The Cynic's Guide to Structural Repairs - BodyShop Business

The Cynic’s Guide to Structural Repairs

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.

It’s early Monday morning, you’re still busy feeding your caffeine addiction and the first person you see is the boss, strolling up to hand you a repair assignment. He nervously extends you a jingling set of keys along with a repair estimate and squeaks, “You know the new drill. Every job is now a hot potato, so we gotta get this one fixed and delivered ASAP.” He then goes running back to the comforting fortress otherwise known as the front office.

You don’t have to see the vehicle just yet, nor do you need to scan the estimate for labor dollar abuses. You could already see it in your boss’s uncomfortable body language, hear it in his voice and read it in his eyes – he just handed you another colloquial train wreck.

So you sit your coffee cup down, walk out to the vehicle storage lot and find your latest repair nightmare … ummm … job assignment adventure. This one is a late-model Chevrolet Avalanche whacked hard in the rear extremities. This is not a job that you can easily turn in four days like the insurance company thinks you’ll be able to. In fact, it can easily extend into two weeks, assuming they’ll let you do a good job.

Then you force your eyes to read over the estimate. Again, you see 1.0 hours for set-up and measure at your shop’s sheet metal rate and 3.0 hours for pull time at the frame and structure rate.

Each vehicle, each collision has its own unique set of variables, so why are set up, measure and pull times always prescribed the same for each heavy hit? We already know why, but that’s another sad story.

Your heart sinks, your knees grow weak. Your long years of experience have already told you that the labor money being offered will never cover the actual invested time you’ll spend trying to restore that frame to a usable condition. And what about liability? Will your repaired frame exhibit the same OEM crash characteristics if it winds up in another collision?

Well, while we’re waiting for the collision technician’s ship to sail in, bringing financial rewards and career satisfaction for a job well done, let’s see if I can blow a bit of uplifting wind into your sails by sharing a bit of my own accumulated frame and structure experience.

Who Am I to Tell You?
I began long ago with an Oak-aliner (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 effected most kinds of surgical frame and structure repairs. I’ve pretty much done it all.

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.

I’m also a self-professed cynic.
What exactly is a cynic? You can find plenty of definitions, but I tend to side with author Rick Bayan’s quoted observation of what a cynic is: “An idealist whose rose-colored glasses have been removed, snapped in two and stomped into the ground, immediately improving his vision.”

I’ve learned and have grown enough to understand what it means to be a true practicing professional. The business itself has matured, but in a way that disagrees with me. It’s become polished and better organized, which are good things. Yet at the same time, the business has become corporate, displaying a zeal for selling its soul to the lowest bidder, for giving ultimate control to a non-benevolent, sometimes an even hostile, party in pursuit of a dollar.

The collision repair business publicly trumpets the importance of its supporting labor but privately trivializes that importance, reducing talented and experienced technicians to that of minimum-wage cogs in a great machine. Today the emphasis is on volume. And volume means more money, even if it means … shhhh! … turning out garbage work. Or at least making the outside wrapper presentable enough to pass on to a customer who initially won’t see the inferior repairs lurking underneath.

I also pass blame on the technician quarter as well. We’ve allowed the onslaught of trivialization to occur. With the exception of a few individuals, no one has spoken against this encroachment. I suppose my own call-to-arms came when I read a paint manufacturer’s ad copy in a collision repair magazine. It boasted: “Our paint system is so easy to use, even a monkey can match and paint cars!”

A monkey? Since a monkey might accept bananas as labor payment, I wouldn’t put it past today’s superficial industry to have already done research into using monkeys for collision repairs. Or robots. Or lobbying/coercing the government into enacting federal business zones where labor laws won’t apply, using people who won’t complain about being paid a pittance.

All that said, “The Cynic’s Guide to Structural Repairs” is to show that quality and timely repairs can be done in our increasingly time- and-labor-hostile environment.

For this article, I’m going to assume that you’ve accumulated a number of hours flying on the frame machine and have sat through at least a few hours of officially sanctioned 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 Dodge Durango. An all-new 2004 edition, it’s so new that it hasn’t yet registered parts prices, ordering numbers or labor times with third-party information providers.

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 are 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 already 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 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: 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! 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.

Exhibit No. 3

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

If you’ve been running a frame machine for a few years and have established a reputation for successfully taking 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 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.”

(grumble) Now Rebuild Guy is telling the expert how to do his job, and the expert is thinking that if the job looks so damned 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.

Ugh. 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’d 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.

And how about that quarter panel?

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.

Tips & Tricks

Oops! I’m not finished talking and I’m running out of magazine space! 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 maybe? 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, 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 as a wrapped chain is wont to do 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, before you tear into the job, dig through the glove box, center console and trunk compartment for the connecting key. 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 tofigure 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 and is costing you time and money that you loused up their puzzle lug nuts while attempting to spin them off.

Final Words of Wisdom

  • OEM training is a very good thing.
  • Always follow factory recommendations (I can’t stress the importance of this enough times).
  • Consider your talents, skills and experience a business consisting of yourself.
  • Get paid for everything you have to know and do.
  • Learn to recognize what repair jobs to take on and which ones aren’t worth tangling with when the profit numbers aren’t there and/or the risk of legal liability runs uncomfortably high.
  • In some cases, low-tech tools work just as well as high-tech stuff.
  • And … always have a reasonable explanation why you had to scar someone’s puzzle lug nuts.

Writer Barney M. Slifer is a practicing collision-repair technician of 30 years experience. He can be contacted at (219) 922-9886.

Fax your comments to (330) 670-0874 or e-mail them to BSB editor Georgina Carson at [email protected]

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