WHAT TO LOOK FOR IN A CLASSIC FORD TRUCK: Part 1

WHAT TO LOOK FOR IN A CLASSIC FORD TRUCK

 

PART I

Well, you
decided that you want an old Ford truck to "fix up", eh ? But, you’ve never
done anything like this before. You know what you want as a final product, but
the ‘in-between’ is a little fuzzy. Is
that where you are ?????

You’ve gotten
to the point in your life where you have some discretionary spending money and
the kids are gone so there is room in the driveway and the wife is at least
somewhat agreeable to you taking on another project. You’ve been watching the want-ads and the Car Trader for a likely candidate and
you’ve seen a few possibilities. Now, if you only knew what to look for when
you go look at them. Hopefully this
epistle will give you some insight into what you need to think about before you
put down your money. The first thing
you’ll find here is this: What you buy should depend on what you want to do
with it. Let me explain..

You’ll find
old trucks in all conditions. They will
run the gambit between show trucks and scrap piles. One of the first things I’ll offer here (with
a caveat) is no matter which way you want to take your truck, buy the best
truck you can find not the best you can afford the best you can find money
spent up front is cheaper than money spend down the road repairing/replacing
missing parts or work done badly by the previous owner. I cannot stress this
enough. Now, the caveat: if you’re rodding the truck, you’re only interested in
certain parts and pieces, so if the engine is dead, it doesn’t matter since
you’re probably gonna replace it anyway. You’ll soon learn that exceptions outnumber rules 10 to 1 in this hobby.

Classification of vehicles and amount of involvement.

The
Trucks at the upper range of your budget
(and far beyond) are meticulously restored or customized, they have trophies and picture books to show
every step. Their owners can quote from
memory where every piece and part were purchased and the price (including
shipping).These trucks might need some fresh paint or at least a change in
color to suit you. If you only want the
ride and not the journey to build it, this is where you need to look. (no dirt
under your nails)

Some trucks
will be previously restored/rebuilt vehicles that appear to be road worthy and
ready to go. Most will be, but use caution at this point. Their definition of "road worthy" and yours
may be significantly different. That is
if you’re particular about brakes that slowly fade to the floor and the bungee
cord holding the door closed. At this
level, some amount of involvement, sweat, blood, cash outlay and frustration
enter into the fun/expenditure equation.

Some have
been sitting in a field for years, they might have a barn leaning against them
or maybe even with a 5" sweet gum tree growing up through the engine
compartment or the bed. The previous owner (hereinafter referred to as the
P.O.) will smile, pat on the fender and assure you it was running when it was
parked saying, "All she needs is some fresh gas and a ba-tree." At this point you might be considered a
masochist and enjoy pain, suffering and financial ruin. But, it can also be the most rewarding
crusade of all when it is complete, besides, you didn’t need that 401-K anyway.

If at this point, if you find that you haven’t *actually*
done your homework and studied the condition/price range now is the time to do
it. I suggest looking at the ads, search
the internet and the old car trader magazines. Attend a few car/truck shows and talk to owners. Most times you won’t see a for sale sign on
the windshield but subtly placed on a side or back window on a business card or
neatly lettered with a phone number on the glass. Don’t be shocked if you see some that are
more than your annual salary. You can
buy a complete car for what some truck builders spend on a paint job. The more you know, the better equipped you
are to invest in one of these beauties.

So let’s jump
ahead a bit and assume you’ve done your homework and are a wary buyer ready to
find your ‘deal’. Remember the first
rule from above:

What you buy should depend on what you want to do
with it

Later in the
article I will tell you about ‘paths’ and how your choice of vehicle types
will affect those paths.. i.e. restoration vs. rodding. 

If your taste
runs toward a restoration, that is, a truck that looks like it just rolled off
Henry’s line you want to find a vehicle that is as complete as possible or at
the very least has all the repairable parts there. A complete truck with engine and drive train,
interior parts and sheet metal that can be repaired or replaced is the best
place to start. Anything less is just
going to cost you more money later on. Maybe lots more. Some of the year classes had particular
parts, emblems, grills, interior trim parts that are not reproduced now-a-days
and good pieces are extremely hard to find. If you have to have that model,
make sure it’s as complete as possible.

If you plan
on building a street rod type vehicle you can consider a vehicle without
engine/transmission and even the rear end, although moving it will be more
difficult without the rear end. Since
you’ll probably be installing a different engine and drive train anyway, the
original stuff is something you’ll have to do away with and there is a
limited market for used engines/transmissions. So in this case, a good frame and all the sheet metal will be the basis
for your choice.

Now ?? can you see the first fork in your road
?? More on that later.

DO YOU KNOW WHAT YOU’RE LOOKING AT ?

For your next
homework assignment, read this chapter, there may be a pop quiz later.

