Operation RESTORING BROWN: Romance of the Rusty Roof Rail Repair

Friday, July 5th, 2019 @ 3:51 | vantruck

Alright, here we go! The first meat and first potato of Operation RESTORING BROWN, the only thing which I technically set out to do and could in fact just rattlecan the whole thing brown right afterwards and be done with it. I’m going to keep an rolling index of previous posts here so by the end, everyone can read the whole thing and realize just how embarrassing it all was. We begin of course with…

  1. Episode 1 – the initial teardown of the house of horrors

So, I’ve established that there wasn’t really anything too flammable in contact with the inside of the roof where I’d be making repairs, which means it will go pretty quickly once all the prep work is done. What is it exactly that I have to put back together? This:

Yikes. These spots were already present when I bought Vantruck in late 2016, but they were smaller in visual magnitude because I hadn’t explored them until maybe last year. By then, the two ends were “joining” in the middle causing the rust-colored stain in the roof paint in that area, and I spent a little whole doing some initial scratch-n-sniff with pulling up degenerated sealant beads and hitting the area with a wire brush. I also covered the area in rust converter (causing the dark color) and gave it a blast of clearcoat paint, which was able to preserve it until now.

There’s a little divot all the way to the right near the “van seam”, which was where I applied a grinding wheel to try and get a sense of how the roof was attached. I had done some research then on how I would make this repair, and feared the worst.

You see, Ford in all its wisdom decided that the best way to make a roof drip rail is to also use it as the rolled spot weld seam (pinch weld) to attach the roof to the side panels.  The spot welds are then coated with a bead of body sealant. Predictably, the sealant deteriorates and lets water into the crevices of the spot welds, upon which it rusts out and there is scant little you can do about it except some very expensive metal replacement therapies with harvested body panels (if you’re lucky to find one since they all rust in the same place!). If you just run an image search for “Ford drip rail rust” you can see many examples of this failure mode.  What I now fear is Mikuvan’s drip rails are made the same way, as it seems to be a popular method of making the roof panel back then. It doesn’t have any issues there, but it’s only a matter of time.

For me right now, it meant having to cut the entire section out and then…. not replace it with anything. My restoration, my rules – I was just going to cut the damaged sections out, bridge the gap with welded on strips, and just reseal the remaining. It’s going to be visible, ugly, and purposeful.

But before I could begin anything, I had to peel back the walls of the house of horrors even more, since the rust extended under the….

van seam. This was a rather cringeworthy and frustrating exercise. Frustrating, because I had to impact-drive out around 25 time-cured Phillips-head self-tapping sheet metal screws. Cringeworthy because really? Just driving irregularly spaced flat-head screws into stuff?

This aluminum trim strip originally had a large rubber seal clipped over it. The rubber seal deteriorated and crumbled away slowly, so I removed all of it about the same time last year I tried to arrest the roof rust.

I only managed to destroy 2 screws while removing the upper half of the trim strip, which I had to drill out and grind away the remnants thereof. Honestly, I was expecting so much worse. What’s going to happen here is eventually I’ll remove the whole van seam trim strip and refinish the underside separately. They just screwed it on and painted over it, which means the underside has a lot of surface rust and built-up grunge.

Bonus points if you can spot the red Sharpie line they marked and followed to cut the van!  Yes, there is an actual red sharpie line on both sides.

We begin the actual demolition now, where I just arm up a cutoff wheel into a grinder and zip the remains of the drip rail off.

Quick note – just because I found “nothing flammable” on the inside of the roof, doesn’t mean I didn’t keep a fire extinguisher and a pressurized plant sprayer bottle full of water nearby. The interior was still questionably fire-resistant 1980s urethane foam, cloth, plywood, and carpet. This cutting operation created a lot of sparks, and I’m sure there will be even more to come.

Following up with the cutoff wheel, I used a flappy wheel to remove the paint in the area and explore how deep the rust pitting went i.e. what can still be reasonably salvaged. I’m not planning on removing every semblance of rust, especially as much of it has been hit with the conversion compound and should in the end be painted over.

It was time to arm up my limeboi here with a proper cart and C25 gas bottle. This is what you were designed for!

A long time ago, I bought a lot of aluminized steel strip and sheet in anticipation of eventually needing to make repairs to Mikuvan.

