"… And when they pulled him from the floor, Leroy Brown looked like a jigsaw puzzle, with a couple of pieces gone." We thought about that Jim Croce song every time the guys at Auto Metal Direct's installation center got to cuttin' on our '69 Camaro.
We knew the car was no cream puff, but as is so common in our hobby, we really didn't grasp the depth of decay until the air tools went to work. Among what's left, what was previously repaired by amateurs, and what's missing, there comes a point when you have to not only start wondering where it's going to end, but whether it's even worth going on.
"Sure, it's worth going on," Craig Hopkins, owner of the AMD Installation Center in Cleveland, Georgia, says. It's no secret that brand-new steel bodies are available for several models of vintage muscle cars now, and we have often wondered why, when a car gets to that particular point, it isn't just better to buy one of the new bodies and be done with it … so we put the question plainly to Hopkins. "Because our cars are real cars when they're done," he says. "Everything fits because we build it like GM did back in 1969—the order of assembly is just like GM did it, and you aren't going to have everything where it needs to be unless you do it just like GM did." More importantly, he says, "You can retain the title of our cars anywhere in the country, because they're real cars." Technically, reproduction bodies can't retain their title as original production cars, only as kit cars, and increasingly many states don't allow you to do even that anymore, while outright transferring an original VIN to a new body is against the law.
When you see a car taken as far apart as this one and rebuilt with reproduction sheetmetal installed (or original panels from donor cars for models that don't enjoy the replacement panel selection of a '69 Camaro), you have to wonder if that isn't mere quibbling. The fact of the matter is yes, it is quibbling, but there's nothing "mere" about it. We've all heard stories and seen examples of the Feds busting restoration shops for swapping VINs, and civil lawsuits involving re-bodied cars make the news annually. "According to the law," Hopkins told us, "we can put a VIN on a new piece of sheetmetal to repair rust or damage. Repairing a rusted, accident-damaged body is legal." Putting a VIN on a reproduction body with a wink and a nod? Not so much. So from a strictly legal standpoint, this is the way to go.
From a fit-and-finish standpoint, we're also of the opinion this is the way to go. Anyone who's been in the hobby for any length of time knows there are always some issues with reproduction panels not being exactly the same as originals. On a panel-by-panel basis, that's manageable, and they can be massaged or reworked when being hung on the vehicle. Each and every piece is hand-fitted when AMD does their body rebuilds. The end product is a body that looks original, everything fits like original, the gaps and body lines are original, and it can be legal to retain the title as an original car, while the final cost, Hopkins says, is pretty much in line with a new reproduction body. As far as the body of our Camaro is concerned, it's October 1968.
Here’s the car after the cross-country trek to AMD’s Installation Center in the Georgia Mountains. We know it isn’t cherry, but from 20 feet, the car looks pretty good.
The floors were solid, which was a selling point for us when we bought it. With the carpet out, we noticed the previous floorpan repair—halfway up the trans tunnel. Uh-oh.
The key to AMD Installation Center’s process is jigs. Body and chassis mounting holes, alignment pinholes, and reference points on factory bodies are all clearly located on the schematics in the factory shop and assembly manuals. AMD took those dimensions and built sturdy, permanent, dedicated jigs for several popular bodies, and has made jigs on an as-needed basis for other less-popular makes and models. Their ’67-69 Camaro jigs have been used to reassemble literally hundreds of cars in the last several years.
The Camaro body goes on the jig for its initial fitting and disassembly. This will let the crew know if there was any accident damage over the years, and if so, where and how bad.
Once the body is secured and checks out, disassembly starts. Even though the crew has enough experience to know what’s coming off and what’s staying with the original body, removing panels isn’t done willy-nilly in an effort to get their money’s worth from their Sawzall blades and cutoff wheels. Panels are removed individually, on or near the factory seams.
The roof skin, quarter, trunk opening, tail pan, and floor were rotted. The inner wheelhousing was left in place, though it will be removed later to make way for a mini-tub kit.
They got their money’s worth with the Sawzall blades in the trunk. But with the hacked floor repair in the passenger compartment, rust under the rear seat, and the trunk floor and drops being Swiss cheese, replacing the entire floor panel was a given. That will include the rear subframe rails, so they were lopped off behind the kick-up and sent to the dumpster.
The leading edge of ’67-69 Camaro dashboards is often rotted away. This car was no different, so the upper portion of the dash was cut off at the cowl. Notice the remnants of a mouse in the top of the windshield header; after playing with vintage cars for decades, we’re pretty sure mouse urine is straight, undiluted acid.
The floor came out later, but we had to show you this shot of the previous owner’s quality floor panel replacement; liberal use of pop rivets and sheetmetal screws held the new floor to the inner rockers.
You expect to see a fine covering of rust inside the panels of vintage cars, but our Camaro’s inner structure was thick with it. This is the kind of rust that’s insidious—you can restore the outside of the car, and replace floors, rockers and quarters, but this rust is well on its way to rotting the roof, the C-pillar, and everywhere else from the inside out.
At this point, the body is stripped of everything that isn’t the passenger compartment. From here, it goes off to the media blaster.
Once back, the first stage of restoration begins with the removal of the firewall.
The cowl sides and outer kick panel areas are also prone to rusting, and are methodically trimmed away, leaving the top of the cowl, inner kick panels, door hinge mounting area, and A-pillars.
A reproduction firewall is mounted to the jig and clamped to the top of the cowl, and the reconstruction process begins. Up next, we’ll finish prepping the body for the installation of a new floorpan.