You’ve found
an ad in the Wednesday morning classifieds for a ’54 F-100 in original
condition with what you think ‘might’ be an attractive price based on the
telephone description given by the seller. (hereinafter referred to as The
#%&$%@ P.O.) You tell the seller
that you are very interested, hoping he won’t sell it before you get there
and make an appointment for Saturday morning
to check it out.  When you arrive you see
it sitting outside the barn. The heavy
drag marks from inside the barn give you your first clue.. the brakes are locked up so this truck ain’t
been driven in awhile.

So here’s a
partial list of things to look at and listen to (if you can) while you’re
walking around and kicking those freshly inflated tires that show the signs of
sitting flat for years.

RUST

These old
trucks are notorious for holding water in certain places. Water retention in trucks (just like ladies)
is a bad thing. Check the cab
corners, all four. Check the door bottoms,
inside and out. Look at the place where
the running boards attach to the fenders, front and back. Look at the drip rail around the windshield..
and look for rust thru where the roof joins this area. Inside the doors look where the cab is bolted
to the front cab mounts, these are really fun to replace. Look at the seam at the front of the hood,
and feel the inside of this seam, if you can get the hood open. One more place to look is above the
headlights in the fenders. If there are
any floor mats in the truck, or carpet, pull it back if you can and look at the
floorboards, or what is left of them. Patch panels for these areas are
available at a reasonable cost, but the cost of installing them can be
considerable if you’re not proficient in welding and body work.

A strong
flashlight and a magnet will help you detect damage in hidden areas and some
bad/thick bondo applications. Tap around
on the truck with your knuckles till you hear a dull thick sound, that’s
probably filler put in way too thick.  Not necessarily a reason to reject the truck, but make a mental note
when you tally up your offer.

PREVIOUS MODIFICATIONS

Check over
the front suspension carefully. If it’s
original, you’ll probably be safe, unless there has been some spring ‘alteration’ i.e. heating with a torch to lower the truck. Look for broken, bent or missing parts. You should also be wary of any conversions to
ifs from another vehicle. Ask lots of
questions about who did it, when, where, professional or homebuilt. If it’s home done ask about how it was done,
measurements taken, alignment problems, steering problems, tire wear, etc. If
the installation looks less than professional.. walk on by. Front suspension alterations, grafts,
re-engineerings need to be done by someone with some knowledge of how those
things work. You want good welds with
proper penetration and gusseting. Correct steering connections and steering geometry are a must. Just because it fit under the fenders doesn’t
mean it will work. Consider driving with
your family down the freeway at 65 mph+ with a questionable front suspension
before you decide it’s what you want.

Engine swaps
are pretty common, look at the engine mounts and see if they are an add-on
aftermarket component or some cobbled up angle iron affair that might drop the
block on the way home, check the welding for cracks and bending.

The
transmission should also be checked for support. In the truck I bought, the transmission was
being supported by a torch cut piece of bed rail that was held to the frame by
twisted wire. While you’re looking there
look back at the rear end for signs of changes or abuse or rust through in the
frame rails and spring perches. Look for
broken springs and hangers.

Look at the
backing plates on the brakes for signs of leaking brake fluid, kinked or
missing brake lines. The presence of
e-brake cables, clevises and such is a good sign, not that they work but that
the pieces are there.

If the truck
is running, have a seat behind the wheel and turn it over. Listen for abnormal starter sounds. Is the starter dragging or turning over
slowly. This could just be a weak
battery or signs of other problems. When the engine starts, let it idle, stick
your head under the hood and listen. Do
you hear any knocking or sounds like metal contacting metal. A little ticking in the valves is normal on
start up but should disappear after a minute or so. Look for signs of oil or fluid leaks around
the valve covers, heads, thermostat housing. If all sounds and looks good, throttle it up a little and listen
more. Did the engine run up to speed ok
or was there hesitation or stumbling? If
any of these tests return a negative, it not necessarily a reason to reject the
purchase, missing or stumbling could be signs of inactivity..the truck has just
been sitting too long. Metal on metal
sounds are another matter. Here’s
another exception.. if you’re going to
rod the truck and replace the engine, the noises don’t matter.

If you feel
confident about the truck, take her for a spin, pay attention to things like
brakes holding firm on stops, clutch slipping, steering binding on turns, gears
meshing properly when shifting. Listen to
unusual sounds and feel for vibrations in the drive train. You’ve driven enough vehicles to know when
something is wrong. But, temper your
findings with the fact that old trucks are well, old trucks, and even when new
didn’t drive or handle like today’s vehicles. It won’t be as quiet or smooth as your Lexus.

