Resto Mod Restorations Part 2: Chassis and Undercar Teardown
For Jeff Noll and Jim Mokwa getting their muscle cars restored took effort on their parts. Jeff did the media blasting and body work himself. Jim divided tasks into jobs that he could do and jobs he felt more comfortable with others doing. The engine body work. Jim repaired the frame. Both men took many photos. These helped determine their car's strengths and weaknesses and gave them a good idea of what parts they needed. Tearing the car apart came next.
Both of them had a head start on the tear-down, as the cars were partly disassembled when purchased. Jeff's Camaro was towed home with no front sheet metal and no engine. Jim's came home on the trailer in almost the same state. The front end was off the car and the engine was out of it. He did, however, get two rear axles. One was installed and the other was a spare. The car had no windshield or door glass. A tire was stuck in the empty engine bay.
Taking a car apart requires tools. Standard automotive tools such as combination wrenches (one end shaped like an open claw and the other like a gear), socket sets and drivers in the three common sizes (1/4-, 3/8- and 1/2-inch) as well as a hefty 3/4-inch drive socket set. The big sockets make it easier to take out big chassis bolts that are stuck. Cheap sets are available and come with a bar and a ratchet handle. The bearings in the ratchet handle may not be up to the job of breaking big rusty bolts loose, but the bar and socket will usually do it.
You need tools to take a car apart. Students at Ohio Technical College use standard hand tools, socket sets and drivers in the three common sizes, plus a hefty 3/4-inch drive set with extra big sockets for chassis parts.
You'll also want flat and Phillips head crosscut screwdrivers, razor cutters, flare wrenches for brass fittings and a variety of hammers from tiny ones to sledges. For some jobs you'll want hammers with soft brass or plastic heads. Other tasks may require wooden or rubber mallets in various sizes and weights.
Specialty items such as pullers, pry bars, vise-grip pliers, body hammers, door handle removal tools and a set of bead-filled plastic trim removal tools will be very helpful in a teardown. An air powered impact wrench is a very handy tool for spinning off stubborn fasteners like the bolt on the front end of the crankshaft.
If you are serious about doing automotive restorations and plan to do more, you might want to invest in a cutting torch or plasma cutter. Miller Electric Company did hands-on demonstrations of their plasma cutter at the 2010 SEMA Show and it seemed like the perfect tool for our last teardown. We had two parts in particular that we could not take off a frame and we had to hire the job out. With minimal training, we could have easily removed them with a plasma cutter.
If you're serious about doing automotive restorations, you might want to invest in a cutting torch or plasma cutter. Miller Electric Co. representative Steve Hidden demonstrated plasma cutting at Gunner's Great Garage.
Moving Heavy Cars & Parts
Jeff Noll and Jim Mokwa dealt with moving cars around. The Camaro is a unit body car with only a stub frame, Jeff kept it as a roller with wheels and tires in place for a time. Jim arranged for a man with a Case skid steer to lift his body off the chassis and place it on a wheeled dolly. He then rolled the dolly (with the GTO body on it) onto a trailer to take it to the body shop. The frame, with the rear axle removed, sat outside with wheels and tires on the front only.
Restorers often have to deal with moving heavy car parts from one spot to the next. A floor jack can help. Car skates and body dollies are even better. It is nice to leave the wheels and tires on the car for as long as possible like Jeff did However, if you're doing body off frame job, this isn't practical. One option is the Easy-Access system made by a company named Backyard Buddy.
An Easy-Access system can best be described as two roll-around units that look like sturdily-braced stand jacks mounted on wheels. Using other lifting devices, you can lower a car onto the front and rear Easy-Access unit and push it around the shop by yourself. Backyard Buddy provides relatively large wheels that make a car very easy to push. For safety, the wheels have built-in brakes.
Jesse Gunnell adjusts the frame supports on a Backyard Buddy Easy Access unit so that it can be slid under a car. When the vehicle is lowered onto the supports, it can be rolled all over the shop with a one-hand push.
A chain hoist can lift a car. Inexpensive models can be purchased through discount tool stores or catalogs. We purchased our manually-operated hoist at Harbor Freight for around $60. We have even used it to lift the body off a car.
Sometimes you will find online ads or auctions offering professional lifting equipment at an attractive price. We found a Ford Rotunda transaxle lift listed locally on Craig's List. We purchased it for $450 and used it to do an automatic transmission. Later, it supported the body of a fiberglass sports car.
"Cherry picker" type engine lifting cranes also come in handy for moving heavy car parts or lifting car bodies. When he media blasted the '67 Camaro in his driveway, Jeff Noll used an engine hoist to lift up the entire rear of the car.
Jeff Noll used a "Cherry picker" engine crane for jobs other than engine pulls. In this case, he hoisted the entire rear of the car so he could media blast the underside.
In a total restoration such as Jeff and Jim undertook, you'll be tearing the car completely down and rebuilding it from the frame up. How you position the car and how you support it at a certain working height affects the quality of your work. Jeff Noll's photos show that his Camaro was mainly supported on stand jacks at each corner through much of the project. But he took the wheels and tires off only when necessary and had them back on again as soon as he could.
