Let’s not mince words: Performing bodywork on vintage Corvettes is a world unto itself. It is an artisan craft, relying on equal parts skill and experience, for comparatively minor repairs all the way up to full panel replacements.
More than simply working with fiberglass, major repairs such as panel replacement have to take into account the underlying structure onto which the major panels are attached and the bonding areas that hold them all together. Although rust in the body panels isn’t an issue—it may be with the steel structural elements beneath—panel replacement is typically chalked up to accident damage.
That’s what brought us to the 1959 Corvette in the body shop at Corvette specialist Masterworks Automotive Services in Madison Heights, Michigan. The car’s owner, Mike Certo, acquired it after a previous owner’s scorned wife decided to push it into the garage from the driveway. She just so happened to use her own vehicle for the task, leaving it in serious of a nose job.
Masterworks’ founder Werner Meier determined the entire front end fiberglass needed replacement. That meant everything back to the dashboard pad and hinge pillars would be replaced even though the damage was localized to the very front of the car.
“It’s true we could have simply sliced off the nose in front of the firewall and replaced only that much of the body, but in our experience it’s almost impossible to do that without ‘witness lines’ becoming visible in the paint later on,” says Meier. “Doing it right means taking it all the way back to the dashboard for a seamless final appearance. It’s more time-consuming and, yes, more costly, but the car will look better in the long run.”
The other trick to a first-class final product is ensuring the nose is straight and level, which starts with a square chassis; a definite concern for cars such as the project vehicle shown here that were hit in the front. Without a square frame, there will be inevitable fitment problems between the windshield frame and door posts, as well as the hardtop and convertible top.
“It has to be perfect or you’ll end up with a banana-shaped car,” says Meier. “That’s where many of the labor hours are invested, making minor adjustments here and there to get it just right. We’ll probably put the nose on and take it off a dozen times or so before it’s finally bonded in place.”
Following the procedures involved with the plastic surgery, led by Don Baldwin, it was clear the project was not for novices. He has years of experience with Corvettes and is quick to point out that each repair is unique.
“The production methods and materials evolved during the early years, so you find something unique to deal with on just about every car,” he says. “The experience of working on so many over the years has shown me that no two of these jobs are the same.”
The new front end came from Corvette Image in Gresham, Oregon. It is a very faithful reproduction of the original and lists for $6,059. So it’s not an inexpensive investment, but a necessary one for a first-rate restoration.
While the reproduction front end is of high quality, trimming around some of the edges is virtually guaranteed for all the reasons Meier and Baldwin mentioned. Some of the openings will need to be enlarged while some edges may need to be filed down for a perfect fit.
And given the countless adjustments required for a proper fit and the fact that no two repairs on a vintage Corvette are alike, we offer the caveat that the photos accompanying this story provide an overview of the procedures involved and shouldn’t be viewed as a step-by-step guide. Nonetheless, it is a detailed look at the complexity of the job and how the pros accomplish it.
In the end, Masterworks invested about 50 hours in removing the old nose and installing the new one. That’s a lot more than the simple fender swap on an old C-10 pickup, but the Corvette is a unique beast. Making it a beauty takes time and a hell of an eye for detail.
01. Here’s the starting point: A 1959 that had incurred the wrath of a previous owner’s angry wife. Most of the damaged nose had been sliced off, with the rest of the car in boxes, when current owner Mike Certo purchased it.
02. The front end is only bolted to the chassis at the core support, which means it has to be pulled off the bonding strips and separated from other areas where the fiberglass sections are joined. The front portion of the nose can literally be cut off, as shown in the previous photo, but back toward the firewall area where the bonding strips are, the work involved means pulling off the old fiberglass in small pieces.
03. Heating up the bonding strip areas with a heat gun can soften the old adhesive, making it a little easier to separate the body panels from the strips, but getting in there with a hammer and chisel is what it takes to separate the body.
04. With the body panels removed, the old adhesive and remnants of the fiberglass must be removed from the bonding strips. A grinder with 24- and/or 36-grit paper does the trick. Care must be taken to avoid digging into the bonding strips themselves, while leaving enough of a buffer space to account for the new layer of adhesive that will be used with the new nose.
05. Because the new front end incorporates the top-of-dash panel, the original must be removed. The upper and lower sections are both fiberglass so a chisel was used to carefully separate them.
06. The underside of the upper dashpad has a fiberglass support bracket that is not included with the new nose, meaning it has to be removed and reused. It was originally bonded to the dashpad so the chisel was used again for separation.