Making so many different repairs to Vantruck has, in a way, been practicing for that. While I’ve done a lot of mechanical only work to Mikuvan, I’ve not nearly been as comfortable digging deep into it because it’s a much better packaged and integrated experience, not to mention very difficult to find recourse if I mess something up badly due to its rarity in the U.S. market. I’ve already had to source some interior parts from Japan and Taiwan myself because parts are just no longer easily available here – the most recent adventure being securing a set of replacement windshield trim strips because the glass shop could not guarantee being able to get the old pieces off cleanly to replace the windshield. Not to mention, of course, the completely Chinesium cylinder head that’s currently living in it.

Vantruck’s primitiveness at the cusp of the changeover from the “Malaise Era” to the contemporary age of more computerized and polished automobiles, as touched upon in the dénouement of the Regular Car Reviews episode, has made every repair or upfit on it more approachable. I know I can generally transfer the experience if I needed to, even if the methods aren’t 1 to 1. More importantly, its ubiquity even in the modern day means if I completely botch something, it’s a more recoverable error.

In fact, on any day’s regional Craigslist search I can find at least 4 pre-1992 Econoline vans, usually 2 decrepit ones, one “okay” one, and one well-kept one


I’ve actually visited the blue one on the right, and man if I thought I had rust issues….

What I’m saying is, now having witnessed the result of making the sausage, I am not beyond buying an old conversion van and cutting 1/3rd of it off myself. They still sell endcaps for these. In all, these vantrucks are about the weirdest vehicles you can buy which still uses the most common ingredients – Ford truck parts – in their construction.

Enough of the van philosophy! Onto sheet metal repairs.

The plan was to use the area by the van seam as a test weld. If this went of well, the rest will go very quickly. If not, I can still Bondo Castle the whole thing!

I started the patch piece at a distance where it abuts the van seam trim strip, and the difference underneath will be made up by sealant (for someone else 25 year down the line to deal with, I suppose!)

Four little spot welds to hold it down, and I think I generally get the idea.

The mass deletion of a strip above the drip rail and the remains of the body side panel below it then commences. Remember where I said I still had a fire extinguisher and a water sprayer on standby? If there was one part I needed them, it was right here. I basically filled the interior up with sparks. What wasn’t being caught by the tangles of fiberglass insulation was, as I witnessed, shooting straight into the carpet, beyond the areas I pre-emptively wet down near the roof! Oh well.

For the upper slit line, I dug straight down with the cutoff wheel. To separate the gap, I actually approached from the bottom at a very shallow angle. The result was a strip of rusty steel, seen here.

This repair is extremely simple to execute because everything is straight. All I had to do was line up the welding magnets and blast away.

I used the “randomized point welds” approach where you never weld twice in adjacent places or make a single long bead, to minimize heat deformation of the sheet metal. So I’d anchor the strip by opposite corners, then basically switch corners every 3 or 4 trigger pulls.

 

And after another strip plus a finishing chunk, I’m done here. There’s already like 4x the original spot welds holding the roof on here. Notice the still-present drip rail over the door? That’s staying. I’m not going to shave the whole thing.

All that will happen now is I’ll grind these welds relatively flush and then apply a big Adaptive Fillet of body sealant down the length.

I test drove the process once again by where the van seam is. This was very quick and easy with an already broken-in flap disc which has a bit of an edge radius worn into it. I made sure not to grind enough that I started erasing the root of the weld blob.

Moving down the line. Basically, the area between the patch strip and where the body panel jogs inwards will be entirely filled with sealant. Same goes for the top half. I’m just going to use a popsicle stick as a squeegee / trowel to lay that bead down.

With this process having taken much less time than I figured, I decided to transition to some lookahead work. A lot of other exterior fittings had to come off anyway if I wanted to repaint it, so I was going to just piecemeal address every rust issue as they come up.  First up is the big “I am a classic van” visor. I know it’s hiding something underneath, but have never wanted to check. What I do know is that it some times rains from the upper left corner of the windshield if it either 1. rains too hard or 2. I try to wash it.

 

 

It’s held on by a total of 10 screws, two on each side, three in the middle, and three on a little support bracket underneath the …. front awning bit. Luckily, all the screws came out relatively easily despite being somewhat rusty.

Have I mentioned that the hardest part of doing CAR (especially truck-shaped things) is just fighting out what dumb names are given to certain things? And how many of those parts are just named after the guy who invented it?

Anyways, after all the screws are out, you just lift the thing up and……

 

AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH

Yep, this project is getting out of scope fast.

