This portion of the restoration is where the fruits of all of your hard work start to come together that pile of parts begins to take shape and start to look like a car.
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This is also the time that the quality of your work needs to be top-shelf. Just as the fit and finish of the interior reflects on the rest of the car to its occupants, the quality of the exterior is the first impression that either has people nodding their heads in approval or curling their lips and saying, “Yeah, right.”
I always loved the term “bolt-on sheet metal,” because it is the embodiment of the over-simplification of what it really takes to assemble a car. Sure, you are fastening those pieces using bolts and wrenches, but it is so much more than that. There is a long process of properly aligning body panels, and like the construction of a building, each part builds upon the previous one. If the foundation isn’t right, the rest will not be either.
That being said, most mass-produced cars have a point short of perfection for panel alignment. The trick is to watch for areas of improvement while understanding there is likely a point just short of perfection that is actually the limit of production tolerances.
To help illustrate this and to give you an idea of what is considered acceptable, I asked noted Pontiac GTO restorer Imran Chaudary to demonstrate the ins and outs of assembly and alignment of body panels. He has built a solid reputation in the Pontiac community for his ability to bring GTOs back from the dead. Being in Canada and having a much smaller pool of suitable restoration candidates, Chaudary is used to restoring GTOs most Americans would consider parts cars.
The car being assembled for the following how-to sequence is an original Carousel Red Ram Air III 1969 GTO Judge owned by Sam Ranalli, of Mississauga, Ontario. He had Imran perform the majority of the restoration, sending the paint work to AGG First Canadian. Fortunately, the Judge was a very solid car to begin with, needing nothing in the way of panel replacement for rust. The restoration was fairly straightforward, needing the usual mechanical and interior replacements.
When it came time to re-assemble the body, Imran had two helpers assist with the panel alignment. The process for proper panel alignment is most definitely not a one-person job. Actually, the more the merrier to a point, of course. Body panel alignment is a big job needing a lot of hands to do correctly. It is nearly impossible to push on a panel from two or more different directions if there is only one of you. Having three or four friends helping during this portion of the procedure saves time and frustration. Trust me, it will still be frustrating but at least it will be possible to do with a group. Having a pizza delivery service and frosty beverages also helps attract cheap labor.
The idea of proper body alignment is a lot like building a house. It starts with having a proper foundation and building upon it, one piece at a time. With that notion, start at the farthest point back for the bolt-on front sheet metal. Two-door body styles, like those used on a GTO, require starting at the doors. If the doors aren’t right, nothing else is going to line up. From there, each of the front fenders is installed and aligned. After those are done, the hood is added and then the front bumper. If any of them is not properly aligned, nothing installed after them will be in alignment and won’t be until the initial problem is corrected.
Aside from the manpower and the usual assortment of wrenches and sockets, it is very helpful to begin by determining the amount of gap that is appropriate for the GTO’s body panels. For quick measurement purposes, a piece of wood lath or a strip of soft plastic of the proper thickness can be used as a gauge to determine how far off a particular body panel is.
Once the door has been hung, the bolts are tightened to a “snug” position and checked for fit. Fortunately, doors are usually the easiest panels to properly align, relatively speaking. They are connected at the main body on just one end and by adjusting those bolts and the striker on the opposite end, it’s usually not a major ordeal. If the main body has been tweaked by a collision or excessive use (drag racing, wheelies, etc.), it is tougher to do.
As with the restoration of any car more than 40 years old, the idea that things will go completely without trouble is a fairy tale. As that great philosopher Murphy once said, “Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong, and at the worst possible moment.” For Sam Ranalli’s 1969 GTO Judge, that something ended up being the Endura bumper. At some point in the Judge’s life, it came into contact with something solid enough to push the nose back about 3/8 inch, yet did not blemish the urethane Endura material.
This is a situation where the body shop should have noticed the problem and dealt with it beforehand. After painting the main body and the bolt-on panels separately, the terms of the job dictated that all the panels be test fitted on the car for any obvious problems. As it turned out, the worker assigned to the project bolted everything up except the bumper (he wasn’t one of the two who were sent to Imran’s shop). He incorrectly assumed that since all the other panels were fine, the bumper was as well, and unfortunately for him, his lack of initiative cost him his job.
