“Big Red”

My earliest memory of working on a vehicle was sometime in mid-1980s, my father had a Chevy K5 Blazer, red & white, and it needed new front shocks. I remember squatting on the garage floor, watching him jack up the vehicle, and get down to business. It was amazing to see all the nuts and bolts that held a vehicle together.

As I got older, the bug to work on cars was not as strong. Grade school, I was tagged as having a knack for mathematics and computers. I still like to take things apart, though. Old toasters, hairdryers, broken remote control toys, and the one item that every kid had access to, a 1940s or 1950’s era nitrous oxide anesthesia machine in my late grandfather’s dental office. The nitrous was long gone when my grand mother let me take the contraption apart.

In the early 2000s, we had a 1997 Dodge Ram 1500 pickup. It had been my father’s vehicle. We did a bit of maintenance on this vehicle – brakes and coolant. Shortly after this truck, we had a 1994 Mazda B4000, similarly, we did a bit of maintenance on this vehicle, like a new alternator and serpentine belt, an A/C reconditioning, as well as adding a trailer hitch mount.

In my youth, in the 1980s, there was a large amount of carryover from the brown malaise time of the mid to late 1970s. Look at any episode of 1970’s Kojak, and you will see exactly what I mean. Also as a kid in the 1980s, you did not think that seeing a Dodge Omni or Chevrolet Chevette was something interesting. In 2019, it’s a bit different. Along my way from young through being college aged, I had been a periodic car enthusiast. The occasional 1960s Corvette, or when, on a nice summer day, you would see a Chrysler E body from the early 1970s. Was it a Dodge Challenger or a Plymouth Barracuda? My father would have known, if he had been with me in the vehicle.

Today, I find myself being a bit more of an enthusiast. Seeing a Dodge Omni, or Chrysler K body car, in good shape, will result in me slowing down and maybe turn around to get a closer look. That sixth generation Monte Carlo SS next to me at a gas station will make me linger a bit after the pump clicks off. The owner of the car isn’t at the pump, and you haven’t seen him, but you know that he’s a guy, with larger gray hair, a mustache, and maybe cowboy boots. The longer gray haired, mustached man returns from paying cash for his gasoline, and you nod at him, the nod is letting him know, implicitly, that you know his car has an LS4 engine in it. It’s a fast, throaty sounding car, but he doesn’t tear ass out of the gas station, he just loudly rumbles away.

There is this appreciation for cars and trucks that I do not remember having when I was a teen or even in my early twenties. Maybe there’s a tinge of nostalgia now that I am nearly 40. The 1995 Dodge Stratus that my and sister I drove in high school could sport collector’s license plates here in Minnesota, if said vehicle was still in existence, that is. After my sister traded it on a 2001 Toyota Camry in 2002, I’m sure that dark green Stratus beats its way around on Minnesota’s Iron Range for a while, from single mom to single mom, landing with its final owner, a guy, who dated one of the single moms, who probably daily drove it to his night shift at one of the taconite mines. With 170,000 miles on the engine, it blew a head gasket. The car was parked on rural land, where it hasn’t run in 15 years, and now has a tree growing through it. But, I’m only guessing as to the fate of that vehicle.

Like those Chrysler JA platform sedans, the tenth generation F-series pickups, are kind of unremarkable. The tenth generation of F-series pickups was a modernist take on the ninth generation. Styling-wise, the tenth generation wanted nothing to do with its previous, squarish bodied previous generations. Like the many theories of epistemology which argue that external and absolute reality could impress itself, as it were, on an individual, as, for example, John Locke‘s empiricism, which saw the mind beginning as a tabula rasa, or a blank slate. Likewise, Ford really wanted a clean slate. New body styles, new features and options, even a new lineup of engines, and a new target buyer. Unlike previous generations, the tenth generation F-series, and specifically the F-150, was designed and built for personal use. Prior generations emphasized work. The tenth generation was meant for people like my father. That 1997 Dodge Ram, I mentioned earlier, that was my father’s vehicle before it came into my possession. He daily drove that vehicle 24 miles, one way, simply to park it at an office building, where it would sit all day because he had a white collar job. The Rams, and F-150s, and Silverados of the late 1990s can be thought of as the slippery slope of features that produced in today’s market, vehicles that amount to luxury pickups. Pickups that cost $60,000 or more. Mind you, there is nothing wrong with wanting a pickup, there is nothing wrong with wanting to own a pickup just to drive it, just to get you to work, work that is not at a construction site. My father liked having a seemingly big truck. Thirty-four inch tires that rubbed in the wheel wells. Aesthetically, it was a throw back to the 1970s — brown malaise.

