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1955 Ford Part 31: Starter Upgrade

Updated: Dec 27, 2019

Y Block Starter Replacement

If you have any familiarity with the Ford and Mercury Y blocks you can easily recognize the sound of a starter from that era because of the operation of the Bendix that rides on the starter motor shaft. The whir and whine are very familiar noises and have a nostalgic, memorable sound all their own. The starter pictured above is what I had temporarily installed on the 1955 Ford - it was used when I purchased it, was already chrome plated, and worked reasonably well. Due to the cast iron casing, the coil winding, the Bendix, and other internal parts this OEM FoMoCo item is quite heavy. Any time a mechanic handles an original Y bock starter he must go through a series of warm-up routines so as not to pull any muscles! For the 1954-56 Ford Passenger Cars it is not just the weight of the starter motor that one must deal with but also the location. During those three model years Ford put the drag link very close to where the starter is positioned. If you have to remove a starter whose Bendix has not come back to its original position (furthest away from the starter casing) then wrestling the unit out of the bell housing becomes an exercise in futility. I can recall watching (and listening) to my dad pull one of these out when I was a teenager - he was under the car for almost an hour! Another nuance of starter motors of this era would be the amperage they take to operate. Not only does your battery need to be at full voltage, but you have to have serious cranking amps, what seems to be a 00 gauge battery cable, extremely clean connections, and all available juice to the starter or you won't turn that engine over. It's almost like Star Trek when Captain Kirk tells the crew "Full power to shields," and you see the lights in the command center start to flicker.

Since the 55 Club Sedan will be a daily driver car we are not looking to install Concours grade equipment. If you have read into the blog from post #1 you obviously know that there are other updates I have made to the car, but there are certainly some "Y Block purists" out there who must have the sound of the OEM starter and that Bendix whirring or it just isn't right. "To each their own," I say. If those individuals want to offer to come wrestle the starter out of the bell housing and fool with the anomalies of such a "wonderful" piece of Ford equipment then by all means be my guest. Until such time, we will make updates and improvements where we can while enjoying such a car from the period in which it was designed.

New starters use magnets instead of brushes to drive a common shaft

These days there are companies that offer an updated starter motor whose design specifications meet the requirements of the Y block. The new style of starters are not cheap but what they offer in quality and upgrade are well worth the cost. I ended up purchasing a brand new unit from Summit Racing. You can see the differences in size and make up below:

This new starter does not require quite the current draw that the old starter did, it offers more torque to spin the Y block over faster, it is much lighter (I believe almost 10 pounds lighter!), and because its footprint is much smaller clearance is just not an issue. Granted, it is nowhere near as aesthetic in appearance like the original 50s version but it certainly looks more like a hi-tech model. Very quickly any mechanic would note that there is a solenoid affixed to the new starter whereas the original did not have one. Ford people know that in the 50s and 60s a starter relay was mounted to a fender or a firewall for the purpose of carrying full current to the starter drive. The "S" on the relay received power to actuate once the key was turned clockwise in the ignition. The answer to how to wire up the new starter came pretty quickly right out of the box for the manufacturer had fastened a handy note to would-be installers of a Powermaster starter for the Y block Ford.

I chose to use the original fender mounted starter relay so I left the jumper wire in position. After confirmation I crawled back underneath of the car and installed the starter into the bell housing.

The starter fit right up to the bell housing without any issues whatsoever. If you examine the position of the starter's solenoid in the photo above though you can tell that there was not enough cable length to reach to the stud on the rear of the solenoid. Further - I was a little bit concerned about clearance for the drag link although I don't think this would have been an issue once the jack stands were removed. I had to pull the starter back out and place it on the bench to "clock" the flange position so that the solenoid would be closer to the cable.

The photo above shows three sets of mounting holes, therefore three different positions. For the Y block this means that the starter was shipped in the box clocked at the 6, but could be moved to 7 or 8 o'clock position. I chose the 8 o'clock position to move the solenoid up to the cable eye as close as possible. Three Allen head screws had to be removed and then the flange just simply spun into position.

The shorter screw was the one accessed from the front of the starter on the gear side, while the other two longer screws installed from the casing side of the unit. Once I re-tightened the screws to the flange, I got back down on the creeper and slid underneath the car once again to put the starter in position. Thankfully, the re-clocking moved the solenoid enough so that the cable just slide right onto the stud.

There was one small difference for installation though. Whereas on the first go-round I only used a socket and ratchet for all 3 bolts that hold the starter to the bell housing, moving the solenoid meant that the lowermost bolt could only be accessed via a wrench as shown.

The video below was a test run for the starter to see how it sounded and how it worked. The motor was cold - about 30 degrees ambient air temperature and the garage door was open. The motor oil is 15w40 with a little bit of Lucas oil additive for good measure. The starter had no trouble whatsoever.

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