Never Give Up: One-Cylinder Fiero, One-Speed Thunderbird!

Illustration for article titled Never Give Up: One-Cylinder Fiero, One-Speed Thunderbird!

You know about the Police Brutality 1963 Thunderbird blowing its transmission at the Detroit Irony race, but you may not know the glorious ending to that story. And you've heard of Cadillac's V8-6-4 engine? How about a 4-2-1 Fiero?

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Illustration for article titled Never Give Up: One-Cylinder Fiero, One-Speed Thunderbird!

One of the things we love best about LeMons racing is the lengths some teams go to in order to keep their heaps on the track. For every team that packs up and flees after frying a wheel bearing or nuking a fuel pump, you'll see several that drive 150 miles to buy a transmission donor car or orphaned-engine head gasket. Last weekend, we saw two teams locked in an epic, weekend-long battle for the coveted Heroic Fix trophy: the Police Brutality T-Bird and the Double Jeopardy Pontiac Fiero. This was the first Iron Duke-powered Fiero we'd seen in a LeMons race (after a half-dozen or so V6 cars, nearly all of which blowed up right quick-like) and we had high hopes for it. Sadly, it spun a couple of rod bearings Sunday morning, and nobody could round up a rod-and-crank donor engine in rural Michigan on such short notice. Race over for Double Jeopardy?

Illustration for article titled Never Give Up: One-Cylinder Fiero, One-Speed Thunderbird!

Hell no! Just because your car started out with four pistons doesn't mean it needs all four! The guys on Double Jeopardy wasted no time removing the pistons, rods, and pushrods from the bad cylinders, converting their engine to a 1.25 liter two-banger.

Illustration for article titled Never Give Up: One-Cylinder Fiero, One-Speed Thunderbird!
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They mounted the amputated pistons on the hood, fired it up, and hit the track. It sounded terrible, because the two bad cylinders were adjacent in the firing order and therefore the crank was making a full unpowered revolution every other rotation.

Illustration for article titled Never Give Up: One-Cylinder Fiero, One-Speed Thunderbird!
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But who cared, because it worked! The Double Jeopardy Fiero went around and around on two cylinders… until a few hours later, when another rod bearing failed. What to do? Why, remove the bad piston and run the car as a 625cc one-banger! As you might expect, power was down and the idle wasn't so smooth, but the car returned to the race track. Sure, it finally blew up in spectacular fashion an hour or so later, but this performance was enough to induce the Chief Perp to give Double Jeopardy the Heroic Fix trophy.
Note: a Double Jeopardy team member has added the amazing details of the team's 4-2-1 Iron Duke hack in the comments, and it's a must-read:

Every time you remove a piston, you need some way of blocking the flow of oil to that journal on the crank. Strips from a pop can and a hose clamp around the journal works fine.

When the engine is distributorless, you can't just leave the spark plugs unattached, lest you burn up the coil packs, so we had the plugs still in the head firing into empty cylinders. The second time we oiled the track, we figured it out. We were igniting crackcase gasses, and blowing out the oil pan gasket. Welding some spare plugs into the trunk we could keep the proper resistive load to the coil without having an ignition source in the crankcase.

When we first fired it up on 2 cylinders, the throttle body was still trying to feed enough fuel for 4 cylinders, and we were running RICH. Cracking open the pressure regulator, and cutting a coil out of the spring seemed to drop the fuel pressure sufficiently, and the black smoke settled down, at the expense of proper fuel atomization.

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Illustration for article titled Never Give Up: One-Cylinder Fiero, One-Speed Thunderbird!

That decision was not an easy one by any means; while all the Fiero piston-removal hijinks went on, the Police Brutality Thunderbird was getting its 3-speed Cruise-O-Matic automatic transmission converted to a direct-drive, one-speed LeMons-O-Matic™ unit. The T-Bird started out pretty well, but when a car sits for 20 years and then wakes up from its hibernation on a race track… well, you know how this goes. The transmission started slipping after a few hours, finally failing completely.

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Illustration for article titled Never Give Up: One-Cylinder Fiero, One-Speed Thunderbird!

The team had brought along a spare transmission, but it was a C6. You Ford experts know all about the nightmarish lack of interchangeability between different 60s components, right? Nobody on the team could figure out what combination of flexplate, driveshaft yoke, and/or starter would be needed to mate a mid-70s C6 onto an early-60s 390, despite a frenzy of research on their smartphones.

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Illustration for article titled Never Give Up: One-Cylinder Fiero, One-Speed Thunderbird!

They were screwed, right? Wrong! Why not just drop the Cruise-O-Matic, open it up, and weld the innards so that the transmission would become a direct-drive shaft between engine and driveshaft? Makes sense to us!

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Illustration for article titled Never Give Up: One-Cylinder Fiero, One-Speed Thunderbird!

