The ae86 has one serious area that needs addressing…body condition.
If you’ve been shopping for an 86 recently, you may have noticed that a lot of them are rusting. Well, all of them are rusting actually, it’s just not necessarily apparent. There are several reasons for this. Some chalk it up to the salty sea air on the travel to North America from Japan. Others would say that it was poor steel quality, bad welding and general construction dynamics. Still more would site environment, pointing out that corolla’s in eastern Canada rust exponentially faster than those in Arizona. Either way, all of these cars have rust to some degree, and this is of serious concern for a performance vehicle because it reduces structural integrity and chassis stiffness, not to mention that it looks fugly.
So, on to the questions. First and foremost, what’s your budget? It’s easy to get lost in bodywork, so be prepared to spend spend spend. Keep in mind that the car may not even be salvageable! Are you a D.I.Y. guy, or do you have the money to pay a pro to do it for you? Can you afford metalwork or are you looking at a fibreglass and bondo job? Are there any other body mods you were looking at? What are your goals with the car? Are you looking to build a road-race machine where a wider body would be beneficial or would regular OEM wheel arches better conceal your car’s sleeper nature?
Most importantly, what is the nature of the damage to the car? Does it require touch ups and door-ding repair? Minor rust work? Major rust work? A full on sand blasting on a rotiserie with meticulous restruction from the ground up and the installation of a chassis reinforcement kit? Some things you just can’t take to Maaco, so make sure you know what you’re getting into in terms of project depth, bank account size and the capabilities of the shop you’re taking it to.
Something to consider: Do you like the colour? Completely changing the colour of a car costs more, so be prepared if you want it done right. Keep in mind that custom colours requiring fancy materials like candies and pearls are more expensive than readily available OEM premixed colours, so have a flip through chip books to see what’s available before you leap. I would also recommend driving through some car dealerships if you’re doing a colour swap because it will give you a sense as to what’s available in terms of colours. Don’t get the impression that you’re stuck with what’s in the chip books…it’s just an easier place to start. Don’t hesistate to make it your own using some metal flake, candy or pearl to spruce up the mix! Make sure you get the leftovers in a can so that you have paint for later should the unthinkable happen, and make sure the bodyman or shop gives you a copy of the actual paint construction so that you can match it later if the can goes missing.
Once you have these questions and you know exactly what you want, it’s time to start looking for the right bodyshop. “Body shopping” as I like to call it is an art form that will literally make or break your car. The place I like to tell the novice bodyshopper to start is at hot rod shows. I have found that true hot rod builders fancy doing things the right way, using metal to replace metal. They are also knit-picky people that have high expectations. Please note that they are also willing to pay handsomely for this attention to detail. Ask the owners where they got their work done and by who. Some bodymen are nomadic, but known for their work, so it pays to have a name as well as a shop. If the work was good, they will probably trumpet who did it. I learned of many good local shops this way. Some were readily apparent, some hidden. Many of the nomads I never found, though they did come up in conversation as I went along. I’m sure I could have found them if I’d tried harder. I still remember one of them who went by the name Demon who everyone recommended.
Mini truck shows are another place that you can get good references…but be warned: Mini truckers are known for wild body modifications, difficult paint schemes and clever personal touches that set apart one truck from the rest. Because of this, there are several mini truck shops that have become world-renowned for their metal work Some of them will duplicate the same work using inferior materials, however…and these are the ones you want to steer clear of. Frenching headlights out of sheetmetal and lead is one thing, doing it with Bondo is another altogether. I guess my point is, mini truck bodyguys can be good, but be careful as the end product might not be what you wanted. If you are looking for airbrushing or other wild paint schemes, mini truckers are the way to go.
The next step is to take the car by the recommended shops. Ask for a quote on the work, which is something that the shops should do free of charge and get as much detail about what they are going to do as possible. Ask a million questions, you are going to learn a lot as you go and will soon be able to tell good shops from bad. Are they going to rework your car with steel, fibreglass, OEM pieces, substitutions or make it all by hand? Can you come by and watch the progress? Will they walk you through the process? Will they recommend others in the industry to get quotes from for your kind of required work? Do not hesitate to ask about shop X at other shops to see what others in the industry think of them. A good shop will admit a competitor is good or bad based on experience. Yes, strangely enough there is a comradery amongst bodymen that goes beyond a paycheque, and well known good bodymen are recognized as such even by people who would like to put them out of business. The bodyman I paid to work on my car was recommended by two competitors. One of them actually told me “Son, if Brian said he would do your car for X dollars, you had better take it to him because I can not touch that price for his kind of work”. That was the sign I had picked the right man for the job.
