Beauty Under the Skin: Pontiac Chassis Clean Up
By John Gunnell
There are two ways to clean up the chassis, suspension and drive train parts of a collector car. The best way is to take the car completely apart, strip each part of dirt, rust and paint, refinish the good parts, replace the bad ones and rebuild the car. This can take up to four years and cost $50,000 or more.
For many collectors a more practical alternative is to partly disassemble the car and get into as many areas as you can to remove dirt, rust and paint, Then follow this up by rust proofing as much of the metal as you possibly can and refinishing every area you can reach with some kind of durable paint that will look good and provide good protection from corrosion. If you work steadily on the car, this approach may take several months and cost a few thousand dollars.
There's nothing wrong with the first approach, other than the high cost. At a recent seminar on restoration, a shop owner described a $100,000 restoration project. He shipped the body of the customer's car halfway across the country to have it acid dipped to remove rust. The engine was shipped to a shop several states away, in the opposite direction, for rebuilding. The restorer disassembled, blasted and powder coated the chassis. When the body returned, all the bad sheet metal was cut out and replaced with the best reproductions. The end result after re-assembly was a nearly perfect car and a six-figure tab for the owner.
A perfectly restored car is a work of art, but not all of us need to go that far and spend that much to enjoy the collector car hobby. Many enthusiasts can have just as much fun with a car that gets a slow, careful body-on-frame restoration. This method of refurbishing a vehicle works particularly well if you start with a nice solid car like the 1974 Grand Ville two-door hardtop that Pontiac fan Dan Hoeck discovered in a barn in Belgium, Wis. The car has about 55,000 original miles and was put away in very good condition. Unfortunately it wasn't covered up or protected while in the barn, so it suffered some deterioration of the paint on the top surfaces of the body and it also got very, very dirty.
Barn find Frand Ville looked good when it arrived, although you can see the white vinyl top was filthy after years of barn storage. It was not known if the car would run at this point, but it took only a new battery to get it going again.
When the job of cleaning up the car began, Dan thought it would require more work than it actually needs. He was sure that the white vinyl top and white vinyl upholstery would have to be replaced. The condition of the engine was another question mark and Hoeck worried about it needing a complete rebuild. He was planning to replace other mechanical items such as the brakes, exhaust system, belts and hoses. The carburetor and cooling system were question marks. He had also purchased several uncommon factory accessories (including an adjustable pedal kit and air shocks) for installation during the overhaul.
The spark plug area of the 455 V-8 had a heavy coating of rust and a lot of oily residue from oil that warmed up and seeped onto parts. This photo also documents the spot near fingers where a bracket should be re-attached.
Spark plug area is clean enough to see stampings on heads. Bungee cord and wood support A/C compressor that was set aside with hoses still hooked up. Colored electrical ties mark attaching points for parts and wire bundles.
Loop with red electrical tie pushes into hole where matching red electrical tie has been inserted. Green tie around cable matches up with green tie in the inner fender. Parts were removed so inner fender could be cleaned and painted.
This photo clearly shows boards stacked on radiator support to hold the A/C compressor up. The '74 Grandville has a lot of plumbing and wires to deal with, but factory shop manual has many diagrams to help put things back right.
An assortment of electrical ties in different colors and sizes can be used to mark re-attachment points. Red to red, yellow to yellow, etc. When all colors are used, color and size combinations can be worked out for more match ups.
The car had an unusual, somewhat unpleasant odor to it and no wonder! A huge mouse nest was found under the driver's seat. Later, another large nest turned up inside the rear bumper. Of course, the battery was dead after years of long-term storage. The car also had an unusual electronic ignition system that Dan wanted to replace with factory offered electronic ignition. Hoeck was also concerned about the driver's seat bolster, where the vinyl was dry and cracked.
An inspection of the underside of the car revealed that it had been heavily undercoated. The rust protection was not of the factory type and had been done by a aftermarket firm. It appeared that the undercoating had done its job well as there was no apparent rust through at any spot. Of course, all the undercoating would need to be removed to totally verify this impression, but it was clear that the undercoat had not trapped moisture that might have caused major corrosion.
The Grand Ville was a pretty loaded car with luxury trim, air conditioning, cruise control, tons of power accessories, power steering, power brakes, heavy-duty cooling, automatic transmission and a big 455-cid. Although the space under the hood of the full-sized Pontiac is huge, it is filled with all kinds of hardware, plumbing and wiring. Getting at the engine block to clean it and paint it was going to be a chore. The heads, block, manifolds and other engine parts were fairly rusty. Clean up began with removal of the air cleaner and carburetor. Next, the valve covers came off to be blasted, prime coated and painted.
Often an engine can be cleaned with a lot less assembly than most people think if you have access to a lift to get under the car and gain access to various nooks and crannies. The Grand Ville engine proved to be a lot more difficult to get at than, say, an engine in a 1950s or mid-1960s car. To gain the needed access to dirty areas, it was necessary to remove the parts previously mentioned along with the valley cover, the water pump cover, the starter and alternator, the air conditioning compressor, the radiator, the master cylinder and more parts.
After purchasing a shop manual at the Iola Old Car Show it was easy to follow the factory instructions for removal of all the engine accessories. Pictures were taken, drawings were made and notes were written to help put things back together correctly. Bags of multi-colored plastic electrical ties were purchased to that parts disconnected from each other could be "color coded." Red and green ties were placed in holes on the fenders with matching ties wrapped around removed parts and wires. (If all colors are used, you can change to matched combinations of colors, such as red-white-blue ties around a hose and around the neck that the hose connects to).
