Operation IDIocracy: The Rebuildening, Part IV – The Road to Reassembly

This post covers the reassembly work on the engine spanning roughly from mid June to before Dragon Con. After Dragon Con, my plan was to focus 100% on preparing Overhaul for the 2022 BattleBots season. The goal was to run the engine on a stand of some sort by then.

I cleaned up both of the heads using the (actually) brass wire brush seen previously and kept it from rusting again with some WD-40, since my work environment isn’t exactly weatherproof and by June, it’s very warm and moist.

I did this in part because of decisions about what to do with the head bolts. Recall one of my wants was to put some “stage one” and bulletproofing mods in while I’m reassembling. Well, the OEM head bolts on these engines were allegedly only 140ksi yield, or barely Grade 8. Could I verify this? Nah, but usually you would get a set of ARP heat-treated, rolled-thread studs with 220+ksi yield strength so you can really crank them down.

The problem was these were one trillion dollars (or so it felt with inflation and supply chain disruptions) and also terminally out of stock everywhere at the time, early-mid 2022.

I therefore went around scouting out where to get Grade 8, 9, or above 12-point cap screws – similar to the OEM head bolts, but just more hardcore. After all, I’m not running epic amounts of boost in the end, and if Snekvan survived on OEM head bolts, I was really only gaining long-term liability, which was preferred.

I found these Grade 9 equivalents on Specialty Fasteners (quite a name) and ordered up 35 – 17 per side plus one extra for the one I shear off.

While they were coming, I made an Internet Car Advice Recommended Upgrade to the heads. Legend has it when Ford/International went to the 7.3 liter size, they blocked off the coolant flow to the heads using plugs. Why? Who knows. Some allege for emissions purposes.

Whatever the case, lack of coolant flow through the heads makes them run hotter and potentially more prone to warping. A recommended hack appears to be punch (not drill) through the plugs on both ends of the head, enabling coolant passages in the block to connect once more.

I’m guessing you don’t drill because a punching process doesn’t generate metal shards everywhere inside these castings with their passageways and whatnot. Some people seem to remove these plugs outright, others leave a hole or two. I decided to go for the punch a hole approach.

The plot twist is of course you also have to drill holes in the head gaskets because they’re otherwise sealed off in this area.

And this is how I found myself drilling holes in brand new head gaskets. I just did a visual alignment and put a roughly 3/8″ sized hole here. Alright, Internet Car Advice… you better come through.

A good while ago, I bought a Ginormous Torque Wrench at a garage sale (at which I also obtained an arbor press). It went up to 250 ft-lbs and I had no idea what I could possibly tighten with it…. until now. Good thing I have it! The new head bolts were tightened in a few stages to 150 ft-lb.

With the heads reassembled, now I can bust out my poorly labeled bags from a few months prior and begin reassembly.

Here, the new Valve Pushy Roller Things are installed along with the pushrods.

I took the opportunity to make a modification to the “Bolt of Convenient Engine Mount Access” which would allow me to, if the event ever arose, to remove the engine mount on the driver’s side independently of the oil cooler.

I dropped what felt like an entire tube of silicone here on the intake manifold. In fact, this engine ended up having a full 4 or 5 tubes of silicone in various places. I think they really assume you buy the big cartridge of silicone or something, because I was used to the dainty “Make a 3mm wide bead” of Mikuvan’s instructions. Here, it seems more proper to just puke the silicone everywhere.

The intake manifold is now back on and secured.

Well, the distasteful modifications begin… Nobody will even get to see this in real life. But I will know it’s there.

(This was principally to prevent any surface rust on the valve covers from spreading, but I got carried away)

I’m moving onto putting the timing system back together now.

Yup, more extra painting for no reason. This is all going to get scratched and gouged up anyways as soon as I try hoisting the thing in.

The reattachment of the injection pump isn’t supposed to happen in this order, but I am deviating from “book steps” because I have a full reassembly going on where I can see the timing gears, not a repair job.