07. With the nose removed, the underlying structure is checked for corrosion and damage. The C1 used a mix of steel and aluminum elements, but the steel section that serves as the foundation for the windshield is the most susceptible to rust. Fortunately, there were no cancer issues here.
08. The frame must also be inspected to ensure it’s straight and square before the new front end is installed. This is a step that’s particularly important for a car that has suffered a front-end collision. The new nose will never line up correctly if the frame isn’t square. This one passed with flying colors.
09. Oregon-based Corvette Image supplied the new nose, which is molded in all fiberglass with pigmented resin that matches the original. The kit is offered with or without the side panels installed. Masterworks Automotive Services prefers it without the panels installed because it offers greater access to the underside of the nose and the chassis during test-fits. The hood, not included with the kit, was ordered separately.
10. With the front end out of the shipping crate the original support panel under the dashpad is bonded in place with SEM Dual-Mix Multi-Purpose Panel Adhesive (PN 39747). It’s a two-part epoxy that will also be used for all the other bonding requirements for the project.
11. The nose is lowered in place for a test-fit to see how it lines up and to identify interference areas that will need grinding for a tailored fit.
12. The mounting holes for the windshield are used as reference points for checking the alignment of the front end on the body.
13. Tailoring the front end for a perfect fit inevitably requires trimming. Here, the top of the dash is trimmed so that it will sit cleanly inside the lip of the lower section of the dash.
14. The only portion of the front end that’s bolted to the chassis is at the radiator core support, which is mounted to the frame and also incorporates the hood hinges. Mounting the hood on the core support provides another reference point for checking the vertical alignment of the front end.
15. Factory shims at the bottom of the core support provide vertical adjustment for the hood.
16. Here, it’s clear that the front end rests unacceptably low in relation to the hood. This is still the test-fitting stage of the project so the nose will be checked again for its fitment on the chassis, while adjustments to the core support shims will get the hood properly positioned.
17. Don Baldwin checks for gaps between the new front end and the mounting structure. It didn’t look perfect so the nose was again pulled off for adjustment.
18. It turned out that the front end was not clearing the shock towers so the openings were trimmed slightly to provide the necessary room for an unobstructed installation. The original shipping crate made a perfect mount to hold the front end in place during the minor surgery.
19. The mounting structure at the firewall area is also adjustable via shims, and required minor adjustments for the new front end. In addition to general alignment of the nose, it’s important to ensure there isn’t too much tension in the A-pillar area when the windshield is finally installed.
20. As the project closes in on the final installation of the front end, brackets are installed for support rods that pull in the center of the nose to ensure the area between the grille opening and hood opening is flat and in line with the hood.
21. Also prior to final installation, the inside of the front end is painted black and the factory air ducts are transferred to it.
22. A final test-fit to make sure the front end is straight and all the clearance issues on the underside of the nose have been resolved. Additionally, holes for the bumper brackets must be cut into the front end and the brackets themselves fit to ensure they line up and are positioned correctly.
23. Next, the hood is shimmed on all sides to ensure even gaps. When the gaps are finalized, the hinge brackets are tightened by reaching through the grille opening. But the hood must come off one more time for the front end to be installed permanently.
24. After several days of test-fits and countless adjustments, the front end is carefully installed on the body.
25. Bonding adhesive is used liberally on the underside of the nose where it attaches to the bonding strips and around the edges. Along with clamps, a number of bolts are used to temporarily hold the body flat against the bonding strips. After approximately 24 hours of curing time the clamps and bolts are removed and the boltholes filled.
26. Most of the inner fenders come already bonded to the structure, but the edges toward the rear of the fenders are not. After the front end is installed they must be bonded in place, too.
27. With the nose in place and the adhesive cured, it’s time to move on to the side panels. The adhesive shown here is covering the bonding strips on the body.
28. More adhesive is used on the backside of the side panels. It’s OK to go heavy with the adhesive and, in fact, it’s advantageous for it to squeeze out slightly around the edges when the panels are installed because it ensures complete coverage.
29. Here’s the driver-side panel clamped in place. Proper alignment means accounting for the thickness of the adhesive at installation. The trick here is clamping it down with enough pressure to keep it straight and smooth with the rest of the body but not so tight that it squeezes out too much of the adhesive.
30. After the adhesive cures, it is sanded down in preparation for the remainder of the necessary bodywork and test-fitting of the trim. The boding agent is harder than traditional plastic body filler.
31. There is still a long way to go before the body is painted but the new front end is arrow straight and lines up perfectly with the other body lines, including those for the cove in the door. It’s a testament to the attention to detail paid with all the test-fits and adjustments.