(Warning for folks who come here mostly for travel photos: This post is going to be very car-centric, so brace yourself. Or just skip it and wait for the next post, which will be all travel and little to no car.)
Like most projects, “Operation Un-Deer the Datsun” started out with a good deal of contemplation first, which mostly involved sitting in the garage and staring at the car for a while. I’d assessed the damage before to a certain extent, and it was about the same now: A trashed passenger side fender that was now a piece of signature-covered artwork, a slightly dented hood, a few bits of bad chrome here and there. All things considered, it didn’t look too bad. I figured that while I was at it, I’d pull the motor and transmission out and freshen both of those up, as I had no real idea how many miles were actually on the motor anyway, the 2nd gear synchro in the transmission could use some attention, and having an empty engine bay would make access for bodywork somewhat easier.
The general plan was to spend the winter getting the car back in shape, and then take off for Alaska sometime in late April or early May, which would theoretically keep me just behind all the melting snow as I headed north. That plan also had the advantage of me doing all the big work on the car during months in Las Vegas where I wasn’t at risk of heat stroke in the garage. First things first, though—Christmas was coming, so I decided to kill two birds with one road trip and drop the motor off at Rebello Racing in Antioch, CA for some love and attention, then head up another hour or so north and spend the holidays with my nieces. That all went quite well, and I had a lovely drive through the Sierras (where there was a somewhat distressing lack of snow; the drought certainly wasn’t getting any better), dropped off the motor at Rebello on Christmas Eve like some oil-stained Santa, and went on to have a great holiday in Northern California.
When I got home, it was time to get serious about getting after that body work. The first order of business was to pull the fender off and get it mounted in a place of honor on the garage wall. Surprisingly, I found various bits of deer still clinging to some of the harder-to-reach places. I also found a remarkable amount of Bondo and fairly bad brazing work from a previous front end accident, which I’d later discover was only the tip of a pretty rusty iceberg.
The more I started digging into the prep work, the more damage I found. The front valence was also tweaked pretty good, both from my deer hit and from that previous decades-old damage, so I pulled that piece off. It turned out that the valance had been brazed to the driver’s side fender in a previous repair as well, so I broke those welds and pulled the driver’s side fender off too. Next, I found quite a bit of rust in the areas behind the front quarter panels, so I pulled off the doors and the windshield to see how far that went. Then in chasing that rust around, I pulled out all the interior carpeting and the seats to get a better look at the floorboards, and since I was more or less there anyway, the car could really use a new dash pad, I pulled the whole dashboard out.
At this point, the car was about half disassembled, which was about three times more work than I had been planning on doing. However, since I’d made it this far anyway and I was continuing to uncover all sorts of little areas here and there that needed attention, I decided to just say the heck with it and pull the whole body off the frame. I had sort of planned on eventually doing a decent restoration on the car anyway, and now seemed like as good a time as any.
Small old cars like this one are very simple machines. It took only a couple more hours from the time I decided to just pull it all apart to the time that I started using both sides of my two car garage with one car. Once I’d actually gotten it all apart, I was pretty glad that I’d decided to go for it. There was quite a bit of rust on the frame, and while I’d seen a lot worse, there were areas that I’d definitely want to section out and replace with new steel. The body also had its fair share of rust, although I wouldn’t know exactly how much until a couple weeks later.
In the spirit of “in for a penny, in for a pound”, I wanted to get the body completely stripped before I got into doing the bodywork. I figured that’d give me a better look at the areas that needed attention, plus it’d provide a better foundation for a new paint job. I wanted to get it dipped, but companies that dip cars and/or big industrial parts are becoming fewer and farther between all the time, and I couldn’t find one within a reasonable distance of Las Vegas. I opted instead to get the body sandblasted, which was quite a bit messier and not as nice to the metal, but it wasn’t a terrible option. We actually ended up using glass media instead of sand, which was a little less aggressive.
The trick here was finding someplace to do it. The sandblasting contractor was mobile; he had a truck that was all self-contained with the compressor and tanks and media and whatnot, but the process itself is a) really loud, and b) pretty messy, since it gets blasting media (and whatever you’re blasting off) everywhere. You’d think that coming by someplace that was empty, remote, and open to doing something that could be a bit environmentally questionable would be a pretty easy thing to do in Las Vegas—after all, this is where they tested nuclear weapons out in the open—but it turned out to be pretty difficult. The ideal spot would be a dirt lot someplace, or barring that, a parking lot, but I didn’t know anybody who had either of those available.
By happenstance, I was pulling the ’66 Roadster that I’d picked up during the past summer (which is a whole ‘nother story) out of its spot at my storage place when I got into a conversation with the manager of the storage facility. (I was planning on getting that car ready to drive to Solvang since the road trip car was somewhat indisposed at the moment.) He thought the car was pretty cool, and it occurred to me that somebody in the space and storage business might know of an available spot to do something like sandblasting. Unbelievably, he said I could do it in the ‘driveway’ area just in front of my storage space as long as we cleaned it up. I told him about the inevitable noise and the mess, and he said that’d be OK, so…that was the plan.