You may find that people will push different methods on you. I had one shop tell me that they would grind down the visible rust and rebuild the fenders using a fibreglass weave and a polyurethane bodyfiller. Another wanted to put 10 coats of paint on the car. Some wanted to use OEM panels, others aftermarket. One offered to do all the work at home on weekends to cut costs and sidestep overhead (and his boss). Many shops will tell you that your car is not worth saving. Some of them will be right. I can say that given a different world, I would have found a car with a better body first. I realize though, that by now the car would have rusted as badly as it already was when I got it, so it was really just a matter of time before I had to write a cheque. Keep your ears to the ground, and don’t send your car anywhere until you’re sure it’s the shop for you.
At this point, I assume you will have found a shop. So, the question that remains is, what do you want? You are now going to have to work with that shop to get the car done. Do you want an all-steel, OEM bodied car? Do you want blister flares or other body mods? Fenders, hoods, rear panels etc are all available aftermarket in various styles and brands from mild to wild. I opted for OEM just because I like the clean look of the factory lines, but many people in my case would opt for some silly aftermarket bodykit that makes the car look like a plastic doorstop. In some cases, it’s often cheaper to go to these pieces. For example, redoing the hood of a car may cost $500 in time for a bodyman. Getting a carbon fibre hood can actually cost less. Fibreglass front fenders are available for the same price or less than steel remakes, saving cost, weight and rust later on. Aftermarket metal panels are almost always significantly less than OEM. If you have serious wheel arch rust, going to a widebody may be the cost effective way to go. Because you have to cut the rust off anyway, attaching the fenders to cover the damage is cheaper than having to weld metal back on and make it look like something! Everybody has an idea about what a truly sinister car is. It is up to the bodyshop to take that image from paper and put it to steel.
Materials are a concern, and you should learn them all if you want to ensure a quality result. This is the point where you have to decide how long you want your car to survive. Many people are not willing to pay what it takes to build a car that can win shows. By the same token, many people would not know what it takes to win shows, either. If you want to build a car that looks as good from two hundred feet as it does from two feet, your options are limited to working with steel. No other material has the consistency required to maintain that level of detail for a long time. This also means you’re going to need a master metal worker on your side…someone who actually thinks like steel. You may choose to work with fibreglass as a cost saving measure, but please understand that all you are doing is saving money in the short run. The life expectancy of the repair is short, and it will be extremely hard for all but the best bodymen to do it well enough to keep it looking good for decades to come. Odds are good the car will be so rusty from the inside out that by the time the fibreglass comes off, the rest of the body will be so badly damaged that it can’t be repaired a second time. I have seen cars where rust had to be cut off two feet into the width of the car to find good metal to weld to so that reconstruction could actually begin. If you’re paying attention, you should realize that’s virtually all the way to the transmission tunnel! That’s a lot of metal to be replacing!
Avoid people who want to build you bodyparts out of Bondo or body filler at all costs! Body filler (sometimes referred to as Bonbo, which is a brand name of body filler made by Devcon) is used to fill in imperfections, scratches and minor dents in sheetmetal before paint is applied. It’s what makes a car look smooth, when properly applied. Don’t let anyone tell you that Bondo is bad, inferior or something you shouldn’t use. It is a much misunderstood product that many people use badly. Any tool misapplied is still a good tool, it’s just being used by an idiot. To give you an idea, my car has at least four gallons of body filler on it, none of which you would be able to see. Why? Because it is applied paper thin like it is supposed to be, sanded down, reapplied and repeated until the car was smooth like glass…that’s why. In short, it should never be applied so badly that you can see it rippling underneath paint. It should also not be used to make things, like fender flares, exhaust covers, mouldings, body lines or otherwise. Use various forms of metal for that!
