A Veteran's Guide To Structural Repairs - Part 2 -

A Veteran’s Guide To Structural Repairs – Part 2

Adapted from Barney Slifer's article in BodyShop Business

Last month we began to show you that quality and timely repairs can be done in an increasingly time-hostile environment. In this second installment of this two part-article (see September issue for Part I), I’m going to again assume that you’ve accumulated hours on your school’s frame machine and have sat through a few hours of lab training classes (and I hope that you paid attention).

As you well know, a vehicle’s frame/unibody structure is critically important. It’s the crucial foundation. -It’s ground zero. Nothing is going to fit, operate or provide an original margin of safety on a platform that isn’t restored to manufacturer’s recommendations or has had the designed safety characteristics altered or destroyed using incorrect repair methodologies.

Now this month, I’m going to show you an example of what to stay away from — jobs like this slammed Caravan.

If you end up running a frame machine for a few years and eventually become established as someone who takes on the tough, drawn-out jobs that the quivering spineless won’t touch, eventually the guy who buys and rebuilds totals (every neighborhood has such a person) is going to find you. With him, he’ll be dragging along something like this badly damaged Caravan and will ask you to bench and pull it.

As a well-schooled professional, you’ll point out that it needs a lot of parts and labor. Rebuild Guy will always respond, “I don’t want to put a lot of money into it. I’m saving the inner and outer quarter panel, outer wheel house, rear floor and crossmember, the right rear rail. Hey, I heard you’re the expert. This job should go easy for you! All ya gotta do is put a clamp right here, give it a tug and you’re finished! That’s all I need.”

Now Rebuild Guy is telling the expert how to do his job, and the expert is thinking that if the job looks so damn easy, why doesn’t he do the pulls himself?

Sometimes you’ll listen to the same sort of nonsense patter from a shop owner or a field insurance adjustor as they try to deconstruct and simplify something that is really seriously complicated from a labor point of view and expensive to effect a correct and safe repair.

Since this Caravan is already ordained for the bone yard, I don’t think the salvage company will mind if we use it as a model. Turning our immediate attention to the right rear lower rail.

This rail on a comparable, undamaged Caravan would be seen as running straight, but the hard impact has severely overloaded this rail, resulting in a badly kinked and distorted piece. It isn’t going to pull cold without further cracking.

The impact has also introduced a good measure of work hardening, making the piece even stiffer in the areas of distortion. In addition, this rail is also made of hardened steel, which isn’t as tolerant to heating for stress relieving purposes as older forms of mild steel. But let’s bolt a drawbar underneath the rail, apply a few PSIs of pulling force and see what happens.

The rail was actually reformed into a new shape after the collision. On a molecular level, it’s changed to the point of no return. Using restorative stress-relieving practices in the way of bumping it with a block of wood and a sledge hammer will do little good. In this example, I used a rosebud torch, not so much with the intention of stress relieving, but to reduce the resisting kinked areas of the rail to a molten state of soft relaxment. I then used pulling pressure to chug it straight like taffy.

But even if, by some miracle, I was able to restore the original contour of this rail and had it measuring exactly to OEM specifications, it would still be junk. The severe work-hardening and the overheating have destroyed its original designed properties. This part will never again perform as planned should it again be struck in another collision. The rail did its job the first time. Toss it away, and install a new rail.

A few clamps, a few pulls and we’ve managed to regain our side door and hatch gaps. Yet the quarter fared no better than the rail. It’s too badly distorted and work-hardened to snap back into place. This panel is trash.

There was a time when I could take something like a ’73 Buick Electra two-door that was hit in the rear, attach a ‘dozer, pull up the rails, pull on the badly mangled quarters, and even restore and metal finish those quarters to a point where only a minimum amount of filler was needed. And I earned darn good money for my skills and time.

Today, however, vehicle construction is much more sophisticated and complicated. Outer metal panels are thinner, damage is much more difficult to access, and adhesives and foams are used to replace what thicker sheet metal used to give in regard to rigidity. In other words, it’s tougher and takes longer to repair a severely damaged panel. Other than serving as a useful pulling handle to restore adjacent attaching areas, change such badly distorted panels with new replacements.

Some additional thoughts on trash jobs like this Caravan: Don’t automatically leap on every repair job that’s dropped in your lap. After all, the collision repair profession has shifted the focus away from the repairman and placed it on the owner/manager/insurer side of the equation, fostering and reinforcing the idea that everything must be approached from a business/profit/legal protection standpoint.

