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FRAME-OFF RESTORATION GALLERY

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Let's do a frame-off on a 1969 GTO hardtop     In words and pictures.

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This is a rare treat. This is probably the first web site EVER to show you step-by-step how to do a frame-off restoration on a GTO. And most people would agree that car magazines only scratch the surface of this lengthy subject with their black-and-white photos. Dan Zabetakis (DAN@cbmse.nrl.navy.mil) shows us the guts of his 1969 GTO in living color. He's two years into the restoration, and totally blew his estimated cost of $22,000. The current running total is $56,000. He tells us in his own words - how he did it...

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Day 1
CLICK-> 69 resto pic #1 I took possession of my 1969 GTO hardtop on June 12, 1998. The previous owner said that the car was purchased from Admiral Pontiac in Glen Burnie, MD, in 1969, and has never been more that 50 miles from where is was built. He bought the car from the original owner in the early 80's, and used it as a teen-age hotrod. He sold it to a friend in the 90's, but subsequently bought it back. I am the fourth owner, or the third different person to own it.
CLICK-> 69 resto pic #2 I shopped around with some expert assistance. An expert, if you know one, can be invalueable. My restorer is a semi-pro. He's done several full restorations, and many partials, with lots of body work experience. Even if you have a critical eye, it can be hard to pick out the damage and rust without the experience of having torn apart several cars. We looked at a 1967 Firebird that seemed to me to be in fine shape. A little rust here and there. My friend said it wasn't, and proceeded to point out a dozen problems that I had overlooked. He showed me where the quarter panels had had polyurethane foam sprayed up under, no doubt to keep them from falling off due to rust. The paint had bubbled up in several places, which my friend said was a sign that the car had been given a recent paint job (it did look nice) to obscure the fact that it was about to fall apart.

We settled on the GTO.
CLICK-> 69 resto pic #3 It was in somewhat rough shape. Some rust was apparent, but not as much as could have been in a Maryland car. There were dings and dents apparent throughout most of the car, which isn't unusul in hotrodded cars. My friend was mostly impressed with the engine, which ran smoothly and powerfully, and showed signs of having been cared for. The exhaust was a newish flowmaster setup with 3" pipes. The interior was servicable, but needed new carpet and headliner at least. The overall shape was fair. The cost was $3,400. The estimate for restoration was $20,000.

We have liftoff.
CLICK-> 69 resto pic #2 First Inspection -- As soon as the previous owner was out of the way we started a complete inspection of the car inside and out. Most of the trim had been removed from the car, but was provided in boxes. The interior was in variable condition. The carpet had been replaced, but never secured or properly molded. It was loose and ragged. Same was true for the headliner. One door panel had been off the car for some time. The seats were in acceptable shape, but would definately need to be replaced when the rest of the car gets in great shape. No concrete plan for the interior at this time. Perhaps I would change to a lighter color to keep the interior from heating up too badly in the sun. The car does not have A/C, but we can remedy that. The dash was cracked, as is not unusual in 30-year-old cars. Aftermarket gauges had been added but they didn't work. In fact, none of the instrument panel seemed to work. The speedometer was inaccurate.
CLICK-> 69 resto pic #5 One defect of concern was cracks appearing through the paint at the joint between the quarter panels and the roof. Dave said that the cracking is due to filler separating from the metal. We knew we would be replacing the quarter panels, but these cracks caused two worries. First, the crack indicated that there was excessive filler used in this joint, meaning that we don't know how much damage it is covering. Secondly, replacement quarter panels available today do not come up all the way to the joint. The roof itself is not perfectly smooth. It has some "oil canning". These are slight depressions in the metal that are hard to remove. They come, according to Dave, from someone standing on the car or storing heavy things on it.
CLICK-> 69 resto pic #6 Another area of concern is the tail light lens bezels. Replacements for these are not produced, and they are supposed to be chromed. Mine are rather unfortunately pitted and corroded. According to some GTO guys, this is a big weak spot in GTO restoration. Bezels in good shape and rare and very expensive. No decision on what to do about these. Perhaps they could be painted body-color and black rather than chrome.
CLICK-> 69 resto pic #7 This is where tranditionalist restorers are going to start getting uppity. My plan is to replace the stock Rally IIs with modern thin five-spoke wheels. Something like the SLP 17X9.5s that they put on their cars. This issue is left pending for now. There will be plenty of time to worry about that. The wheels on my car are pretty ugly, but fixable. A little surface rust and paint deterioration are the main problems. That and the fact that some lug nuts and some center caps are missing. Also visible is rust damage around the wheel well. If you look closely at about 10 o'clock from the wheel is a cluster of holes in the panel from where a dent was pulled. The quarters were full of this sort of minor half-repaired damage.
CLICK-> 69 resto pic #8 The underside is in relatively good shape. There is only limited physical or rust damage to the frame and underside components. The exhaust system, with 3" pipes is in fine shape. The previous owner said that he had replaced the rear end with one from a Chevelle. He provided the orignal rear end. The suspension is completely worn out, and probably should have been replaced years ago. The tranmission cover is not the original, but the orignal with matching numbers was provided. It had been repaired when (somehow) two flanges were broken off.
My plan calls for the replacement of the four-speed with a modern six speed overdrive manual transmission.

