Operation IDIocracy: The Rebuildening Part III – The Quest For head

On a warm morning in May, I was headed to a remote test site for a day of [REDACTED] when, somewhere on a state route in northwest Georgia, I spotted a bunch of piles by the side of the road. When I’m driving on back roads, I always stare at everyone’s yard piles as I pass by. I have accepted that running off the road into a tree or power pole while doing this is how I will die early.

Anyways, this place grabbed my attention because it was full of old Ford trucks. And where there are old Ford trucks, chances are there might be International diesel engines.

Just one little portion of the sight that greeted me along State Route 411.

I came upon some guys putting something back together and asked them if they had any parts for the 7.3 International diesel engines. They conversed for a short while in Spanish while sharing looks of intrigue, and then one of them went to get the owner. I reiterated my needs to the owner, who started conversing with one of the guys in Spanish while wearing a look of intrigue.

It seems like we were onto something. I can only imagine the conversation was something on the order of “I swear we have one in The Room of Engines”, because the owner then told me to follow him around the back of the shop building, where there was a row of increasingly more decrepit shop buildings and lean-tos.

He led me to my pre-arranged burial spot “The Room of Engines”. I call it this because…

Let me be clear: This is only one view of the panorama that constitutes The Room of Engines. There were engines behind me, besides me, and beyond the floor-to-ceiling pallet racks, themselves full of engines. Not on pallets, just engines.

Oh, there was also this very nicely kept E350 wagon out front. I did ask – it belonged to the owner’s friend who brought it in for some work. Alas.

In the very back of The Room of Engines, tucked away in a storage closet which was full of engines, was my holy grail.

A set of rebuilt “at least 10 years ago” (-owner) 7.3 IDI heads! We had to climb over the pile of engines to get to them. And climb back out while carrying these 80-pound-each heads. I made a Not Unreasonable Cash Offer and promised I’d be back the next week with the Snekvan heads. We considered it a square trade to turn them in as rebuildable cores, since he would send these back out to be reworked and cleaned up anyways if a customer needed them.

I, on the other hand, was not going to send anything back out, but instead, just send it. The heads were stored “Indoors” in the sense that the building had a door, but I didn’t consider it very weather sealed. All surfaces had some surface rust, but nothing seemed bad. I simply began marinating everything in PB Blaster and WD-40. Pushing on the valves confirmed they hadn’t seized up.

I ordered a brass wire brush and took a swing at the head gasket mating surface. To my delight, the surface rust came off instantly and revealed a cleanly milled surface all around.

Notice how I emphasize the word brass here, because the “brass” wire brush you can buy at a Harbor Freight or of Amazon is actually brass coated steel. They have some nerve calling it “brass” at all because under that 5 microns of soft, scratch-free brass is just plain old carbon steel.

It wouldn’t have been a good idea to hack away at this head surface using a steel wire wheel. I spent $40 on this damn thing with real brass wires. But that allowed me to lay into it as hard as I wanted.

One of the things I did before I took the original Snekvan heads apart was order some recommended upgrade parts. These included these heavier spring-rate valve springs and valve stem seals which were allegedly improved over the OEM type.

As I took apart each valve spring assembly, I cleaned and lubricated all of the parts, which had picked up some rust and infiltrated debris. The springs sit on little two piece thrust washers that make me think they’re supposed to slowly rotate over time, and some of these had rust in the middle.

Now we’re at a point where I Have Head, so technically the engine was ready to go back together. I took an operations pause here to address the transmission, so I hosed these heads down in WD-40 and wrapped them in pallet wrapping to prevent rust, just like the block itself.

My goal with the transmission was to replace all the somewhat leaking shaft seals and the fluid filter. Snekvan generally did okay keeping its transmission fluid in, but I did have to catch drops coming from the tailhousing and its seal and gasket. The transmission never exhibited problems otherwise, so I will run it as-is beyond these largely non-invasive replacements.

The tailhousing came off easily enough, revealing the really long output shaft and the integral speedometer worm gear cut into it. The gasket here was pretty crumbly (new one shown on the left).