With a unibody car like Jeff Noll's Camaro, the floor pan, cowl, quarter panels, trunk sides and roof are built as a unit and a sub frame is bolted to the firewall. When lifting this type of car with jacks or hoists or supporting it on stand jacks, the device must be placed on the structural boxed frame rails built into the bottom of the platform. Lowering the car's floor pan onto stand jacks, for instance, might only dent the sheet metal or cause the jacks to poke through it.
Jim Mokwa's '69 GTO uses a ladder frame that supports the underside of the entire body. In this case, supporting devices can be placed under the frame rails. After Jim had the body lifted off the chassis and removed the rear axle that came installed on the car, he hired a man with a mobile blasting system to come to his home and blast the frame outside. He recalls that this cost him only $100. The frame was flipped over on sawhorses so the bottom could be blasted.
For less than $100 this man brought his mobile sand blasting system to Jim Mokwa's home and blasted the frame for his GTO convertible.
Jim then moved the car's frame inside his garage and started restoring it. There he supported it on heavy-duty stand jacks front and rear. You'll remember that he had the front-end loader operator drop the body on top of a wheeled body dolly that he pushed onto a trailer. He took this combination to one body shop, where the GTO body was kept on the dolly while it was being media blasted.
GTO owner Jim Mokwa had a front-end loader operator drop the car's body on top of a wheeled body dolly that he pushed onto a trailer and took right to his body shop.
Cars supported by a dolly under the center of the body will, of course, sag the least. When stand jacks placed at each corner support the chassis or body structure, it becomes like a suspension bridge and tends to sag most at the center. Cars can also sag at the front or rear if a large part of the body overhangs the stand jacks or supporting device. Blocks of wood placed under the front and rear frame members can prevent overhanging parts from sagging. Often. You won't see sagging, but you'll know a car sagged if the doors no longer fit right.
A convertible is one of the structurally weakest auto body types. Pillared sedans are probably strongest and hardtop coupes like Jeff Noll's Camaro are in the middle. The less built-in structural integrity a body has, the harder it will be to keep it from "taking a set" while it's being stored or taken apart for a restoration. Sloppy restorers have wound up with cars that have sagging bodies, arched body sills or poor-fitting doors. Many restorers temporarily weld metal braces across convertible door openings to prevent the body from sagging while the doors are off. Even though Jim Mokwa had a sturdy body dolly supporting the car at the center, he welded braces across the door openings to stiffen the body.
Even though Jim Mokwa had a sturdy body dolly supporting the car at the center, he welded braces across the door openings to stiffen the convertible body.
Cleaning Things Up
Before any tear-down operations start, the restorer must be able to see the fasteners that hold the car together and get at them with the proper tool to remove them. In order to do this, the frame parts, drive train parts and body parts must be at least somewhat clean. Jeff Noll's Camaro sat in the garage in since its drag racing days ended. Jim Mokwa knew that his GTO had been stored in a backyard, before going into a barn for 10 years. How much do you want to wager that both cars had their share of built up, sticky, undercar goo?
Buy a cheap plastic tarp, spread it out under the vehicle and "go to town" with scrapers, wire brushes, oil removers and anything else helpful for a down and dirty initial cleaning of parts. You'd be surprised how much better a job you can do when you can fully visualize how a car is put together. We have seen novices banging and prying on somewhat fragile assemblies that, once properly visualized, come apart quite easily with a certain technique or tool.
Next the restorer must deal with draining old fluids from the vehicle. Even cars that sat for years like the Camaro and GTO still have at least some gas, oil or antifreeze in them. The more years the car has been sitting, the uglier and smellier this job will be. These old fluids are not something you want on your skin or in your eyes. Where gloves, goggles and a respirator to be totally safe.
With an old car that hasn't been carefully stored, chances are the cooling system hoses are already cut or broken off. You may think that nothing is going to come out when you open the petcock at the bottom of the radiator, but don't be sure. And you may get a surprise if the engine block tilts when you're lifting it out of the car and spills antifreeze all over. Since you are probably going to be rebuilding the engine anyway, you might want to poke out the freeze plugs and drain any antifreeze remaining inside the block that way.
Your oil pan should have a plug on the bottom or low on the side. This will drain most of the old oil. A little may remain at the very bottom in some models like an MG that have the drain plug located about a half-inch up the side of the oil pan. You can get this when you eventually take the oil pan off. Some older cars may have a canister type filter filled with oil that needs to be drained separately.
Fluids have to be drained from components such as the automatic transmission, if it is still in the car. In this case, the tranny for Jeff Noll's Camaro was already out of the car.