Next up: The first (and only) test drive.
CLICK-> 69 resto pic #9 The engine was a little dusty, and showed some rust around the headers, but was otherwise in good shape and clean. To people who have not been around hot rods a lot (such as myself) the Pontiac 400 is an amazingly powerful engine. It's hard to imagine that engines of this size were common once. The three inch exhaust really lets it breathe too. Gun the engine and it blows small pebbles down the driveway. My plan for the engine is to upgrade to the Edelbrock Performer RPM setup. That should cost about $2500 for the heads, intake, carburetor, and assorted gaskets and connectors. I also plan to put in a Ram Air IV setup. I'm pretty dubious of the claims made by Pontiac on the performance enhancement of the Ram Air (then or now), but I want to put a Ram Air decal on the hood scoops (and make them functional) and I wouldn't want to fake it. I object, on principal, to cars that have hood scoops or other features that are not functional. That includes spoilers. Once we get the engine apart, we'll decide if it needs any machine work. Either way we'll have it "hot tanked" and all cleaned up; and then do a complete rebuild. I'm not going to paint it Pontiac Engine Blue, which I hate, but either red, orange or yellow depending on what the body color is. I want to paint as much as possible of the engine compartment the same as the body. Add stainless steel hoses, and it should look pretty good. We took it out the day after purchase. The first discovery I made was that I cannot drive a manual. It's really not as easy as I thought to get moving in first without stalling. Stalling is something I'm particularly good at. Dave drove the car out to an industrial site where we had lots of empty parking lots and roads to practice on. This GTO really moves. After a bit of practice, I stalled it out and it wouldn't restart. We tried to push-start it, but were facing uphill and couldn't get it going fast enough. After a long while of fooling with various things Dave (who showed remarkable foresight by stashing a big toolbox in the truck before we left) hotwired it. The probability, he said, was that the starter solenoid was just too hot, and the wait cooled it down enough to work. Dave took over and we drove around for a bit until we heard a popping sound when Dave did a hard shift into fourth. Thereafter it wouldn't go into fourth, and we limped over to Dave's brother's place which was nearby. After jacking the car up, and much discussion they decided it was the sychronizer. Oh, well. I wasn't unduely upset as I had already decided to replace the transmission anyway. We limped back over to Dave's on the back streets (with 4.10:1 in the rear it wouldn't go too fast). I had planned to spend a few more days driving it, but there seemed now no reason to delay. We plunged right into the dissasembly.
CLICK-> 69 resto pic #10 69 resto pic #11 While Dave finished up the metalwork on a 1969 Camaro, I set about taking out the seats, trim and bumpers. The first thing I observed was that there is an astonishing number of different parts in an automobile. Be sure to bag and keep together all the little parts and fasteners that are under, around, between or attached to the bigger stuff that you think of as "a car." The front floor pans look in pretty good shape, but there was enough rust, particularly around the braces to warrant their replacement. Note the piece of grey metal that had been crudely riveted over one brace. The rear seat area was in good shape. The seatbelts had been put in bags and stashed under the seat. They still showed signs of age, so that was done either after the car was ten years old or so, or aged anyway with the rest of the car. Someone, nevertheless, had thought of a restoration for this car before. A total of $0.23 was found under the seats and carpet.
CLICK-> 69 resto pic #13 The parts of the disassembly that I did took about 12 hours over several days. I left the engine removal and electrical system for Dave. Removing the glass from the side rear was a real challenge. I'm sure there is an easy way to do it, but I didn't find it. Moments before reaching for a hammer, I got it out. Note the shop dog in the foreground. Incompetant photography. This is why I'll never get my car into Hot Rod Magazine.
