Life Support: Curing The Death Rattle In A 5.4-Liter Three Valve

Just as Forrest Gump’s Momma famously said, “Life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re going to get,” an unmaintained engine mirrors this sentiment all too well. When my 5.4-liter Three Valve (3V) engine began to shake during startup for a few fleeting seconds, sputtered during acceleration, and finally succumbed to what the enthusiast community dubs the ‘5.4-liter death rattle,’ I realized it was high time to investigate the maintenance, or lack thereof, over the 12 years prior to my ownership.

Given that this vehicle serves as our family hauler, tow rig, and overlanding basecamp, and most importantly, as my wife’s daily driver, it became imperative for me to address the issue and ensure its reliability. After all, the radio can only tune out so much, and unfortunately, it can’t drown out the anger of being stranded.

Going With The Flow, Or Lack Thereof

In case you weren’t aware, Modular engines heavily depend on oil pressure to operate various internal components. From the lash adjusters to the timing chain tensioners, all rely on adequate oil pressure to fulfill their functions. Additionally, camshaft phasers play a crucial role in adjusting the engine’s timing for optimal power or fuel economy. When camshaft phasers lack sufficient oil pressure, they fail to lock into place and begin to produce a rattling sound at idle. Unsurprisingly, malfunctioning camshaft phasers lead to sluggish acceleration. To those drivers honking impatiently at the green light, my apologies — I was preoccupied coaxing my vehicle into motion.


It was at this moment that I realized I had a lot to resolve.

What could be behind the combination of low oil pressure, poor acceleration, shaking at idle, and even a cylinder 8 misfire on multiple occasions? To uncover the root cause, it was necessary to dive into the engine and conduct a little look-see. The sight that greeted me upon removing the valve covers was disconcerting — sludge buildup and a burnt copper appearance, prompting doubts about the wisdom of purchasing this particular Expedition. At that point, I decided to derobe the Modular engine of its valve covers, timing cover, and oil pan to inspect the top end, tensioners, and oil pump.

ALLDATA To The Rescue

Before assumptions are made about my mechanical skills, or occasional lack thereof, I must emphasize the invaluable assistance provided by the factory service manual. Attempts to obtain one through less conventional means — such as attempting to entice the local Ford service department or technician with beer — proved unsuccessful. Fortunately, ALLDATA offers licensed Ford factory service manuals through one-car subscriptions, available for durations of one month, one year, or three years, priced between $19.99 and $129.99. Given my wife’s expectation of completing the job over the weekend, only when the kids were asleep (note: It was not a weekend job, nor did the kids go to bed on time), I wisely opted for the longer subscription period.

While YouTube tutorials can be helpful, they often overlook crucial details such as torque specs and key procedures. When diving deep into an engine, it’s essential to access this information readily without resorting to scouring antiquated forums or pausing the YouTube video repeatedly. 

ALLDATA offers OEM factory service manuals on a subscription basis, which was a godsend for me as I delved this deeply into the engine. These detailed manuals not only guide you through the removal process but also provide step-by-step instructions for parts reinstallation, complete with torque specs and associated part numbers.

Cam Follower Failure And More

The engine compartments of the F-150 and Expedition offers ample space, facilitating easy access to the oil drain and the removal of the majority of the front-end accessory drive unit. However, tackling the power steering pump proved more challenging, as the limited space allowed only a quarter turn per bolt. If there were ever a remote-mount power steering pump available, I’d be the first in line. With the timing cover, oil pan, and valve covers removed, I could finally get a clear view of what makes the 5.4-liter engine tick — pun intended.

