by a third point while I removed the crane. After slackening and removing the chain, I carefully moved the crane away before clicking the leg pins back into the stand.

I back the floorjack off, and we’re finally free!

This engine is absolutely filthy in every sense of the word. It’s probably got 50,000 miles of oil leaks on it or something. In the days prior, I swope a parts washing basin off Craigslist in anticipation of having to degrease The Everything. I filled it up with a terrifying concoction of Simple Green and Purple Power degreaser, gave most of the parts I removed from the van a couple of swipes with a wire brush to… uhh, break the crust, and let them bake for days.

What”s not shown easily here is the immersion heating element I wired into the thing, so it’s actually keeping this teratogenic menagerie just under boiling temperature. FOR DAYS. I periodically topped the water off.

After days and days of this, everything looked great! Well, except the solution, which had turned into this steaming brown sludge. We speaketh not of what happened to it.

I realized I’d already started losing track of what parts went where or did what, so I began what I called the “Kaizen Wall”, labeling parts in the rough order they were removed and with names I hope I’ll rememeber in a few months.

From this point, Operation IDIocracy will focus on the rebuild of this engine and gradually turn into pulling Vantruck apart the same!