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All About Car Restoration

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Putting the body back on a 1948 Chrysler — a scary task goes very well

By John Gunnell

There are several reasons that it is easier to take a body off an automobile chassis than it is to put it back on. When you take the body off, all the hardware and rubber mounts are (hopefully) where they're supposed to be. You don't have to think about positioning them; just pull them off and tuck them away. In a similar vein, you don't have to worry about positioning the body — you're just pulling it off. And, of course, you usually don't have to worry as much about scraping the paint. It's likely the body will be repainted.

On the other hand, replacing the body is harder because it's a lot more complicated operation. You will need to research what parts you need to mount the body properly. The original hardware and mounts are rarely reusable. Chances are pretty good that you had to cut off some of the rusty bolts and nuts. It will take a bit of research to determine if the original parts are even available today. If some are not, you will have to look into suitable replacements. A body has to be mounted carefully, but the job is not rocket science. If a part can't be obtained, there is "generic" hardware available that will do the job.

You may have to spend time on the phone or Internet with parts suppliers or contacting car club members who have mounted the same kind of body before. To get the best pricing, you may have to contact more than one parts supplier. It might be a good idea to locate and buy a shop manual or body manual. As far as rubber parts such as cushions and mounts, some suppliers will make up a custom catalog for your car.

When you're replacing the body, lifting it up and dropping it on the chassis will probably require more finesse than lifting it off did. You'll have to decide how you can lift it up in a way that keeps it balanced and you will need to drop it slowly and carefully into position with all of the attaching holes lining up perfectly. The body will probably require shimming and you may need a way to gauge whether it is sitting straight and level. Do you want to lift the body at each corner or use a sling that can hold it at the center point? Are you going to lift it with a rope, chains, straps or any combination of those means?

Make sketches to ensure that you have enough lifting room. Measure the height of the highest point on the chassis (if the engine is installed, this will most likely be the carburetor after you remove the air cleaner). Measure the distance from the roof of the car to the highest point of your lift. This will depend on the device you use to lift. Allow for the width of beams you plan to lift on, the drop height of chain hoists and other such things. Leave a few inches of space here and there to play it super safe.

Think about how you are going to do the lift and the body drop. If the body is in front of the chassis and the engine is in place, you will have to lift the body high enough that the lowest point clears the carburetor. But if you have the chassis in front of the body and lift the body onto it, the highest point will probably be the transmission housing, which is typically a lot lower than the carburetor. The exact details involved in different body drops may vary, but it will always pay to think about all this beforehand.

Now that we've discussed generalities, let's talk about a specific body drop we did recently at Gunner's Great Garage. It involved putting a 1948 Chrysler Saratoga three-passenger coupe body on a chassis that had been restored to stock condition.

This project started by determining what parts we needed. We had the Chrysler Parts Manual for the car, but good quality reproductions are also available from literature dealers like Faxon (www.faxonautoliterature.com). The parts book contains a diagram showing all of the parts used for mounting the body. Each bolt, stud, washer, spacer, shim and nut can be looked up individually and, in most cases, the specifications for that fastener are given. Andy Birenbaum Auto Parts (www.oldmoparts.com) can supply much of the needed hardware and some of the mounts. Steele Rubber Products (www.steelerubber.com) can also supply body mounts and cushions.

This chassis had the inline eight-cylinder flathead engine and a Chrysler Fluid Drive transmission — a fairly large unit. The chassis was already sitting on wheels and tires, which raised it up. If there had not enough room for lifting, we would have removed the wheels and tires and set the chassis on Lo-Jacks. With all the glass removed, the coupe body has a big window opening on each side, plus windshield and back window openings.

We mustered up four helpers. Dave Sarna is a former auto technology teacher. John Diermeier is a body shop owner. Bob Buchman is a topnotch mechanic. Bob brought his grandson along, as well as some long, padded tow straps. Our lifting device is an adjustable gantry crane that we purchased from Harbor Freight. This normally sells for something over $725, but we waited for one of Harbor Freights frequent coupon sales and was able to purchase the crane for a bit over $500. It was towed to the shop in a 15-ft. car hauling trailer and assembled. Once assembled, we lifted it with an engine crane to make it sit upright. The crane was heavy and none of this was easy, but it went well.