My next logistic challenge was to get the body shell and all the loose parts (fenders, doors, hood, etc.) over to the storage place on sandblasting day. I don’t have a trailer and it wasn’t going to fit in my truck, so I went over to U-Haul to see what they had. Sadly, they did not have anything like my first choice (a nice, wide flatbed trailer), so I went with an alternative, which was sort of a “landscaping” trailer. This is a decent sized trailer, but it has low sides on it and a narrower gate/ramp in the back, which meant I couldn’t just roll the body (now mounted to a wooden stand on casters) up on to the trailer and go, since the body was wider than the gate. I ended up placing 2x6 lumber ‘spanners’ across the top rails of the trailer side walls, suspending the entire body from the engine removal pick point in the ceiling of my garage, backing the trailer (with its new lumber superstructure) under the body, and then lowering it down onto the 2x6s so that it sort of sat on top of the whole trailer. Happily, this also meant that the underside of the body was accessible as well, so with any luck we’d be able to blast the entire thing without ever having to take it off the trailer.
This all seemed like a great plan until the blasting actually began. The system we were using was a “dustless” blaster, which mixes the media with water rather than spraying it dry so that it doesn’t go everywhere, but…it pretty much goes everywhere. And it was super loud. So, while the blasting process itself was working great and erasing every bit of paint and bondo off the car, we were getting enormous amounts of blasting media on the ground, the surrounding self-storage structures, ourselves, my truck, and pretty much anything within a 30 meter radius. At the same time, it was about 7:30 in the morning, and the apartment complex next door was being awakened by something akin to the sound of a small passenger jet taking off in their parking lot. We were slowly gathering a crowd of annoyed onlookers on the balconies.
The blasting guys were looking around nervously, asking if I was sure this was OK to do. At this point, my level of “sure” had decreased to almost zero, as I was pretty confident that this what not what my storage superintendent had really bargained for, plus I was not going to be surprised if some of the neighbors called the police. Using the doctrine of “better to ask forgiveness than ask permission (even if you already asked permission)”, I told them to keep going until somebody asked us to stop.
Naturally, my superintendent came out to see what was going on, and he turned a few shades paler when he saw the mess we were making. However, he’s really a stand-up guy, plus he’d somehow developed a fondness for the car and the whole story of restoring it, so he told me to just get it finished as fast as possible and then clean up as best we could when we were done. Luckily, the blasting guys also had a regular water pressure washer on the truck, so we were able to get things back to almost what they looked like before we showed up. It turned out later that my superintendent did go out with rags and a bucket to get things back to their original spotless condition (and that’s wiping down an entire row of storage cell doors and walls), and a lot of the media dust had gotten into adjacent storage cells through cracks around the doors, so my storage neighbors ended up with a lot of extra dust in their cells. I felt really bad about how it all went, so I offered him money to help offset the cleaning costs, which he declined, so I made a few batches of cookies and brought them over instead. There don’t seem to be any bad feelings; it’s mostly a “ha ha, remember when you thought you could sandblast in my parking lot?” greeting now when I go over there.
If you’re thinking about sandblasting for getting your car stripped, I have one word of advice: Don’t. It’s a decent process for things like flat panels and other parts where there aren’t nooks and crannies to catch the sand, but when you’re talking about an entire car, there are plenty of spots for sand to collect. It took me weeks to find them all (and I’m still not confident that I did), and it involved things like cutting the rocker panels open to get at the insides and fashioning all kinds of strange snorkel-y vacuum cleaner attachments to snake into hard to reach spots. I’m fairly certain that I still haven’t gotten it all, and I’m pretty sure I never will; it’ll have to shake out on the road (hopefully.) The blasting also leaves a semi-rough finish to the metal, and if you’ve got seams and other areas that are leaded (and the roadster has plenty of those), it’ll pit the lead due to its softness and it means you’ve got to come back and re-work all those areas. So, the moral of this story is find a place to dip your car, or just suck it up and do the chemical stripping yourself with something like Aircraft Remover. Next time, I’ll dip, regardless of how far I have to haul the car.
Once the car was fully naked, it became apparent that it had had a pretty hard life. It was sort of like that scene in action movies where the hero guy has just rescued the damsel in distress, gotten shot in the process, and has to take off his shirt to treat the wound, revealing a torso covered with years and years worth of stabbing and slashing scars, bullet wounds, whip marks, and other “this guy is a badass and has had a really checkered past” evidence. Usually the damsel’s reaction is some mixture of “disgusted” and “turned on”, but I was mostly feeling the former and not a whole lot of the latter.
