John E. Chickering, Rockford, Michigan
VTCI Member jec13 • Email email@example.com
(June, 2018) -- I'm not a mechanic or an engineer or any sort of automotive service professional. I'm just a guy who enjoys old cars. Old now because I drove cars like them when I was a kid in high school almost 50 years ago.
If you are like me and you enjoy old cars, particularly Thunderbirds, and you don't mind taking on a project, then perhaps you too are thinking about swapping out that old cracked dash pad in your Thunderbird and generally refurbishing the dash panel. My Thunderbird here is VIN 1Y71Z109655, data plate body 63A, color A, trim 56, date 01M, trans 4, axle F, which translates to a 1961 2-door hardtop "Bullet Bird" in Raven Black with black interior built December 1, 1960. I believe the only factory options in my car are the heater and the AM radio. Notably my car does not have the swing-away steering wheel option, unusual as I've read that about 85% of all 1961 Thunderbirds do. As far as I could tell, the dashboard hadn't been previously removed from my car. The simplicity of my Thunderbird's layout helped to make its dashboard refurbishment a rather straightforward proposition.
My first car when I was 16 in 1970 was a tired but rust-free 1956 Cadillac Series 62 convertible I found sitting out in a farmer's field one day while hitchhiking to work. It was baby blue with a black top and its high style was beyond beautiful to this teenager. I was so excited by it, I bought it on the spot for $250 cash I'd saved from my dishwashing job without even driving it first. Later during my junior year of high school I bought a 1959 Edsel Ranger 4-door sedan. The Edsel was in wonderful condition, almost as new, but very affordable because few folks wanted Edsels in 1971. I loved those cars and I was fortunate to find a job pumping gas at a local Marathon service station where Ron, the station owner and a kind man, taught me about the tools and processes to work on them. How to tune them, fix their brakes, replace their water pumps, and budget repairs like wrapping soda pop cans around their exhaust pipes to cover the holes until I could afford better. One day a fellow drove in to the station, and out of the trunk of his car he was selling shiny new S&K socket wrench sets for just 5 bucks. That now well-weathered socket set is still my #1 go-to set today.
I write all of this to be hopefully encouraging and helpful to the next person contemplating this project. The Vintage Thunderbird Club International forum was a most valuable resource with good posts and lots of important information left there by thoughtful and generous members who'd gone ahead and refurbished their dashes before me, and then took the time to write about it. But I could not find a collection of photos of the process, nor any sort of stepped hands-on play-by-play that might have made me more comfortable at the project start. This chronicle and my experiences offered here certainly can't assure any sort of outcome for anyone else. But if it is at least somewhat helpful to someone, then I've done something to repay the VTCI and their forum-contributing members who helped me, with their thoughtful gifts of knowledge and experience. I am grateful.
Decide the New Dash Pad. You have choices. You could have a company like Just Dashes custom-fabricate, color and assemble a new dash pad to your car's dash panel frame. Or you could go with a reproduced dash pad already made, available from suppliers such as Bird Nest or Larry's Thunderbird Parts, and then assemble the pad to your car's dash panel frame yourself. Do some research and determine which option and supplier is best for you, your car, your timetable and your budget. I chose a pre-made reproduction pad because it was immediately available, less expensive, and the color they had in stock happened to be black, the correct color for my car. Make sure any dash pad you choose is the right fit for your car; between the 1961/62/63 Bullet Birds, for example, there are important differences as to dashboard corner fit at the door panels.
Get and Study the Manuals. In the Vintage Thunderbird Club (VTCI) website forums, experienced members advise that before attempting this project you obtain and study four (4) factory manuals matching the year of your car: The Electrical Assembly Manual, the Body Trim and Sealant Manual, and the Wiring Diagram Manual from Jim Osborn Reproductions; and also a factory Shop manual. I emphatically agree. These unique reference manuals each became very important and helpful at different points in the process.
The manuals from Osborn are partial reproductions of manuals the factory workers used to originally assemble the car. Their diagrams and numbered notes help to explain how and the order in which the car's components were assembled. Working backwards through the processes shown in the manuals can help you to establish a good order and plan for dash panel disassembly and then reassembly.
Study all of these manuals carefully before you begin. When you put everything back together, the diagrams will help confirm the factory's placement of components, wires, adhesives and tapes.
Patient Planning of Disassembly. Important for me were plenty of patience, no need to be in a hurry, an open and well-lit work space, and a carefully thought-out staged plan of attack for dash panel disassembly, aided greatly by advice from the VTCI forums and the 4 manuals noted above.