In 1990, Ford developed a 4.6L V8 that shared certain parts amongst a family of related engines, collectively known as modular engines. Starting with the tenth generation of F-150s, in 1997, Ford made a 5.4L two valve, single over head cam (SOHC) engine available in the modular family.

Intake Manifold & More Removed from two valve Triton engine

Our particular F-150 has this engine. It was noted in WardsAuto, that Peter Dowding, Ford’s V8 Modular Engine Manager, took the modular V8 engine’s design from good in 1997, to superb for 2002. Starting with the eleventh generation, Ford introduced a three valve modular engine that used a strange two-piece spark plug. That turned into a huge mess. Even today, when someone who thinks they are in the know with light trucks, asks, Does that F-150 you got have one of those piece of shit Triton engines in it? They’re thinking the three valve version of the Triton, not the two valve.

People have opinions on a lot of things, including trucks. With opinions, ubiquitous access to information in this modern age we find ourselves in, this is the golden age for introverted shade tree mechanics, such as myself.

Late last fall, I noticed our F-150 was idling a little rough, and the idle RPMs seemed to be a bit low. By late-January (it’s late April as I write this), we noticed what looked like coolant dripping from the exhaust. This, by the way, is the wrong location to normally find engine coolant.

EGR valve

Earlier in January, while my friend Andy was in Minnesota, we had come to the conclusion that the rough, low RPM idle was likely an exhaust gas recirculation valve that was not functioning correctly. (For long time readers, this is the Andy that has appeared here, here, here, here, and probably in a few other posts from over the years). Was the coolant coming from the EGR valve? Turns out, not on the F-150s, it is possible on the diesel variants of the F-250 and above but not the F-150.

You might be asking what is an exhaust gas recirculation valve, what does it do, and why would this cause an engine to have a rough idle. EGR valves first made an appearance in the early 1970s as an attempt to reduce nitrous oxide emissions. This is done by recirculating (hence the name) exhaust back into the air intake. With an EGR valve that is malfunctioning and potentially stuck wide open, the incorrect mixture of exhaust gases, air and fuel is making its way into the combustion chamber. This still was not answering the question about why there was coolant at the backend of the truck.

Some might be thinking, it’s gotta be a head gasket. Checking the coolant overflow reservoir showed just coolant, and not a chocolate milkshake of coolant and oil that would have been a dead giveaway for a head gasket problem.

I turned to internet forums, it is the golden age for information of all kinds, after all. Internet forums that are specifically for owners and keepers of F-150s. As it turned out, there were a number of individuals with tenth generation F-150s, with mileage in the low six digits, that had a similar issue of finding coolant in the exhaust.

<figcaption>Damaged coolant crossover gasket</figcaption></figure>

The culprit was a gasket between the upper intake manifold and the aluminum cylinder heads. In addition to providing air to all eight cylinders, the intake manifold contains a coolant crossover, allowing coolant to be circulated between to the two halves of the engine’s “V” shape.

The failed gasket (pictured above) was allowing a small amount of coolant to seep into the combustion chamber, and then, on that very cold day in late January, condense, again at the tailpipe, and drip.