Also avoid people who want to put layers and layers of paint on your car. One thing I learned early in this game is that more layers of paint is not better. I’ve had the pleasure of seeing an 86 with eight layers of paint, and it wasn’t pretty. First of all, when you take a car with nice square lines and coat it with layers, it starts to lose its definition. The corners will round off, the waterlines down the sides will fill in and lose their creases…the whole car will start to look like a marshmallow. Secondly, if the car gets scratched or chipped, you have eight layers of paint that have to be reapplied. You can’t fill the chip or scratch in because the depth will never be right. Also, paint is more prone to chipping and scratching when it’s thicker. The first body shop I went to wanted to do ten layers of paint on my car, and I can only imagine what it would have looked like when it was done. Somehow three primer layers, three colour layers and four shots of clear just seems like a bit much to me, no? A car should have three layers when working with a traditional base-clear system, and that’s it. Primer. Coloured base. Clear. Stay away from laquers, enamels, polyurethanes, epoxies, varnishes or other nonsense. Use car paint from a major manufacturer like ICI, IHI, BASF, PPG, House of Kolor and DuPont and nothing else.
The last real concern is the timeframe. There is a saying in the bodywork industry: “You can have work good and cheap but it won’t be fast. You can have good, fast work but it won’t be cheap. You can have cheap, fast work but it won’t be good.” Experience tells me that pushing good bodymen angers them because they are craftsmen and they don’t like deadlines. Perfect is perfect, and it comes when it is ready. If you are trying to make things go a bit faster, volunteer to help take the car apart, sand and anything else helpful that is non-skilled. The grunt work is time consuming and anything to speed up the process helps. I helped take the car apart and helped put it together, but my bodyman refused my help everywhere else because he felt he was better off doing it himself. Do not be surprised if you get the same result. Some people just like working alone better.
Try to prepare well in advance. Your car may be away for a week. It may be away for years. It all depends on what you have agreed. My car was out of comission for at least six weeks. My other friend’s car was off the road for a month. Another one was out for six months. Yet another was out for three years! Multi-year projects are not unheard of in the hot rod world, so do not be surprised by delays and things if you have left the delivery date open-ended.
When you do finally get your car back, have a good look at it out in the sun. Look streaks or dribbles in the paint. Watch for orange peel and fish eye, which are paint conditions that occur due to contamination of the body at the time of application. Some of these conditions are fixable on the spot using sneaky tricks like bricks of tungsten. Others require sanding and respraying until its done right. If the car has only been partially painted, make sure the paint matches under various lighting conditions. Understand that paint colours are hard to match for even the most seasoned veterans and that some variation is inevitable unless you respray the entire car. Believe it or not, the hardest colour to match is actually red, not white or black like most believe. A friend of mine had a red car he’d had painted several times…over the years it turned orange and nobody noticed. It was still red when you looked at it, but when it got parked next to the same model car in OEM red one day, it turned out it was a totally different shade. It still looked good, but who knew? Standing next to it, you could never tell it wasn’t the OEM red. I saw a white car outside at my bodyshop, and when I asked what it was here for, I was told it was being re-colour matched. I shook my head in disbelief, because it looked fine! Once inside under flourescent lighting, it was three shades. The front was eggshell, the middle was refrigerator and the rear was beige. In sunlight you couldn’t tell a thing. Lastly, a friend of mine had once had his bumper replaced due to a minor accident. He took it to my bodyman, who expertly fixed the car. Upon pickup, it was apparent something wasn’t right. The front bumper was a completely different shade of teal from the rest of the car. It turned out the bodyman, to ensure an exact paint match, used the inside of the gas door for reference colour because it isn’t exposed to sunlight. It also turned out that my friend parks his car under a tree full of pigeons who shit all over his car. The acid in the bird poo had slowly eaten his paint so that he never noticed the colour difference until the freshly painted OEM coloured bumper was installed. Needless to say, we all had a good laugh. Twenty minutes later the car was written off by a Greyhound bus. True story. Still, this the kind of stuff you want to catch and the sooner the better.
Realistically, from a mediocre chassis…and ae86 should cost $10,000-$15,000 to properly restore to OEM new condition. That may seem like a lot, but you’re paying $70 or $80 an hour for one hundred to one hundred and sixty hours of work, not counting materials. There are short cuts you can take, like flaring the car etc., but that will probably cut the costs by less than half. You get what you pay for. I entertained quotes between $3000 and $15,000 before settling with who I did on a quote of $4500. That having been said, the actual bill came to $9900 but I was cut a large deal based on the honesty of the bodyman in sticking to his quote (he should have charged me full price, his work was that good!) and that I volunteered to send every person I met to him. It’s been ten years and I’ve sent at least ten cars there for full restorations, not countitng accident damage and returns on my own behalf. Many of those people spread the word and we soon put the shop into a year-long waiting list, so the favour was more than returned…but you really can’t put a price on work this good!