1968 Chevy Nova Project Car Quarter Panel Replacement - Confined To Quarters
Replacing a quarter-panel is one of the toughest jobs in all hot rodding, but it can be done at home with the right tools and patience
From the March, 2012 issue of Popular Hot Rodding
By Stephen Kim
Photography by Johnny Hunkins
In preparation for a fresh...
In preparation for a fresh coat of paint, the Outlaw Motorsports crew stripped our ’68 Nova of its fenders, hood, trunk, glass, and trim pieces. Most of the factory metal looked solid, but the passenger-side quarter-panel needed to be replaced. Littered with holes and tears, it simply would not have been cost effective to attempt to patch up.
A funny thing happens when you start tearing into rust-free California muscle cars. Oftentimes, you find out rather quickly that a lack of rust doesn’t necessarily exonerate your project car from bodywork jail. Sure, Southern California’s near-perfect Mediterranean climate does wonders for keeping rust at bay, but all the sunshine in the world is no match for 40 years worth of errant shopping carts and chunks of airborne asphalt that come courtesy of the Golden State’s crumbling infrastructure. That ugly truth certainly applies to our ’68 Nova project car. After decking it out to the hilt with a 523hp Dart small-block, a Phoenix TH400 trans, a Moser 12-bolt rearend, and Classic Performance Products suspension and brakes, it was time to address the sheetmetal.
Much to our chagrin, sanding the body down to bare metal revealed that most of the factory panels on the passenger side were ravaged by what appeared to be a high-speed swipe by a passing train. Starting at the front fender, going into the doorskin (which we replaced back in the January issue), and finishing its rampage in the right-side quarter-panel, the errant locomotive left no panel untouched by its mayhem. But hey, at least it was rust free! Although it’s a good idea to try to salvage factory metal whenever possible, this panel was stricken with countless holes and tears, and simply beyond hope.
Drilling out the spot welds...
Drilling out the spot welds is pretty straightforward. First, Aschtgen hit each weld with a center punch, then proceeded to drill with a 5/16-inch spot-weld remover bit. The bit uses a spring-loaded pin, which helps speed up the process. After drilling out the welds in the trunk area, Aschtgen moved on to the doorjamb section.
Unfortunately, a quarter-panel is arguably the most challenging piece of sheetmetal to replace on an entire car. Not only is it one of the largest and most difficult panels to handle on the body, it can’t simply be unbolted like the fenders, hood, and trunk. Cutting and welding is the order of the day. Granted, replacing the floors also requires the hack-and-weld treatment, but since they’re sandwiched between carpet and undercoating, it does wonders for hiding mistakes. No such luck with quarter-panels.
Despite the inherent challenges involved in replacing a quarter-panel, rest assured that it can be done. We turned to Outlaw Motorsports (www.OutlawMS.com) in Riverside, California, to show us the way, and picked up a ton of helpful tips in the process. Owner Ron Aschtgen advises to set aside a solid two days for a quarter-panel swap, but with enough time and patience, anyone can do it. All you need is a MIG welder, a box full of clamps, and some basic air tools. So let’s get crackin’, shall we?
Replacing a quarter-panel...
Replacing a quarter-panel is a bit more involved than lashing your valves, so some specialized tools are required. For this job, Outlaw Motorsports busted out ball-peen hammers, cross chisel hammers, dollies, an air punch tool, an air hammer, a cutoff wheel, and a whole mess of locking pliers, screwdrivers, and sheetmetal clamps. Eastwood also set us up with its seven-piece hammer and dolly set (PN 11979; $159.99).
Reproduction quarter-panels are available with or without a sail panel. The stock piece on our Nova was in good shape, so Aschtgen left it intact. To establish a cutline, the replacement quarter-panel was mocked in position and traced at the sail panel section. Since it’s easier to cut off excess metal than to try to add it back, the sail panel was intentionally cut lower than necessary so it could be trimmed to perfection later.
From the factory, GM attached...
From the factory, GM attached the quarter-panel to the body by spot-welding it around the entire perimeter. Since each of those spot welds need to be drilled out, using the right tools will save lots of time and hassle. For this task, Ron Aschtgen relies on an 18V cordless drill, a ball-peen hammer, and a Blue-Point sheetmetal hole cutter kit.
With the sail panel cut completed,...
With the sail panel cut completed, the only part of the quarter-panel still attached to the hull of the car were the sections along the rear passenger window and in the doorjamb. In the window area, cuts were made as close to the glass as possible. The tool of choice for these cuts is a cutoff wheel, since hand shears will leave divots, and a Sawzall tends to distort the metal.
Using an air hammer, Aschtgen...
Using an air hammer, Aschtgen peeled back the metal from the base of the B-pillar down to the rocker panel, as well as around the wheelwell. Afterward, the stock quarter-panel could finally be removed.
YearOne hooked us up with...
YearOne hooked us up with a reproduction right-side quarter-panel for a ’68-69 Nova. They’re offered as replacement skins, or as complete panels that include the doorjamb and trunk weatherstripping lip. Likewise, the quarters can be had with or without a replacement sail panel.
For first-timers, a common...
For first-timers, a common mistake is to cut off the doorjamb frame, which is a structural piece that supports the door latch. It’s hidden behind the quarter-panel skin, so care must be taken to cut around it.
