Vintage Sheetmetal: Repair Or Replace?

An age-old question for DIY Hot Rodders

By Gerry Burger   –   Photography By Chadly Johnson

Original or repro? It’s a longtime hot rodder’s battle with no one correct answer. On the one hand, there is something special about repairing that original tin. There just seems to be a bit more “soul” in 68-year-old fenders, but on the other hand, there is a strong argument for today’s high-quality reproduction sheetmetal. If that genuine fender requires too much repair you can fall prey to the old axiom: “The handle has been replaced three times, and the head twice, but it’s still Grandpa’s axe.” Likewise, be sure to buy quality reproduction sheetmetal so you don’t end up doing excessive work for proper fit. In the end, the decision comes down to a good, honest assessment, the availability of quality new tin, all mixed with just a bit of opinion for flavor.

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02 Rust free original fender with headlight brow in need of repair
The original fender was very straight and rust-free except for the headlight brow. The trim holes will also be filled

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When Jon Mannila and his team of craftsmen at MetalWorks Speed Shop in Eugene, Washington, set about assessing the front sheetmetal on Dave Goodwin’s ’55 Chevy they knew almost immediately the driver-side fender had issues making a replacement fender the better option. The passenger side fender was a different story. The fender was remarkably straight and had no rust in the lower extremities or wheel well, but there was the common problem of rust over the headlight and one other relatively small, damaged area. It is a rare ’55 Chevy that doesn’t have fender brow rust. But since that was the only real issue (along with the small repair and filling some trim holes) it was decided the passenger side was “a keeper.”

03 Repairing the headlight brow of a vintage car fender
While the brow looked solid it had been repaired in the past, so the top of the fender was cut off. Leaving the bottom portion of the headlight opening intact is critical for aligning the headlight bucket and trim ring

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Both fitting new front sheetmetal and fender brow repair are within the capabilities of many backyard hot rod builders. Smaller projects like these provide the perfect platform to develop your sheetmetal working skills. Do you know what we mean, maybe try a headlight brow before chopping a top. So, follow along as we show you how the pros at MetalWorks do things, and maybe you’ll take on a similar task with a bit more confidence.

04 Rust damage on the fender brow repaired with lead filling
We mentioned an earlier repair. The rusted area had been hammered down and filled with lead many years ago. This was a quality repair compared to using plastic body filler
05 Melted lead revealing damage on the vintage car fender brow
We mentioned lead, this is just some of what melted away to expose the damaged fender brow. MetalWorks had a much higher quality repair in store for the fender
06 Welding and dressing off trim holes on the vintage car fender
First the trim holes were welded closed and dressed off. The primer was removed from the lower extremities to ensure there was no rust in that area. Note the perfect door to fender gap
07 Fitting the headlight patch panel from Classic Industries onto the fender
Tom Lawson begins fitting the headlight patch panel from Classic Industries. Note the new piece extends to meet the fender flange. This portion of the panel was trimmed off later, but now it provides both an aid in locating the panel and a clamping surface
08 Inner ring of the headlight patch panel tack welded to the fender
Here we see the trimmed fender and the inner ring tack welded in place. This ring is located between the headlight bucket and the trim rim
09 Butt welding the patch panel to the vintage car fender
The patch panel was trimmed to meet the cut line on the fender, carefully clamped into place, and then butt welded. The weld was carefully dressed down, perfectly hiding the seam. Note the piece extending to the fender flange was trimmed off
10 Fitting the inner mounting ring inside the fender for the sealed beam
The inner mounting ring is carefully fitted inside the fender and tack-welded to the fender. This ring mounts the sealed beam and trim rim so it must be a perfect fit
11 Perfect alignment of the inner mounting ring with the vintage car fender
Here we see the ring inside the fender, with just a couple of tack welds it can still be massaged to perfect alignment. Note the fine metalwork where the patch panel joins the fender
12 Test fitting the headlight rim to the new fender brow
Tom test-fits the headlight rim to the opening and the new fender brow. Screw holes must align and the brow radius must be a perfect match to the trim ring
13 Checking the fit of the headlight bucket and sealed beam on the fender
The headlight bucket and seal beam were next to be checked for proper fit. Since the lower mount holes on the fender were not disturbed, fitting the headlight bucket was a straight-forward affair. Two cut marks on the headlight brow show where a small slot will be cut to reconfigure the radius
14 Final welding of the inner ring on the vintage car fender
Satisfied with a perfect fit, the inner ring was finished welded and the welds were dressed so the headlight bucket would have a perfectly flat mounting surface
15 Finished rust free original fender with perfectly fitted sealed beam
Here is the finished product, one rust-free original fender. Note the sealed beam fits nicely inside the trim ring and the glass flutes are perfectly parallel to the ground
16 Repairing a damaged spot on the vintage car fender
There was one more spot in need of repair. Located in an unusual area of the fender it appears to have been welded and leaded-over some years ago. How the damage occurred in this area is unknown
17 Cutting and welding a new piece onto the damaged area of the fender
Team MetalWorks simply cut out the entire lead area and fit and welded a new piece in place. This piece carries a slight radius, so time was taken to match the fender
18 Finished repair of the vertical section of the inner fender
After the top piece was welded in place the vertical section of the inner fender was cut out and replaced; this is the finished repair
19 Mounting and finishing the reproduction fender from Classic Industries
Now our attention is turned to mounting and finishing the reproduction fender. Note the crisp fender lines and good overall fit of the new fender from Classic Industries
20 Adjusting the fit of the headlight and trim on the reproduction fender
The overall fit of the headlight and trim was good, but “good isn’t good enough” at MetalWorks. Slight changes were made to the fender, with metal added on the lower outboard corner to match the headlight rim. The two seams seen in this photo will be welded and metal finished
21 Checking the gap between the trim ring and the fender for perfect alignment
You must have a keen eye to see the slight variation in the trim ring to fender gap. Once again, that seam in the fender will be welded and metal finished
22 Welding and grinding down the metal on the reproduction fender for a perfect fit
After laying a weld bead on the fender the metal is carefully ground down for a perfect fit. The reproduction fender did not have trim holes so that saved some time and work
23 Welding and finishing the seams on the reproduction fender
Those two seams used in the assembly of the reproduction fender have been welded together and metal-finished. Now is the time to check for the proper lower splash pan fit. It was spot-on
24 Finished reproduction fender with perfectly fitted headlight
Here is the finished product. The headlight fit matches the passenger side headlight and after body- and paintwork you will never know which fender is original and which is reproduction
25 Test fitting the front splash aprons parking lights and grille on the vintage car with aligned fenders
With the fenders bolted and aligned for perfect door gaps, the front splash aprons, parking lights, and grille are all test-fit. Fitting panels in bare metal is imperative for a perfect final finish

Sources:

Classic Industries
(800) 854-1280
classicindustries.com

MetalWorks Speed Shop
(541) 341-3372
metalworksclassics.com

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Click on this issue’s cover to see the enhanced digital version of Highbrow Decisions.mr march 2024

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