Friday, 30 April 2010 22:44

Working On a ‘57 Thunderbird With Old School Tools & Techniques

Written by Rich Evans
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We are going to switch it up this month and go back to the old school way of fixing things on a `57 Thunderbird. A friend from New York shipped me out his Thunderbird, and there’s a good story behind it. His Dad had it in the family for awhile and took it for its last drive before turning it over to his son. We know what happened from there. It got in a car accident and took a heavy hit to the front. My buddy knows my work and was prepared to ship me the car from New York, so I told him ‘no problem, I could fix it.’

Now it would probably be faster and easier to go to a wrecker and buy a front clip to repair this Thunderbird. But with my experience buying parts for older cars, I always seem to come across problems with those parts when I buy them. They’re also expensive.

Here I decided we are going to repair as much as possible and see what’s available in new parts, which are easily reproduced from jigs made to reproduce the original parts. The nose panel was available; a couple of the fiberglass pieces were available, but that would take away from its original feel. Then I happened to get a call from a buddy in New Zealand, Willie Newman, a friend who is probably one of the best metal finishers on the planet. Not a lot of guys I know here are doing much metal finishing, but in New Zealand it’s a valued trade. They will fix or fabricate what they don’t have or can’t get easily, and they get very good at it.

Willie stopped off in California on his way to Germany and I figured it would be a good time for me to take on a different challenge and repair, rather than just buying, by making a few panels. It’s good to hone your inner craftsman. There’s always 100 ways to fix a car but I’m always willing to try something new and approach it in a different way.