Automatic transmissions have always been mysterious black boxes of the "here there be monsters type" to me— I've swapped plenty of them, but fear opening them up— so I can't get into any great detail about what exactly these madmen did. I can say that all of them will spend the rest of their lives reeking of burned transmission fluid after wrestling with hot transmission parts for about 16 straight hours.

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Illustration for article titled Never Give Up: One-Cylinder Fiero, One-Speed Thunderbird!

Leftover parts? Who needs 'em?


Everyone at the track was quite skeptical, since the car would have to be push-assisted to start in third gear, but just watch the above video! The T-Bird went back to racking up gorgeous, stately laps… right up until the catastrophic engine failure and resulting fire.

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Illustration for article titled Never Give Up: One-Cylinder Fiero, One-Speed Thunderbird!

Still, Police Brutality took home the highly prized Epic Repair Failure trophy for their efforts. Good work!
Thanks to Ron Vickers for photographic help.

DISCUSSION

The Thunderbird's big-block 390 V8 ran like a champ once we tuned it up, but the car handled like, well, an old car that needed the suspension rebuilt. Our Delco Pleasure-matic shocks were probably 40 years old, and the rear leaf springs sagged badly, probably because of the weight of the shed that had fallen on the car at some point in its 28 year abandonement. We had so much body roll, I thought we'd start rubbing the 3 gallons of plastic body filler and Massey Ferguson Red tractor paint ($33/gallon) right off the body in the turns! Still, from a looong distance, my shoddy body and paint work looked AMAZING!!!

I hand-painted the whitewalls and numbers with a fifty-cent foam 2" brush, and the fake plastic wire wheel hubcaps not only stayed on throughout the race, they totally MADE the look. I had wire-brushed the rusted out rear bumper and sprayed it with chrome spray paint, and painted the car in the dark on Wednesday evening, the night before we had to leave. We had run all new brake lines and hoses, and had rebuilt/replaced the wheel cylinders/master cylinder for the four wheel drum brakes, so at least we had some marginal braking ability.

My goal was to fool people into thinking that the car was far to nice to be converted into an endurance race car, and boy, were we successful! One guy asked me how I justify this classic as being a $500 car (per the 24 Hours of LeMons rules)? I said it's not, I only paid $300 for it. He was incredulous, until I started explaining why, and pointing out the rust. The Thunderbird was hands down the crowd favorite! When the ancient CruiseOMatic MX automatic transmission failed as our 4th driver was finishing up his hour-long turn, we got right to work. I had brought a newer spare (C6) transmission (you can't even get a filter for the old one any more, apparently), but not having the crossmember/driveshaft/flex plate/starter/etc. that we needed to go with it, we couldn't use it.

Laying in the hotel bed Sunday morning, after we had spent hours racking our brains and unsuccessfully searching for the parts we needed Saturday evening, I decided to just take apart the failed CruiseOMatic trans, and see if we couldn't weld it into a direct drive (3rd gear only, no neutral or reverse) transmission. I've never taken a trans apart before, so it was challenging! We kept telling ourselves, if we could make just one more lap, it would be EPIC, and worth all the hard work. We had to seal off the pump and torque converter to keep fluid in it, and added some 50 weight motor oil to the trans itself for splash lubrication.

Many hours later (4:30 pm), with only an hour left in the race, we pushed the car up to the entrance of the track, and managed to get it rolling. I started it in third gear as lots of bystanders helped my teammates push, and it gradually picked up speed, and merged onto the track, to a standing ovation!!! Against all odds, we had done the seemingly impossible, and welded an automatic transmission into a functioning direct drive shaft! The track corner workers in their booths every few hundred yards ran out to give me huge waves, thumbs up, and even "we're not worthy" bows with their arms upraised. As I completed the nearly 2 mile lap and passed by the crowd again, nearly everyone was still on their feet and applauding!

The torque converter (think two fan blades opposing each other, sealed in a metal case, acts like a clutch by letting fluid slip between at idle, then the spinning engine side causes the stationary transmission side to turn by pushing the fluid between the fan blades faster as you increase RPM's), sealed and slipping, got red hot. We had known all along that it would. That's why we hoped we'd get at least one full lap before it quit. Somehow, though, it managed to hold on for about 23 MILES on the track, before the engine blew. I was seeing flames through the firewall, though I'm still not sure exactly how! I pulled off the track and hopped out, extinguisher in hand, and the corner workers had the fire out in seconds, but our weekend was done. We had gone out in a blaze of glory, after one of the most epic repairs in the history of the race series!

The Thunderbird will be back, hopefully in June at Summit Point, with a different drivetrain. We're gonna try to wedge a BMW V12 out of a 1990 750il into it, because anything less would not be quite as epic, and LeMons is all about epic automotive adventures!