By on May 24, 2010

Chew Bacca (no, really) writes:

I have a 1963 Ford Ranchero with the 144 cu in six, it hasn’t run in 8 years, but I recently got the go ahead from my dad to work on it, in addition to changing the oil, oil filter, draining the gas tank, and fuel filter, I replaced the spark plugs, spark plug wires, and ignition coil, and it still won’t spark. I put a charged battery in and the starter works, strong enough to move the car, any suggestions?

Sajeev Answers:

Question is, how did you test for (the lack of) spark? The easiest way is described here. If–since you installed a new coil–the car still cranks but won’t fire up the plugs, I suspect either the distributor or the timing chain is the problem. Many Fords from the 1950s-1980s used a quiet (and suitably craptastic) phenolic material for timing chain gears, and that’s a big problem after 10+ years of use. So even if the engine was rebuilt to factory specs back in the 1980s…

The forums say many Ford I-6s used phenolic timing gears, so I suspect that is indeed your problem. The only way to know for sure? Remove the distributor cap and stare at the rotor while someone else cranks from behind the wheel. And if the rotor has a lot of play when you manually cycle it, that’s even more proof that something went wrong.

Bonus! A Piston Slap Nugget of Wisdom:

Do you love your car enough to keep it forever? Then prepare for screwball problems like the one above: anything can and will go wrong with an old car. And it will drive you mad, unless you are a bona fide expert on your specific make and model: when I was a little younger and somewhat stupider, I had the distinct displeasure of owning a dead Lincoln Continental with this timing chain problem. I drove on that bad set of gears for 5 miles, in first gear at 20mph. Amazingly, the car got me home, only to never start again. One year and many failed self-diagnosis later, I towed the car to a shop (the only one I trust) and got the diagnosis that fixed it.

The shop said it was the timing chain gears, and explained the diagnosis like it was child’s play. Because it was, if I ever bothered to look at that frickin’ rotor! But still, thanks to my wise mechanic, I learned something new that I can now share with everyone at TTAC. And that’s a good thing.

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28 Comments on “Piston Slap: No Go Ranchero from Phenolic Failure?...”

  • avatar

    Did the OP replace the points? a buddy of mine and I resurrected his dad’s dormant 71 Chevelle a couple years ago and went through the whole thing, after re-assembly it would not fire up to save it’s life. We even managed to fry one starter in the attempt.

    His dad said that he had replaced the points and condenser when it was parked in 1983. On a hunch, I went and got new points and swapped them in, it fired on the first crank!

  • avatar

    Basecd on my experience resurrecting a similar ’72 Ventura (inline six), I agree on checking the points.

  • avatar

    I’m going to make it a troika, the points definitely. If they are not bad (fused together or pitted beyond belief) at least check the dwell.

  • avatar

    Points and condenser are the first things to check , are you getting 12 volts to the coil? Check or by pass the ballist resistor.
    That will be one cool ride.

  • avatar

    You might want to change the distributor cap. It could be cracked.

  • avatar

    “Do you love your car enough to keep it forever? Then prepare for screwball problems like the one above: anything can and will go wrong with an old car. And it will drive you mad, unless you are a bona fide expert on your specific make and model:” I thought that was every man’s mission in life, to become a bona fide expert in one particular vehicle. ;) For the lucky one’s it’s by choice and not by necessity.

  • avatar

    Those timing gears drove me crazy on a mid 70’s Ford F-150. One of the worse pieces of engineering I have ever seen. If you do change the points and that does fix it, consider changing to electronic ignition kit.Points suck. You have a classic ride there, take good care of it!

    • 0 avatar

      Absolutely!! That’s one of the first things I did on the 383 in the ’63 Dodge. Installed a Pertronix Ignitor — just like changing the points, only this is the last time you’ll need to do it. Holds a constant 35 degrees dwell no matter the rpm, and steadies the timing as well. Well worth the $80 to $90 buck expenditure.

    • 0 avatar

      Definitely replace the points with a Pertronix Ignitor. It’s simple and it maintains the vintage look.

  • avatar

    The big ford 6s had no chain. Don’t know about 144s and other small- block 6s

    Fords with chains stripped gears because metal chain is harder than plastic gears. My experience with a 351 Windsor whose gears I changed to metal is that I could hear no “chain noise” from the new gears.

    I suspect that phenolic gears were for the bean counters and not for the quiet.

    If that small 6 is chainless then I’d check points first. Less likely that 2 gears of the same hardness would strip each other out.

  • avatar

    Ford inline 6s of this vintage did not use plastic timing gears. These little beasties are as simple as simple gets. First, check for spark at the plugs. If you’ve got spark, squirt some starting fluid in the carb and give it a try. If this thing wont go, it’s because you’re missing fuel, or spark, or both.

  • avatar

    And yes, converting over to a Pertronix-type of electronic ignition would be a great idea. I am not a big fan of points, solid state ignition is FTW. Maybe a junkyard conversion to FoMoCo stuff from a I-6 Fairmont is cheap and doable, but I really wouldn’t know.

