Buried deep within the woods, abandoned in barns or left for dead decades ago, there are literally hundreds of desirable Mopar® muscle cars out there waiting to be rescued and restored! With a myriad of project cars to choose from, it’s critical that you first know how to correctly inspect a classic Mopar vehicle so you don’t wind up wasting your efforts on a car that’s already too far gone.
To be honest, I kinda hate to use that phrase, “too far gone”. I mean, since nearly every part and piece is replaceable with a quality aftermarket equivalent, can it really be claimed that any car is “too far gone” to be restored? I suppose a better assessment to the meaning of “too far gone” isn’t can it be put back on the road, but should it be put back on the road. You just can’t restore them all (or so my family and friends keep telling me), so when you do decide to pull the trigger on buying that old Charger or Challenger you’ve always dreamed of fixing up, make certain it is a worthy candidate before any cash trades hands.
In my last story, I introduced my most recently acquired project, this 1970 Plymouth Barracuda (or as I’ve taken to calling her, the “Barely-Cuda”). When I picked up this car, I received a lot of criticism on the vehicle’s body (or lack thereof); but to me, what makes a car worthy of a restoration isn’t what it looks like on the outside, but what it’s got going on for it underneath. Far more important than assessing the cost of body panels or cosmetic repair is determining whether the car in question has a salvageable chassis. Missing parts? No biggie! Hacked-up sheet metal? That’s an easy fix! But crusty frame rails or a rotted structure requires intensive effort and expensive replacement pieces that can potentially stall a project for years! When checking out a possible project car, pay closest attention to inspecting these key areas:
Front Frame Rails
Starting at the very front of the car and working my way back, I first crawl underneath the front end to inspect both front frame rails. Now, since classic Mopar vehicles use a unibody chassis (meaning the body has four individual frame rails welded in place to create one sound and singular structure), replacing full frame rails is a demanding task requiring a lot of skill and expensive equipment. There are a few spots on a traditional Mopar muscle car’s front frames to watch out for, the first area being directly under the battery tray. It’s not uncommon to see battery leak cause rot overtime, and in the worst cases, there will be damage to the driver’s side frame rail and inner fender. Start by visually inspecting this area before you come up to the next usual rot spot, the shock towers. A lot is going on where the shock tower meets the frame rail; wheels, control arms, shocks and other suspension components that can block you from visually examining this area. Since severe rust around the shock tower can go so easily unnoticed, I like to have a hand tool around (typically, I opt for a chisel or a small hammer) to test the rigidity of the metal. Oftentimes, rust in this area is much deeper than it looks, so don’t be afraid to take a swing at these rot spots to test its durability. If a little hammer is enough to uncover crumbling layers of crusty metal, then that frame won’t be able to handle the bumps and thumps of driving down the road either. The last part of the front frame rails that are notorious for rusting out is at the torsion bar crossmember. Much like the shock tower, the torsion bar crossmember is an area that supports a lot of weight from the vehicle’s front suspension, so it’s essential it retains a solid structure. Rust especially likes to grow between gaps in overlapping metal, so pay close attention to the flange on the front frame rails where they are spot welded to the crossmember.
Firewall and Floor
As we continue moving back on any A-, B-, E- or C-body Chrysler product, you will come up to the firewall, another structurally significant component that is often consumed by crust, causing an expensive restoration. Factory sound deadener and insulation can be partly to blame for the rust that overtakes this area as the plush pieces hold moisture against the metal. Unfortunately, the rot that overwhelms the rigidity of the firewall and cowl hinge is likely to go undetected as the worst of it is usually hidden under the fenders and doors (see, there are some perks to buying a shell of a car, inspection is so much easier). To get a good look at these areas, remove the kick panel on the inside of the car and the splash shields underneath the front fenders so you can examine the condition of the metal. Be sure you pay attention to the door hinges too, as they are infamous for rusting out on old Mopars, especially on E-bodies. As you continue across the car, you will see the firewall is attached directly to the floor pan. At least 90% of the vehicles I’ve built or am currently building have had at least some rust through the floor. Whether you’re just patching a small section or replacing the whole thing, the floor pan is a relatively simple and inexpensive fix. Don’t be scared away just because the project you’re looking to buy is reminiscent of the Flintstone’s car.
Since classic Mopars use the unibody chassis with four separate frame rails, the key component connecting the front of the car to the rear is the inner rockers. The inner rocker begins at the front door jam and continues all the way along the car up until the quarter panels (not to be confused with the outer rocker, which is more of a cosmetic piece of sheet metal). As you can see in these photos, the outer rocker skin has rusted through on my Barely-Cuda, conveniently providing me an inspection window so I can scope out the inner rocker’s structure. If you aren’t blessed (or cursed) with rusted outside rockers, you can always inspect the rigidity of the inner rockers’ structure from underneath the car as well.
Wheel Wells and Package Tray
As you make your way into the rear cabin of the car, you will come across two bars making a V; these connect to the rear package tray and wheel houses. Leaky windows or missing glass allow water to drip down into this area, often causing severe rot. Typically, rot in this area is accompanied by bad frame rails and general scabbiness throughout the entire car, so a rusted-out package tray is somewhat of a red flag. On each side of the package tray are the two-piece wheel houses. These are responsible for catching all the dirt, debris and road salt flung by the rear tires, making this an area prone to decay. As you can see in these photos, even the Barely-Cuda has been afflicted by rot on the outer wheel houses. No biggie, this repair is cheap and simple, so it shouldn’t stop you from picking up that project car.
Rear Frame Rails
Last but far from least is the rear frame rails. Just like up front, the rear frame rails have a lot going on: supporting the axle, leaf springs, shocks and rear bumper are some of their many duties. Starting with the leaf spring eye bolt section (look for this under the quarter panel at the front of the rear tire), we see where the rear frame rails begin. This is another spot where metal meets metal, meaning moisture can collect between the factory spot welds potentially causing rust to grow. As you move along the rear frame rails, watch out for dings and dents among the square channeling, often these are caused by Dukes of Hazzard jumps or even incorrect use of a hoist. Eventually, you will come up to the leaf spring shackle mount as pictured here. This is the most likely area to be consumed in the rust that compromises the structural integrity of the rear frames. Closely inspect the entire square channeling in this area and remember: don’t be afraid to use some sort of hand tool to hit the metal to test its strength. Often this will reveal the metal is much thinner than it looks.
Only after thoroughly inspecting all these components on an old Mopar vehicle and determining they are up to snuff do I consider a car worthy of the time, talent and budget it takes to go through a restoration. Crusty quarter panels or dented doors may look daunting, but truly, it’s a rotten chassis that consumes a project car’s budget and most of your time. While I personally don’t advise beginners to take on a build that requires structural repair in these areas, it’s all totally do-able! With trusted manufacturers like Auto Metal Direct reproducing every little part and piece you could possibly need, there is no longer such a thing as “too far gone”. Now that you know what to look for and how to look for it, nothing should stop you. Your dream car is out there waiting, and with just a little extra effort, patience and skill, you could transform a “basketcase” into one badass muscle machine! Show us your restoration projects, whether complete or in progress. Show us those beauties and we might feature them on the site!