The body shop did make the situation right. After considering the possibility of prepping and painting a backup bumper Sam had, they took the slightly bent bumper, brought it back their shop, bent it back into its original shape, and it lined up fine. I’m told the process isn’t anything an owner wants to see in person, but the results were perfect, and the gorgeous paint they laid down on it wasn’t damaged in the process a win-win.
The bottom line is that this hiccup slowed the process enough where it almost prevented Sam from debuting the Judge at the show he wanted. Obviously, no one died over it, but it was an inconvenience for the owner that could have been avoided if that particular bodyman spent the extra 30 minutes or whatever to do the entire test-fitting job as he was supposed to.
Step-1: Measure Door Gap
This driver-side door is freshly bolted onto the GTO Judge body, but as you can see, the alignment is not even close. Ideally the door gaps between the front fender, rocker panel and rear quarter should be equal or as close to the same as possible.
Step-2: Measure Door Gap
Production tolerances sometimes come short of perfection, but successful outcomes are indeed possible. Here, the door gap is too wide and the door slumps down in a rather unattractive fashion. Body fit is a critical detail that either makes or breaks a restoration, so you need to ensure the door properly lines up. Begin the process with the door striker, as this is the rearmost section of the alignment process. Be sure to have a star screwdriver fitting with your ratchet, as well as 5/8- and 9/16-inch sockets and some wooden laths of various thicknesses. Once you’ve determined the proper door gap clearance, find the lath that matches that gap measurement; it may take some sanding to get the proper thickness. It works like a feeler gauge on a spark plug and provides you with a quick and simple gauge to check for proper panel gaps.
Step-3: Adjust Striker Plate
The striker needs to be properly positioned to ensure proper latch operation. The striker must line up with the quarter panel. The striker is the component that sets the alignment of the rear of the door. The striker must also align with the latch on the door and in such a way that the trailing edge of the door also lines up with the leading edge of the rear quarter panel. Using the rear of the door as a guide for height alignment, position the striker so that when closed, the trailing edge of the door is at the same height as the quarter. Visually inspect the window channel moldings for the door and quarter glass to help determine the proper height. You are now able to align the rear of the door and quarter panel and use a star screwdriver-type socket to tighten it when you have achieved the proper position.
Step-4: Adjust Door to Attain Correct Spacing
The GTO door has two hinges, an upper and lower, that join the front of the door to the firewall/cowl section of the main body and also allow for normal opening and closing. One is a body-side hinge and the other is a door-side hinge. Adjust both hinges for proper door alignment.
Step-5: Adjust Door to Attain Correct Spacing
Use a ratchet and 9/16-inch socket to loosen the bolts on the hinge. There are a total of eight mounting points for each door. You can loosen the bolts on the door side first to see if you can get the proper position without having to loosen all eight. Have your assistants help reposition the door, using a lath as a measuring tool to determine the proper gap.
Step-6: Align Driver-Side Door
This door came into alignment quite easily. Just by chance, the preliminary bolting on of the door hinges was fairly close. The driver-side door came into alignment quite easily because of our early luck getting the striker into alignment with only two tries. Now it is time to move to the other side. The passenger’s side came as a bit more of a challenge.
Step-7: Align Passenger-Side Door
Once the striker is properly positioned, loosen the hinges to achieve proper alignment. Having people holding the door and taking direction really makes a positive difference.
Step-8: Install Splash Guard
Bolt the inner fender with splash guard to the outer fender and ready it for installation. The procedure is fairly simple and can be accomplished by a single person without any assistance. There are five 5/16-inch standard bolts with retaining clips that attach the two panels together using a socket. Since the bolt holes are only large enough for the bolts themselves, there shouldn’t be any alignment problems here; it only goes on one way. Tighten the bolts to 35- to 40 ft-lbs, a little more than “snug.”
Step-9: Mask Bodywork to Protect Paint
Regular blue interior wall masking tape works great, and 3M makes a great interior painting masking tape that works well in this application. The tape protects paint from chips and scrapes. Best of all, it comes off very easily and doesn’t harm the new paint. Don’t hesitate to tape up the back side of the door or fender or any other areas you may be concerned about protecting, for that matter.
