Introduction: 3 on the Tree - or - How I'll Break Right Here and Leave You Stranded!

I have a yard truck that we bought for a song many years back and have since dubbed it the "Money Pit". We actually call her Jethrina but I guess Money Pit is her middle name. You might remember Jethrina from other Instructables such as "I Kill Batteries" or "How to Replace Really Old and Stuck Ball-Joints". Ahhh, such fond memories! While out tooling around the countryside on a crisp Autumn morning the shifter got a little tight and then "SNAP". It went from a three-in-the-tree to a jam-it-around-a-bit until you can get it back into gear to get home.

What happened was that the shift column, the piece where the shift arm connects to the actual linkage, snapped inside the steering column. Apparently not an uncommon thing. However, since we were lucky enough to get an '86 150 the column replacement is virtually non-existent. Yeah, surprise!

After a bit of research I figured that Jethrina was toast and I was going to have to search some junkyards for a replacement or perhaps even put her down. No worries! After trying a while to find an exact replacement I came across an article (sorry, I no longer have the URL or I'd give whomever wrote it their due kudos) where an ingenious individual found that an '85 column was almost an exact match and just had to be cut down a bit.

This first go-around was good enough for a smooth and reliable operation but if I ever did this again I'd work a bit more on the fit and finish. More on that later.

Step 1: STEP 1: What the Heck Is 3 in the Tree?

So, not only did I purchase a truck with a manual transmission but I had to stumble upon one with a 3-speed (Three in the Tree) column shifter. I'm sure a few of you are thinking, "what's the big deal, I've seen lots of cars with column shifts, Park, Drive, Reverse, right?". Wrong. Think of it as a standard manual but drop a gear and throw it on a side arm behind the steering wheel. The biggest grip I have with these is the little lag between 1st and 2nd as you have to throw the arm up and away. Do it too quick and you might drop it into reverse. I miss the floor shifters where you had to depress the arm before throwing it into reverse. Oh well, it works well enough and it's pretty much a built in anti-theft device to boot!! Oh, an additional high point is when someone asks me to borrow the pickup. "SURE!" I say as I throw them the keys. Not once have I had to watch it drive away. Oh sure, I've had to cringe a bit as it bucked around the driveway but even that doesn't last but once or twice. I figured there were enough positives to keep it as-is for now if at all possible.

With my mind made up I moved onto get my beloved truck back on her tires again.

Step 2: STEP 2: Oh Snap! No, Literally, SNAP!

I'm apparently not alone in having a problem with my column shifter. The stresses involved in this one part are apparently pretty high and over time they just "break" and always in the same spot. The arm is attached on the outside of the sleeve with a friction pin and then the arm fits into a center "cup" which pulls and pushes the shifting connectors inside the steering wheel column.

I've heard of people who have welded the pieces back together but they never seemed to last forever. Although I could muster the arm around enough to get 1st and sometimes 2nd gear I needed a replacement part. Onto the Interwebs!

A few steps needed to get to the shift assembly.

STEERING WHEEL: Easier said than done. Oh, important note, if you're unsure on how to remove something don't just work at it like I did. To get to the steering wheel nut you'll need to remove the horn cover. Two simple screws in the back of the steering wheel arms and it pops right off. It does NOT pry off causing those two screw attachments to snap. Major $$$ to replace that little cover. Oh sure, you could try and epoxy or JB Weld them back on but they won't last a full season - trust me on this. A "friend" told me that it won't hold...

Remove the retaining nut and use a wheel puller to remove the steering wheel. You'll also need to securely tighten the wheel back onto the column when finished so there is no play at all in the wheel up and down. Same friend told me that inspection stations tend to fail you for such shoddy work.

IGNITION ASSEMBLY: What a pain the posterior. I very much enjoyed not working on this part any longer. Turns out that three screws secures the assembly but the ignition lock blocks the removal. I spent days cursing the damn thing and even contemplated even pulling the lock until I read about how much hassle it was to put a new one back in. Also had a problem with the wires not being long enough to get the assembly out of the way. EASY FIX! Follow the column down underneath the dash to the firewall, there are (2) bolts that connect the column to the firewall. Simply remove those two bolts and the column becomes slack and this allows you to easily manipulate the ignition assembly for removal without worrying about the ignition lock and by moving the column you can feed more wire and get everything unhooked properly. When you're done, connect everything back up, slide back into place and bolt it back tight (threadlock). No worries about any alignment or orientation issues.

