Model A Ford Maintenance

Recently I was trying to find a problem on my 1930 Model A Ford, and before I could completely figure out why my car wasn’t running well, the starter seemed to go out.  I couldn’t believe that my starter could fail at just the exact moment that I thought I had fixed my other problem!  I was incredibly frustrated, so I called my buddy Devin to commiserate.

What had happened was that when I pushed the starter button, nothing at all happened.  Just a very soft click.  It was as if the starter wasn’t even attached to the car.  As soon as I said that, Devin knew what the problem was.  Sometimes the starter can get stuck.  The gear (called the Bendix) that it uses to turn over the engine doesn’t retract the way it is supposed to, so when you try to start the engine it can’t do a thing.  The solution is to put the car in second gear, make sure the emergency brake is off, and then start rocking the car back and forth.  When the bendix in the starter disengages, you will hear it.  I had to rock my car with a pretty good amount of force, but it worked! If you do have to remove your starter it should come off easily, unless the bendix is stuck, so try this trick first.

By the way, my mystery, intermittent problem was that I had two loose wires in my dash, the ones that connect to the ammeter.  If you are having an intermittent problem with starting or smooth running of your Model A, be sure to check all the connections under the dash panel.

This weekend the 3-River Region Model A Ford Restorers Club had a garage seminar about motor oil.  It was great.

The question of which oil to use in my Model A was a difficult one for me from the beginning.  It seemed like there was a lot of conflicting information out there, and I didn’t know what to believe.  This may not be the final word on the subject, but I feel like I now have the answers.

Our guest speaker for the seminar was Ken Pyle from PPC Lubricants.  He gave us some history on oil in general (I didn’t know that oil native to the Pennsylvania area was the best natural lubricant, and that crude oil from different regions was not all the same), and then we got into the info that we really needed for our cars. (more…)

Summary: when resurfacing the manifold, leave the exhaust and intake manifolds bolted together.

  1. So they will be the same thickness when you’re done
  2. Because the bolts that hold them together are often rusted and will disintegrate and not go back together again later. You may have to drill and re-tap the hole, and use bigger bolts.


Every maintenance saga starts off the same way: someone says something like, “Oh yeah, that should be an easy fix.” This time at least it wasn’t me who said it.

When I first got the engine running on my 1930 Model A Ford Sport Coupe I noticed that there was an imperfect seal between the engine block and the exhaust manifold. I could see little puffs of smoke coming out. If you’re not a car person, the exhaust manifold is a cast-iron branching tube that funnels the exhaust out of the engine and into the exhaust pipe. I mentioned the leak to my friend Devin, and he was the one who said the famous last words this time, “It’s easy to replace that gasket. You don’t even have to take the manifold all the way off to do it.”

So I bought a new gasket, loosened the nuts on the manifold, slid out the old gasket, and slid in the new one. Easy. Except that it didn’t fix the problem.

I mentioned it to the guys at one of the meetings of the 3 Rivers Region Model A Ford Restorer’s Club and was told that I might have to have my manifold resurfaced. Apparently this is a common problem with Model A Ford manifolds. After a while the flat surfaces that are supposed to be perfectly flush with the side of the engine block get warped and no longer make a good seal. Fortunately Keith Waltower is in our club, and he is a very experienced mechanic of old cars. He told me of a NAPA shop down in Belle Vernon PA that had a giant belt sander that could do the resurfacing more quickly, easily, and cheaper than taking it to a machine shop. Apparently a lot of the cost of getting a part machined is in the set-up, and with a giant belt sander there would be no set-up.

I was trying to get the car ready to drive for a 4th of July parade in Cannonsburg with the Model A club in a couple of days, so I was in a bit of a hurry to get the job done. The place that Keith mentioned was about a 45 minute drive from my house, so I made a few calls to see if I could get the resurfacing done somewhere a little closer to home. Most places couldn’t do it soon enough, and they wanted about $80. So off I went to Belle Vernon with my exhaust manifold. In hind-sight I now know that this is where I made a critical mistake. You may even know what it is if you’re a Model A person, and we’ll get back to it later. (more…)

This week I replaced the head gasket on my 1930 Model A Ford Sport Coupe using the instructions from page 1-123 of The Model A Ford Mechanics Handbook Volume 1, by Les Andrews. I thought this would be an easy job, and while it wasn’t easy, it is definitely manageable. Just be sure to allow plenty of time. Including the other parts of my life, and other interruptions, this job took me about 3 days.

My buddy Devin gave me a great tip on getting the head off the block. After draining the water out of the radiator, and disconnecting the water outlet pipe (but before removing the distributor or spark plugs), loosen up all the bolts an 1/8 inch or so, and leave them on the studs. Now start the engine. The pressure from the first cylinder igniting should pop the head loose, and as soon as it’s loose, the engine will die. Now you can remove the spark plugs and the distributor, along with the rest of the nuts. I still had to use some persuasion in the form of a dead-blow mallet to get the head all the way loosened up so I could lift it off.

Also, I don’t have a engine lifting bracket or a winch, so I just put some cloths down (so I wouldn’t scratch the paint), and stood on the frame, straddling the engine. It seemed to work fine, but you have to make sure you have a place to put the head once you get it off. I put down a thick towel in front of the windshield and set the head on it until I could get over to the side of the car and move the head over to my work table for cleaning. It’s pretty heavy, so be careful and don’t hurt your back.

I cleaned off the carbon from the underside of the head and from the tops of the pistons, then used a shop-vac to make sure I had gotten all the funk out of there. One thing you don’t want hanging around in your engine is funk. Make sure that the surface of the head, and the top of the block are perfectly clean and smooth before you put your new gasket on. It is imperative that you do everything you can to get a good seal with the gasket. I used the new premium head gasket from Snyder’s that doesn’t require the spray-on sealant. It looks cool, and I’ve heard good things about it.

Also, be extra careful when tightening the nuts on the water outlet pipe. I’ve been told that they break easily, so I only tightened mine to 45 ft/lbs instead of the recommended 55.

After all my work, I was ready to go out for a drive. I put the key in the ignition… and the car wouldn’t start. You can relieve yourself of the disappointment I felt by setting your timing before you try to start the car. Once I did that, things seemed to work fine. Also, don’t forget to re-torque the head nuts after 500 miles of driving.

I have the pleasure of getting my family’s 1930 Model A Ford Sport Coupe back in working order after it has been in storage for about 15 years. Unfortunately, I don’t remember the instruction on how to start the car that I got from my Grandpa 20 years ago, before he died, and no one else in my family knows how to do it. If it weren’t for my friend Devin I don’t know how long it would have taken me to find someone who could help me since there is no Model A Ford Club in Indianapolis. I wrote these directions figuring that there are other people like me out there who are handy, but lack some basic information. My The Model A Ford Mechanics Handbook Volume 1, by Les Andrews doesn’t tell you how to start the car after you have spent all this time fixing it.

Here’s how I start my car:

  1. Make sure that everything is in running order. Easier said than done I know. Be sure the timing is properly set, or even if you get the car started, it won’t run well, if at all.
  2. Turn on the gas valve that is under the dash on the passenger side. In my car the valve is open when the handle is 90 degrees from the gas line.
  3. Push the timing lever on the steering column (the one on the left) up all the way (fully retarded).
  4. Pull the throttle lever on the steering column (the one on the right) down most of the way. How far down will probably vary from car to car. My friend Devin likes to have it all the way down on his car.
  5. On the right side of the car, in front of where the passenger would sit is a silver knob. This is both the choke and the fuel mixture. Turn the knob clockwise until it stops, and then open it back up about 1/4 to 1/2 of a turn. Pull it almost all the way out and hold it there. The turning is the mixture, and the pulling is the choke, or air supply. (You only have to pull out on the choke when starting the car cold, after it is warm you can just hit the starter button.)
  6. Push the clutch pedal in all the way, or take the car out of gear.
  7. Push the starter button on the floor with your right foot. It’s the little one that is closest to the engine.
  8. As the starter is turning you may have to slide the choke in or out a bit to find the sweet spot. Once the engine fires, let go of the choke almost immediately. You may have to adjust the mixture knob, but I usually have mine 1/4 to 1/2 of a turn open. Also, you will want to ease up on the throttle lever (push it up a bit). You do not need to hit the gas pedal with your foot in the starting process. In fact, that is why you have the throttle lever in the first place, it takes the place of the pedal since your foot is busy on the starter button.
  9. You will have to fiddle around with all the settings a bit to get them just where you need them for your car.
  10. Once the engine is running, pull the timing lever all the way down (and leave it there) for driving.
  11. Have fun!


I spent some time in the garage today trying to set the timing on my family’s 1930 Model A Ford. I think it can be done with just one person, but I’m going to have to get some help. As a part of the process you have to put the crank into the front (it’s a very old car) and crank the engine over while pushing on a pin to find a specific point in the engine cycle. Once you find that spot you can adjust the timing accordingly. The problem that I ran into tonight is that I think the pegs on my crank are worn so that I really needed two hands to keep the crank in place, but I still needed a hand to push on the timing pin. I’m going to see if I can get a friend to come over tomorrow to help me out.

Here are some tips on setting the timing on a Model A Ford for any other novices like me. These are all tips based on the instructions for setting the Ignition Timing (pg 2-18) in Les Andrews’ book The Model A Ford Mechanics Handbook Volume 1, by Les Andrews:

  1. In Step #1, the breaker point gap is the space between the end of the little silver arm (the breaker point arm), and the tiny adjustable screw, under the black plastic disk (the rotor). It was a bad moment for me when I didn’t even know what the book was talking about in the first step.
  2. In Step #2, a really good tool for bending the rotor tab up or down without marring it is a big crescent wrench.
  3. In Step #5, when it says to “fully retard the spark lever on the steering column” that means push it all the way up.
  4. In Step #7, when you have reversed the timing pin and are feeling for the small recess in the cam gear, keep in mind that it is very small, it takes two full rotations with the crank to get back to the same point on the cam gear, and the small recess will be there when the rotor is pointing roughly toward the front of the car. For me this operation took a good deal of time and a LOT of patience. I hope it is easier for you. While you can only turn the crank in one direction, if you go past the notch just a little bit you can grab hold of a fan blade to go back a bit.
  5. In Step #14, when I tightened the cam locking screw, I had to turn the cam a little farther counter-clockwise than I wanted it to end up in order to account for the movement of the tightening screw.
  6. Don’t forget to screw the timing pin back in, and remove the crank before you try to start the car.

In the end I ended up being able to set the timing by myself, it just took longer than it would’ve if I had had someone helping me, or if I had known what I was doing.


It has been unseasonably warm here in Indianapolis the last few days, so I have been spending my time in the garage working on the Model A. It’s been great, and I’ve gotten a lot done.

Ok, so this is going to be an in-depth description of how I repaired the Horn Rod on my 1930 Model A Ford Sport Coupe. If you are not a Model A Ford person with a Horn Rod in need of repair this will probably be BORING. But if you are like me and have a non-functioning horn button, but a working horn on a Model A Ford, this description is going to be GOLD! GOLD I TELL YOU! (more…)