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Restoration

This page will highlight a number of the steps I took during my restoration work.  Hopefully it can highlight some of the pitfalls you might encounter with a 1968-72 GM A-Body.  With any restoration work, being careful upon disassembly is important, there is no point making new problems as you go.  As of 1995, replacement stampings for most Pontiac A Bodies were available, only a little less selection than for the Chevelle.  Since that time the Buick and Oldsmobile selections have really filled out.  Almost anything is available now (2006).

After completing the project many people refused to believe that I could manage to do this work at home in my garage.  There is a mystique surrounding body work, that mortals cannot learn to do it themselves.  I hope to show in the following page that a car body is simply a huge puzzle and that logic and patience, not magic, are needed to complete such a job.  The era of bodymen beating a panel out of sheet stock are long gone.  Very few of these craftsmen are left, largely in the shops that do customizing.  In general, body shops replace panels much more often than actually fixing them.

I will be dealing mostly with the car's structure.  I farmed out the paint job entirely.  Personally, I hate sanding.  The work I did below allowed the body shop to focus on just painting the car properly.

Tools Needed

If you are not properly equipped for this, the job is not much fun.

Welder - I used a Hobart Handler 120, it is a Mig using proper shielding gas.  I do not recommend using flux coated wire instead of gas, you get much cleaner results with shielding gas.

Air compressor - My compressor puts out 6 CFM at 90 psi.

Air tools - air flanger for dressing the edges of cut panels, die grinder, air disc sander, air 3" cutoff tool, air shears for relatively straight sheet cutting, air hammer with sheet metal cutter.

Floor jack and jack stands.

Safety gear - welding gloves, welding jacket (do not expose skin to a welding arc, you will get a weird looking tan and the skin cancer is not much fun), welding mask, safety glasses.

Supporting the car

This cannot be over emphasized.  Cars, particularly these older body-on-frame cars are flexible.  You will be fundamentally altering the structure of the car doing this work.  The body becomes very flexible when you cut pieces of it away.  If you crank up one corner and weld on a quarter panel you can easily weld the car into a permanently warped shape.  Luckily this is a full frame car, for the most part I simply put jack stands under the rear axle holding it level with the wheels off for working room in the wheel well.  The weight of the car sat on the suspension, holding the car by the frame flexes it differently than its normal position on its wheels.  A good example is when the frame is unbolted from the trunk floor.  Lifting the car from the axle caused not much to happen.  Lifting the frame in front of the rear wheel causes the frame to move by more than 2 inches vertically relative to where its supposed to be in the trunk area.  Another example is when you remove the bolts holding the radiator cross member to the front frame rails.  If you pick up the frame under the door area the engine and transmission cause the frame to sag down by at least 2".  Once you see this you quickly realize that the body and frame act in concert, not independently.  The frame is strong, not stiff, an important distinction.

Summary

Make sure the car is level left to right.  The rear of the car can be a bit higher or lower than the front without problem.  Preventing twists is the main issue.

 

Here you can see the front clip is partially removed.  The side of the cowl shows the cars original paint colour.  The black patches on the cowl are where the factory seam sealer had come off.  The car was 24 years old at this point and the seam sealer used by the factory had dried out and had starting falling off.  A putty knife took the rest off very easily.  See below, you want the right stuff for when the car is being put back together.

 

 

Here you can see I am cutting exploratory holes in the quarter panel.  Not shown was the process of ripping off the nasty flares made of plumbing, sheet metal, and bondo.  Most of the time you are starting off here, few cars have add-on flares anymore.  This was my first time doing this and I wanted to go slowly.  Make sure none of your cuts go beyond the reach of the new panel you are going to put on the car!  Of note is the black strip of goo the factory put in to damp the wheel house to the quarter panel.  Make sure you put something there when the car is back together.

 

 

I pushed the new quarter panel on over top of the existing one and scribed the line you can see on the sail panel.  This car had been worked on before and there was a thin layer of filler there, visible where I test sanded.  The twisted metal piece is a brace covered in a tar-like substance to keep the quarter panel from vibrating.  On these cars the panel is quite flat in this area and would tend to buzz if not braced.

Wheel house replacement

The factory puts the entire car together using electrical resistance spot welds.  These welds are usually between 1"-4" apart depending on the needed strength.  Police models of many cars were characterized by the factory using twice as many spot welds as on a regular car for instance.  They were located using a hand tool based on the rather random spacing found all over the car.  You can easily improve on the factory assembly by making your weld spacing is smaller than the original welding.  I wound up seam welding many areas and using a minimum of 2-3 times smaller weld spacing as the factory did.  I found the the car was much tighter when it was back together.  