Tools. I have on hand a decent assortment of basic tools, wrenches and drivers. You will find that a smaller-sized 1/4" socket wrench set is very handy working in some of the tighter spaces you will encounter. The only "special" tool I needed was a driver the factory used to secure the air vent, wiper and headlight switch bezels into the instrument panel. I couldn't find one ready-made so I fashioned one from a scrap piece of threaded pipe and it worked fine; see a photo of it in the montage on this page.
Baggies. You will want plenty of zip-lock baggies and a sharpie marker to bag, identify and sequentially order each nut, bolt and small part as it comes out of the car. It's a bit tedious to stop, baggie and write for each part. But you will find this repeated exercise to be very helpful at reassembly.
Camera. You will also want a good camera within close reach at all times. I used an Apple iPhone 6. I took many, many pictures, from multiple angles and perspectives, at each and every step, to help me remember how everything should go back together. I was very glad that I did; the photos I took during disassembly (some of which you see in these tabs) proved to be critically important and my most value resource when I went to put things back together. Along the way I took a few videos with my iPhone too, talking and pointing out for the camera how things came apart at different stages so that I could recall subtle details and nuances at reassembly (such as cable and hose routings).
Out With the Seats, and Off With the Wheel. Do yourself a big favor and pull the seats and steering wheel before you begin. Unless you are a contortionist, you will need the space to maneuver and position yourself for the work, often on your back or kneeling. And you will save precious wear and tear on the seats and wheel. The shop manual will guide you to remove them.
Lighting. Finally, for me, good lighting is essential. I am 65 years old so my eyeballs don't function as well as they once did. A small goose-neck LED flashlight like this that you can sneak into tight dark places was incredibly helpful to me during this project.
Where to Begin?The first pieces I removed were the trip strips at either end of the dash, as shown in photo #1 in the montage here.
But actually my beginning with disassembly was well before I started in with tools and bagging parts. I spent considerable time studying the four (4) manuals mentioned under the Preparation tab, along with every online reference I could find, and I developed a comprehensive step-by-step plan of attack to the project that made good sense to me based on my car, available resources and my level of experience. The plan I formed gave me the organization and confidence I needed to dig in and start tearing apart my beautiful Bird's innards, knowing that if I followed the plan I'd laid out, the car would indeed come back together again correctly.
The Electrical Assembly Manual and the Body Trim and Sealant Manual are incredibly valuable. Those manuals show the steps and order the factory workers followed to assemble the car. Essentially I reversed that order to disassemble what was needed. And then, at reassembly, I followed their order again to put everything back together. Following the steps laid out in those manuals made the process pragmatic and simple to follow.
The Instrument Bezel: When to Remove It? You will come to a point where you need to decide whether to remove the instrument bezel from the dash panel before you remove the dash panel from the car, or afterward. Online you will find references to either way. I decided to remove the instrument bezel from the dash panel before removing the panel from the car, and though reaching around to loosen the bezel attaching bolts while the bezel was still in the dash was a bit tricky, the open space afforded once the bezel was out was very helpful for the remainder of the panel removal process. You will also find when you go to reinstall the dash, that reinstalling the instrument bezel after the dash panel is back in the car works well too. I got a nice perfect fit of the bezel nestled into the new dash pad doing it that way.
Take lots and lots of photos as you work. You think you will remember just how that little part goes, but as it comes out, a photo or quick video with your phone will make sure that you do.
Off With the Old, On With the New. Somehow with projects like this, it seems most of the time and work spent goes into preparation. Once I had the old dash pad removed from the dash panel frame, I spent a good amount of time preparing the frame to receive the new dash pad. It took several overnight-soak applications of glue remover and plenty of elbow grease to remove all of the original factory glue from the dash panel frame. I didn't want to remove the paint from the frame as well, so I used a product that was perhaps not as fast-acting on the glue as a trade-off. But in the end I still had a very nice original paint job on the dash panel frame, clean and ready for gluing on the new dash pad.
Fitting the New Dash Pad Properly. The reproduction dash pad I purchased fit very well at the project finish, but it took some time and patience to get the perfect fit I wanted. When I first fitted the new dash pad over the dash panel frame, the pad itself was too tight to fully receive the frame; the frame just didn't want to fit all the way into the pad so that the pad tabs and edges would properly seat and completely envelop the frame. The difference wasn't much, maybe only 1/8th of an inch, but it was enough so that the top-forward edge (the edge along the windshield) wasn't just right; and neither was the alignment of the defroster vent holes. I wound up fashioning a series of make-shift clamps and jigs to gently but firmly force the frame completely into the pad, and over a few days the new pad relaxed and stretched just enough to fully accept the frame and provide the good tight fit I wanted to match the original.