CLICK-> 69 resto pic #14 Nice shot of the engine compartment. By this time I'm getting pretty sick of taking cars apart. Fourtunately, Dave takes over at this point. From here the tear-down becomes more complicated and difficult. Dave removed the engine and exhaust, the drivetrain, and electrical system, taking note of where everything was installed and connected.
CLICK-> 69 resto pic #15 The engine and front fenders have been removed.
CLICK-> 69 resto pic #16 Close up shot of the right front brake and suspension. I'm going to add front disk brakes. I would like to add disk brakes to the rear too, but that is more involved, and I don't know if it would be worth the expense. During the short test drive, one thing I did notice was that the brakes were pretty vague. I'll probably also add a power brake booster. That and the disks should give me some nice sharp stopping power.
CLICK-> 69 resto pic #17 Close up of the rear suspension and some bad rust damage on the inner wheel well. The suspension seems completely sprung. I'm not an expert, but I don't think the shock absorbers should come completely down when the car is supported by the frame, especially when there are not wheels installed. But I may be wrong. Also visible is the GM 12-bolt rear end. We had the cover off to count the gear teeth to verify that it was a 4.10:1. It was. It had 41 teeth on one gear, and 10 on the other.
CLICK-> 69 resto pic #18 Here it is, Poncho Fans! This is a genuine numbers-matching Pontiac 400. Not bad for a 30-year-old engine, huh?
CLICK-> 69 resto pic #19 Same engine, different view.
CLICK-> 69 resto pic #20 A view of the business end of the carburetor. The carburetor was certainly one of the most complicated parts of cars until the advent of microprocessor control. In essence it is an analog computer. It takes input from the gas pedal and from how hard the engine is working (via the vacuum pressure) and calculates how much air and fuel to let in. If it weren't for the easy sophistication of microprocessor controls, we would have seen the carb take on the requirements of fuel economy and pollution control over the last 30 years. I wonder what it would look like if multi-point fuel injection were done purely by mechanical controls? After disassembly was completed, the car was taken to a local shop that does media blasting. To assure that the bottom of the body and the top of the frame were well blasted, Dave lifted the body off and added spacers. They charged $100 per hour, and clocked 14 hours on my GTO, so it isn't cheap. But there probably isn't a better way to remove the paint, grease, grime and rust from the whole car all at once. Even better, it removed body filler from wherever it had been used.
CLICK-> 69 resto pic #21 This shows the car after the blasting. Note the spacers between the body and the frame. Since the quarter panels were going to be replaced we saved some money by not having them blast there. That's Dave behind the car. Further incompetant photography.
CLICK-> 69 resto pic #22 Here is the front interior looking almost surgically clean.
CLICK-> 69 resto pic #23 The rear interior. The black stuff on the floor is the blasting media. By this time the car had been primered, so the stuff you are seeing was originally trapped behind the wheel well, and blown out when Dave started working on the quarters.
CLICK-> 69 resto pic #24 Only trailer queens have undersides this clean. Note the driveshaft loop. As you can see it was welded on, but not very completely. In fact, Dave said it could just about be pulled off by hand when he removed it. We'll put it back on, and secure it better.
CLICK-> 69 resto pic #25 Front end all cleaned up. Gone is 30 years of grease and grime. We'll be modifying the firewall to accomodate air conditioning. Yeah, I know it's not original, but I have no intention of driving around in a car with a black interior in 95 degree heat and 100% humidity.
CLICK-> 69 resto pic #26 Close up of the front end. Compare to previous picture of the same area to get a feel for how well the blasting removed the paint and grime.

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