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!