  • avatar

    thanks everyone, mfgreen is the winner, i replaced the condenser and it fired right up, although right now im trying to find the right the right adapter to plug the fuel line into the rebuilt carb i got, also its a 170, sorry

  • avatar

    Check the condition of the points, their timing, and the condition of the distributor cap & the rotor. Replace the condenser as well.

    Geez, back in the day, a feeler guage and a timing light were the first two tools you got out of the box.

    Besides corroded and worn terminals, a cap can develop cracks and hairline carbon traces that will mess up ignition.

    While electronic ignition and fuel injection are great, you have a better chance fixing mechanical points or a carb at the side of the road than you do fixing a car with EI and FI.

  • avatar

    0Like racebeer said, installing the pertronix is just as easy as changing points, so you keep a spare set of points and condenser in the car and if you suspect trouble with the pertronix its an easy swap. Checking for spark at the coil lead would elimanate cap and rotor failure.

    • 0 avatar
      Dave Skinner

      Checking for spark at the coil lead would BYPASS the cap and rotor, narrowing the troubleshooting to those components. If there’s spark at the coil wire and none at the plugs, the failure is cap, rotor, or plug wires.

  • avatar

    Need air, fuel and spark at the correct time to run. Begin your diagnosis by figuring out which of the three is (are) missing. Relate the Symptom to a System to a Component to a root Cause diagnosis (SSCD).

  • avatar

    Properly maintained points were perfectly adequate for most vehicles from around 1915 to 1975 so I wouldn’t recommend fitting an electronic ignition. The primary reason manufacturers went electronic was due to laws regarding warrantees on emissions related parts. At least fix the current system before fitting an electronic system to avoid more confusion.

    If you want to continue throwing parts at it you could add the usual tune-up parts: new distributor cap, rotor, points, and condenser. Probably less than $50.

    If you want to troubleshoot it, I would start with pulling the center wire from the distributor cap and placing the end 1/4″ from ground. Cranking the engine should produce a spark. If it does, the coil/points/condenser are OK and you should look for the problem in the rotor/cap/wires. If you get no spark from the coil, connect a 12V test lamp from the coil-to-distributor primary wire and ground. Cranking the engine should make the light flicker on and off. If it stays on, check the points for being stuck open or having corroded contacts. If it stays off, check the points for being mis-adjusted and not opening, or a shorted condenser. The 12V lamp can also be used to check for juice at the ignition switch, ballast resistor, and coil primary.

  • avatar

    Thinking out loud. Did Ford use plastic for the distributor gear on these engines? I know that Chrysler put plastic gears on its slant 6 distributors. I know this because I had one break on a really cold day. Have someone crank the engine over with the distributor cap off – is the rotor turning? I solved my problem with a junkyard distributor, but this was a long time ago when they were more plentiful and the plastic was not as old.

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    The little Ford six used a timing chain, not gears. Google is your friend: it took 23 seconds to find that out.
    Points worked (and still work) in tens of millions of older cars. Possibly consider switching to an electronic ignition if this is going to be a daily/regular driver; don’t bother otherwise. Points work just fine. TR 4 has the right info on troubleshooting the distributor.
    The problem is (likely) either spark or gas. Don’t start replacing stuff unless you’ve first figured out whether you have either or both of these. Any old Chilton book has a good troubleshooting chart for an older car that won’t start. May well be available online. Try google.

    • 0 avatar

      Paul: Oops, looks like I shoulda clarified that we aren’t talking about gear drive systems. The gears used with some Ford timing chains are not metal.

    • 0 avatar
      Paul Niedermeyer

      The big six (240-300) does use the timing gears (non-metallic), as I found out the hard way. Replaced mine with steel ones, but they’re noisy. I didn’t know that they used the phenolic ones with chains too (I wonder??). I assumed not, which explains my answer.

  • avatar

    While the plugs are out, do a compression check. If wacko, timing chain has jumped a tooth or two.

    I diagnosed this on an Econoline of about the same vintage after the owner was deep into new parts and a half-rack of Bud longnecks.

  • avatar

    Have to disagree with retaining points. My ’72 Fury came with points…it was in that transition year; some had them, others had the firewall mounted electronic ignition module. Points would wear out, needed adjustment, fussy PITAs that they are. Most no-starts were because I forgot to change them before the winter. I purchased a Direct-><-Connection conversion kit that included a distributor, ballast resistor, the module and some wiring. Spent half a day making it look like the factory installed system. Never had to do anything to is since other than set base timing. Interesting thing to note that the Japanese held onto points late into the '70s…I always wondered why…preference to mechanical?

    Picture this type of troubleshooting on today's cars when they are 25 or thirty years old. The unique knowledge base to particular electronic systems and the related test equipment of the day will have come and gone, kind of like trying to launch a Saturn V rocket today. The people who knew are gone…

  • avatar

    Still calling it ‘Piston Slap’ then? I’d thought you’d agreed to change the name!

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