We've been following along as Auto Metal Direct's Installation Center stripped our 1969 Camaro down in preparation for sheetmetal replacement.
We have to admit, we were surprised by the amount of damage from rust and previous repairs. Remember, this was a running, driving car we had fun with—it wasn't some pile on its last legs on its way to the scrapper. The car had more than a little exposure to body filler, pop rivets, sheetmetal screws, and a MIG welder, making it "good enough" to get back on the road.
The more we took it apart, the more damage and hacked repair work was exposed. This isn't an experience unique to us: We all know guys who have spent big money to have a car restored somewhere, only to take it to another shop and learn they threw their money away on hacked bodywork.
Craig Hopkins, owner of AMD's Installation Center, has fixed a lot of other shops' sketchy sheetmetal work. Their process is fairly straight-forward: after studying what order the panels were originally assembled, AMD uses jigs and gauges made to factory specs found in the factory shop manuals, disassembles the body down to usable metal, and reassembles the body in the same order the factory did.
And though very involved, the process is fairly straightforward. However, that said, it's not simply a matter of whipping out the welder and blue-gluing the new metal together once it's clamped in place—instead, they use a process called three-phase water-cooled spot welding, and their equipment is certified to weld all domestic, including European modes, which produces a factory finish to their builds. To get the job handled, we only elected to use the high-quality sheetmetal from Auto Metal Direct. Hopkins and his crew hand-fit each panel, and if it's not just right, they detail it until it is. The end result is an original, restored body with factory VIN numbers, hand-fitted together as good or better than the mass-produced originals.
This month we follow along as they get the roof bracing, firewall, and rocker panels back into shape.
This is pretty much how we left the Camaro last month—just about as stripped as a car can be...just about. There’s a lot of rotten meat still to be stripped off the carcass.
Any roof braces that are thin or rusted get replaced. For this car, it was the windshield header only, but other cars frequently need the sidepieces above the door glass, and the one at the rear of the roof above the back glass replaced as well.
Here’s a shot of the high-quality floor and inner rocker repair work done by a previous shop. Pop rivets can be structural members, right? The entire rocker assembly will be removed.
This is a critical dimension—the height of the rocker panel, from a fixed location on the jig; in this case, the "fixed" location is a piece of box tubing clamped across the jig’s frame to use as a reference point. This dimension is critical as it locates the door gap along the bottom of the car.
Another critical dimension is the location of the rocker fore/aft, from the bottom of the firewall to the rear wheel opening. AMD has a dedicated shop tram that registers at the firewall master pin; their tram has an adjustable setup at the wheel opening end to allow them to make sure it stays accurate, and can check it against a known measurement. All cars of this era have anomalies and AMD tries to keep the inner structure in the same place it was when it left the factory; GM built these cars from the inside out and AMD has to use the inside and build from the outside.
At the front of the rocker, on the firewall there’s a factory alignment dowel hole on the subframe mount. AMD registers the rocker jig there.
An adjustable stop is set against the back of the rocker, which is also the front of the rear wheel opening, giving us the installed length of the rocker panel for this particular body.
Once the rocker jig measurement is set, it’s removed and the old rocker assembly is cut away.
This is just a stark shot, isn’t it? The car was stripped down to its skeleton before, but it still was all tied together—removing the rocker from below the door opening is a huge step. But it’s not as dramatic as it looks, with the front and rear of the body supported and secured to the jig's frame in several places at factory locating points.
The new outer rocker is fitted and clamped to the body.
Up front, a new inner kick panel is fitted and clamped in.
The factory installed galvanized inner support member carries the load from the wheelhousing and framerail though the rear torque box, stiffening the rocker. If you need this portion, AMD offers a replacement.
With the outer rocker and the inner brace clamped in place, the spot welding machine goes to work securing it all.
Up front, because of the way the panels are assembled, plug welds are made with a MIG to secure the rocker to the new kick panel.
Once the braces, kick panel, and outer rocker are welded in, the inner rocker is installed. Notice that AMD sprays everything with primer every step of the way.
The inner rocker, fitted, clamped, and welded into the car. The door opening, one of the most critical dimensions on the car, is back to factory specs. While this was all taking place on the passenger side, the same was being done on the driver side.
The sides of the cowl/firewall area are made up of several different stampings. A little tweaking and fitting is typically required here, to get the reproduction pieces to lay in just right. Individually, there’s some give to each piece, but once they are clamped and welded together, tying the firewall to the doorjamb area, they form one of the strongest areas of the car.
There’s a solid day’s worth of work to fit the cowl sides to the firewall, the cowl top, and the front of the doorjamb/A-pillar area. The amount of clamps used makes the front of the car look like a porcupine. Nothing is welded until it all fits together perfectly.
While on the subject of firewalls, there are options now for firewalls: factory A/C, factory without A/C, or a smoothed firewall. All fit as though they were original.
Rather than replace the entire dashboard assembly, the dash face and lower portion of the original stamping were retained, with the new top being cut away from a complete repro unit. Again, AMD opts to keep as much of the original, factory-fitted, usable metal as possible.
Once the firewall is welded to the body, it’s time to move on to the top of the cowl and the dash, which are tied together. Anyone who’s ever looked at more than a handful of 1967-69 F-bodies knows they rust at the front of the dash, behind the windshield. This car was no different. A reproduction dash was fitted in.
After the new dash is fitted and clamped securely in place (AMD has a wall full of clamps, and uses most of them on every car), the dash and cowl top are spot-welded together, while the seam inside is welded to join the new metal to the original lower dash.