Step-10: Check Door Gaps
To begin the alignment procedure, do some preliminary measuring of the entire area to see how far off the door is after the initial bolt-up. Check the gap between the door and the rocker using the lath as a “feeler gauge.” If you see that there are variations, say for example, the gap is narrower at the front of the door, you have to either raise the hinges, lower the striker, or both, using the star screwdriver bit. In this case the striker was fine as is but the hinges had to come up.
Step-11: Adjust Door Hinge
In order to get the door where you want it, the side of the hinge that connects to the body may need to be moved up. After loosening the bolts with a 9/16-inch socket wrench, place a wooden block under the hinge and carefully lift up with a floor jack. Slowly pump up the jack until the feeler gauge shows that there is an even gap between the door and the rocker panel, as well as the trailing edge of the door and the leading edge of the rear quarter panel. Verify this with the lining up of the window trim moldings. Again, it is nothing more than trial and error with several helping hands and a lot of patience.
Step-12: Tighten Door Hinge Bolts
Once properly positioned, tighten the door hinge bolts with a 9/16-inch socket wrench. Since the doors are going to get more use and movement than the fenders, a little more torque might be in order, but don’t go above 40 ft-lbs or you may have some distortion problems. Additionally, 40-plus-year-old metal in a stress area is probably a little work hardened, so don’t push the issue.
Step-13: Adjust for Final Fit
After a little bit more test fitting and moving the door hinges around slightly, you will achieve the proper alignment. If the alignment procedure is successful, the door exhibits an even gap with the rear quarter from the top to bottom. Though it is not as visible, the gap between the door and the rocker is also right on the money. With both doors installed and properly aligned, you can now move to the front fenders, as the “foundation” of the alignment procedure is now complete. Again, it is nothing more than trial and error with several helping hands and a lot of patience.
Front Fender Fitting and Alignment
Step-1: Install Fender Badge
Use the supplied sheet-metal nuts and a nut driver to install the GTO fender badge. Don’t use a lot of force, as the bolts strip under excessive torque, so remember that “snug” is more than enough.
Step-2: Position Fender on Body
Make sure that the inner and outer fenders are securely fastened and there are no other issues. Then carefully position the passenger-side front fender on the body, taking care not to hit the door. The tape is there just in case. This is another one of those times when having a few friends helping is a real bonus.
Step-3: Position Fender on Body (Continued)
Attach the inner/outer fender unit to the cowl and to the core support. There is no connection between the inner fender and the frame. There are two core thread screws that go into the cowl that use a 3/8-inch socket and large 2-inch washers. Another 3/8-inch screw goes in at the base of the A-pillar. There are also two 3/8-inch bolts at the bottom of the fender just ahead of the door, two in the lower front valance and two more that go into the core support just behind the bumper. At bottom is a contoured rectangular bracket with one 5/16-inch bolt that connects to the radiator core support and one 5/16-inch bolt to the lower portion of inner fender. Start with the lower bolts and, once they are properly positioned, work your way up.
Step-4: Check Gap of Fender
With the bottom bolts located and tightened, establish the gap between the door and the fender with the wooden lath feeler gauge. By just fastening the lower bolts, you are able to make the necessary changes systematically, without having to go back and re-do everything. By taking the tightening of bolts in steps, you can keep a handle on the alignment as the bolts go in and make adjustments as necessary.
Step-5: Tighten Fender Bolt at Firewall
When you get to the top bolts (those at the A-pillar, the cowl, and the upper section of the core support), tighten them only 1/3 of the way, as they need to be movable for the next step, which is aligning to the gaps between the hood and the front fenders. Keeping them somewhat loose facilitates the hood alignment process.
Step-6: Align Inner Fenders
Getting the fender unit to line up correctly to the three factory-drilled holes in the cowl may take some “encouragement” in the form of a small hydraulic ram. The ram adjusts with a small foot pump mechanism that makes it easy to gently move the panels without causing undue stress on them. These items can be a huge help, but they can easily damage the rather fragile sheet metal, so you need to carefully adjust them and not exert excessive force on the sheet metal. After all, it can bend and buckle if care is not taken. Put wood blocks between the ram and the sheet metal, and gently add pressure. Only a fraction of an inch is needed to get them properly lined up to the holes. Once again, check your fit. You may need to make some adjustments (moving the fender edge closer or farther away from the hood) to get proper alignment with the hood but for this portion of the procedure, you are done. Replicate the procedure for the other front fender. Go slowly and be very careful. Another way to achieve similar results is to carefully modify the bolt holes in the fenders to make them more oval-shaped to allow for some additional adjustment. This may be an attractive option if the fenders are very close and need only a fraction of an inch or if you don’t have access to a hydraulic ram.