I discovered that the Special Locknut Socket I picked up for doing Vantruck’s rear drum brakes and axle bearings (worthy of its own post, but I decided not to because there was just literally too much van on this site… maybe some day) also somehow fit perfectly as a seal driver.

The front shaft seal (strictly speaking, I guess it’s the torque converter seal) was going to be trickier since I did not want to dismantle the box of unicorns to get the input shaft out. To reach around to the other side of the seal, I fashioned an attachment for my slide hammer which used one half of a plastic body panel puller welded to a coupler nut.

That’s what it ends up looking like, and this is the gap the hook fits through to grab the seal:

I also had a gasket for the oil pump, the object with the bolt circle here that I pushed the new seal into, but it was not leaking. Based on Internet Advice it’s one of those “if it ain’t broke….” situations. If it ain’t broke, don’t make it broke by getting yourself deeper than you can get back out.

The transmission is one of the easier heavy powertrain components to remove anyways, so the day it Does Broke, I’ll play ball.

Next, I turned the transmission over to ch… ah, crap, it’s still got some fluid in it. That 40 pound pail of cat litter was sure handy to have around for exact situation!

After an impromptu Exxon Valdez cleanup effort, I popped the lid off the E4OD. The filter and pickup assembly is the big black plastic shell in the background – easy enough. This one didn’t feel clogged, but why put the old part back in at this point? I kept it in a spare McMaster-Carr baggie for a future reference object.

The End of Snekvan

By this point, I’ve pretty much picked every mechanical part out of Snekvan I figured I would need, or cared to get out. Anything else I’ll just improvise, find in a junkyard, or find online. It was time to get rid of the body. Yes, I’ve had an unplated disassembled murder van (not to be confused with Murdervan) in the driveway at this point for four months, and I was getting antsy about any potential ire with the neighbors or county coming to fruition.

I picked some choice items out of the dashboard. Most important was the instrument and lights cluster, which have diesel-specific gauges and warning lights. Everything else was a nice-to-have or spare parts, like maybe for Spool Bus.

I decided to save the side glass in case I or someone else needed it. Vantruck has swing-out window glass as well. I only saved the ones I could easily remove – i.e. the ones with top pivot hinges. The one at the passenger side rear is set in a rubber gasket, so it would have needed the ol’ rope trick to remove.

Almost a decade after I recorded this weird right-angle ratchet extension video, I found a use for it. It’s apparently great for disengaging the fuel tank straps on a Ford van frame!

The fuel tanks in Snekvan aren’t too special, but I wasn’t going to reuse them. I had plans to convert Vantruck to a single large rear 40-gallon cutaway van chassis tank instead. These were removed largely in case other people needed them.

The valuable thing, though, is the diesel-specific fuel tank level sensors, which are almost universally out of stock everywhere, especially for the front tank.

These are different from gas ones – they don’t contain in-tank fuel pumps, only a little sippy straw in place of it. They’re also different from the F-series truck ones which use a different resistive mechanism to drive the gauge. They furthermore are also supposed to have a pickup strainer at the bottom (nicknamed the shower head or the Cone of Shame), but these tend to disintegrate over time and I couldn’t find any traces of it in the tanks.

What I’m saying is, I seem to have a pair of known working van fuel level sensors, which is like getting two rare drops from the same battle. If I won’t reuse these, some other vanlord will.

Finally, the most valuable and irreplaceable thing is the engine bay wiring harness, which I will definitely need. I decided not to recover the dashboard harness, because that would have involved taking apart literally the everything in the dashboard to get it out, and I was out of patience by that point. I figured anything I had to interface I will do so by creating my own add-on harness.

And so, on another warm morning in late May 2022, the methy scrap men came for Snekvan. Never registered or titled or insured in the state of Georgia, only wearing Vantruck’s plates and registration when it came time to test drive. You lived and died in the shadows. I look forward to the lawn chair and questionable 9/16″ ratcheting wrench you will become.

(If I owned the place or had my own Outlying Field property, I’d definitely hang onto it – because it’s still a fine chassis and very clean body wise…)

The story of Snekvan might have ended, but the rebuild continues next week on BattleBots!