If the car has an automatic transmission, loosen one corner of the pan and drain the automatic transmission fluid. Keep the pan and re-tighten it so the transmission does not get contaminated. There may be other fluids in the power steering reservoir, windshield washer jar or bag, and brake master cylinder. Remember that old Dot 3 brake fluid makes a great paint remover, so avoid spilling it on the car. These fluids are not usually completely changed on a periodic basis and do not have draining provisions. When removing these parts, position so the fluid will not spill out until you are ready to put it in a recycling container. Get rid of the fluids at your local recycling center.
Brake fluid in the brake lines is another thing to consider. You can drain this out at the rear wheel cylinder if the brake system is still unopened. There may also be putrid old gas in the fuel tank. If the car is running, you may want to jest burn off the fuel. If the car was sitting like Jeff's Camaro and Jim's GTO, don't assume that it is safe to handle because it is old. Take the same precautions you would when handling fresh gasoline (or even more if the fumes are a problem) and transfer the old gas to an approved container. In our area, the recycling center does accept old gasoline for disposal and it's free.
Taking the Car Apart
With the fluids gone, it is time to start taking the car apart. Anyone can do this job. Not everyone can do it properly without ruining the important components. To teach myself how to do this, I bought a junker car (not a classic) and carefully disassembled every piece. My goal was to not break anything and take off every nut and bolt without cutting or bending it. I wrote down what I did, made imaginary re-assembly notes and sketches and boxed up and labeled every part. When I was done, I realized that it was hard and that I could probably get the car only 75 percent back together again with my notes and the parts I removed without damaging them. But it taught me how to it better next time.
If it was that hard taking a relatively modern car apart so carefully, imagine how difficult it is to tear-down a classic that you want to re-assemble again. With the classic, you're bound to run into totally rusted bolts, age-weakened metal, older type wiring that deteriorated rapidly, missing components and a more difficult job getting tips and advice from others who did the same type of car.
The front end sheet metal had already been removed from Jim Mokwa's GTO sop his disassembly work started from the firewall back.
Most restorers tend to start taking a car apart at the front end and working towards the rear. Don't rush the job. Get your digital camera out again and take step by step photos. Make believe that you're writing your own article or book about your restoration. What did you learn that's important to show other people?
Jeff and Jim were somewhat lucky because the front end sheet metal had already been removed from their cars and was luckily saved, Most restorers with complete cars start at the front, removing the radiator, radiator grille, bumper and bumper filler panel (if used), headlights, horns, radiator shroud and so on. When Jim Mokwa found his front bumper, it was off the car. He decided to fix it and have it re-chromed. He inspected it for damage and circled each dent and ding with a marker or crayon. That way he could send the bumper to be straightened and re-plated while he was working on other steps in the restoration process.
Jim marked the damage he spotted on the rear bumper of his "goat" so the chrome plater would know what had to be repaired.
Some parts have to come apart in a specific order. With cars like Camaros and GTOs, you can purchase reproductions of shop manuals and factory assembly manual that provide step-by-step disassembly instructions. Of course, as we all know, they usually say something like "to re-assemble follow steps in reverse order" which we all have found isn't always work just right. Sometimes you have to use intuition and a little common sense in addition to a manual.
As you take things apart, the parts must be kept in some organized fashion. For a long time I preferred using zip lock plastic bags and index cards. I put each removed part in a bag, wrote information on an index card and put the card right in the baggie with the parts. I used string tags to label parts that didn't fit in baggies. Sometimes the baggies tended to get a little greasy inside.
Lately I found that I could buy white plastic buckets from a local bakery for only $1 each. I am now using these to store parts or groups of related parts that I remove from cars, along with all fasteners and notes. I protect the insides of the buckets with trash bag liners so I can re-use them. I label them on the outside by writing with a marker and a piece of tape. The buckets stack nicely, three high, under my workbench. This seems like another system that will work well.
Costing only $1 each from a local bakery, these white plastic frosting buckets make a great parts storage system when you are tearing a car down for restoration.
A mechanic named Vince Sauberlich, who helps me with my trickier projects like engine and transmission rebuilds, prefers to cover the work table with white towels and lay out the parts according to exploded views seen in shop manuals and parts books. Then, he covers all the laid out parts with other towels to keep them from getting contaminated. This system works best for Vince.
Completing the Teardown
Continuing the teardown, move below the car and take off the undercar parts like the shock absorbers, front suspension components, coil springs (using a special remover), steering rods and linkages, tie rod ends, etc. This is all nuts and bolts stuff, although some of the fasteners are big. When working with parts under tension — such as A-frames that compress coil springs — you will want to wrap a chain around them to prevent flying springs. Or use a coil spring remover.
Jeff and Jim started without front end sheet metal or engines in their cars. Both removed the doors and trunk lid. Jeff removed the rear axle, but left the front suspension. The rear end was supported on stand jacks. He rebuilt the front suspension while still on the car. At some phases the front end was supported on wheels and tires and at other times on stand jacks.
Jim took the body off the frame. His body tub went off to the body shop on the dolly and the frame stayed in his garage with a stand jack at each corner. There are books that will give other advice on teardown, but hobbyists can't always do things the ultimate professional way. Both of these hobbyists wound up with great looking cars built to a very high quality standard.