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Buying a Classic Ford to Build for Off-Roading

Posted in Project Vehicles on October 6, 2017
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There’s just something enjoyable about riding down an old dirt road in a well-used 4x4 with nowhere to go. The feeling is difficult to explain and harder to understand—you just have to experience it. Maybe it’s because the suspension is broken in, smoothed out, and well worn. Maybe it’s because rattles and squeaks are nothing new, and nothing to worry about. Maybe it’s the feeling that you can go just about anywhere you want despite the obstacles. You think, Heck, this old truck has probably been here before and certainly will go again.

An old 4x4 has dings, dents, rust, and earned character, which allows us to breathe a sigh of relief. These imperfections make it perfect. Imperfections mean we don’t have to think about washing it or waxing it, don’t have to worry about hurting it. The truck is at home, like a bear in the woods, and everything is just right. A smile quickly pops up on our faces and our worries disappear.

Our most recent (and fairly foolish) acquisition is a patina’d red 1978 Ford F-250 Custom 4x4 regular cab longbed. The Custom was a base model for 1978, and while the truck has received a few upgrades over the years, most are broken or obsolete to us. What we like are the solid bones and the patina. The patina is amazing. The high miles don’t really matter. The engine makes good oil pressure, and chances are we will go through almost all of the rest of the mechanical systems on the truck over the next few years. Also, since the truck has been functional for so long, we are willing to bet it will continue working—even if that means it needs a few new parts and a little elbow grease now and again.

RedFerd is a retired ranch truck from northern Arizona. According to the seller it was running pretty well a few years back, but after sitting for a while the truck would start but wouldn’t run well. So when we went to go look at buying it we had to see if the good outweighed the bad, judging which parts still had life and which didn’t. What we found was a common issue: a truck that would start but wouldn’t run, and a fuel filter filled with junk. Someone had swapped a 460 into the truck (which originally had a 351M under the hood) and did a fairly decent job. About the same time, someone installed a new starter, a new fuel pump, a new Holley four-barrel carburetor, and some other trinkets. That tells us someone cared about this truck. Between that and the patina, we had to have it.

RedFerd is a beat-up old ranch truck, but we knew what we were getting into. The previous owner was clearly not interested in taking the time to make the necessary repairs to remedy the truck’s rough running problem. Inspecting the Ford before purchase, we noticed the fuel filter was jam-packed with trash. We found a new filter in the truck under the hood in the fenderwell. With the new filter installed the engine sounded good and made oil pressure but would not rev, so we suspected some trash had made it past to the carb’s internal sintered filter, fuel bowls, needle and seat, or elsewhere.

RedFerd has a 460ci V-8 engine (known for torque and power, but not economy); C-6 transmission; an eight-lug, high-pinion Dana 44 front axle; an NP203 transfer case; and a full-float Dana 60 rear axle. Our plans for the truck are to make it run, fix what leaks, maybe add some bigger axles, definitely add some bigger tires, change the gearing a bit to suit our uses, and then add lockers, a winch, and whatever else we feel it needs. Time and use will tell, but first we have to get the truck running. And while that may be simple, even we are not yet sure what, exactly, it needs. We know for sure it needs some work on the fuel system, the brakes, and a little cleanup here and there. Follow along as we drag it home, get it running and then get it running right with a little help and a few parts from our friends at LMC Truck.

We could tell someone in the past had cared about this truck from the swapped-in 460, four-barrel Holley, new starter, chrome valve covers, big air filter with chrome housing, new fuel pump, and the remnants of what was once a nicer (for the time) stereo. This truck came with a 351M, which shares the same bellhousing bolt pattern as the big-block 429/460 family. The fuel filter condition and junked-up carb signals there is a bunch of garbage in the fuel tank, so onto the trailer it went until we could properly attack it at home.
Once home we tore into RedFerd to get it running since until we can drive it we cannot be sure if it needs a transmission, axle work, transfer case parts, or who knows what. Since there was so much junk in the clear fuel filter we checked the small screen filter at the inlet to the carb. Sure enough, it was clogged with more rusty junk.
Next, we pulled the inlet needle. A combination of time, particulate matter, and bad fuel means these two parts can get stuck, either overfilling the bowl and then running out the vents into the carb or, conversely, preventing any gas from entering the bowl. To pull the needle all you need is a 5/8-inch wrench and a flathead screwdriver. Be careful not to tear the two gaskets, but the Holley inlet needle and gaskets are readily available at almost any parts store, so we went ahead and replaced them for good measure.
Because of the amount of trash we saw everywhere else we decided to pull the bowls to clean them out and check the float. With everything as clean as we could get it and a new needle and seat, we set the float level a bit lower for off-road use and slapped the carb back together with the original bowl gaskets.
To bypass the skunked factory tank, we hooked up a small temporary underhood fuel can with some new 3/8-inch fuel line. We don’t recommend driving a vehicle like this, but for diagnostic purposes with an extinguisher handy it’s fine. Notice the bungee tie-down and rag “cap” to help prevent fuel and vapor spills.
With the fuel system temporarily bypassed, we drove the truck around our property. The engine runs great and the transmission shifts just like it should. Score! The driver’s seatbelt is frayed and won’t spool out of the B-pillar. The brakes barely work. The rear brake master cylinder reservoir was dry, so we suspect a leak somewhere and will address it. In the meantime we placed a call to LMC Truck to order a new seatbelt.
We don’t really care for the aftermarket grille insert. It’s cheap and broken and ugly. We will keep our eyes peeled on the local junkyards or may just order a factory reproduction from LMC. Until then we may not like it, but it will not keep us from driving the truck.
We also addressed some good-sized dents on the passenger side of the bed. Using a porta-power, a body hammer, and a dolly, we were able to pop some of the dents out. We got some work done on the worst dent, but arguably there is still more to do. On the other hand, since there is a better-than-even chance this fender will eventually get massaged on a rock, tree, or obstacle, good enough will have to be good enough.
RedFerd’s front axle is only a Dana 44, which is adequate for tires up to 37s without low gears and a locker, but since we will probably go bigger than that, our plans include an eventual axle upgrade. You will have to wait to see what we do. Lastly, the tires on RedFerd are amazingly dangerous! We are not really sure how they hold air, but we do know they are simple not safe to drive on. We’ll be looking at replacement tires the next time you see RedFerd.
The stock fuel tank is augmented by an auxiliary tank that someone added along the way. We could pull the tanks and have them boiled out, cleaned, repaired, and internally coated for about $150-$200 apiece. But when LMC offers its 38-gallon Extra-Capacity Rear-Mount Gas Tank (PN 43-5048) for our truck at $199.95, upgrading from dual tanks to a single large-capacity tank is a no-brainer. We also ordered a fresh sending unit and new fuel lines to replace the rusted 19-gallon factory and bulky aftermarket auxiliary tanks.
Instead of completely tearing the carburetor apart for a proper cleaning and rebuild, we ordered one of Summit Racing Equipment’s new MAX-efi 500 Fuel Injection Systems (PN SUM-240500, $849.97). It’s not dirt cheap, but for a self-learning, self-contained fuel-injection system it’s still a screaming bargain. We will get it installed on RedFerd’s 460, fix the brake system, install new tires, and be back with a full installation and performance review on this cool new injection the next time you see RedFerd.

Sources

Summit Racing
Akron, OH
800-230-3030
http://www.summitracing.com
LMC Truck
Lenexa, KS 66219
800-562-8782
www.lmctruck.com

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