COLUMN SHIFT ASSEMBLY: This part fits over the central steering column and has a plastic sleeve with collared ends. Please make sure they're seated properly with the replacement. (More on that later). Hammer out the pin on the shift lever, remove and everything slides right off.

Step 3: STEP 3: Search for Something That Doesn't Exist, Settle for Something Close

OK, here's the problem. As popular as the '86 Ford F150 was and with how many came equipped with a 3-speed column shift I was surprised to find that NO ONE sells a replacement. Tried online, tried auto-shops, and I even tried finding a yard to strip one but all searches came up goose eggs.

So it sat for a while as I contemplated its fate. Floor shifter conversion, junk the entire truck, ugh.. If I could remember the post that I found the clue I would gladly post it but alas... The 85 part! It's ALMOST identical. It was cheap and I was desperate so I picked up the part. Damn, looks just about perfect.

I did quick measurement of the old, height-width-diameter-overlap, etc..., and the new part and sure enough, I just needed to trim off 1/2" on the bottom of the new part. Bing bang boom, perfect! I used a Dremel wheel to cut the part which left it a bit rough so I hand sanded it down. Again if I had to do over I'd probably rig up a jig for the Dremel and use a better cutting wheel.

I sanded the rough edges, did a rough fit and then sanded a bunch more. Skip that last part. When I test fit the part I mis-aligned the plastic center bushing so it didn't slip down the center shaft properly and I incorrectly presumed it wasn't cut correctly. It was just pushed up a hair from perfect with a bent bushing collar. Check the bushing first. I ended up sanding a bit too much which induced just the hint of a wobble. Yeah, not perfect but I learned a lot and wouldn't make that mistake again. Still pretty much fits like a glove so I was thrilled with the overall outcome.

Cleaned it up and painted it black to match the original. Interesting note, when I had to repeatedly install and remove the part (again, check that bearing first) it scratched up the paint a bit. PERFECT! Now it looks like original equipment and matches the scratches on everything else. Ok, maybe DON'T check the bearing first. Kidding, check the stupid bearing but DO scratch it up a bit while doing that unless yous is in better condition than mine was!

Putting everything back together was MUCH easier the fifth or sixth time.

  • Install the shift column (CHECK THAT STUPID PLASTIC BUSHING! - did I say that enough times?)
  • Install the shift arm bushing (if still in good condition, also hard to find) and the shift arm
  • Put in the "new and improved" (see step 4) shift arm pivot bolt (With RED thread locker because we're never doing this again)
  • Put on the ignition assembly, attach the wire harness, fit in the ignition lock and tighten the bolts.
  • Re-bolt the column clamps.
  • Attach the turn signal arm (because buying a new one if you leave it in and it snaps is crazy)
  • BEFORE YOU ATTACH THE STEERING WHEEL - make sure you can shift all gears!!!
  • Attach the steering wheel and TIGHTEN the retaining bolt but good! Remember, a friend had his inspection fail because the steering wheel had too much wobble. I know the guy well, TOTAL jerk but he wouldn't steer you wrong. STEER YOU WRONG! Ahhh, I should pop on that paper bag and start touring again!!
  • Screw on the hopefully unbroken horn cover and you're all set!

Step 4: STEP 4: Good (ish) As New!

A Bit about the pivot bolt:

With the new part installed I had to drop in the pin for the shifter arm to finish the project. Bummer, I could NOT get that pin back in. Hammer? Nope! Grease? Nope! I was growing frustrated and reached into my toolkit for the tool that would get me the rest of the way. I opened it up and pulled out the "good enough" hammer which took the form of a standard nut and bolt. I was actually using the bolt to temporarily hold the shift arm in place while I test fit everything so it really wasn't a stretch to keep it. I dabbed on some RED Locktite and tightened it right up. PERFECT!

I've been using the truck for about a year now and I've had zero issues with this fix. Except for the tiny wobble in the sleeve (seriously, check that bushing first. Sorry, last time, promise) it works exactly like the original. It doesn't bind, it doesn't catch and it's smooth on the shift, everything I could have hoped for.

If you're faced with this project, believe that you can do it yourself. It really didn't take any special tools but if you need a wheel puller you can borrow one for free from a local Auto parts place if you're in the Zone. A little time, a little patience and you'll be back on the road in no time!

With that I'll leave you with this final thought......