Nothing wrong with that, mind you. But as a laboring repairman, you could do well by adopting a few of these business tenets. You have to view your labor as a business, where you not only make a fair profit, but look out for your and the vehicle owner’s best interests.

Begin by first studying and analyzing these jobs. Will you be allowed to do a proper, safe and legal repair? Will you be given ample time to do what reality says must be done in order to satisfy the vehicle owner as well as yourself? Will you earn the kind of financial reward you feel entitled to for your skills and experience? If a shop owner and/or insurer balks, then walk away from the job – provided you’ve given credible, solid reasons as to why you won’t touch it.

Stand Hut! I’m not finished talking – Here’s a few quick, low-tech technical tips, tricks and points before I scamper off.

  • What? The frame machine is tied up with another job and you need to make a small pull? Then you need … ta-daaaa! … a friction jack.

    Friction jacks have been around forever, which may explain why these versatile tools have been mostly forgotten. But it’s just the thing to use for rough-outs or doing some minor corrective tweaking. And, a friction jack sets up much faster than a hydraulic ram kit.

  • Don’t have a carpenter’s level? Get one. They ain’t just for carpenters.

    This Thunderbird is getting a new front re-bar. Problem is, there aren’t any mounting studs, guiding pilot notches or holes; the rebar can float on the lower frame rails, meaning you’ve lots of chances of welding it in the wrong position.

    You already know the radiator support is undamaged and hasn’t deviated from OEM positioning specs. There’s also no need to drag out and build up a measuring system. Centerline is easy enough to establish. But to ensure that the re-bar is level, drop a carpenter’s level on top of the re-bar, step back a few feet and sight along the outer ends of the level.

    Find two exact reference points on the radiator support (the points can be holes, in this case the arrows are locating two horizontal and symmetrical stampings). When they align for height on the outer ends of the carpenter’s level, clamp and weld away.

  • When you can’t attach a clamp or get a chain on something, use those wire cable slings and reinforced canvas straps that came with the frame machine.

    For some odd reason, technicians seem spooked about these two items and won’t use ’em on a hard pull. But wire cable slings are easily laced through tight confines. A canvas strap won’t crush a boxed member like a wrapped chain would. So keep these tips in mind when high corrective forces are exerted.

  • Before taking on a unibody job that needs structural corrections and repairs, dive down on bended knee and see what condition the rocker pinchweld flanges are in.

    This vehicle had both rocker pinchweld areas caved in. Without doing the above preliminary correction, it would’ve been impossible to mount holding clamps.

    Sometimes vehicles don’t have flanges down here to grab on to. Do you have the necessary equipment to bench and hold these cars? And don’t forget to bill for such preparatory mounting and measuring chores. If you have to do it, then by all means, insist on getting paid for it.

  • Forged steel as used in steering box pitman arm shafts really does twist and bend. You don’t always discover this until after the frame and/or suspension has been fixed.

  • Count on using less heat for stress relieving, and figure on doing more frame replacements versus trying to repair a badly damaged original.

  • Restoring corrosion protection is a must. As with everything else, refer to and use factory OEM recommendations.

  • A tip for the front office: Ask customers if they have an aftermarket alarm system installed in their vehicle. If they do, ask them to disarm the system. With any alarm/deactivation system, also ask them to leave the remote key fob. Few things waste more of my working time or annoy me more than trying to disarm a screaming alarm system or not being able to start and move the vehicle.

  • If you need to remove a tire/wheel and its theft-preventive puzzle lock, dig through the glove box, center console and trunk compartment for the connecting key before you tear into the job. If you still can’t find it? Have the front office call the vehicle owner to ask him where he hid the key.

    If he has it with him, ask him to bring it by the shop as soon as possible. If the customer says he lost the key, you’re left with a few alternatives. You can keep going on the job, or if you really need to remove a wheel(s) to convert it from a cripple to a roller, change damaged parts and bench the vehicle, you can walk away and find something else to do that’s more productive while management figures out how they want to deal with the missing puzzle lock.

    One last resort is to use a puzzle lug nut tool remover that sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t – but they almost always damage a shiny chrome or anodized locking lug nut. And once in a while if you’re a lucky fellow, you can’t get the socket tool off the lug nut; it’s stuck. Then you get to waste even more time trying to figure out how to undo the mess … while trying to figure out how to explain to the customer who lost the key in the first place.

Remember – in the body repair business, you always need to watch for things that can cost you time and money.

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