Well that’s no good. A cursory inspection shows that this hole ran deep into the windshield frame, and had a through component on the interior sheet which led directly to an area over the sunvisors. Well that’s why it rains on the inside!

I decided to return to menially applying petrochemical compounds while I thought about what to do here.

Here’s the sealant compound in the “Deposit large blobs and pave over” stage. There’s a matching fillet gfor the bottom edge that didn’t exist yet in this photo. The plan was to let it all cure overnight, and then I just scrape the cured excess sealant off, leaving only the fillets I desire.

While the sealant lines were drying, I decided to  just take care of the rust patch over the driver’s door. There was enough steel left over here that I decided to just Hairy Bondo over the whole affair after cleaning the area up. This is just regular Bondo with short fiberglass strands already pre-baked into it, so it forms a stronger composite not unlike a crappy chopped strand mat.

It doesn’t sand easily due to the fiberglass content, so you use a thing that looks more like a file to get the major cutting done, and then fill in the low spots with regular pink mystery butter.

The final stage is what I call the “cancerous death” looking part, which is after sculpting and sanding down of the regular material. This is called glazing compound or “spot putty” and is intended to fill in very tiny pinholes that might exist because of trapped air from mixing the batch of shame you blobbed on. The juxtaposition of dark red and pink is just kind of gross to look at. This stuff sands very fast, so at this stage I’m using at most 220 grit or so sandpaper.

By the end of this exercise, I had formulated an attack plan for the windshield hole.

Observe, daylight! This is where water was getting in and causing the interior to rain. I was going to equally exploit it to close the hole up. This hole, and actually the empty space above it, meant I could reach tools around from the back.

I don’t have a good closeup photo of the trimming I did to the windshield hole,  so here’s a wide shot that sort of shows what is going on. (Nor it turns out did I take photos of the removal of the chrome windshield trim, which was “Many little broken plastic clips” which fortunately are still made because Ford Trucks Never Change)

I carved away with a Dremel until the metal was solid again, both interior and exterior layers. The black staining is from the same rust conversion treatment which I just sort of do as a matter of course now since I wasn’t going to, say, cut the A-pillar and the front of the roof off to excise it.

So what’s my grand master plan?

Bondo Castle.

Sorry, world. I formed a dam which was roughly the right shape of the windshield frame curvature from a piece of soda can (luckily, enough of it remained to use as a guide).

Then, I ‘primed’ the interior area with brushed on fiberglass resin (a component of Bondo filler) so it would ideally wet out better for more adhesion. Then, I added a Blob of Shame to the hole. However, since I can reach it reasonably with a small popsicle stick from the inside, I was able to create a dome which reached beyond the edges of the steel, again to try and gain area for adhesion.

If I couldn’t reach it from the inside, then this would be one of those Bondo Rocks of shoddy restoration legend, since it would have to be solid and “built up” from the deepest point.

The initial dome was reinforced on both sides with more Fiber-Filled Regret as it cured, gradually reaching the surface enough to level out. I then pulled the soda can barrier off and Dremeled/filed the curvature to shape.

 

Nobody will know.

Only I will carry this curse.

Okay, that wasn’t nearly as bad as I made it out to be. I think it will be fine, maybe except for getting beaned directly in this repair zone by a flying dumpster. And if that does happen, it will be on dashcam and it will be awesome.

 

With the entire left side more or less settled, I moved onto the right side. The destruction here luckily was far less extensive, and this was the only trouble spot. It was shallow enough that I just ground it smooth and wire brushed the area and could seal it directly. The sealant on the entire length forward from here was deteriorated, though, so I tore it all out (it wasn’t difficult, since after all it had failed to seal and was just nursing rust underneath) and wire wheeled the gutter. All that will happen to it is application of new sealant.

I decided to keep going and just replace all of the sealant on this side, so I ran all the way down the passenger side A-pillar with the wire wheel.

Technically, at this point, the drip rail operation was all done. But the fun really had just begun! Memorial Day weekend is over with now, and I would take the next few evenings to jump on the roof itself and start dismantling all of the lights and the dysfunctional airhorn, while patching up and priming troublesome areas.  All while plotting the interior rehabilitation and the Next Generation Sex Lights.

 

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    One Response to “Operation RESTORING BROWN: Romance of the Rusty Roof Rail Repair”

    1. Padrote Says:

      I have much sympathy for anyone who cares for older cars on the eastern seaboard.