Upon inspection, I immediately discovered a cam follower lodged beneath my timing chain. While not the strangest thing I’ve encountered in an engine, it certainly wasn’t a promising sign. This particular follower was previously part of the cylinder-8 intake duo, likely contributing to the recurring cylinder 8 misfire. Fortunately, a quick borescope examination revealed that the valve side of the cylinder appeared unaffected. The blame shifted easily towards the roller portion of the cam follower, which had evidently failed and dropped down, resulting in some lash and the metal-to-metal noise as it rattled. There was also the possibility of a collapsed lifter causing issues, but I preferred to leave that as one of life’s mysteries, rather than dwell on it further.


in the background is a camshaft follower that has not failed, yet. In the foreground you can see the roller portion of the camshaft follower roller has dropped and the camshaft has dug into the camshaft follower, leaving this follower and the camshaft lobe destroyed.

Needless to say, the camshaft didn’t fare well, as a deep groove could be seen on that intake’s camshaft lobes. With a potentially collapsed lifter, a cam follower with a roller failure, and a worn-down cam lobe, nothing was holding it in place. Inevitably, it jumped ship. I was left with no choice but to replace the camshafts and at least one cam follower. Given the 5.4-liter engine’s 165,000 miles without proper maintenance, I opted to order both camshafts, and then a complete set of Melling cam followers (P/N: MR-1851), lash adjusters (P/N: JB-7504), camshaft phasers (P/N: VCTA-1000), and solenoids (P/N:VCTS-1000).

This intake camshaft lobe was worn down, presumably due to a failed cam follower roller. Fortunately, new units for each side were only $100 for the OE replacement.

Bad Timing Turned Perfect Timing

As previously mentioned, the majority of the 5.4-liter Three-Valve internal components rely on oil pressure to function properly. The timing system is no exception, as the tensioners are pressure-fed. While there isn’t a set interval for replacing the entire timing system, many engines have gone well-beyond the 250,000-mile mark. However, the longevity of the timing system depends on factors such as the quality and cleanliness of the oil, as well as the frequency of oil changes — factors that seem to have been overlooked in my engine since its original purchase. Although I should have externally monitored oil pressure before embarking on this endeavor, the presence of a broken chain guide and the use of original tensioners were clear indicators that it was time for replacement.


Ford opted for plastic housing on the hydraulic tensioners, which could potentially lead to leaks over time. Melling’s tensioners, on the other hand, utilize cast iron and are labeled with “L” and “R” to indicate which bank of the engine they are intended for. Remember, do not pull the grenade pin until after installation; otherwise, be prepared to struggle with clamps for a while.

Further validating my decision was the realization that the factory tensioners are made of plastic, which could potentially lead to internal leaks and subsequent oil starvation in other 5.4-liter components. Yay, more oiling issues to contend with! Fortunately, Melling once again came to my rescue with a comprehensive timing kit (P/N: 3-391SCC) comprising timing chains, guides, cast iron tensioners, and a crankshaft cog.

Pumping Up The Volume

Before I proceeded with the installation, sealing everything up, and breaking into my celebratory dance, I opted to take an extra precautionary step and ordered a high-volume oil pump. Melling’s high-volume oil pump (P/N: M340HV) boasts a 20-percent increase in volume, thanks to a thicker oil pump gear and a machined-out internal section. This upgrade would address any oil volume concerns plaguing the 5.4-liter engine. Moreover, considering that the previous oil pump endured an incredibly hard life, it served its purpose admirably, but it was now time to allow it to rest.

From the exterior, both the OE oil pump and the Melling HV oil pump look identical. However, internally, the Melling unit has been machined to accommodate the thicker oil pump gear, resulting in a 20-percent increase in volume.

Naturally, the process wasn’t as straightforward as simply removing the bolts securing the oil pump to the block. Dropping the oil pan was necessary to access the pickup tube bolts. However, this presented an opportune moment to inspect the crankshaft-to-rod clearances. Although not an exact measurable amount since the rotating assembly remained in the engine, I wanted to ensure that nothing egregiously out of spec would warrant concern — or worse, a new short block.