Operation IDIocracy: The Rebuildening, Part II

Picking up where I left off somewhere after Motorama 2022, I was in the process of “Reinstall the new everything” on my way towards reassembling the IDI while trying to figure out what to do with the valve guides in each cylinder head.

What I found was seemingly a dearth of local automotive machine shops willing to rebuild those heads from age or lack of parts, or both. I managed to find one local place that was quoting me over $1000 per head for a rebuild. I kind of suspect that was a “fuck off” price, but hey, it is what it is.

The problem, as I touched on previously, was that the valve guides are just machined into the head and weren’t a separate piece (like I thought they all were), so that area would need to be very precisely drilled out and one of those separate pieces installed. They were otherwise far too sloppy for me to want to just re-use the heads.

Anyways, while I considered taking up the offer or trying to find remanufactured heads online, I kept on disassembling.

With symptoms of low oil pressure present, I wanted to take the piston pins out to see if that bore is damaged as well (which would necessitate new connecting rods, which would result in me just buying the Tesla motor).

To do this, I drilled a large hole in the crappy folding table I bought on Craigslist specifically for the head work and simply located a cardboard box under it. Two retaining rings and a gentle punch with an aluminum rod later, and I got all the connecting rods out.

The pistons were given their own “days long degreaser medley” bath to dissolve off all of the diesel crust.

Not too bad at the end, I’d say. Just a bit of wire brushing and Scotch Brite remaining.

I noticed that all of the pistons looked just a little melty at the area where the indirect combustion chamber opening would spray onto into the cylinder. This indicates some degree of piston overheating had occurred in the past, such as from long periods at high load, maybe while the low oil pressure meant the piston-cooling oil jets weren’t jetting very much.

Snekvan always had a pyrometer (exhaust temperature gauge) which I kept a fairly conservative eye on, so I’m hard pressed to believe I caused this. But who knows!? The pressing issue is that this high-surface area, lower-cross sectional area part of the piston will heat faster and be subject to more local deformation if I let it slide. In other words, the uneven bubbly surface will catch more heat transfer from the hot combustion gas, making everything worse locally.

New pistons are rare and expensive, so all I did was machine the area down a little. I found that only about 0.5mm was sufficient to scrape all the foamy aluminum off. I did this with a ball endmill to avoid creating a sharp square edge.

Even on the pistons that didn’t feature so much surface damage, I did the same operation to preserve an even compression ratio.

Hey, lower compression ratios are recommended for forced induction… right?

With pistons prepared, it was time for new rings. I thought parts for this thing would be cheap, but man is this coming up to a $2000 “rebuild” quickly.

I guess gasoline parts are far cheaper (what I’m used to for Vantruck with the 460 big block) and old diesel is a little bit specialty now.

These are substantially bigger rings than I’m used to seeing for sure. One upgrade path some people do seems to be modifying the first generation Powerstroke (1994-1997 year) pistons, which feature thicker piston rings for more b00st brah, but fit in the same bore. There was also a rare 1994-only factory turbocharged IDI from Ford, parts of which are found in the same store that sells unicorn horns. At least, I could only find oversize ones for bored-out rebuilt engines. If I found on-size ones, I might have sprung for those.

But otherwise, I’m not neckbeardy enough to chase down the more extensive mods – if I shoot these rings out of the bottom of the engine… well, it had a good run.

Starting the reassembly path for rotating parts by forgetting which piston went with which pin and which bearing cap. Fortunately, it turns out the bearing ends of each connecting rod are labeled.

I didn’t have any special “assembly lube”, but I did have a squirt bottle of machine way lube, which I’m led to believe will do the same task – be somewhat sticky and hang on for dear life for the first few seconds as all the oil passages prime. All of the parts got a dab as I put them back together.

After popping in new bearing halves, the pistons are ready for reinstallation.

I ordered a Dingleberry Hone for the cylinder bores. The proper thing to do here would have been to send the block to a shop to have these bores properly refinished. You can see a little bit of ‘lip’ at the cylinder head surfaces, and the honing somehow made it look visually worse. I decided it wasn’t significant enough to do anything but park the Dingleberry Hone over there longer, and definitely not worth another almost thousand dollars for the places I called to do it, plus the labor of hoisting this stupid block into Spool Bus and delivering it.