Panel Removal

For any spot welded panel in the car (the vast majority), removal follows a simple but tedious process.  Look carefully at the welded flange that these parts all get stamped with and you will see small circular welds.  I needed a 5/16"-3/8" drill to drill them out.  You can buy special small weld drills that are really a tiny hole cutter for cutting through one layer only to separate the layers.  I did not bother with one.  Using a screwdriver between the parts and prying lets you separate them and determine where the next one is, sometimes they are hard to see.  The wheel house flanges needed maybe 20 welds to be drilled and the part comes out undamaged.

In the image above, I have swapped in the new outer wheel house.  The inner and outer wheel houses come together at a wide flange.  I simply screwed them together using self-drilling screws (each screw had a small drill head cut into it).  Not visible are the holes between the screws punched in the flange through which I welded the two flanges together.  Inside the wheel well, the factory simply paints seam sealer on the seam between the two halves to prevent water from squeezing into the exposed gap.  Instead I seam welded it, which meant a lot of time with my head in the wheel well getting weld spatter in my hair.

Since I was learning as I went I did not know before hand how much metal would need replacing.  In the above view, the vertical piece and the end of the trunk floor was quite corroded.  I replaced it below.

 

 

In this image I have carefully removed the old side filler piece and welded it to the flange on the edge of the trunk floor.  Later on I ripped out that piece of floor and put in a new one.  This part creates a tidy edge to the trunk floor.  Below the trunk floor, it goes down vertically and meets the quarter panel as it arches under the car at the bottom.  It is this piece that holds the bottom of the quarter in place.  My lesson learned is to remove panels from the outset rather than try and salvage questionable pieces.  I spent a lot of time pulling the edge filler off by drilling out all the factory welds, welding on this piece only to rip that section of trunk floor out later on. I probably lost 15 hours this way.

 

 

Closer view of wheel house after welding.  On top of the wheel house you can see a box section welded to a brace heading up under the sail panel to the roof.  This factory roof brace ends about 1 inch above the wheel house and a spindly U shaped piece is put in place to connect the wheel house to the brace.  This was done to allow for the loose tolerances between these parts.  I simply copied the design and welded in a much beefier 18 gauge pieces as shown. 

You can also see that the joint for the new quarter panel is flanged and trimmed ready for the new quarter to be put on.

 

 

In this picture you can see the section of rocker panel that has been replaced.  The rockers on these cars rust out at the front and back quite frequently.  the end are not well closed off and the tires pump road slop into the rocker.  Upon opening it up I pulled out some very nice looking mulch.  I spliced on about 14" of new rocker and made sure the end was fully welded shut.  The front of the rocker was very similar. 

 

 

Switching sides I discovered that in addition to the ridiculous flares, the same bondo-stoned body man had made a real mess on this side of the car.  It turns out that the car had been hit on this side. The panels were pushed in but the frame was spared damage because its quite far in under the car.  The moron pounded the panel roughly back in place and then spot brazed a sheet of metal over the quarter panel and smothered it all under bondo which was cracking by the time I started this work.  You can see the outline above as well as the cars original colour.  The rear of the wheel well was simply pounded out of the way to make room for the tire and it was hidden by the ugly flare.  All that rust was completely hidden until I started pulling things apart.

Behind the wheel under the remaining island of dark blue paint was another tack brazed piece of metal, also covered in bondo.

Rant

If you go to a body shop and they promise a really cheap repair, you are probably getting a repair like this mess I found.  After some hammer work and some snips to cut out the sheet metal "patch" and spot braze it to the car, the repair guy probably still had time before his first coffee break of the day.  There are the bondo veterans of the world who can expertly trowel the stuff on and fake a nice repair.  I must say the troweling and sanding were well done on my car.  The lack of support beneath the patch was the clue, the bondo was cracking all around front edge of the panel.  Coincidentally, the cracking occurred after I tried some polyurethane rear suspension bushings.  Don't let anyone tell you polyurethane doesn't place more loads in your car's chassis.

 

 

Another view of the carnage.  It almost looks like someone scrawled a word into the panel.  This wasn't even the original quarter panel on the car, it had been replaced once before.

 

 

Looking from the inside.  The quarter panel visible here was actually 1" thick with fiberglass and bondo, there some actual metal in there too.  The floor had a patch tarred in place, shown at left.  The floor under the patch was accordioned from the crash.  The floor closeout panel was not vertical it was hammered flat (the black part).  Even the wheel house was mangled and fiber-glassed.