As you lie on your back beneath your 5.4-liter engine, pondering life’s choices, take a moment to gently tug on your connecting rods. You should notice some movement, but if it’s excessive, you might need to explore alternatives beyond just replacing the oiling components.

Setting Timing On A Mod Motor

With everything securely bolted back together, it was time to tackle the timing. As someone accustomed to small-block Fords, where keeping the crankshaft and cam in sync or setting timing based on the top dead cylinder method are standard practices, the Modular engine’s timing setup initially seemed straightforward but later felt like a puzzle to my Neanderthal brain. I found myself reaching out to my Gen-2 Lightning friends just to confirm that I wasn’t misinterpreting how deceptively simple this process is.

Using off-colored chain links, you can determine where to install the chain onto the crankshaft cog and the cam phasers. Pro tip: ensure the "R" is on the passenger side and "L" is on the driver's side, or you'll find yourself revisiting this area shortly.

Unlike the small block Ford, timing on a Modular engine relies on marks on the timing chain itself. Initially, you set the crank cog’s indention to the 6-o’clock position. Then, you locate the one off-colored chain plate and ensure it aligns with a specific tooth. On the opposite end of the chain, you’ll find two off-colored links that fit on either side of the cam phasers’ “L” or “R” indicators. And that’s all there is to it. It may seem peculiar, but it’s straightforward and eliminates the need to resort to placing straws down cylinder one and still ending up 180-degrees out.

Buttoning Up The Engine Before Start Up

With the timing set, it was time to reassemble everything. However, the extended duration of the process didn’t help me recall exactly where each component belonged. I returned to my laptop to consult the reinstallation section on ALLDATA. Thankfully, the installation process was straightforward. I made sure to pick up a tube of silicone sealant for areas specified by Ford, a new timing cover gasket, and a new crank pulley bolt. Yes, you need a new bolt — don’t skimp or be lazy.

After a lengthy day ensuring the 5.4-liter was reassembled correctly, albeit with a few extra bolts in my stash, it was time for startup. At this stage, the engine was bone dry from draining. Truthfully, as a garage mechanic lacking the proper oil priming tool, my method of ensuring the top end had oil for the brief seconds before the gerotor pump kicked in was to pour oil over the camshaft and camshaft followers, allowing it to trickle down.


Hopefully, this will be the last time I have to see this camshaft, cam followers, lash adjusters, or cam phasers! However, before you start your engine, make sure to pour some oil over the camshaft to ensure lubrication is present during that initial startup.

I’m sure there are more efficient methods, but with fingers crossed and the key turned, the engine cranked and cranked, but to no avail. On the bright side, there were no alarming sounds or valve hits. It turned out that the culprit was just the crankshaft position sensor reminding me it wasn’t plugged in. Hey, I’m only human! Once that little hidden connector was plugged in, the engine sprang to life, stumbling at first in awe of its fresh lease on life, but soon running smoothly from there. Finally, the job was done! Now I can tackle whatever else decides to break around here.

The Cure

While the notorious “5.4-liter death rattle” sound is often associated with failing cam phasers or camshaft followers, the harsh reality is that there are only two solutions: temporary fixes or complete replacements. Simply replacing one failed component, running thicker oil, or opting to lock out the cam phasers merely masks the underlying issue of inadequate oil pressure within the engine.

To tackle the job properly, it’s essential to replace the camshaft followers, lash adjusters, camshaft phasers, timing components, and to install a new oil pump for good measure. Fortunately, Melling had all these components in stock and ready to ship. Although far from a weekend project, especially after the kids are finally asleep, the effort will be worthwhile knowing your engine runs smoothly. You’ll avoid the embarrassment of receiving honks or curious glances at startup — or worse, frantic phone calls from a stranded — and angry — wife, followed by a hefty tow truck bill.

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About the author

James Elkins

Born into a household of motorsport lovers, James learned that wrenching takes priority over broken skin and damaged nerves. Passions include fixing previous owners’ mistakes, writing, and driving.
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