After 30 years of working on critically wounded vehicles, I can safely say I’ve pretty much done it all when it comes to surgical frame and structure repairs. I can also safely say that timely, quality repairs can still be done in our time-and-labor-hostile environment.
I began long ago with an Oakaliner (a ratcheting cable puller connected to a neighbor’s tree) and graduated to ‘dozers, pull posts and pots – the latest in racks and benches. I measured with plumb bobs and chalk marks on the floor, a hanging chain and ridged bar gauges, trams, pin machines and lasers.
I’ve pulled, heated, spliced, clipped, cursed and worked many a late night swinging an engine/transmission, rear-end assembly or a body/cab out of the way so I’d have repair access to a damaged area. And after a 30-year journey, I believe I can safely say that I’ve been exposed to all sorts of critical vehicle wound damage and attempted most kinds of surgical frame and structure repairs. I’ve pretty much done it all.
Tour of Duty
I’m familiar with the loathing of a job, where nothing goes right and proves to be a horrid exercise in painful frustration. I also know those tingles of joyful self satisfaction when a pull goes exactly as planned and perfectly aligns with the factory measuring targets.
All that said, “The Veteran’s Guide to Structural Repairs” is to show that quality and timely repairs can be done in an increasingly time-hostile environment.
For this article, I’m going to 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 and/or destroyed using incorrect repair methodologies.
Exhibit No. 1
With that said, let’s carry on to this first exhibit, a late-model, 2004 Dodge Durango.
Not really a heart-stopping train wreck, it took a hard left sock on the jaw, resulting in a mangled lower tube. But this Durango introduces new build aspects that are just beginning to make an impact upon the collision repair community. The main frame, along with the front radiator support/front fender mounting beams, is manufactured using the hydroform process.
When using hydroformed steel, there are several manufacturing, weight/component considerations, along with safety performance advantages. But it doesn’t have to have you fitfully gnawing on your knuckles when it comes time to do a repair – if you have a handy-dandy OEM repair manual. Indeed, Chrysler has whipped out a body repair manual, giving delightful step-by-step instructions regarding how you should perform a section replacement.
Indeed, Chrysler recommends a sectioning treatment using inserts. They provide easy instructions on how to fabricate those inserts as well, indicating where it’s OK to make your cuts and insertion points.
Some of you might be thinking “Fine, but wouldn’t it be easier and faster to do a complete replacement instead of slicing and splicing? Plus, you’d maintain the original integrity by using the entire new part, right?”
Unless you’ve a masochist penchant, I know you don’t want to install the full replacement part because that’d mean getting into the cowl/hinge post area, where these beams are not only spot welded, but large amounts of industrial-strength adhesives are used as well. It’s a place you don’t want to disassemble, dig into and carve up unless you absolutely have to.
Chrysler, along with other competing companies, are aware of these repair concerns. They’ve done the research and the studies. And if the auto manufacturers don’t know how to best repair their own products in a timely manner, who does?
Using factory recommendations, everything that will mount to this brand new OEM upper rail replacement, such as the original undamaged parts or new OEM parts, such as a replacement fender and headlight, will most assuredly fit.
Can this repair claim to have restored this vehicle to pre-accident condition? Nope, by virtue of the collision and repair nature, it has forever been altered – yet it will retain its safety crash characteristics. And that’s the goal we need to meet.
This Durango illustrates why it’s so imperative to have access to approved factory repair information. Furthermore, technicians need to address a repair from a legal point of view as well. The days of using your own imagination and of doing a repair any way you saw fit have drawn to a close. If a time should ever come when you’ve been named in a subpoena and asked into a court in regard to a vehicle you repaired five years earlier, you can have no fear in claiming that you did the repair by the numbers, using the specific factory-approved method.
Exhibit No. 2
Speaking of hydroformed parts … this 2003 Dodge Ram uses the same front-end design and engineering principles as the Durango. Again, nothing really nasty. It’s just a centerline deviation resulting from a sharp smack on the right corner, swinging both lower front frame rails to the left while taking the attached front structure cage with it.
When compared to older stamped mild-steel frames, hydroformed construction introduces its own repair quirks that need to be addressed. First, such frames are very stiff and very strong. Great for providing excellent beaming and torsional twist-resisting characteristics, but not so great when you have to pull and make corrections – the reason why having a means of stable, rock-solid anchoring is very, very important.
I have no idea why it took the companies several decades to finally come up with the idea of designing a universal way to hold vehicles of a body-on-frame nature and to market a level anchoring platform that did away with stacked and slipping wood blocks and with tearing plug and J hooks, and prevented a vehicle from doing a creeping Watusi while you pulled.
Ever have something pull loose under pressure and nearly have a vehicle take a dive for the floor? Ever pulled your hair out because you couldn’t find enough wood to level the center section while trying to establish a base reference measurement? Yeah, those things.
Anyway, those anchoring platforms for body-on-frame vehicles are finally here, and they’re superior to the old-school blocks and restraining chains. Unfortunately, they aren’t like the four pinchweld clamps, where you simply drop a unibody car into ’em, tighten up the fasteners and quickly commence to measuring and pulling.
Since these anchoring platforms are designed to be universal in nature, they must first be assembled by the user to adapt to many different frame designs (open faced, boxed), shapes and curvatures. This also means that, unless you’ve already pulled on one, two or three frame styles and have already discovered what anchoring components need to be located and assembled, you’re going to have to spend some lengthy trial-and-error time until you hit a combination that works. Case in point…
This was my first time setting up a late-model Dodge Ram using our anchoring system. Here I wanted to use a full mounting beam under the front cowl area, which also gave me good access to the forward primary measuring points. But doing so introduces a problem indicated within the green circle (see photo to the left): The beam interferes with the exhaust pipe. To work around this, I pull out the full beam and settle with using two half-beam sections, which are included in the anchoring kit.
Using a full-width lateral beam in the rearward cab-mount area finally gave me a firm, non-slip anchoring platform to hold and pull that stiff hydroformed frame. But for measuring?
Yes, you may have to add shimming blocks between the lower frame and above the mounting beams to achieve a level datum. Yes, this will necessitate additional trial-and-error time, which is my point here. There are no published manufacturer-generated specific anchoring set-up instructions that I’m aware of for each and every body-on-frame vehicle being sold in the marketplace. (Hint to the OEs! Give us dedicated model-specific instructions for all of these vehicles!)
Until then, take the time to generate your own specific anchoring instructions. Once you’ve anchored an unfamiliar body-on-frame vehicle using your supplied system that meets your criteria of holding and measuring, grab a digital camera and jot down a few notes. Build your own paper or computer database of past successful anchoring procedures, and use these for future reference when you’re handed the same make and model.
Oh, and by the way, by all means do bill for your time to research factory manuals for repair methods; one to three hours to set-up and measure body-on-frame vehicles really doesn’t cut it. You’ve taken time out of your life to build an anchoring set-up database, and unless you feel your effort and experience are worthless, charge for it. You’re the expert whose vital services shouldn’t come cheap or for free. Don’t allow those who really don’t know, or care, to learn of the day-to-day realities of hard-core collision repair convince you otherwise.