The IDI seems to have a very curious repair step where you have to play align-the-marks without being able to see them. Once the front cover is installed, you actually can’t see the Y-shaped timing mark because this camshaft gear is sunken below the top face of the block by about 2 inches.

The actual factory shop manual lists all kinds of shadetree sounding workarounds for pulling the injection pump gear, like scribing lines radially from the center to the matching Y stamping, or using dye on the teeth to line them up.

I took a more visceral approach and cut five little dimples into the tips of the two teeth next to the Y using a Dremel. These are concentrated at the very top face of the gear teeth, and therefore should not affect load carrying (famous last words). This way I can peer down from the top and see the reflections of the irregular cuts.

I’ve reattached the injection lines here too, along with a feeder line which will eventually feed into the rest of the fuel system. This was simply cut from the OEM filter-to-injection-pump line and flared a little bit to give a hose something to loop over and be clamped to (at the time, I didn’t own a proper bubble flaring or beading tool)

Injection pump dropped into place and fittings ready to attach!

This is what I mean by cheating when it comes to lining everything up. You’re supposed to have closed the front cover by now, which I haven’t, so I can fiddle the timing gear as much as I want. There is no visual on this gear mate if installed properly, and especially not in the van chassis.

With another what feels like whole tube of silicone, the front cover plate is mounted.

Not sure if I’m a fan of this design – this cover plate has bolts that do and don’t enter into the water jacket of the block (requiring silicone on bolt threads) and seals coolant passages adjacent to the crankcase which will be full of oil. With the water pump on the other side.

Seems like if I bung up any of these many silicone seals, I’m just asking for the big milkshake.

The oil cooler and the Bolt of Convenient Engine Mount Access are secured now. Of all the things I ran out of patience to paint…

This is one of the four Bolts of Milkshake Generation – the threads have to be siliconed, like a weird squishy Loctite, or you’ll pour pressurized coolant right into the crankcase.

Of course, I wouldn’t just do all of this without being extra.

So I basically have the entire thing reassembled up front at this point, except one demon from the beginning of the year which I now had to slay: The harmonic balancer which has a broken puller bolt remnant in it.

I set it up on the Benchmaster, Master of Benches and homed in on the hole with conical edge finders, then used a 7/16″ diameter cutter to create a mild counterbore as well as a flat bottom I could then drill into.

Here’s the prepared surface. I went down only as far as to fully turn the broken bolt into a flat surface. I still wanted to retain as much original thread here as I could.

Next, I dove in with a 5/16″ diameter drill bit. This just happens to the be the tap drill size for 3/8″-16 threads anyway. I somehow hit it so dead center that the entire bolt disintegrated into curls, and I could actually see the original threads intact.

Exciting times. I decided to chase the threads anyhow with a tap just to clear out all the debris.

Then I cleaned the part up and decided to be EXTRA again.


Like, goodness this is extra.

It’s a pity nobody will ever see this Miku-colored (and rust) engine.

Lastly, with the entire top and front side closed up, there was no longer a danger of dropping things downwards. So with another two tubes of silicone or so, the absolutely massive oil pan is closed up!

That same night, I went ahead and made the return lines.

The next task was to flip the engine around on the…

Wait, there’s no way to mount the engine using its front bolts. I’m going to have to do the rear cover plate and seal install with it hanging in midair, you say? Let’s do it!

There’s really only two things going on here, the rear cover plate (with seal) and the transmission adapter plate.

Getting closer to the end here with the flywheel and torque converter adapter plate now installed. Torquing these bolts with an engine hanging in midair was a unique experience.

With the flywheel mounted, the mounting ears of the Harbor Freight 2-ton stand were no longer long enough to reach the mounting plate. I had to supplement it with 1″ spacers as well as longer bolts; both were unceremoniously sourced from the hardware store right before they closed Saturday night. Also seen here is the oil pressure sensor, freshly installed on a riser coupler thing to clear the taller transmission mounting plate of the IDI. In Vantruck’s old 460, this thing sat in the same spot, but a lot lower.

So here we have it. It’s 2 weeks before Dragon Con in late August now, and I’m ready to fire this thing up. Stay tuned for THE TESTENING!

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!