 

 

Its too bad I posed this photo after cleaning up.  I filled half a garbage pail with debris after removing these parts.  I was wading around in bondo crud.  The outer wheelhouse was actually bent in over the tire which explained the massive rubbing on large bumps.  I did not mangle it, it was really that bad.

 

 

Visible here is that the trunk floor filler has been removed from the edge and the floor has been cut far enough over to see into the floor brace.  This brace stiffens the floor, provides the pad for the trunk floor to sit on the rear body bushing (visible) that in turn sits on the frame rail.  The gas tank had been removed prior to this work.  The inner wheel house at the rear is quite mangled but in this disconnected state I was able to easily reshape it.

 

 

Using the driver side of the car as a guide, I measured where things were supposed to be from the centerline of the car.  The stick was used to force everything out to where it was supposed to be.  Once I tack welded the filler piece to the wheel house everything became very rigid.  Visible here is the floor brace.  It is still attached at the rear valance area and just peters out up near the wheel house above the axle.  The white bar is the rear shock.  Just near the stick and under the brace is the trunk floor body bushing.  Very hard to see is the welded nut inside the brace that is normally hidden from access by the trunk floor.  If you plan to change that bushing or the bolt, now is your chance.

 

 

The filler is screwed to the rear valance area and the wheel house halves are attached to each other.  The stick was later clamped to the frame rail to force everything out to the right position.

 

 

A better view of everything, nothing is welded in place yet.

 

 

Here the new trunk floor piece is welded in.  With this piece back in place the whole rear of the car is very rigid.  I drilled through the floor before welding it to attach it to the floor brace underneath, you can see the welds.  The edges all get covered with seam sealer and are hidden.  The photographs make the seam weld where the panel joins the center of the floor look lumpy. In fact it was quite smooth.  Once the floor was painted and the factory speckle paint was put on you had to look quite closely to see anything.

 

 

The joint between the wheel house and the trunk floor was quite weak above the axle area so I had to make an additional patch there.  The trunk just keeps filling up with tools as you work away.

 

 

Unlike the factory, I decided to paint everything with a proper enamel automotive paint before putting the quarter back on.  Prep was minimal, just clean it with thinner and spray on the paint.

 

 

On this side of the car, much of the lower wheel house had rotted away and I made these patches.  Again, this is all hidden underneath the undercoating I sprayed in after I was done.  The undercoating keeps road noise way down compared to having debris pinging off of bare metal.

 

 

Jumping back to the other side, I am now filling the area where the quarter panel seam welds are.  Unlike the factory panels which nestle into the trunk seal trough to hide the welds, I was forced to weld out in the open areas.  If you can get a factory style panel, pay the extra money to avoid this step.  I am no filler expert and while it looks like a lot, I sanded off a lot of filler.  It wound up being quite thin overall.

 

 

Back on the other side, you can see the filler is primed and the car has its shape back again.  In the wheel arch, I had not yet ground down the spots welds that hold the quarter panel to the outer wheel house.  The factory welds were much further apart.  This car did not have any trim work on the wheel arches so I spent a lot of time making this look good.

Welding Technique

I am afraid I have no photos of this part but you cannot simply flick on the welder and attack the quarter panel.  Before doing any welding, the entire panel was screwed down every inch to the flange I had prepared.  There was no section of the panel unsecured.  A large panel like this will squirm once you start applying heat, fully fixing it is critical.  For actually welding the panel down you must keep the following in mind.  You are dealing with a large panel with large radius curves.  Apply heat to a flat panel and it bulges up.  A quarter panel will do the same thing.  Sharp corners tend to keep things in place, but there are really no corners in these panels.  Make a 1 inch weld from one screw over to a neighbouring screw.  Make your next weld on the other side of the panel.  Each succesive weld should be as far from every other weld as possible.  After doing 5 or 6 welds, take a short break to allow things to cool down.  Make sure you take 1.5 to 2 hours to complete the job.  I have seen a panel that was welded too quickly and it looked like Niagara falls.  You then either use a ton of filler or rip the panel off again.

Sheet metal welding is very easy to inspect as you go.  Look at the back of the weld, it should almost look the same as the top of the weld.  Due to the thin gauge of the metal 18-22 gauge depending on the car and location in the body, not having full weld penetration is unacceptable.

 

 

Seam Sealer

In this view you can see the seam sealer is in place.  I used the 3M version, you can get this at any body supply shop.  It comes in quart size cans and goes on with a brush like very thick paint.  It dries and stays pliable but is paintable.  The factory primarily used this stuff to make things look tidy and for acoustic purposes.  Their goal was to keep air from whistling and to keep car interiors quiet.  They did not care about corrosion at that time.  I applied as much or more sealer to the joints underneath to prevent water intrusion into the many crevices where panel flanges meet.  I then undercoated (overcoated?) over top of that as well. These details make the biggest differences in the final result.