In retrospect, the proper proper thing to do was to hand the whole engine to said shop and pick it up 2-4 weeks later. If I were to do this again (which I would never), it would be a handoff affair. I touched on this a long time ago when pulling Mikuvan’s cylinder head off, but I’m not someone who enjoys doing these things in a state of zen (or as I put it, polishing the same motorcycle). Any actual automotive nut will see how many shortcuts and liberties I’m taking because I want it together faster or the cost of some service was far higher than I was told should be the case.

After all, it’s not like I have dozens of recorded instances on this very website where I took shortcuts or easier-looking alternative paths that bit me in the ass a short time later right?

Honestly, I kind of envy the people who just Know A Buddy With A Engine Shop who seem to be able to get these services for much cheaper than anybody I could scare up around here. Conversely, I suppose I have contacts and networks for getting practically anything else designed, built, and fully-sent.

After I put the all new bearing halves in the block, the holy god this is humongous why crankshaft is back in. I suppose it could be worse, like I could need a shipyard crane.

Main bearing caps go back on now, and the crank is free to spin! At this stage, if I were going absolutely wild, I could install a Block Grundle which apparently prevents the block from exploding in half if you’re pushing something like 500 horsepower through it. Which I’m not.

When I was doing Spool Bus’ fuel system a while back, I bought a bunch of these Unnecessarily Shiny Fuel Pump Covers. I figured it was time to bust another one out. Vantruck is going directly to an electric pump system not unlike what I put together for Spool Bus (which is not unlike what people do on The Internet)

It’s piston installation time! I picked up a Piston Ring Installerator (one of thousands of stupid one-use tools that go into every automotive product) and put some little rubber caps over the connecting rod studs. These ensure that the unhardened crankshaft bearing journals don’t get dinged up when you cram the piston in.

As someone who generally deals with bearing journals being hardened and ground (like machine spindles and the like), the idea that you’d just shiny up a soft iron surface and then leave it alone!? is preposterous.

Whatever, it’s worked for a hundred years.

Well, one of them’s in. Might as well do the rest.

After the pistons are tightened down, I reinstalled the oil pickup along with a new oil pump. Hey, I can actually feel the pressure pulses from this new one! The old oil pump I could blow air through pretty easily with my face. I figure it’s not supposed to be that way

Turning the block upright now, new Valve Pusher Roller Thingies go in, along with their holders.

At this point, I’ve kind of run out of things to do with the engine. The pushrods can’t go in until I have heads, and I’m not closing the oil pan up until I close all the top side up (to prevent…. accidents).

I decided to turn my attention to salvaging parts off the rest of Snekvan before sending the husk off to be turned into future Harbor Freight products; at this point it was getting close to May, I’ve had a shitty van laid up in the driveway for 4 months, and I was beginning to feel like That Neighbor. Thank Robot Jesus for a non-HOA subdivision, but I like to pretend I have some honor left.

Ford, in their infinite wisdom, decided to put rivets and bolts on the same damn bracket. Maybe it made the assembly line run faster or something, but it meant I couldn’t just unbolt the engine crossmember brackets. I had to get through some 1/2″ diameter hot-set rivets first.

To do so, I made a drilling jig which had a countersink to axially align with the rivet, and a center hole that I could run a 3/8″ drill bit through. The drill bit made a center (ish) mark I could then follow up with stepped increases (1/4″, 5/16″, and so on) until the rivet broke through.

Some times the head was still off center enough that I don’t fully separate the rivet. For this event, I had my 4 pound Engineer’s Hammer™ and a cold chisel.

These plates are each held on by three nuts and bolts on the top face and two rivets on the aft side of the engine crossmember. What? Anyways, this was a short evening’s work. There will be more on the Dissection of Snekvan later.

The engine adapter brackets are freed up. Vantruck’s 460 mounts look a lot different, so in time, I will need to drill new holes for these.

I took an operational pause to really think about the cylinder heads. I cleaned all the pollen (IYKYK) off the block, hosed everything down in WD-40, and then pallet wrapped it all for the time being.