WIRING AND ELECTRICAL

Old trucks
are notorious for having ‘alterations’ made to the wiring. When something stopped working or the wiring
released it’s smoke, repairs are frequently made with whatever is handy to get
the truck back on the road. Routing and
connections are put in the category of "I’ll fix that when I get home, and are
rarely completed later." I’ve seen 12
gauge solid copper house wiring used, plastic coated stranded clothesline
wire.. wire nuts used for connections. Any additional length of wire was simply coiled or wadded up and stuffed
under the dash. Firewall grommets were
long ago poked out with a screwdriver and the telltale signs of arcing are
evident and melted insulation has dripped down the engine side of the firewall. Sometimes things were just cut loose and left
hanging. The original wire is over 50 years old.. the rubber insulation has
hardened and broken away and the cloth cover has been a snack for rodents. So
don’t be surprised at anything you see under the dash, including wasp nest and
rat droppings.

The old 6
volt systems were at best less than dependable. On a cold day you were considered fortunate if your truck would crank at
all. Many adventuresome owners converted
the system to 12 volts with the addition of an alternator and 12 volt pieces
and parts. Again this is a place to
question the conversion. If the truck is
in running condition or at least has a charged battery, check the electrical
devices, headlights work?, tail lights,
heater, gauges even come up off the peg ??? Wiper motor move the blades at all (assuming an electrical wiper system
instead of vacuum)?. Try the horn and
the brake lights.

CAB AND INTERIOR

Climb up in
the cab and look around. What is the
condition of the steering wheel? most of the covering gone ?? Check all the
windows, first to see if they are there, then to see if they work. Check the door handles and locks. Pull on the e-brake handle to see if it’s
frozen or broken. Are the seats original
and do the slides work? Try the cowl vent. Some or all of these might be just rusted stuck and a little PB Blaster
will free them up. Check for trim
pieces, glove compartment door and all the knobs and such. Has the dash been hacked up to add a 8-track
player. Are all the knobs and switches
and cables and badges in place, some may be hard to find if you’re going back
to restored condition.

MISC

If you can
get the hood up (if it will stay up) if it won’t there will be a broom stick
laying inside somewhere.) stick your head in and take an accounting, is
anything missing ?? Starter, carb, manifolds
??? Lots of times parts are robbed from
one vehicle to get another running again. Take off the radiator cap and look for any signs of plugged tubes,
clogging or evidence of stop leak. If it
has water in it do you see any signs of anti-freeze ?? If not you might want to give the freeze
plugs (block expansion plugs) a closer look and check the block for
cracks. Look the radiator over for any
signs of leaks or corrosion. Many times
these old trucks have been sitting for years and the evidence isn’t really
apparent, but look for telltale signs of green on the fins, corrosion from the
leaks..but if it’s a ‘runnin’ truck they should show. Look at hoses and belts, check the water pump
for leaks. 

Pull the
dipstick and look at the oil, if it’s milky it’s a sign of water in the oil..
if it’s thick and grungy, It’s been a long time since an oil change. 

Of course
check tires to see if they will at least hold air. If it’s not a working truck, you’re gonna
have to trailer it home or have a roll back drag it up and bring it to
you. Rolling stock is easier to handle
than something dead that must be drug up on the trailer/truck.

One last
thing to ask the P.O. "Are there any
other parts for the truck?" Many times
P.O.s will have an extra carb or side window that was purchased and never
installed. It never hurts to ask. It might get you an opportunity to tour
the barn and find some other gems that
could be available for sale. I found an
old safe one time when looking for tractor wheels. It was mine for the taking.

If you can do
all this and feel reasonably confident about your inspection and the answers
from the P.O. Start dealing. Some folks
will haggle and some won’t. If the
asking price is way too steep make a reasonable offer and wait for a counter,
If he won’t budge and you won’t pay, walk away. Thank him for his time and
drive off. Wait a week and if the ad is
still there or you know the truck hasn’t sold, give him a call and ask if he’ll
reconsider your offer. Many times people
have trucks that someone in the family has told them are worth a fortune when
in reality it’s just another old truck in bad condition. After a week of no offers he might be more
agreeable to considering your offer. The
worst thing he can say is no. Lot’s of
guys will haggle for a deal for months or even years before the owner will let
it go. Keep trying if you want the
truck.

Another
important thing you need to affirm is a clear title. Although most vehicles were not registered in
the 50s, in today’s world they are and in some cases inspections by the state
are required. Insurance companies won’t
insure anything that isn’t roadworthy (in their opinion, not yours). Ask for the most current tag receipt or
registration, check the vin # against what you find on the registration plate
to see if they match. Sometimes you’ll
find the plate on the glove box door or in the door sill or firewall, but it’s
somewhere. If there is no registration you’re
going to have to come up with some way to register the truck and get a tag and
insurance, that’s a BIG obstacle if you have to back into it and could be a
deal breaker in some states. If the
truck has a tag no matter how old, there should be registration at the court
house. It might be a good idea to put down some earnest money to get the owner
to hold the truck till you can assure clear title and registration. It’s not beyond imagination to find a barn
stored truck that was stolen back from a garage that had a lien on it for
unpaid work. If that shop filed that
lien it will be on record and if you buy the truck you inherit the lien with
it, lucky you. 

Good hunting!

Continue to Part 2.

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