Restoration Series: Troubleshooting a kit car body

’34 Ford Replica faces common issues with fit and alignment

Bob Rieck test fits the hood on a 1934 Ford kit car. Rieck’s shop, Heinz & Sons Auto Body, was hired to put the car’s body together and eventually to complete the final bodywork and paint.

By Brian Earnest

When Bob and Richard Rieck took on a customer’s 1934 Ford fiberglass kit car project, they knew what they were getting into. Sort of.

The twins from Grafton, Wis., have been working on cars in their Heinz & Sons Auto Body shop for the better part of four decades, and they’ve tackled fiberglass reproduction projects before. But even for experienced professionals, kit cars can be a big bag of headaches. Rarely do such projects go together easily, and builders should expect the unexpected.

Here’s what the Rieck brothers are facing in their ’34 Ford street rod build:

The car

The car was a rolling chassis with the engine, transmission and suspension in place when it arrived at the shop. When it’s done, it will be a Ford-powered two-seater with a modern running gear.

Shims are used to get the proper bottom gap on the doors. Tape is used to hold the shims in place and also to the hold the body panels in place during test fitting.

A common malody: This car has fit problems around the door edges. The inside leading edge of this door will need to be sanded.

The task

The Riecks need to mount the body on the frame, then align and mount all the body panels. This includes the doors, trunk lid, hood side panels and the hood itself. There is also a fiberglass grille surround that will mount on the front. The front-opening hood will have a pair of hinges mounted on the side panels, and the trunk also needs hinges mounted inside.

When the Riecks get the fiberglass body and all the panels aligned and assembled, the car will leave the shop for mechanical and interior finishing. Heinz & Sons will then get the car back and do the final bodywork and paint.

The doors are hinged at the rear of this car. The flanges on the hinges fit in a cut-out inside the doors. The mounting holes are marked with a pencil after the proper gaps are achieved.

Generally speaking, the biggest challenge with such kit bodies is just getting everything to fit correctly and getting the gaps to look decent. Fiberglass kits have earned a reputation for having warped or poorly engineered repro bodies, according to the brothers.

“It’s a fiberglass body that comes out of a mold and it’s not perfect,” Bob said. “If you ever buy a kit, I’d definitely fly out and go see the company to check it out. Check out the cars they’ve already built. Check out how solid they are. Don’t just buy one out of a magazine.

Just because it looks good, doesn’t mean it’s going to be a good kit.”

A few years back, the brothers put together a prewar Mercedes replica kit car for themselves that they said went together exceptionally well. They know that type of project is the exception rather than the norm. “That was a really nice car,” Bob said. “This one is 10 times more time consuming, just because of the way it’s manufactured. This guy’s been working on this project for two years.”

Richard added: “Unfortunately, a lot of people think it’s going to go right together and ‘I’m going to be driving it a month later,’ and that doesn’t happen.”

The doors

The doors on the ’34 Ford kit car are hinged in the rear. A flat mounting plate fits in a cutout inside the door and mounts with simple bolts. The trick, again, is to get the gaps correct before the hinges go on.

“Sometimes, you might have to start with the body and shim the body off the frame to get it to twist so that it’s even on both sides,” Richard said. “The right door might be different than the left door.

“There’s nothing wrong with having a shim here and there as long as you get all the gaps right and get everything level and correct. That’s the main goal. The hinges and everything are on here, and we’ll use everything they gave us. Sometimes, you’ll want to use bigger washers. I know on a previous car we built for ourselves, we put bigger washers in to get it better support. You use little washers on there, and eventually it’s going to start wearing through there into the fiberglass.”

In this case, some edges on both doors will need further sanding before they will fit properly. “The key is nice gaps, then you can drill on it,” Bob said. “The worst thing is when you get a nice paint job, then the gaps are off and it starts chipping or wearing the paint off every time you open and close the door.”

The doors are test fitted using the shims if necessary. Liberal amounts of tape are used to hold them in place until they are drilled and mounted. Holes on the inside of the doors are cut using a template. The holes will accommodate the inside door handles and window regulators.

The cowl side panels are held in place with simple bolts.

The rear edges of the cowl panels are test fitted.

The rear edges of the cowl panels fit nicely. The front edges are another story. The inside of the panel edges will get sanded down.

Hood

Four fiberglass pieces are involved in the hood and grille assembly. The two side panels are mounted with simple bolts onto the body of the car. A heart-shaped grille surround will mount on the front ahead of the radiator to frame the chrome grille. A simple one-piece hood lid will be mounted on the two side panels, just ahead of the firewall.