 

 

Up on the hood, someone had previously patched the edge of the hood for some reason and coated everything with filler.  I added the rectangular patch.  I suspect someone did a bad job of covering up where aftermarket hood pins had been added, using only filler which allowed rust to delaminate the filler from below.

Body Shop Prep

This pretty much ended my body work.  I further removed all the rubber seals on the doors and all window felts.  I removed the grill, bumpers, all lights, and door handles.  I did not want to pay the shop to do any disasembly when I could easily do it.  They told me they had never seen a car come into their shop stripped down as far as I took it.

 

 

Body Shop Work

I used a shop that my neighbour had used and liked.  They are very much a family business, the father runs the office, one brother is the shop foreman and the other brother is the painter.  They were also willing to go the extra mile since I obviously had a lot of time invested in the car.  Having good rapport is important.  I told them I would rather they did the job right than try and get the car back to me by a specific date.  I left the car with them for 5 weeks and they were happy to have me come in and take photos of the car throughout the process.

 

 

The shop assigned one technician to do the entire job on my car.  They decided they wanted to remove the filler I had put on the sail panels just to be sure what was underneath.  This being the first thing they saw, they were wondering what I had been doing.  I then explained that I had not done this joint.  My quarter panel finished about 6" below this level.  I had not realized that my quarter panel was the 3'rd one put on the left side of the car.  The factory joint goes between the end of the gutter to the upper corner of the rear window (known as the backlight), they do this because its the shortest possible weld and takes the least amount of finishing.  The OEM quarter was now only going about 8" from the roof to the joint you see here.  The second quarter in turn was now only 6" or so high where mine then picked up.  Someone had replaced the quarter with the joint shown above being where the quarter ended up.  This is typical of the replacement panels available from the factory back in the day.  The body guys were fairly critical of the joint you see above, it was only spot welded.  When they then uncovered my joints they were actually quite complimentary. and they wound up rewelding the joint above to match mine.

 

 

The body shop stripped down the panels to bare metal.  Keep in mind that this paint job occurred 17 months after the work I had done.  I had painted the car myself using proper paint but put in spray bombs by a paint supply house.  It was just a way to make the car presentable until this paint job could be done.  You can see the tiny amount of filler needed on the rocker panel.  You can also see the joint at the top of my quarter panel.

 

 

This photo shows the filler applied  by the body shop covering the quarter panel joints.  Towards the rear of the quarter they applied pale green glazing putty to cover minor imperfections in the aftermarket panel.  The yellow colour down low and on the door is a metal sealer.

 

 

A different view of the stripped panel

 

 

As shown above, I had taken the whole front clip off the car and I had examined the insides of both front fenders.  They really looked fine inside.  The body shop found that the bottom of the fender between the wheel and door had rotted out.  This is probably the most common rust repair on these cars.  The water trough at the base of the windshield simply empties into the fenders so every piece of road crap that ever hit your window winds up in the fender.

 

 

Sealed fender

 

 

Upon stripping the door down, the shop decided that the bottom of the door skin needed replacing.  The original was not terrible, but rather than waste time, they just sliced off the skin and replaced with new metal.

 

 

This was probably the worst aspect of the job and the technician said he spent a ton of time here.  When I had the rear window out of the car I had found bits of vinyl in the trim area.  Normally the vinyl roof terminates at a trim piece crossing the quarter panel right around where my quarter panel was welded.  Since the quarters on both sides had been changed there was no other evidence of the vinyl roof anywhere until the roof was sanded off.  In several locations, small patches had to be welded onto the roof due to pin holes.  The whole roof had to be skim filled to make it smooth.  Vinyl roofs are passe now and they really cause a lot of damage.

 

 

Just like the doors, the bottom edge of the trunk lid was swelling up with corrosion.  This task was farmed over to another guy in the shop who specialized in replacing pieces like this.

 

 

View of the now repaired trunk lid.

 

 

They even redid the filler on this portion of the hood.

 

 

The whole car was sprayed with a high end filling primer to flatten out the final imperfections.  The roof, fender, and hood have already been sanded.  After sanding, the primer felt like a baby's bottom.

 

 

After waiting so long it was finally painted.  This picture does not do it justice.  The shine was blinding and looked a mile deep.

 

 

After getting it home I had to install the mirrors which also go painted, put on all the chrome, rubber, lights, etc.  Once it was painted the ratty wheels looked totally out of place.  I got replica Rallye wheels from Wheel Vintiques.  With everything put back together it looked like this.