As nice as the car looked in photos on the road trip, that confident and perky exterior was hiding a lot of sins from the past. At various points in its previous life, it had obviously been hit in every corner to some degree. The worst was the front; it looked like it had taken a pretty hard shot to the right front (before I hit the deer, naturally) that carried across the grill and well into the left fender as well, as he area around the headlight and turn signal was pretty crushed. It had just been drilled and bondo’d, and not very well at that. There was extensive rust in both front quarter panels (which I already knew about), the rockers both had long creases in the sides, the passenger door had taken a huge hit at some point, the rear quarters were rusted through in spots, and both rear fenders had old hits that had also been just drilled and bondo’d. On top of that, both the passenger and driver floor panels were badly perforated with rust, and the area under the battery was semi-dissolved.
Seeing as I had recently completed a 38,000 mile trip with the car, I was pretty surprised at the amount of damage and decay. It seems that the only thing that had been between me and the weather had been a pretty thick layer of aftermarket undercoating. At least now I had the ‘opportunity’ to make it all right again. Obviously, we had gotten pretty far from just a new fender and a partial re-spray.
Post-blasting, I had treated the whole body with a heavy application of Rustlick, and that coupled with the super low humidity in Vegas meant that the body was in no danger of developing surface rust while the steel was all bare. With that in mind, I opted to leave the bodywork for last, since it’d be the messiest and most time-intensive. Instead, I focused first on the frame, drivetrain, and trim.
The frame, all of the suspension parts, the rear end housing, various bits of drivetrain, and the dash went out to Electrostatic Painting for powder coating. We’d used Electrostatic for years on all of our manufacturing projects back when I had the fabrication company, and I knew they’d do a good job. Eddie was great, and the parts came out fantastic, including a practically perfect match for the original factory gray wrinkle finish on the dash and interior parts.
At the same time, I had practically all of the metal parts that weren’t getting powder coated out getting either plated or chromed, depending on their original finish. Everything came back looking really, really nice; better than factory new in some cases. The general idea here was to make things look good, but more importantly to make the parts last. This car is going to be doing many, many more miles, and I wanted to make sure that it stayed intact and non-rusty.
With that in mind, the work going on with the motor at Rebello was also intended more for a very solid driver engine more than a high performance build. I’d seen dyno charts on race motors where they made over 200HP (more than double the original power), but this wasn’t what I was after. Since I didn’t really know the history of the engine, we went for all new internal parts where available: New pistons, rods, valves, valve springs, and cam were all on the menu. While we were at it on refurbishing the crank, we also had it mildly stroked to push the displacement up to 1750cc, but that was about it for performance enhancements—no compression increase, no head work, no big valves, stock carbs. The idea was “super reliable, maybe a little more performance, but basically stock”, both because I wanted to keep things more or less faithful to the original, and because I didn’t want to have to deal with a temperamental high performance engine. I like it when the thing starts and idles, you know.
The idea was that all of these things would be done and back in my hands in time to put the car back together for a late spring Alaska run, but as they say, no plan survives contact with the enemy. The engine build was taking considerably longer than expected, plus I got an opportunity to go to China to work on a movie for a few months, so with both of those things in mind, I opted for a China adventure this year rather than an Alaska adventure. Both Rebello and the chrome shop kept their respective parts and pieces while I went off to the far east, with the expectation that they’d be done by the time I got home.
I can’t really talk about the work in China too much as the movie is still in production, but it was definitely an experience being there for that long and in some more rural areas. I’d been to China for work before, but mostly Hong Kong, Macau, Shanghai, and Beijing, which is sort of like saying “I’ve been to New York and Vegas, so I’ve seen America.” For this job, we were in Huangdao (about an hour south of Qingdao) for the bulk of the work, where the production had built several large sets out on some reclaimed land on the edge of the Pacific. There was also some work in Huairou, which is where China Film Group is located, and where most of the on-set shooting occurred.
If I’d actually given up the trip to Alaska for the gig in China, I’d have been disappointed. We’d been told that we were going to be working in Qingdao and Beijing, when in actuality we were in Huangdao and Huairou. That’s sort of like being told you’ve got gigs in New York and LA, and you actually end up in Newark and Barstow. However, there was an unexpected light at the end of the tunnel. We did eventually spend the last two weeks of the gig in Beijing proper (near Sanlitun), where I met up with some Roadster Roadtrip fans. Ah, the power of the internet: My new friend Alvaro (a Columbian expat living in Beijing, and MGA owner) had seen the roadtrip video on Petrolicious, and from there had gone to this blog. From there, he saw that I’ve got an Instagram feed, so he subscribed to that, and when I tagged a couple photos from Qingdao, he sent me a message saying that if I ever got to Beijing I should drop him a line. So, when I got to Beijing…
We had a great time—talked cars, rode motorcycles around Beijing, had several great meals, and had a few really fun get-togethers and dinners with several of his other friends. I got to see parts of Beijing I would have otherwise missed, eat some really fabulous food, and make a lot of new friends on the other side of the planet, and all because I posted some stories and photos on a makeshift blog a year earlier. It’s an amazing world we live in, and one should endeavor as much as possible to get out there and see it.
Next: I get out there and see more of it. Starting a new cross-country truck trip, this time following the Lewis and Clark trail.