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Albert Einstein said: “If at first the idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it.” So maybe he would have approved of my harebrained scheme to fix up a classic 1988 F-150 farm truck and drive it across the country. Before I began to wrench on the rig myself, I hired a professional mechanic to tackle a couple of big jobs, and I am sure glad I did. Read on to find out how we fended off multiple disasters down the road.

Meet my 1988 Ford F-150

Henry Cesari driving his 1988 Ford F-150 with a regular cab and short bed, trees and fields visible in the background.
1988 Ford F-150 | Xander Cesari via MotorBiscuit

This is my truck. It’s a 4WD with a short wheelbase. Power comes from Ford’s legendary 300 cubic-inch inline six-cylinder (I6), which was upgraded with modern features such as fuel injection by 1988. It also has a five-speed manual (engineered by Mazda), which realistically doesn’t do anything better than a modern automatic, but keeps me from falling asleep on long drives.

The material things in our life should inspire passion for that life.

I bought my square body via Craigslist from a bartender in the DC area. Why? Well, it was in rough shape but hadn’t been struck by the scaling rust that renders most trucks of this vintage inoperable in my native Vermont. Reagan (the bartender) had done a great job upgrading a few aspects of the rig as he taught himself to work on vehicles. So I paid him $1500 and drove it to my friend’s house in the city. The next morning, I went out to start my new truck and found it completely unresponsive.

I towed it to Vermont. There I troubleshot and replaced the offending electrical relay. Then I swapped every other electrical component I could find, and it has yet to strand me again (knock on woodgrain vinyl dash trim).

A year ago, I parked it when I took off to do remote journalism worldwide. But off-roading in the Andes made me miss the U.S.A.’s Wild West–and my truck. So I decided to fix it up and drive it to the Rockies. How hard could it be? Well, we’ll find out together as I cover my misadventures here on MotorBiscuit. 

Somehow, I have yet to name the truck, so feel free to drop suggestions in the comments.

My truck needed a clutch

Black 1988 Ford F-150 XLT Lariat with a regular cab and short bed, its bed full of pumpkins, the mountains of Vermont covered in fall foliage visible in the background.
1988 Ford F-150 | Henry Cesari via MotorBiscuit

It happens to every manual driver eventually (and more often to some of them). Your clutch pedal sags, shifts get sloppy, and if you ignore the problem, your clutch can even slip, squeal, and smoke. No bueno.

I suspected my F-150 would need a clutch soon. So from Colombia, I called my friend Brad who owns Night Owl Motorsports in Fairlee, Vermont. He was actually a tech at Ford dealerships through the 1990s and 2000s before he opened his own shop. So he could probably swap my 1988 clutch blindfolded. For the three Vermonters reading this, I’ll plug Night Owl’s Facebook. Brad made a few excellent recommendations for other jobs I was unlikely to attempt on my own that we could piggyback with the clutch.

But first thing first: we did a compression test to make certain the engine had no severe problems. If it did, the truck might not be worth saving. The stalwart I6 passed with flying colors.

Work begins

The grill of a black 1988 Ford F-150 XLT Lariat square body classic truck that is on a garage lift with its tires off and hood up.
1988 Ford F-150 | Henry Cesari via MotorBiscuit

Brad knew I had been troubleshooting a slow oil leak. He admitted this might be the engine’s rear main seal, which he would replace along with the clutch. So he offered to do that job first and see if it solved the problem. But he warned me that this issue is usually the oil pan’s gasket. This meant a second big job, but we wouldn’t ever have a better chance to address it.

Once Brad began the clutch, he found that the truck’s motor mounts were failing. These are the rubber shock absorbers between the engine and the frame that give its name. Brad pointed out one motor mount that had failed completely. The bolt holding it in place had shifted to a bizarre angle to support the engine’s weight. Luckily, once the engine was jacked off the frame for the other procedures, engine mounts would be easy. I was glad he’d double-checked them.

Lessons learned

Night Owl Motorsports | Henry Cesari via MotorBiscuit

Lessons I learned were to do a full inspection before investing in an old vehicle. Then ask your mechanic about pairing big jobs to save money.

It’s also valuable to ask, “Why did this fail?” Once we dug into the F-150, we found the clutch had been swapped before. Suspicious. It appeared that a badly leaking gasket had soaked the clutch in engine oil. Though the engine had been repaired, the clutch never recovered (Brad and I dubbed this trickle-down Reaganomics). The lesson here is that it’s a good idea to keep an eye on the valve cover and head gaskets, and be ready to replace them whenever they leak.

Brad made an interesting point. He said, “You could go buy a 2006 F-150 instead. But it would cost as much and need half this same work done anyway.”

In truth, the only purely logical automotive strategy is buying a six-year-old CR-V or RAV4 and running it into the ground. Anything else we choose to drive is as much about emotion as reason. And that’s okay. Some of the material things in our life should inspire passion for that life. So we can test compression before investing more in an old rig. And we can try to batch expensive jobs together. But at some point, you have to listen to your heart.

And I certainly love this truck. So we went ahead and I put it up on Brad’s lift. I began to free up all the rusty bolts that would need to be loose (which in Vermont can be a multi-day dance involving torches and penetrating oil). I took the opportunity to swap out all my brake components, shock absorbers, and springs. Then I discovered something that might spell the end of the project: major frame rust. Stay tuned to find out how we addressed this or follow my project on my Twitter.