Also, there were "ears" at both ends of the new dash pad, presumably leftover vinyl material still attached to the pad when it left its mold. I carefully trimmed those ears away with a hacksaw blade, using photos I took of the original dash pad at disassembly to make sure I matched contours correctly.
The Radio Speaker Grille, and Making It Fit Again. On the original factory dash pad, only the skin covering the pad extends under the speaker grille enough to trim it neatly. The speaker grille connector pins then snap snugly down over the skin into their in-dash cutout slots. But the reproduction pad was made differently here. Much thicker than just skin, the new pad was more than 1/4 inch thick foam all around the speaker opening. Too thick to allow the speaker grille pins to reach down to their in-dash cutout slots. So I devised a fix, fashioning stand-offs that essentially recreate and raise the cut-out slots to match the height-thickness of the pad foam, allowing the grille and its pins to snap again into place as originally designed. See images and descriptions of the stand-offs I made in photos #14 through #18 here.
Fix Everything You Can't While the Dash is In! Removing the dash presents a unique opportunity to easily access many components that are difficult or impossible to see and reach when the dash panel and console trim are in place. For me and my car, this was a major benefit of the project. Beyond the fine cosmetics of a new dash pad, I was also able to refurbish the heater and ventilation system, repair the windshield wipers, replace vacuum hoses, clean and lubricate the heater controls, clean electrical connectors, and sweep out decades of accumulated crud.
Attack the Heater Box. The heater box will be fully revealed when the dash is out. Get to it now while the getting is good! I took the time to fully remove it, clean and refurbish it, as shown by the photos here. Following the shop manual, for my non-air-conditioned car, it was not difficult work, and the result was very satisfying: The heater works like it's 1961 again. I replaced all of the vacuum hoses, the vacuum-actuated damper switch, the heater valve, and had the heater core boiled out and cleaned. I also replaced the original fresh air inlet tube, the fabric of which had completely rotted, fashioning a new one from flexible venting and clamps purchased at Home Depot.
I can't overemphasize the value of the opportunity presented to fix and refurbish everything behind the dash, front console and instrument panel during this project. Everything normally hidden there is revealed and available to access while the dash panel is out of the car. Take advantage.
Putting It All Back Together.
"...And because you were careful to take lots of photos, make good notes, and bag and label every part as you removed it, this phase of the project will be simple and fun. Follow back along the breadcrumb trail you laid, and you will find your way back home."
Ah yes, the home stretch. When it finally came time to put everything back together, all of the patient planning and recording I did really paid off. For the most part, it was about reversing the disassembly process and order I had developed and followed.
I have to say that as parts came out of their baggies, pieces were bolted back on, and wires were reconnected, I felt a bit sad to have it all coming to an end, kind of like the waning days of a special travel adventure. I wanted to savor the final moments!
Everything came back together quite well and I am pleased with the overall result. The car rides and drives just fine afterward, and there are no squeaks or rattles in the dash or front console. All instruments, gauges and controls work perfectly. The radio plays loud and strong, the clock ticks in good time, and the heater and defroster huff and puff as they should.
And man, that nice smooth new dash pad looks soooo nice. :-)
This was a complex project that took a number of months to accomplish. It did not require great mechanical know-how or expensive tools, but it did take patience and fortitude. I was fortunate to have a space and workshop where the project and I could spread out and work undisturbed at a quiet pace.
As vintage Thunderbird owners, it is marvelous that we have detailed manuals and surviving factory assembly documentation available for our cars, to help guide us through projects like this from start to finish. Without those materials, or without reference and support resources like the VTCI, this project may have been too daunting for me to attempt.
Instead my success with this project gives me a sense of confidence and satisfaction. In one of the VTCI forum threads, a member wrote a nugget that all of us old car people need to remember, which I will paraphrase here: For their own efficiency and profit, Ford intentionally designed our cars to be quick and simple to assemble. Nothing about them (usually) is more complicated that it needs to be. With that in mind, there really isn't anything about these old cars that we should be afraid to work on ourselves.
Using good logic and available resources, I hope that I, and those that come after me, can keep my Thunderbird running strong well past its 100th birthday.
Peace, hugs, and happy Birding.