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Become a bodywork expert


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By Ian Cushway
11th October 2018

Spot the dog!

How to spot hidden bodges, rust & previous body repairs.


Whether inspecting a vehicle for sale or assessing what needs to be done to your existing car, recognising the tell-tale signs of past bodges, hidden rot and paint imperfections is essential if you want to avoid nasty surprises later on. After all, it’s all too easy to be swayed by shiny bodywork when looking at a prospective purchase and overlook the imperfections. With that in mind, here’s some tips to help you sort the diamonds from the dogs and become a bodywork expert...


Mind the gap
Starting with the structural stuff first, check out the panel gaps. In an ideal world, they should be relatively even all round and if they’re not, there’s likely to be a problem. If the gaps taper and panels just don’t seem to fit properly, the vehicle may be suffering from accident damage or, worse still, bad corrosion and lack of structural integrity which is likely to be much more serious. If you’re looking to buy a Morris Minor Convertible for example, the first thing you should do is check that the doors open and shut properly, because if they're foul, chances are the A-post will be rotten. From experience, if that’s gone the adjoining floorpan and sill will also be rusty. Thankfully Morris Minor repair panels are available here.


Twist & shout
More serious still is damage to the chassis, and here we’re mostly talking about rotten or bent outriggers and chassis rails, the latter possibly as a result of a past prang. Look for uneven tyre wear which points to misalignment or, better still, get the car checked on a four-wheel laser alignment rig. Patch weld repairs underneath are okay, but don’t look that pretty and aren’t as strong – it’s always better if someone’s fitted a repair panel instead.


Panel perfect
Not all repair panels are the same and often you’ll discover a panel meant for a newer model or an inferior patent part made from thinner gauge steel has been fitted instead. Swat up on what the original panel should look like so you can spot wrongly profiled repair sections that don’t quite fit right and ones that have extraneous fittings that weren’t meant for your era of car.


Bursting the bubble
Moving on to paintwork, keep an eye out for early signs of bubbling, rust scabs and evidence of rust streaks which are produced by water running over an otherwise hidden rust spot. Assess the extent to which corrosion has spread and if they’ve lead to any holes. Chances are, what you can see is likely to be the tip of the iceberg. Catch corrosion before it gets worse by either welding up the affected area or fitting a new panel. Furthermore, investigate why the panel has rusted in the first place. Is it coming into contact with another panel, or has a seal failed? If there’s an underlying cause, it will rust out again.


Keep in trim
Play detective to see if any exterior trim’s missing or if it’s been badly fitted. If a chrome strip is absent or hanging off, possibly it’s because someone’s done some quick cosmetic work to the bodywork underneath and either not bothered to put it back on, or they’ve broken the fittings and not done the job properly.


Hue & cry
Paint colour and finish will reveal even more. If there’s a contrast in hue between one panel and another, there’s been localised spraying somewhere along the line. Bear in mind some paints vary in shade depending on the angle of the surface, so rule this out before grabbing the spray gun and doing an entire respray. Contrasts in finish, namely the degree of ‘orange peel’ effect, can also provide some useful clues as to what’s gone on with the bodywork – you’re looking for a nice even finish over the entire car.


Rough & ready
If you spot any crazing, flaking or micro blistering it is usually due to moisture being trapped beneath the top coat, too much paint being applied, the use of filler or a reaction to a layer of previously applied paint. Beware, because often the best solution is to strip things back to bare metal, do the proper preparation and start all over again.


Paint type
Older cars were painted in a solvent-based cellulose, with two-pack (2K) paint being used from the mid-1970s. However, for environmental reasons, water-based paints have been used for the last 20 years. In this instance, a water-based colour is sealed with a two-pack clear lacquer. Applying a solvent-based paint (if you find any) over a two-pack system will cause a reaction. Two-pack/water-based paints can be applied over older paint, but it’s always safest to either go back to bare metal or apply an isolating primer as a safety measure.


Spray time
Changes in paint finish, fading and signs of micro scratches due to overzealous use of a polishing buff, point to the fact that a panel’s been resprayed at some point. Other clues include overspray on window rubbers and plastic trim. You can often improve things by using a rubbing compound to take out the most obvious bodywork scratches.


Dented pride
Look down the side of the vehicle and check for minor dents or ripples. When assessing a prospective purchase, take your time, walk around the car and check each panel individually so you don’t miss anything. Car parking dents are common on doors and if there is access behind, a ‘smart’ repairer can often dress them out quite successfully. Where there’s limited access, it will be a case of removing the paint, panel beating and applying a thin layer of filler. Yes, even the experts use it!


Paint ID
Applying fresh paint over existing paintwork is a recipe for disaster, particularly if you’re using a different type of paint, which will lead to a reaction. Polish a small section of bodywork and check the cloth; if it’s picked up a hint of colour from the paint then it’s a solid colour, if there’s no transfer there’s been a clear coat of lacquer applied.


Code buster
Finally, if you’re doing any paint repairs it obviously helps to know what colour your car is. Look for the code in the service booklet or vehicle identification stamp or sticker. Paint contains several different shades, called ‘tinters’, which are mixed together in specific quantities, according to the manufacturer’s formula. However, some colours have several different formulas and getting the match just right is never easy. What’s more, some paints are more susceptible to fading than others. Reds are prone to turning pink and whites can go grey over time. That’s why repainting just one panel individually is never as successful as painting a complete car.

Buying a ‘straight’ car in the first place with clean, blemish-free bodywork is best, but at least if you know where to look when it comes to anomalies and imperfections you’ll be aware of what will need doing to get that mirror like, better than new paint finish.



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