Camaro Paneling, Part 1

Restoring Classic Industry's "unsalvagable" 69 Coupe

Jay Storer Jun 16, 2005 0 Comment(s)

They say that for every Camaro fan, his or her "perfect mate" is somewhere out there--the car of their dreams just waiting for their loving attention. Although good First-Gen cars are getting harder to find all the time--at least in restorable condition and not already the subject of an expensive Overhaulin makeover--once in a while you run across a car that is so rough that no one in their right mind would buy it, even for parts. Such is the case with our subject vehicle, a rust-bucket '69 coupe with more closets in its skeleton than a sunken galleon. And yet, for someone, it was still the car of his or her dreams.

Classic Industries of Huntington Beach, California, should be well known to our readers at this point, since the company is one of the major players in manufacturing and marketing restoration parts for Camaros and other GM models. Its catalog of some 866 pages is a major "wish book" for any '67-02 Camaro owner, but especially for those First-Gen cars that have been kicked around for some decades like our subject car. Classic wanted to restore an early Camaro, using its restoration parts to show off its product line. That's only natural. It also had hoped to display the car last year in its booth at the annual SEMA Show in Las Vegas. Fine idea.

Classic alerted its distributors that it was on a hunt, and eventually one of its contacts turned up the car you see on these pages. What Classic had told everyone it was looking for was a Camaro so bad that it would need lots of the company's parts, so they could all be illustrated in CAMERO PERFORMERS being installed on one car. Classic got the car of its dreams, and then some! It wasn't until the work began in earnest that everyone involved found out how deep the restoration would have to go.

Sal Perez and his crew at American Muscle Cars (Guasti, California) have more than ten years experience turning out show-winning, high-bid-auction-quality restorations of Camaros and other muscle cars. They've seen it all and done it all, but even they were somewhat surprised by the level of cancer in the Classic Camaro, which they were scheduled to have done and painted for the SEMA Show. Have you even seen an old house being remodeled, and as the work progresses you see that they wound up only using one original wall and all else was brand new? As work progressed on the Camaro, it became apparent that this was going to be one of those kinds of operations.

Good news as far as Classic was concerned: it got to show just about in its catalog. This was nothing new for the boys at AMC, since working wonders with new and old metal is their thing, but the schedule wasn't going to accommodate the appearance at last November's SEMA Show.

American cars used to be built with a very strong, ladder-type frame onto which was dropped a body. By contrast, a unibody car such as the Camaro is layered much like an onion. A few basic structural sheetmetal elements are positioned in a body jig and welded together, then more pieces are attached, building out until the final exterior skin is attached. When finished, it represents a strong, unitized assembly that is fairly light for its strength, and an engineering marvel at that.

Restoring a unibody car can be more difficult than body/frame cars only because there is probably rust or damage in between those sheetmetal layers, and getting at the cancer requires painstaking surgery with power tools and torches, as you'll see in this and future installments on the Classic Camaro project. As the experts at American Muscle Cars performed their CSI-like autopsy, they peeled back rusted or damaged panels only to find the inner structural pieces to have suffered considerable rust damage. This is damage that would have stayed silently hidden if only the outer pieces were repaired or replaced. The AMC metalmen are hardened veterans when it comes to seeing these types of battlefield wounds, but believe us when we say that we have spared our readers the worst of the horrific rustout photos. This car spent some time in water, and honestly looks like it was in a brine pit at the end of the long course at Bonneville.

This series will take us through the restoration of the complete body shell on this car, and later on, the addition of cool new suspension, drivetrain, and other stuff--but to start off, we're going to the "ground floor." The floorpan is one of the most vital elements in a unibody car, and it has been carefully designed by engineers to not only provide a stable platform, but also accommodate the other car components like the seats, driveshaft, and transmission. Every curve and angle stamped into what was once a large sheet of steel is there for a purpose, either to mount or clear something, or add stiffness.

It may appear from the photos that this coupe's floor could have been saved with a few simple patches of flat steel welded into the huge holes, but it just wouldn't be the same. Since Classic offers a complete new floor, this was a perfect subject car in which to install one. Consider the Camaro as two sheetmetal pods, the cowl and the trunk, joined only by the floor, rockers, and roof, and you'll understand how important those elements are.AMC works on bodies like this only when mounted on a wheeled jig. Everything besides the bare body is stripped off and they scrub up, put their masks on, and dig in on the metal. All of the original Camaro suspension is located from the floorpan, at the cowl, and where the front of the rear leaf springs mount, so their jig is designed to bolt to the proper stock suspension-mounting points. It also puts the car at a good height for the technicians to work without developing back trouble.

As critical as the floorpan is, it works in conjunction with the multi-layer rocker panels on each side to achieve the desired platform stiffness. When almost everything needs to be replaced, as in this case, you have to be systematic about where to start, so Orlando Hernandez, who did virtually all of the metalwork you'll see here, began by cutting out the perimeter of the major rusted areas just so he wouldn't get snagged on the jagged edges as he worked inside the car. He painstakingly removed the driver-side rocker panel first and fitted up the new reproduction rocker panel, which consists of an inner and outer panel. With that rocker attached with screws, he removed some right-side flooring and replaced the right rocker panel, then the rest of the floor, and installed the new floor before welding anything together permanently.

