Many kinds of usage take their toll on older cars, like accidents, drag racing, poor maintenance and street abuse, but there's no worse use than dis-use. Even a perfectly good car left to sit outdoors, uncovered and unattended for years, is almost a guarantee that restoration of that vehicle will be no treat. In any part of the country with rain, winter, salt on the roads, snow or even just unrelenting, blasting sunshine like the desert states, restoration of a First Generation Camaro is going to involve replacement of interior and sheetmetal components. To add injury to Nature's insults, the original owner(s) may not have been the most careful driver, and we all know that the "other people" on the road certainly can't be trusted to avoid hitting a nice Camaro.
Luckily, there are great shops like American Muscle Cars that can put your rusty-dumpty back together again better than new, but we should also be thankful for resources like Classic Industries, purveyors of new parts and restoration materials for all years of Camaros. In case you weren't with us for the first part of this saga in the last issue, the car you see coming together on these pages belongs to Classic Industries, and the restoration work is being performed by the experienced crew at American Muscle Cars. Classic picked the worst basket-case '69 coupe they could find, the better to showcase the utilization of their complete line of replacement steel body panels.
As they say about fuel economy, "your rust-oration needs may vary", and we certainly hope your Camaro doesn't need every single panel replaced, but this series on the Classic Industries vehicle should have useful insights for any project. As explained by Sal Perez of American Muscle Cars, a complete restoration as required on this subject vehicle is performed in stages. "Basically, you start from the bottom up and work from the inside out", he cautions. The Camaro is a unibody design, built with layers of sheetmetal stampings welded together, without a true separate frame. The integrity of the car begins with the floorpan and the rocker panels, all the rest of the panels are added on after that. The resto process is like the factory assembly line, except that the AMC metal men have to dig out all the rusty old stuff first before adding new panels, and their work is performed by hand, rather than by robotic welding machines.
What you see being done here is not for the faint of heart, at least not when this much restoration is involved, and AMC has done this many times on award-winning Camaros, so you'll see them tear into the '69 with vigor because they know just what they're doing. For the average Camaro owner, some of the areas of restoration shown may be beyond their tools and experience, but the series will be extensive enough for even pros to learn a few new tricks. Also, be advised that there are no real shortcuts to getting a great final result. Besides the expertise in an extensive restoration like this one, there is a enormous amount of tedious labor like the drilling out of countless factory spotwelds and preparing the flanges of old metal panels to properly mate with new replacement ones. If you're doing this yourself, don't plan on having your car ready for a test-drive anytime soon!
We sincerely hope your Camaro isn't remotely in need of all the new sheetmetal as the Classic Camaro, but you will see just about every panel procedure covered in this series. Since the unibody cars like this are built in layers, with all components welded together, it's difficult to illustrate just one integral panel being replaced. Invariably, digging into the car after it's been to the strip tank will reveal more damage than you expected. Take the quarter panels for instance. If your quarter-panel just has some lower edge rust out and a series of ripples and wrinkles you might just cut out the stock quarter and weld a new one in. However, the quarters are welded to the roof, the trunk panel just below the rear window, the rear light panel, the trunk floor, the doorjamb and the rocker panel. You have to be careful in removing the old panel not to damage the attachment points and the other, good panels. That's why Classic also offers various smaller panels to repair just the commonly rusted areas of the quarter, which is much easier than replacing the entire piece.
Since Classic offers just about every new panel you could want and this car had few salvageable panels, our quarter panels were replaced complete. That is, the crew at AMC carefully torched away most of the quarter-panel, exposing all of the places the quarters joined other body panels. Once exposed, metal men could access the factory spotwelds and drill them out so the edges of the old quarter could be separated in a clean break that left the other, inner panels in good shape to receive a new quarter.
Since the work was so extensive, we can't exactly separate the quarter-panel replacement as a stand-alone description. In this installment, you'll see all the under-prep required to remove pieces of the quarter, and the installation of the inner and outer wheelwells. The center area of the rear wheelwells can be considered an extremely important structural point of the Camaro. It's here that the wheelwells, trunk floor and inner body braces come together, creating strength in several directions. There's crush space and protection from side impacts, support for the frame rails under the trunk floor, and the roof and panel below the back window (also holds the trunk hinges) all tie together in this area. Second only to the main floor and rockers, the work shown in this installment lays the rest of the car's foundation.
Quarter panels on these cars extend right up to the roof, and later the quarters will be attached to the roof, which itself is being replaced with a new Classic substructure and outer panel. Essentially, at the rear of the '69 coupe, the quarter panels are the final arbiters of alignment with the rest of the panels. Once you have everything else prepared or replaced, accurately placing the quarter aligns the trunk opening edge (for proper trunklid fit), the taillight panel, the alignment and strength of the panel below the rear window, the height from the ground at the back part of the trunk floor, and work at the front of the quarters can make or break the fit of the doors at a later stage. Heady stuff.
We should reiterate for readers who missed the first installment that the procedure used successfully at American Muscle Cars for ten or more years is to separate factory panels at the seams by drilling out the original spot-welds. These welds were originally made by mechanical welders that clamped over a seam and heated the spot with two prongs until fusion occurred, then the tool would release. This leaves very little material buildup on the metal's surface. There are special bits made just for taking out spot-welds, but since the AMC crew does this all day long, they use high-quality, standard drill bits, and replace a bit as soon it slows down. The holes drilled by AMC, usually 1/8-inch to start followed by 3/16 or 1/4-inch to finish, become the reference points for panel alignment. The new panel is positioned and matching holes are drilled in the flange of the new panel. Screws and washers align the two panels, then the screws are removed one at a time and the panels joined with a weld through the two aligned holes. This is repeated until all the screws are gone. Touched-up with a little grinder, these welds wind up nearly invisible, especially since they hit each hole with a countersink before welding to flare out the opening for more weld purchase. On pure restorations, they cover the welded areas with seam-sealer just like GM did, while show cars are smoothed off without sealer.
If you're the kind of do-it-yourselfer who has a decent home shop, some common sense and a good MIG welder, you may still be saying as you read these installments, "well, that's all interesting enough, but I'm still not challenged." Our next installment in Camaro Performers is just for you guys; we'll be tearing off and replacing the car's roof, including its inner structure. Stick with us, and we'll eventually show the replacement procedure for just about anything of which your project is in need.