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Reinstalled Distributor, Now It Won't Start

1987 Ford F150, 5.0L, 302 v8 automatic, 120k miles.

I removed my distributor so I could replace the pip sensor (stalling when driving is the reason behind this). I reinstalled it and thought I liked everything back up and it’s turning, but not starting. I removed #1 spark plugs and and made sure the wires are correct per Haynes book. I can feel the compression with my finger, but still no start. Would this likely be caused from the drive gear teeth not being in the correct grooves or something else? I’ve read about hand cranking the engine so the rotor faces #1 cylinder terminal on the cap, but it already is pointing at it. I haven’t hand cranked the engine (I’m not sure how, honestly). Any suggestions where to go from here? Wires are correct, spark plugs are good, getting compression, all parts are good. I’m sure it’s something I’ve done incorrectly, but I don’t know what it is. Thank you in advance for your help

As cylinder #1 comes up to to the highest point, the rotor in the distributor needs to point to #1 terminal. You can turn the engine over with a breaker bar and a socket on the harmonic balancer bolt. Turn it clockwise until the timing mark is even with the pointer on the timing cover AND there is compression building in the cylinder. BOTH need to occur or you are 180 degrees out. Is the rotor pointing at #1? Can you rotate the distributor until it does? If yes, it should start. If no, see below.

The distributor needs to be removed if the rotor doesn’t point to #1 terminal. Rotate the rotor until it does. The helical gear on the distributor means the rotor has to start at a different point so it will end in the right spot. The oil pump drive shaft also has to engage the tip of the distributor so all that has to line up together. When the distributor drops in, as long as it can be rotated enough to line up the rotor, that is OK.

You will need to properly time it with a timing light as soon as it starts. I assume you have a timing light and know how to use it.

A lot of distributors get put back in and are 180 degrees out. Very common mistake…I’ve done it myself.

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When it’s put in 180 degrees incorrectly, does that mean that it literally needs pulled up and turned? Using the clips as a guide, it gets rotated so they’re swapped around? I can feel compression and the rotor is facing the #1 terminal (unless the distributor is 180 degrees backwards?). I’ve never done a distributor and am trying to learn with books, manuals, and the internet. Thank you for the replies

If the #1 piston at the top of stroke, is making compression and the rotor is close to #1, you are not 180 out. 180 out means the piston is NOT making compression as it rises to the top and the rotor is pointing to #1. Pistons only fire every other rotation.

agree. compression on 1 and rotor pointing to #1 spot on dist cap means it might not be firing at all. got a spare plug? install it on a plug wire and crank motor and see if you have spark.
put a chalk mark on balancer. remove dist cap. look at rotor. turn crank 1 rev and look at rotor again. it should have rotated 180deg.

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After you find the compression stroke rotate the crankshaft by hand until the timing mark on the crankshaft pulley is aligned with the mark on the timing chain cover, then check the position of the distributor rotor.

Are you sure that the plugs are firing? A lot could have gone wrong when installing the pickup coil. As a rule I always replaced the module and pickup together. If you remove the distributor, remove the coil wire from the cap and connect a spark plug to it, ground the distributor and with the key on spin the drive gear you should see the plug spark 4 times per rotation of the shaft. If there’s no spark check all the wiring and ohm out that new pickup coil. If the spark is good as others have mentioned it’s likely that the distributor is 180* out.

My truck has a 302 v8. An older version though. To rotate the engine by hand, after setting the trans in neutral, I place a breaker bar/socket on the crankshaft bolt, and turn it in the same direction it turns with the starter motor. (Not supposed to turn the engine backwards. I think this has more to do with possibly damaging the belt driven accessories than the engine itself). This is easier to do with the spark plugs removed, but can be done with the plugs installed. It’s fairly common here to have someone set up the distributor so it fires on the exhaust stroke rather than the intake stroke, but give what say, I expect your problem isn’t that. Instead you are getting no spark happening for some reason. @Cavell’s spark-test idea above is a good place to start.

Before removing a distributor, experienced mechanics will place witness marks on the housing/engine interface, and the rotor/housing interface, to aid in getting it re-installed in the same orientation. But if you forgot to do that, it can still be set up properly, just takes a little more work is all.

I’ve been doing a little more research based on the replies and I may have discovered a new problem… the "oil pan drive shaft’. Does this truck have one? It made no mention in my Haynes or Chilton book about one in the distributor sections, nor does it mention it in the index. I couldn’t find the part on Rock Auto either. Is that now a concern?

At the 4 minute mark, he makes a comment about Ford distributor systems and the oil pan drive shaft

If you didn’t take it out, it should still be there. I looks like this;

Looks like it has a hex on each end. The distributor should have a hex socket for it. It make the install a bit easier that the “screw-driver” shape of a Chevy.

I was able to get the distributor back in place, and when I removed it, I didn’t gohear or feel anything loose/ falling. I assume the shaft stayed in place. That’s a relief.

Years ago on a test stand Ford 302 engine I learned to install the distributor and get the engine started in less than a minute. If I dropped it in 180* out I quickly swapped the plug wires.

It was 180 degrees out. Thanks for all the help and advice


Thanks for letting us know the outcome. Good for you :slight_smile: