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Body Repair

Aligning Car Panels: Closing the Gap

There are many reasons for poor bolt-on panel misalignment, some structural, some human error. But there are certain steps you can take to eliminate this problem and keep customers happy.

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Writer Mike West, a contributing editor to BodyShop Business, retired and closed his shop in Seattle, Wash., on July 1, 2011, after more than 40 years in collision repair. The mayor of Tukwila declared that day “Mike West Day” to honor West for his 39 years as a businessman in the city. He is keeping active by restoring a 1933 Rockne Sedan Delivery and a 1934 Pierce-Arrow Rumble Seat Coupe. He plans to continue administering the I-CAR in-shop welding series in the Western Washington area.

2: strapping a fender and using a come-a-long.3: stress relieving the fender flange with pressure applied.4-5: (inset) dinging spoon and plastic wedges. (above) raising the fender edge to the level of the door with a spoon.6: adjusting the vertical fender-to-door gap with a plastic wedge.7-8: using a slip jack (with a block 
of wood to protect the jamb) to gain gap 
(fender to hood). 9: slipping the upper hinge to gain height at the striker using a straight bar, 3-lb. hammer and door hinge wrenches.10: placing the door hinge “springer” between the hinge halves.
11: lifting the door to align with the striker.12: Blocking the hood hinge.Many technicians have worked for me over the 39 years I’ve been in business, and some thought I was a picky fanatic when it came to car part alignment. Of course, I thought they were blind in one eye and couldn’t see out of the other one. The point is no customer should be in charge of quality control…that’s your job. And one of the positive signs of a quality job (and indicator of craftsmanship) is even gaps between your parts and all adjacent parts.

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No customer should point out to you that a gap is off because that will usually be just the beginning. Some will take it as an insult to their intelligence and think that you didn’t see the gap because you’re not a detail-oriented person. Remember, they don’t want it as good as it was prior to the accident, they want it better. If you know this from the beginning, you’ll save yourself a lot of time and anguish.

No customer wants to hear any lame excuses such as, “None of the other parts on your car line up either,” or, “The last guy who worked on your car didn’t do a good job”…even if they’re true. They’ll look at you as a whiner who blames his problems on some unknown phantom. You’re far better off facing those alignment issues as they come up and getting the customer and adjuster (if it’s related to previous damage) involved, rather than waiting until everything has been painted and the customer is pointing out the problem to you. I offer you this advice: “If it’s predictable, it’s preventable.”

There are many reasons why poor bolt-on panel misalignment happens. It could be a structural problem, human error or the quality of the parts you’re using. Let’s take a look at these reasons and diagnose each.

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Structural Misalignment

Tell me how many times this has happened in your shop: a slightly damaged vehicle is getting the front sheet metal bolted on when the exclamation, “Holy cow, nothing lines up, the front end’s over in Jones’s yard!” comes blaring out of a technician’s stall. Or, “I don’t know what happened…it didn’t get hit that hard, it must have been damaged in a previous wreck!”

Everybody has heard these things, and most of us have probably said them ourselves. What leads us to discovering structural misalignment problems after we bolt the new parts on? And yes, in some cases, after we bolt the freshly painted parts on?

Whenever this happens to me, I consider it a personal failure. It generally stems from wanting the structure to be square and hoping that it is. As my father used to tell me, “You can want in one hand and ____ in the other and see which one gets full the fastest.” Harsh words, but they get the point across quickly, vividly and truthfully. Wanting and hope separate man from the animals but have no place or basis in the science of collision repair.

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There are some fundamental, quick checks that need to be done to verify whether or not you need to measure more comprehensively. If all you use for a quick diagnostic check is a tram gauge, then use it (Photo 1). This will help you to determine if it’s safe to proceed or if you need to mount or bench your project on structural straightening equipment, thoroughly measure the vehicle three dimensionally and then make structural corrections.

Proceeding without first verifying that the structure is true is like painting a big red target on your backside and handing the boss a bow and arrow. Why go through that? We’re talking about less than 15 minutes to determine, “Yes, I was right, there’s nothing wrong,” or, “Boy, I’m glad I checked this. The frame is swayed over, the nose would never have fit on this. It didn’t look that bad, I couldn’t see any damage.” That’s just the point, too. You can’t be sure until you check it with more than just your eyeballs.

We’re talking about panel alignment in this article, but measuring will reveal structural and suspension alignment issues. Open those eyes and think as analytically as you can on the front end of the job to avoid the time-sucking problems too many of us run into on the backside when you want to deliver a problem-free, quality repair to a happy customer. A few more minutes at the start of the job will assure far less friction when you want to move the job and collect your money instead of moving backwards so that you can get moving forward correctly.

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Human Error

Human error. Yes, I know that’s what you think we just got done with, but there’s more to it than that. If everything is square structurally, is it still possible to have poorly aligned parts? Of course it is, and the main reason why is we need to be more critical of our work and not give up so soon trying to get everything to align properly. We have to be more than assembly line workers who are bolting brand-new parts onto brand- new bodies.

Over my many years in this industry, I’ve heard stories about new OEM parts, which I’ll go into next. We also use recycled parts and aftermarket parts. All of these parts, including OEM, may require additional fitting as compared to the same operation completed on the assembly line. Maybe if we understand some of those reasons why, we can understand why we need to sometimes go just a little bit further, strap the fender, and carefully bend it to achieve a hood-to-fender gap or bend a door hinge mounting to achieve alignment (Photo 2).

Plethora of Parts
No matter if a part is recycled, aftermarket or OEM, there could be fit issues.

As far as recycled parts go, many of them may have had exciting lives before showing up on our doorsteps. Does that have a possible effect on the parts we use from these cars? Yes. The  mounting flanges could be slightly bent, and this may not be evident until you bolt the part on. If they are, corrective measures will be required to bring the part into alignment. Failure to bring these misaligned parts into alignment is our error.

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There are several manufacturers of aftermarket parts, and several levels of quality and price. Generally, the quality of aftermarket parts has improved since they were first introduced to the market. Parts certified by the Certified Automotive Parts Association (CAPA) are tested physically to ensure the same material make-up (primer, metal galvanizing, adhesives, etc.) as the OEM parts they’re intended to replace.

Do all OEM parts fit? Not 100 percent of the time. However, all OEM parts have to adhere to strict NHTSA and FMVSS guidelines, and all OEM replacement parts are designed to meet those same standards.


Who Pays?

Who pays for fitting and aligning? You do…unless you can charge the manufacturer, recycler or insurer. You’ll either pay your technician or they’ll work for free while you take in nothing as an owner. Remember…the book times provided are for new, undamaged parts and nothing else.

Some aluminum bolt-on parts can present alignment issues. There are European manufacturers that form their parts in a T4 temper (semi-hard), then assemble the vehicle and bake harden the metal body at about 400° F to achieve a T6 temper (hard) for the final product. This makes the panels more dent-resistant than steel.

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This same process is used for spares, except that they’re not bolted onto a body so they hold their shape. They’re placed in the oven loose so they’re free to move without restraint. This can have an obvious effect on how the part fits when you install it. I do not suggest painting a part other than cut-in if it’s aluminum, especially a Euro fender, prior to installation to be sure it fits. The alignment process can be a little rowdy, and why make a tough situation worse by screwing up the paint while strapping a fender to gain gap?


Alignment of Specific Parts

We’re only going to focus on a few parts in this section because there are only a few panels that are considered bolt-on, while the rest are structural or welded-on parts. We’re going to look at the hood, deck lid, fender and door. We won’t concern ourselves with the bumper assemblies, grilles, headlamps or other miscellaneous parts.

Fender. The fender is often a problem to align because you’ve got the door-to-fender gap, which can also be affected by the fender-to-hood gap. It’s always our goal to use the factory supplied adjustments (mainly slots) and never go outside those provided adjustments by further slotting them. This is always an indicator of some other problem, either structural or in the parts themselves. An obvious sign that a car has been wrecked are oversized fender slots with mounting holes elongated by a tech, who was trying to get the fender to bolt onto the chassis.

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When you have a wide fender-to-hood gap, you may have a bent fender mounting flange. You need to pull the fender toward the center line of the car and re-form that fender mounting flange (Photos 2-3).

Attach the strap at the wheel opening, properly padding the strap with towels to avoid damaging the fender. Hook the come-a-long to an attachment on the radiator core support that will withstand the pressure you’ll apply. Carefully apply pressure to the come-a-long until all the slack is out of the strap and cable and you’re sucking the fender toward the center of the car. Monitor the pressure carefully to avoid causing damage. Once you have steady pressure on the flange, massage the flange area with a rubber hammer to stress relieve the area and redistribute the molecules to help hold the flange in the position you want and minimize spring-back. Release your come-a-long and strap, and re-check the hood-to-fender gap. Check it to the other side since they both need to match each other. It looks close…well, make it look perfect to your naked eye. Loosen a few bolts now, adjust, re-tighten and re-check.

What about the door-to-fender gap? The fender fits inside the door for lateral height. Adjust the mounting locations by bending the fender outward with a dinging spoon using the door edge for leverage. Tape your spoon (Photos 4-5) to protect the paint and carefully monitor your action to avoid damaging paint or metal. Does it look good? Double-check it again. Does it feel level? Good. Is the gap even, top to bottom? A little tight at the bottom…okay, let’s loosen the fender at the bottom and push a plastic wedge between the door and the fender at the bottom (Photo 6) and then re-tighten. Remove the wedge and re-check the gap.

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Now let’s say that the fender-to-hood gap is tight instead of wide and you’re out of adjustment. Let’s spring that fender outward carefully using our slip jack and a padded block of wood to protect the fender jamb from damage (Photo 7). Place the slip jack against a solid base on the core support and the block of wood in the jamb of the fender (Photo 8). Apply pressure and then stress relieve the jamb area to achieve a gap and hold it. Remove the jack and block and drop the hood in the hole.

Door. The door can be difficult, so pay attention! Doors have always been a challenge and require more analytical thinking than other parts. Today’s automatic door glass drop-downs, airbags, electronic latches and locks don’t make them any easier, either. The principal still remains the same, though: the door or doors must be aligned to the closest welded-on parts first (quarters and rockers) before aligning to the bolted-on parts (fenders and other doors).

Think about it! If you’re replacing both same side doors on a four-door hard top, you’ll install and fit the rear door first because the rear door is bound by the quarter panel/dogleg and the rocker panel. Both of these parts are welded on and provide no adjustment, so you’ll fit the rear door to the quarter/rocker opening and then fit the front door to the rear door and adjust the fender to the front door if necessary. That’s the baseline principal, and usually experienced technicians, given all the weight in the doors, like to load their doors before final paint to assure themselves that everything fits properly – which means the latches are hitting the strikers in the middle and the glass is contacting the weather-stripping without slamming or spring-back and popping. The cheapest place to address issues is in front of the booth doors.

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Can you run out of adjustments when fitting a door? Sure. What do you do then, bend something? You have to, because something bent it out of alignment to begin with. How you do it will determine how much damage you do or don’t do in the process.
If your door is sagging at the rear and dragging on the striker, verify that the hinges aren’t worn out before bending anything. Open the door and lift on the rear of it. If there’s noticeable movement vertically, you may need bushings, hinge pins or new hinges. If new hinges aren’t available, there may be rebuild kits available from the aftermarket.

If the hinges are good but the door won’t take an alignment with the available adjustments… something has to give. In this case, the door is dragging on the striker, so it needs to come up at the back. Loosen the top hinge on the body side slightly. You don’t want to loosen the hinge bolts more than just a half turn on the upper A-pillar. With a jack, a block and some towels, with the door half open, carefully lift the back of the door with a floor jack. Lift the back of the door with pressure on the door frame, not the door edge/flange. Use caution. With the pressure on, use a bar and a 3-lb. hammer and strike the top hinge firmly and squarely for-ward to slip the
hinge (Photo 9). Repeat the process of striking the upper hinge with the bar and hammer. Release the jack and check the latch-to-striker alignment. There should be no dragging either on the top or bottom of the latch opening. If it closes properly, you’re done after tightening your bolts.

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If the door still sags and you’ve determined adjustment in both hinges is maxed out…it’s time to take your actions up a notch. There are several ways to do this, but I’ll discuss two of the least destructive. The device that looks like a couple of sockets on the opposing ends of a piece of wire is used between the hinge halves and with the door closed on it to bend or “spring” a door into alignment laterally (Photo 10). Go easy! A little bit makes a big difference, a lot is too much and it’s harder to go back. Check the latch-to-striker position now. It’s good, great! Go to the bank and pick up your money.

Another way to do this involves other devices where the door latch closes over the tool and the jamb is used as a fulcrum to lever the door up or down as needed (Photo 11). Use caution and watch the paint where the fender and door intersect at the top.

Hood and deck lid. It’s simple friends…really. Make sure the hole is square and the rest is easy. It’s when that opening is off a little that the problems occur. With the deck lid opening, you’ve got little room for error because, of course, it’s surrounded by welded panels. There’s no adjustment to this opening compared to the hood opening, so make sure it’s dimensionally correct before welding anything.
The hood on most cars is surrounded by bolted-on parts that have some adjustment. Take a diagonal measurement between the rear fender mounting bolt on one side, to the front fender mounting bolt on the opposite side. If these comparative measurements aren’t within a few millimeters, installing the hood will be a frustrating exercise with a less than satisfactory result.

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If the opening is true, you may still have conditions that will require corrective action.

The hood can be high or low where it fits the cowl at the rear. This will require using a small wood block to stop the hood hinge from either opening or closing (Photo 12). When the hood hinge is levered with a block as the fulcrum and then the hood is carefully lowered, the back of the hood will be raised as it bends. The opposite is true when wedging a block to prevent the hood from opening fully, then lifting to bend. This will lower the rear end of the hood at the cowl.

All of these adjustments are just a few of the unknown total, but they’re the most successful and least damaging. I hope you’ll use them to achieve that most important goal of customer satisfaction.


Writer Mike West, a contributing editor to BodyShop Business, retired and closed his shop in Seattle, Wash., on July 1, 2011, after more than 40 years in collision repair. The mayor of Tukwila declared that day “Mike West Day” to honor West for his 39 years as a businessman in the city. He is keeping active by restoring a 1933 Rockne Sedan Delivery and a 1934 Pierce-Arrow Rumble Seat Coupe. He plans to continue administering the I-CAR in-shop welding series in the Western Washington area.

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