With the replacement quarter-panel...
With the replacement quarter-panel in position, it was now possible to determine the final cut line at the sail panel. Cutting off roughly 1.25 inches of excess metal resulted in a perfect fit.
Before clamping up the new...
Before clamping up the new quarter-panel, Aschtgen rolled a �-inch-wide section of the edge of the wheelwell inward with a hammer and dolly. The old quarter-panel was so ravaged by an old accident that it was dimensionally pushed into the car. The hammer and dolly work fixed that, and created a flange for the replacement quarter-panel to attach to.
Since the plan was to spot...
Since the plan was to spot weld the new quarter-panel into place, 5/16-inch holes were punched around the entire perimeter of the new panel � to 2 inches apart using a Blue-Point punch tool, model number AT185. You may still use a regular drill, it will just take longer.
While the punch tool saves...
While the punch tool saves a ton of time, it only works around edges. As such, Aschtgen used a hand drill to punch 5/16-inch holes into the doorjamb section after using the factory doorjamb piece (that was removed a few pictures back) as a template to assist in marking the hole locations.
In order to give the upper...
In order to give the upper edge of the quarter-panel some structural support, a �-inch-wide lip was welded beneath the sail panel. In addition to supporting the quarter-panel, the lip provides a sturdy surface for the welds to adhere to. Locking sheetmetal clamps were used to properly position the lip.
For an extra secure fit, holes...
For an extra secure fit, holes were punched into the sail panel area of the quarter-panel. This allowed spot welding it to the support lip, as well as stitch welding it to the sail panel itself.
Working his way clockwise,...
Working his way clockwise, after stitch welding the sail panel, Aschtgen moved to the doorjamb. For spot welding, his tool of choice is either a Lincoln or Miller 110V standard MIG welder. He recommends using .023-inch wire, since anything larger will transmit too much heat and burn a hole through the metal.
Positioning the quarter-panel...
Positioning the quarter-panel onto the car before welding it up can seem intimidating, but using the panels that are still on the car as a guide greatly simplifies the process. A box full of C-clamps, Vise-Grips, and sheetmetal clamps are a must for this step. After pre-fitting the quarter-panel to the body with clamps, minor adjustments—many with the Eastwood hammer and dolly set—were made before welding.
Perhaps the trickiest part...
Perhaps the trickiest part of the installation process is welding the quarter-panel to the rocker panel. This involves climbing inside the rear seat area, and reaching to the front of the wheelwell.
The YearOne quarter-panel...
The YearOne quarter-panel has a protective coating that must be removed with a grinder before welding. During the welding process, Aschtgen prefers starting at the sail panel. He spaced each tack weld an inch apart, and after every other weld, he cooled off the metal with a damp towel. This keeps the heat down, and prevents the metal from warping. In each successive pass, the welds were placed closer together until forming a uniform seam across the entire sail panel.
With the doorjamb and rocker...
With the doorjamb and rocker sections complete, it was time to move on to the wheelwell. Even with locking pliers holding the quarter-panel to the wheelwell lip, it may be necessary to tap the panel with a hammer for both surfaces to mate up. One advantage of using so many pliers is that the chances of the metal moving while welding is next to nil.
Next on the agenda was welding...
Next on the agenda was welding up the tailpanel and rear bumper recess, followed by the lower quarter-panel edge behind the wheelwell. For this section, Aschtgen sets his Lincoln SP-125 welder on “H” with the wire speed set at 7—this is a “hot” setting designed to fuse metal that’s already there, rather than to add a ton of filler metal.
While the perimeter was welded,...
While the perimeter was welded, Aschtgen periodically returned to the sail panel and added spot welds, allowing them to cool. By the time the rest of the quarter-panel was welded, the sail panel had one continuous weld. Here, the welds on the sail panel are being ground flat using a 40-grit sanding disc. During grinding, as with the welds, periodic cooling with a damp cloth is a must to avoid warpage.
The final step is welding...
The final step is welding up the trunk gutter area. This is one section where the differences between the factory and reproduction sheetmetal are most pronounced. It took a dedicated effort with a screwdriver and hammer to try to get the creases and lines of the reproduction metal to match the factory metal on the driver side.
After grinding down all the...
After grinding down all the welds, the finished product is ready for paint. Although it can take two full days to replace a quarter-panel, trying to salvage our Nova’s stocker would have taken even longer.
Quarter-Panel Tips From Ron!
• “Common sense goes a long way when doing metalwork. Don’t get in a hurry and take shortcuts. Make sure all the spot welds are drilled out and make cuts carefully.”
• “One of the worst mistakes you can make is cutting things that aren’t supposed to be cut out. For example, don’t cut the factory sail panel too short or cut too far into the rocker panel.”
• “When lining up the quarter-panel, make sure you do it with the trunk and doors shut. That way you can use them as a reference point to help line it up and get the gaps even.”
• “Some of the factory spot welds are impossible to reach with a drill. That’s why you have to skin certain parts of the factory quarter-panel and peel it back with a hammer.”
Where the Money Went
Tools You’ll Need
Hammer and dolly set
Hole cutter kit
Assorted C-clamps and locking pliers