This oversimplifies what is a great deal of work; much of it just tediously drilling out spot welds and separating panels, then straightening and cleaning surfaces for welding. This is not for the faint of heart. We have enough photos to do an entire book on this car's return from the dead, but our photo sequences will highlight only the bigger steps in the procedures. We hope your personal Camaro project never needs this much reconstructive surgery, but it's very comforting to know that whatever area of your car is rusted or damaged, the aftermarket has stepped up to reproduce all of these components. In the next issue, we'll cover rebuilding the trunk area.

11

The Classic Industries project started with this reject strippo coupe. Although not so evident from this photo's vantage point, it was a toss-up as to which of the two-wheeled containers in the background it belonged in!

Inside the car, there's as much pavement visible as there is floor. You might think the rusted-out areas could be patched in with new sheetmetal pieces, but there isn't much good metal here on which to weld new steel. Given that Classic has complete, brand-new, one-piece floors, there was no thought of trying to salvage the old floor.

The rust pervaded every part of the coupe. This is where the cowl and dash metal come together, and also where the windshield must fit. Obviously this car sat outdoors a looong time with no glass in it, and this is an area that must not be compromised on a unibody.

With so much paint and Bondo on the body, it was impossible to assess the real condition of the metal, so an invigorating trip to the stripper's chemical "spa" was in order. Here the process is just getting started, and you can already see there's a mess that was hidden by primer.

American Muscle Cars' metalman Orlando Hernandez really "gets into" his work, and for this phase of the Camaro, he had to cut away the jagged rust areas to allow access. Here, he's drilling out the spot welds, securing the left rocker to the cowl.

At the rear of the same rocker, you can see that spot welds (the horizontal row of holes here) have been drilled out where the rear of the left rocker meets the body. The vertical line of holes is to allow later removal of the quarter-panel.

What wasn't evident in the previous photo is the extent of the rust. See the daylight between the floor and the rocker area, and up into the wheelwell? Patching was not an option here.

In order to release the rocker from the body, some of the quarter-panel skin was removed to access inner structural spot welds, and finally, the torch separated the old rocker panel.

Up front, pieces of old flooring had to be pried from the cowl structure. The old rocker had been cut off here with a torch, but the remaining structural elements of the rocker then had to be painstakingly separated from the cowl.

Classic Industries offer new rocker panels with all the structural elements, and all its body parts come coated with black EDP rust-preventative coating, so even if you have them on the garage shelf for a year before you start your bodywork, the parts will be ready when you are.

At the rear of the left rocker area, the new part is trial fitted. You can also see here how a section of the floor that was welded to the left rear framerail has been separated so it can be ground clean for welding in the new rockers and flooring.

At this point in the procedure, it's the AMC body dolly that is providing the only structural integrity to the driver side of the body here until the rocker assembly is finished.

With all of the old rocker bracing removed from the kick-panel area, the original flanges are straightened with hammer and dolly until the new parts have a good fit, then the parts are temporarily joined with screws in all the holes to align the parts.

You wouldn't know it if you had never stripped a Camaro down this far, but part of the bracing shown here at the lower cowl is actually the front part of the inner rocker panel, and an important structural element. It's attached to the cowl when the new Classic rocker panel is installed.

At the rear of the rocker, flanges are aligned and screws inserted in all the holes to secure the inner rocker to the body panels. Note here that with the stiffness back in the car due to the new rocker, all of the floor could be removed except this center piece.

Attention was now turned to the right rocker panel. Orlando is drilling out the welds on the right rocker panel. There are special bits to drill out spot welds, but AMC says they wear out too quickly, so it prefers using several sizes of standard bits, although it uses high-quality ones.

Now only the dolly/jig is holding the side-to-side alignment of the body, with the right-side rocker panel almost ready to separate from the body.

As the floor pieces were separated from the rocker, fenderwell and right rear frame rail, the cancer here was found to be almost as extensive as on the driver side.

Classic offers several ways to go in floor replacement. There are patch sections for several areas, or you can buy just either whole side as a unit. If you have several areas to fix, this one-piece complete floor is the best way to restore full body integrity.

The floor was mated up front with the original front floor section still in the car, but this was temporary. After all the floor and rocker welding was completed, this old front section would later be replaced with a new Classic part.

The floor must be welded to the body and to the inner rocker panels, but first the AMC crew installed screws in all of the joints. When welding began, one screw at a time would be removed and the hole welded until all of the joints were secure.

Of course the floor was bolted down to the dolly/jig before any welding was done, and welds were also made through the holes in the floor to the front of the left and right rear framerails.

Here's how the corner of the rocker and floor and inner quarter-panel area looks after it has been welded and sanded. With primer and paint, this will not only appear stock, but also be as strong as when the coupe was first built.

Finally, the outer edge of the inner rocker panel is cleaned of paint and spot-welded (through holes) to the floorpan. This is work that requires patience, expertise and a lot of clamps!

The outer section of the rocker panel is what shows, plus it makes the inner rocker become a very strong "box" to stiffen the car. With a new door in place to assure an even gap between door and rocker, the lower flange of the inner and outer rockers are spot-welded to complete this phase of rebuilding the Classic coupe.

The Classic Industries floorpan comes without the front bucket seat brackets attached. The AMC boys have the driver seat bracket mounted to the floor and rocker with screws to secure and locate it. A countersink is used on each hole before the spot-welding for a strong joint even after the outside is sanded flat.

The TIG welders at AMC never have much chance to cool down! One musclecar or another is always the subject of some panel welding. Permanently attaching the seat brackets to our project Camaro is the final step in the floor and rocker rebuild.

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