“The side panels get bolted on. Once they’re bolted on and squared up, we can fit the hood hinge and hood together,” Bob said. “Then there is a straight chrome grille.”

To get a proper gap around the grille shell, Bob needed to sand the inside leading edges of the side panels. It will be a common theme throughout the build: the thicknesses of the various fiberglass pieces are anything but uniform — especially around the edges where the panels will need to be fitted together. “Once they’re bolted on and squared up, we can fit the hood hinge and hood together,” he said. “Notches will be cut into the cowl panels and [the hinges] will get bolted in… Nothing on the firewall, just along side panels.

“When you’re lining up some of these fiberglass pieces, and one end is off compared to the other end, you can take look on the inside edges and you can see there is humps there from the fiberglass mold. You can take a sander and sand that down nice and smooth. You can easily take an 1/8 inch off the back of it, and you can get a nice gap just like we have on the bottom.

“I’ll take them down a little with a 36 [-grit paper], then finish them up with an 80 and sand with a 180 before I put primer on it. If there’s anything rubbing, you want to take that edge off, and you can do that easily with the sander. You take a little at a time, re-fit it, then do it again. You don’t want to take too much off at one time. You want to fit it a little at a time and take your time.”

Trunk

To his mild surprise, Bob found the trunk lid to be a nearly perfect fit. “This is going to be the last thing to do, because it’s the easiest,” he said. “I’ll just lay inside and put the hinge up against the trunk. I don’t think this one will need any sanding. It seems to line up pretty nice. “I already got my hinges inside mounted on the brackets. I’m going to go inside the trunk, after it’s all squared up with the [shims], and mark my circles with a pencil, drill my holes and put my bolts in and I should have a nice gap all the way around.”

The good thing about sanding fiberglass is it’s easy and it doesn’t take long. The bad news is it’s easy to get carried away and take off too much material. Here, the driver’s side cowl panel is getting lightly sanded during the fitting process.

Here, the trailing edge of the hood is also sanded down. As is the case with door panels, a poorly fitted hood will eventually rub off paint.

Advice from the pros

Of course, with hot rods and reproduction cars, it’s the flashy styling, shiny chrome, paint and graphics that get noticed first. The precision of the body gaps and the care taken with hinges and other hardware might only draw the attention of the car’s owner. But it’s still critical to get the fiberglass body straight and the panels all lined up, and it’s not always as simple as it seems. “It’s definitely not easy. Hours will be spent on each section,” Bob said. “It’s not a short process.”

“Some assembly required.” These hood hinges will need to be aligned and mounted carefully on the cowl side panels. Here’s when you hope your kit manufacturer included decent directions.

That’s not to say kit cars are impossible beasts for relatively handy shade tree mechanics, however. If you have a little time to spend on such a project, and a few of the right tools, they don’t have to be a nightmare.

“You can build a car like this in your garage at home. Sure you could,” Bob said. “You’re going to need jacks. You’re going to need to keep the car square. You’re going to need sanders, and a small air compressor, a drill, pop rivet guns, a level, some wrenches. You just need some small tools like that and you can build this car.

“It’s fun if you use patience. If you think you’re going to throw it together in a couple weekends, you’re going to probably get frustrated and give up. If you take your time and plan on not driving it for a summer or two … If you take your time putting it together, do one part at a time and make sure it lines up good, you won’t get as frustrated.

“Don’t put a time line on it.”

Fortunately, the trunk lid on this kit body fit nicely.

The hinges are plenty beefy to handle their job.

The hinges are connected to the trunk lid with a pair of brackets on either side.

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2 thoughts on “Restoration Series: Troubleshooting a kit car body

  1. Kirk Lee

    We have done several glass rods. We have found some that were super straight and real easy to get into paint and some that we has to rework every panel. Best advice it to check out the body manufacturer and search the web for any positive or negative feedback before making such an investment.

  2. William T. Gonsa

    Is there more to your article? I find it interesting as I’m building a 35 Chevy coupe that needs a lot of reworking. Wish I read your article before I purchased the kit. Any tips on mounting the dash, air conditioning, clutch and break pedals, etc.? My project started with a bare frame and I have completed the rolling chassis. Working on ordering engine and Tremec transmission. With other obligations, I’ve been working on it for a few years, but I recently retired and am trying to fit in more time to work on it. Any help would be appreciated.

    Bill G.

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