Parts such as the air conditioning compressor and the power steering pump were not worth taking out of an engine bay, so you can prop these up with wood and use bungee cords to secure them in an out of the way place. Bungee cords can also be used to hold parts away from the engine if you need to get between the engine and the part to paint things up. With the valve covers off, it's a good idea to cover rocker arm assemblies with plastic bags to keep dirt out.
Cleaning up under an old car is going to create gobs of dirt and piles of debris. You'll want to cover the floor below the car and Wal-Mart sells a Mainstays brand Shower liner that is perfect for this and costs only $2.19 on sale. While it may seem that it would be best to hit the dirty underside of a car with power tools first, this is often untrue. A big "toothbrush" with metal bristles is great for the initial attack. After the really loose stuff is scraped off, you can hit the area with a rust dissolver or rust converter. These products usually spray on and are supposed to sit for five minutes. Then spray the area with water and clean it up with a rag or sponge. As the containers say, "repeated applications may be needed." Don't use a spinning wire brush on the area while it's wet or you'll get showered in Naval Jelly or rust dissolver. Wear goggles and gloves.
Mainstays Lightweight Shower Liners from Wal-Mart make great drop cloths or tarps to keep dirt off the floor. They cost only $2.19 when on sale. It is a good idea to empty debris periodically so you can work cleaner.
The Wal-Mart Lightweight Shower Liners protect about half the floor area under a large car like the '74 Grand Ville. Clean up can be done one side at a time or two shower liners ($4.38) car be used.
Compressed air blown into the chassis can quickly remove a lot of debris. Be sure to wear tight fitting safety goggles when the dust starts flying. This nesting material wound up in the rear bumper during the car's barn storage.
Heavy aftermarket undercoating worked well on this particular car. The metal underneath the undercoat was in very good shape as evidenced by this rear frame rail section. The rusty tailpipe is slated to be replaced with a new one.
Brake & Equipment WarehouseNOS or NORS brake system components are getting harder to find As you remove parts from a car, poke holes in a cardboard panel and attach the cleaned up parts to the panel. It's a good idea to brush some Rust Prevention Magic on bare metal parts after you clean and blast them. Special disc brake caliper paint can be used to paint parts.
Brake hardware was pretty rusty, but not to the point of being weakened. Repro parts houses sell replacements, but often a cleaned up original is actually better to use. In addition, obsolete brake parts are sometimes unavailable.
Rear driver's side brake backing plate is very solid under a coating of mostly surface rust. The axle hub cleaned up well using Naval Jelly and then wire brushing it. A tight knitted wire brush was used to clean "dished" center section.
Cardboard holds the original brake hardware which has been media blasted and protected with Rust Prevention Magic. Want to bet none of these parts go missing either? Cardboard works well for organizing and storing parts.
Springs are particularly challenging to clean and repaint. The leaves in a spring pack are constantly moving and can trap dirt between them as the bend. It is very hard to get at all surfaces of a coil spring. Layers of rusted metal can lift off a coil spring causing a bumpy, multi-leveled surface. After knocking loose rust and dirt off a coil spring, Use course steel wool or 80-grit sandpaper to try to get an even surface all around a section of a coil. Once the loose debris is removed from the spring, a wire brush on a portable drill will work with less mess. Tubular links and sway bars can be smoothed with steel wool or sandpaper in much the way that coil springs are. Wrap steel wool or sandpaper all around the tube and with a tight grasp, rotate it around the entire circumference of the spring.
Coil springs are particularly hard to clean up if you are not taking the car totally apart and cabinet blasting the parts individually. On the '74 Grand Ville the coils are further apart than usual and this makes the clean up a little simpler.
This sway bar cleaned up well after two treatments with Naval Jelly and some scraping with a metal brush that looks like a tiny dust broom. The metal bristles on the old brush are gnarly, which gives them a good bite on the rust.
Left side of rear cross member is solid, but shows surface rust The passenger side has had more chemical treatments and brushing, so it looks like fresh metal. The black area is hard to remove undercoat.
Car owner Don Hoeck was pretty satisfied with the way that the white vinyl top cleaned up. In this photo, the passenger side is cleaned up and strikes a contrast with driver's side, which hasn't yet been cleaned.
A variety of steel brushes, a strong toilet bowl brush, different types of wire brushes mounted in power drills, paint scrapers, spot blasters, brushes from gun cleaning kits, rotary tools, and needle scaler tools, steel wool, sandpaper and compressed air nozzles can all be used to help you clean up under a partly disassembled vehicle. How good a job you can do depends on how much disassembly you're comfortable with, how many tools you have, how much time you spend blasting and scraping and how dirty you're willing to get. As mentioned earlier, the availability of a vehicle lift is a nig plus in doing a good job. Some chemicals can also be an invaluable aid when used properly and safely. Patience is another important factor in doing a good job with this type of project.
Last but not least, have all the safety equipment and personal protection gear you need in place before you begin. Rubber gloves and goggles or a full face shield, are musts. Wear work gloves when brushing off rust, since cars have many sharp surfaces underneath that can cut you. If you're using caustic chemicals, make sure there's cold water and a sink nearby for emergency eye and skin washes. Avoid the use of rotating power tools with loose clothing on.