Some hobbyists might fashion their own gantry crane or A-frame to do a body lift. For smaller bodies, even an engine lift can be used. These will cost less and work just as well as a store-bought gantry crane, but we thought our crane was a steal for the price we paid. It is easy to adjust the height just where you want it and the Harbor Freight crane has a very professional look that helps make the whole shop look more serious and trustworthy. Two "skates" that slide on the horizontal upper beam and two manual 1-ton chain hoists for lifting were also sourced from Harbor Freight at additional cost.

Step 1 was to figure out how we were going to lift the body. Tow straps seemed like the best thing to use and we considered different ways of attaching them to the car. If we ran a strap through the side windows and lifted against the window frames, we ran the risk of pulling the doors out of alignment. If we looped a strap through the front window and out the back window, we might have wound up kinking the roof or bending the pinch welds around the edges of the window openings. We decided to lift the body from a point just to the rear of center in a sling made with a couple of yellow tow straps.

Bob Buchman adjusts the front lifting strap that goes from the chain hoist, over the upper door hinge and down under the bottom of the firewall to the other side of the car.

Bob Buchman adjusts the front lifting strap that goes from the chain hoist, over the upper door hinge and down under the bottom of the firewall to the other side of the car.


The front strap ran from the chain hoist on one side of the car to the front below the firewall, then across to the other side and up to the chain hoist on this aside. The were spots where the strap laid lightly against the door, so we wrapped the strap with an old bedsheet to avoid rubbing the maroon paint. We realized that where the strap crossed below the firewall from one side to the other side, the strap was going to hit the transmission housing as the body came down. "Don't worry about that," said Bob Buchman. "We can't do it any other way so we'll deal with that when we have to."

An old kids' bed sheet was wrapped around the lifting strap to protect the paint. The gray painted piece is the right-hand hood hinge.

An old kids' bed sheet was wrapped around the lifting strap to protect the paint. The gray painted piece is the right-hand hood hinge.


The second strap ran backwards from the chain hoist to below the rear wheel opening. Where it crossed side to side it was nearly flat against the trunk floor and wasn't required to clear anything. As the rear of the body came down and rested on the frame, this strap could simply by slid out once it was detached from the chain hoists.

Twin chain hoists were purchased from Harbor Freight at the same time the gantry crane was purchased. When buying big items look for sales or 20% off coupons.

Twin chain hoists were purchased from Harbor Freight at the same time the gantry crane was purchased. When buying big items look for sales or 20% off coupons.


Dave Sarna (orange shirt) watches as John Diermeier secures chains to gantry crane. The handle by John's side raises and lowers the telescoping crane on one side.

Dave Sarna (orange shirt) watches as John Diermeier secures chains to gantry crane. The handle by John's side raises and lowers the telescoping crane on one side.


As they say at NASA we had a 'perfect liftoff' as the rare 3-passenger coupe body rose up off the cart and dolly that it was sitting on in the shop.

As they say at NASA we had a "perfect liftoff" as the rare 3-passenger coupe body rose up off the cart and dolly that it was sitting on in the shop.


We had to take care that the chains hanging from the hoists on each side of the car did not hit the body and cause paint damage. There was clearance between the chains and the body, but if any movement made them start swinging, it's hard to predict what might have happened. With that in mind, the team started raising the body off the Backyard Buddy Easy Access units and homemade cart it had been sitting on in the shop. The body was strapped to these units and the straps had to be carefully removed.

With the body in the air, pads in place and chains out of the way, the next step was to push the Chrysler chassis back under the body. Since we were moving in that direction, we did not have to worry about the body being raised high enough to clear the carburetor. With five people involved, we were able to look under each corner of the car and make sure that the body mounts lined up. Some of the mounts were on the frame itself and some were already attached to the body by bolts going through the floor of the body.