Somewhere along the way to sleuthing out the issue, I got it stuck in my head that I was going to fix this myself. This is mostly a nod to my late father-in-law, the previous owner of the F-150. It was also a nod to his love of gasoline combustion engines. Nearly two years ago, he and I rebuilt and tuned the single cylinder engine on an 1985 Yamaha 225 ATV. I feel like keeping the F-150 maintained, keeps a tacit part of my father-in-law with us. He loved internal combustion. Particularly those small, one and two cylinder engines found on lawn mowers and yard tractors.

The F-150’s 5.4L, single overhead cam, two valve V8 is not a small engine. Initially, I thought of this engine as being just a jacked up version of a V-twin found on both our lawn tractors, or even a times-eight of the engine on a chainsaw. There’s more to it than just being a times-four or times-eight of those engines. For starters, the V8 is fuel injected, the V-twins and chainsaw engines are carbureted, the V8 has vacuum lines, the small engines do not, the V8 is water/coolant cooled, the small engines are air cooled. On a chainsaw, you generally do not have a battery, instead you have a magneto that is used to generate spark. On the V8 Triton, there are ignition coils that transform the relatively low voltage of the battery into thousands of volts needed to ignite the air and fuel mixture in the combustion chamber.

Underside of old intake manifold

Before tackling the project, I read the F-150 forums on what it would take to replace the intake manifold. One person said that he was: 1) not a certified mechanic; 2) it took him about six hours to do the work; 3) that six hours included a break for lunch. Other individuals said to take your time and set aside an entire weekend.

I figured it would take me a solid weekend to get this project completed. In total, the project took maybe 8 hours of solid work, but there were multiple-days of doing nothing on the vehicle because of waiting for parts or tools to arrive. There was also a snow storm in between starting and finishing the project.

<figcaption>Throttle body, removed</figcaption></figure>

Following removal of the throttle body, and EGR valve, and what seemed like a million feet of vacuum hoses, I had to drain the coolant from the engine block. Why? Remember the previously mentioned coolant crossover? Yes, that; there is coolant in this and if you just removed the hoses from the crossover and then took the intake manifold off…you would end up with a load of coolant all over the place, including into cylinders.

Dirty, old spark plug

Before you can remove the intake manifold, you need to pull all the fuel injectors out of the intake manifold, as well as pulling out all eight ignition coils. It was around this point that the scope of the project expanded. I decided to replace all the rusting injectors, as well as all the ignition coils. At the last minute, I also decided to replace all the spark plugs. The alternator had to come off to get the old manifold out – thanks to Ford putting a massive set of baffles on the underside, you cannot just tip and slide that bad boy without the alternator getting into the way.

<figcaption>Fuel Injectors</figcaption></figure>

With the surface of the heads cleaned and prepped, I started to reassemble the engine. New spark plugs – tightened; I know that the 3 valve Triton’s with their asinine two piece spark plugs are something to behold, how you remove and replace spark plugs on the two valve Triton is different from what I’m used to on small engines. On a V-Twin motor on a lawn mower, or a chainsaw, the plug or plugs are sort of just out there – it is easy to pop the wire off, and use a spark plug socket to your business. Even from what I recall of replacing spark plugs on our Mazda B4000, the plugs were out in the open. Not with this Triton V8, the plugs are effectively buried in the engine.

With the new plugs in, the intake manifold could go on. With the intake manifold on, the ignition coils could go in. With the ignition coils in, the new fuel injects could be installed and the fuel rails reconnected. I just worked backwards from how I had taken things apart. Alternator, throttle body, EGR valve, reconnect the millions of vacuum hoses, reattach with new clamps the coolant hoses, reinstall the drain plug in the engine block, reconnect the battery, and fill the coolant system with new fluid.


The moment of truth for whether I had put it back together correctly came roughly 10 days after I had started – remember, snow storm, ordering parts & tools, and having the general scope of the project expand.

It worked. First stop, gave it a little gas, and that was it. No misfires, or problems. Could I have had someone else do all this work in less time, without having to buy tools, yes, definitely. The crux of the project was never to save money – I may have, if you exclude time-cost – the point of the project was a tacit nod at my late father-in-law, as well as being able to say I did something with this vehicle.