I got the car on the frame rack and tied the car down securely. It looks like it got hit above the frame. So what I want to do is hang my gauges on the four points of the chassis so I can see if the chassis is bent or not. The chassis looks good so  we are one step ahead. Looking at the uni-structure bolted on the chassis and from there we need to start with our left fender which is pretty much wasted. In most people’s eyes that fender is gone. They’d cut it off and put a new one on.
This time I’m going to take a more difficult route and repair that. It’ll take probably about 160 hours of actual labor  versus spending the money on “gold parts” from the wrecking yard. When you have a customer that is budget conscious, it pays to have to have an A, B and C plan. What is left over is profit.
I’m going to repair as much as I can and reach out to companies that will supply me with the available parts needed. I send the bumper out for repair. I am going to get a left headlight bezel, a left headlight assembly, a new grill and there’s a nose piece and a reinforcement for a nose piece, a new harmonic balance drum. I’m also going to need a new radiator.
What I can’t repair I’ll get used. I am going to have to repair the left and right core support, the lower balance, repair the left fender, left inner fender, the hood, left hood hinge. I’ll get the harmonic balancer used. Other than that we are going to have to repair everything else.
Starting with the fender we take a half-inch piece of metal and make a template because the right and left side are basically the same but flip-flopped. We will make a template, flip-flop it to the right. Then put this piece of metal behind it, drill a hole in the middle of it and use it as a pulling device, so we’re not tearing the fender. We want to put tension on it and massage this fender out and walk it back out to give it shape.
There’s a lot of hammering and dollying involved. Willie and  guys like him use more gas acetylene torches versus the TIG or MIG. It’s just great old-school craftsmanship. They use a low flame and the type of rod you use when you’re piecing things together you can hammer and dolly and flatten out the weld from behind, as long as you make access when you’re doing that. We pull on the fender and get it pretty true, and at a certain point remove some of the paint so we can see what’s underneath and guess what? We run into a lot of shoddy craftsmanship. We then decided not to put another fender on it because we might run across it in the other fenders or rust or extra work so we were geared up for it. We had to cut a few pieces out on the top of the fender.
After getting it pulled we got the new parts in and had to make some alterations with those parts. The header panel was really flimsily done and the inner reinforcement I just had to pack it back up and send it back to the place I got from. I ended up ordering the left and right baffle, at 300 bucks each, and they weren’t even close to being a fit. So we just took the old ones; hammered and dollied them out, getting  the reference lines from the factory stamping and just spent a lot of time hammering and dollying these parts. Each part that we took, we dressed up, got it back to as close as we could. When we go for a mockup, things are getting closer. You’re screwing and fitting them in, cross measuring, using your grills and other pieces for reference.
We expect some obstacles. The next big part was straightening out that hood. We didn’t want to pay an arm and a leg for a hood. We figured we would remove the skin from the frame and that will give us the access to straighten that frame. Before doing that we hammer and dolly the frame. We used a flat bench where we could really get on it and push it back to get the major buckle out of it. Then we depicked it and fixed the frame.
The metal has memory so you can  hammer and dolly areas that are obvious ly damaged. You don’t want to look at the whole picture at this point. You want to have a plan, go in, hammer and dolly, get things straightened out, it will start taking its shape back. Then we’ll go to the hood and hammer and dolly that. We had to do a lot of shrinking to give it its shape because the metal was really stretched. Take your time and bring back some real craftsmanship. I know that’s a dying art.
Nowdays, working on the modern cars, we’re really just changing panels that are already made available. A lot of body techs out there aren’t really learning the craftsmanship. I try to learn something new everyday and the biggest thing is a staying active. “If you don’t use, you lose it.”
I make an effort to work alongside other people who’s work I admire and try to learn their ways of doing things. If I don’t like what I learn, I just won’t use it or apply it. Even if you are only picking up 20% of what’s being done, you are learning. That’s the key. Learning something new every day will make you better at what you do at the end of the day.
So getting our left and right baffles banged and hammered out. We get the hood where we need it so all the pieces are coming into place. On the front of the fender we needed to cut the front flange off and make a flange, taking a piece of metal, putting it in the brake and take it over to the shrinkers. Woodward supplies me with a lot shrinkers, English wheel and brakes and shears. Go to their web site. They’ve got a great set of equipment choices that if your just working in your garage or you have a body shop and you want to start messing with metal of more and fabbing your own pieces. These are affordable products,  and if you do it more and more everyday, you might get a heavier duty product that is a little bit more expensive. Those are available through Woodward as well.
Use what you have. A lot of jigs you have to make up for putting these hoods on, or clamping things. When you’re making parts, you have to make jigs and templates. It’s more man hours, but it’s less money out of your pocket and more profit in your pocket.
So getting back to that flange on the front fender, we create that. We’ll fit it over, mark it, and cut the old piece it has too many cracks and too many welds. Too many people have worked on it, and the metal is too thin. We’ll add a new piece there. So taking measurements and making sure everything is in its right place. We take the torch and gas it, hammer and dolly it, and tack it in place. Just like a TIG you are going to work your way around and hammer and dolly it. Make sure the metal is not moving. Keep checking it. Check your references and use what templates and what pieces you have. We’ve got the new hinge in and we’re putting the hinge on just to check our gaps. We ran into a few problems on the hood, but eventually, if you keep checking it, you’re going to get it right.
You are dealing with a unistructure so with everything screwed in place you can move things around and adjust it. You want to have the integrity of everything moving smoothly. You want your gaps to be even. Again, it’s a lot of hammering and dollying. Make sure you wear earplugs because it does get loud. A lot of body shops aren’t used to just hammering and dollying any more. If you walk into a body shop and you hear hammering and dollying, you know the real thing’s going on. It’s a kind of music to my ears. It’s amazing what you can do with a hammer and a dolly.
We had to make some adjustments that to the front nose panel we bought. We had to cut and move it in because it was way off. Sometimes the parts that you are buying have to be modified to fit. They are going to be close but not really accurate. Any time you are buying aftermarket parts you can guarantee you have to modify them somewhat to fit. Make sure you do your mockup and check things as you go. Don’t weld things into place and put your hood on without checking your gaps because you are going to run into some problems.
Working with Willie, who has maybe 35 years of experience with this kind of craftsmanship, is a great experience. All he does is build, so coming into a collision job he might not understand it in the same way guys who do it everyday. But he does this kind of fabrication every day, so he knows that when he comes across obstacles, he can actually take a flat piece of metal and just make it, versus purchasing a replacement.
So think about that if you’re building a hot rod or an old-school vehicle and you can’t find the part. Don’t think you’re at a dead end because there are ways. There are videos out there that can show you how. Gene Winfield has a line of videos out. So does Ron Covell. Visit their Web sites.
I thought this would be a good project to cover in the column because it was fun and satisfying doing it. It’s good to stand back and see what you can fix versus replace. Everything that you learn from this kind of project you are going to be able to take to the next one. You are going to be able to depend on yourself to create and make something cool. Using that approach with hammering and dollying so you are not using so much filler. Anytime you are taking out a dent or something make sure you are getting it as metal finished as possible by using slapsticks or metal files. You want to file everything down. Guys like Willie file everything. Hit and pick and find your lows and highs and hammer and dolly it until it comes out true. You don’t want to take too much metal away because it takes away from the strength and integrity of the vehicle.
Next time I’ll be able to show you a 57’ Thunderbird completed with using every part you’ve seen damaged, repaired versus the grill and the nose panel. I had to alter those. The grill was chrome, so I used that as reference point. I think of it like  the old blacksmiths who have inspired me. Especially the guys that used to make the suits of armor. That took thousands and thousands of hours but they did what they did without a welder. They did with what they had: fire, hammers, wood, whatever they needed, even leather to put things together and they riveted everything.
Imagine what you can do today if you applied that kind of creativity with the types of tools you have available now. Anyway that’s the story for this month. Take a look. I think you guys will be impressed with what was done.
Thanks as usual to my sponsor companies. I’ll go over them next column.

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