John Diermeier watches mounting alignments as the body is lowered down onto the Chrysler Eight chassis. The strap across the bottom had to come down on the tranny.

John Diermeier watches mounting alignments as the body is lowered down onto the Chrysler Eight chassis. The strap across the bottom had to come down on the tranny.


The Chrysler body drop came off without a hitch. Each of the bolts, studs and mounts lined up perfectly with the holes in the frame or the body supports. The strap across the bottom of the firewall also gave us no problem at all. It just seemed to stretch out as it impacted the transmission housing. Most likely, a small degree of slack developed in the chains as the weight of the body was taken by the hefty frame.

This right-hand front body mount was attached to the body and came down perfectly into the hole in the frame bracket.

This right-hand front body mount was attached to the body and came down perfectly into the hole in the frame bracket.


At this position, you can see the runner body mount sitting squarely in the frame bracket. The fits were good all-around and shimming needed should go smoothly.

At this position, you can see the runner body mount sitting squarely in the frame bracket. The fits were good all-around and any shimming needed should go smoothly.


With the body sitting on the frame, the car was raised on the Backyard Buddy 4-post lift to reposition the rear spring shackles and attach the rear shock absorbers.

With the body sitting on the frame, the car was raised on the Backyard Buddy 4-post lift to reposition the rear spring shackles and attach the rear shock absorbers.


This shows how the body sat down over the transmission housing. That tow strap across the bottom of the firewall created no problems at all.

This shows how the body sat down over the transmission housing. That tow strap across the bottom of the firewall created no problems at all.


One thing remained to be done. The car's rear leaf springs had been re-arched. When they were installed on the car, the shackles jammed themselves tightly against the bottom of the frame. We tried using a crow bar to move the shackles back into their factory position since we had once did this with a British sports car and it worked. The Chrysler was different. The springs were so heavy and strong that the shackles didn't budge.

Here's a close up of the rear of the frame way before the body drop. Note how the spring shackles were jammed up against the bottom of the frame.

Here's a close up of the rear of the frame way before the body drop. Note how the spring shackles were jammed up against the bottom of the frame.


After failing to reposition the shackles, we contacted Mike Eaton art Eaton Detroit Spring (www.eatondetroitspring.com) who told us to measure the free arch of the spring. We measured from a block of wood that came up to the middle of the spring eye to the top of the spring pack and contacted Eaton with this measurement.

"The way you measured the spring is good," he said. "Now, we know that the arch is right for the standard duty 1948 Chrysler spring. I would now invoke what we call the 97.7 percent complete car rule. Do not worry about the ride height or hooking up the shocks until the car gets closer to being finished. As for getting the shackles in the correct position, they may have to pried back or hooked up once more weight is on the springs. If you've never seen our measuring form, visit www.eatondetroitspring.com/measure read about measuring leaf springs and download the form."

Once the body was on the chassis, we raised the car on our 4-post lift and once again tried using a crow bar to reposition the shackles. It was still impossible to move them, so, we raised the car higher, put a high-position 2-ton tripod under-hoist jack stand below the rear crossmember and slowly lowered the 4-post lift. As the weight of the car rested on the tall jack stand, the shackles moved downwards and away from the frame. Then, it was easy to move them into the proper factory position and they stayed there.

If you look close, you can see the spring shackles pointed downwards in this photo. This was accomplished by using a tall rear axle jack stand, the 4-post lift and a crowbar.

If you look close, you can see the spring shackles pointed downwards in this photo. This was accomplished by using a tall rear axle jack stand, the 4-post lift and a crowbar.


This wasn't our first body drop, but it was the first one with a big, full-size American car like the Chrysler and it went very well. We had spent a long time thinking about this project and gathering the parts, tools and equipment we needed to do it. But as Bob Buchman's grandson said before we got started, "There's really only one way to get a big job done and that's to jump in and do it." He was right and the body drop finally got done.

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