Step-1:Prepare to Install Hood Hinges
Getting the hood hinge assemblies ready for installation is easy but you need to be careful with this operation. Use a screwdriver to install the spring on the hinge. Place the rear of the spring in its perch and hook the other end around the shaft of the screwdriver. Place the end of the screwdriver over the other spring perch. By holding the base of the hood hinge very firmly in one hand, and the screwdriver in the other, stretch the spring by extending the screwdriver forward. As it expands, the spring slides down the screwdriver shaft and pops right into the other perch. Depending on your strength level, you may want to use a longer screwdriver to get more of a mechanical advantage, as the spring is pretty stiff.
Step-2: Install Hood Hinges
Install the hood hinge assemblies using a socket wrench. There are two bolts that attach each hinge assembly to the fender and two more that locate the hood. All are 7/16 inch and should be tightened to 35 to 40 ft-lbs.
Step-3: Install Hood
Installing the hood is, at the least, a three-person operation, one for each side and one to tighten the bolts. Take extra care to make sure that you don’t jam the hood into the top of the fenders, as it is so easy to do and then it is repair time. Again, take your time and avoid any sudden moves.
Step-4: Install Hood
Tighten the bolts part way and get a preliminary assessment of the alignment of the hood to the fenders.
Step-5: Install Hood (Continued)
Even when the hood isn’t tightened down completely, it may be obvious that the fender is too far away from the hood, so a proper adjustment is needed. In that case, loosen the top fender bolts, move the fender in, and test the gap for uniformity.
Step-6: Install Hood (Continued)
Once you have verified the correct gaps between the hood and the fenders, retighten the bolts to the fender and the hood.
Step-7: Install Hood (Continued)
Use a die grinder to enlarge the holes for the hood latch in order to move it slightly to line up with the catch on the underside of the hood panel.
Step-8: Install Hood (Continued)
This allows for the typical operation of the hood release and prevents it from causing any alignment issues, as it is easy to have the hood sit too high up relative to the bumper.
Step-1: Install Bumper Bracket
This Endura bumper bracket is in its proper location on the bumper. The brackets are 3/4 inch and are tightened to 35 to 40 ft-lbs of torque.
Step-2: Install Frame Extensions
With an assistant holding the bumper in place, tighten the bumper brackets to the frame extensions and to 35 to 40 ft-lbs.
Step-3: Check Bumper Fitment
Tighten the remaining bolts and check the bumper for fit. The gap should be even at the fender. And it should evenly align with the hood.
Step-4: Check Bumper Fitment (Continued)
You may find the alignment is uneven and the leading edge of the hood is almost making contact with the bumper. Even though the bumper appears to be in good condition and even preps well for paint, the inescapable fact may be that the bumper frame is bent slightly, causing the uneven gap.
Step-5: Check Bumper Fitment (Continued)
The masking tape shows where the trailing edge of the bumper should be. There are three options at this point, all of which involve removing the bumper again. The first option is to get another bumper, test fit it to make sure it is not bent, prep and paint it to match, and then install it.
The second option is to mill off that mount on the trailing edge of the bumper. That can work in some cases, but it is only advisable if the amount to be removed can be measured in thousandths of an inch. If yours is off way too much, the bumper will not look right and will likely be shred in the process. This re-contoured Endura bumper fits as it should with a uniform gap and no interference issues with the hood. Additionally, the hood opens and closes as it should and the bumper is completely integrated to the rest of the car.
The third option is to true up the bumper. The center section was apparently struck with enough force to bend it back about 3/8 inch without leaving a mark on the Endura material. This is what the owner opted for. After a few hours of carefully bending, twisting, and tweaking, the center of the bumper was put back where it was originally and that 3/8-inch depression was eliminated. Unfortunately, the procedure ended up cracking the paint on the bumper, so it was stripped to the bare elastomer surface, reprimed, and repainted. Luckily, using some paint left over from the car, there weren’t any blending or color-matching problems. While we could have used another bumper, this one was the original, so there is some originality retained, even though in the end, there was a lot of extra work.