Restoring the Mangled Fiberglass Body | Restoration Impossible Lotus Elan Project Car Part 6

Photography by Tim Suddard and Tom Suddard

Part 6 of the magazine series.

When we found our Lotus, it had been sitting in a field in northern Michigan for a long time. How long? We’re not entirely sure, but the last time it had been registered was in 1978. Jimmy Carter was president, disco was in full swing, and cars were still made with chrome bumpers. A lot of time had passed. 

The elements had done a number on the bodywork—and that’s not counting the wreck that took the car off the road in the first place. Everything behind the rear wheels had been forcibly removed, including half of the quarter panels plus the deck lid, fuel tank and trunk itself. Oddly, though, the taillight panel—complete with the lights themselves—came with the car. 

While we constantly preach that it pays to buy the best car you can afford, in this case we are doing the opposite. Our reasons for this poor decision are many and include foolish pride as well as our desire to save something rare. 

We also saw this car as a potential lesson: If it can be saved, then pretty much anything is possible if you put your mind, your back and your money into it.

Step 1: Step one to restoring an old fiberglass body: Start with a solid foundation by blasting away the old paint and much of the gel coat. Blast Masters, Inc. handled this process, blasting away the old finish with baking soda (sodium bicarbonate). As they explain, soda blasting easily strips away paint, oil, dirt and surface rust, yet doesn’t damage fiberglass and sheet metal like some other media can. Soda is also environmentally safe.

Step 2: Soda blasting, like all media blasting, works best with a trained, experienced hand—which, again, is why we take our project cars to West Palm Beach, Florida, so Blast Masters can blast them. Debi Winters, owner of the company, and her husband, Steve Sanguinetti, are both expert blasters who have worked on many fiberglass cars. They know that not removing enough material leaves a lot of hand sanding to be done, while taking off too much leaves too little of the original car. This job was a particularly tough one, but they nailed it, injuring absolutely none of the original fiberglass.

Step 3: Once our crashed Lotus body had been stripped and the damage cut away, it resembled a disassembled kit car—which, to be honest, was a less daunting prospect than before. We sourced the replacement right-rear quarter panel, a new old stock piece, from Dave Bean Engineering. It’s still wearing the factory gel coat. The left-rear corner is a used piece that came from a reader in Wisconsin.

Step 4: We test fit our replacement rear bumper (which came from Famous Frank’s Lotus Parts) to see how the rear of the body would fit together. It was at this moment we realized that we might just be able to save this monstrosity: We still had a 6-inch gap to fill, but knew we could graft in part of our salvaged taillight panel; after that, we’d need to make a new trunk floor. (Check out the sidebar for details on how we made a mold for that repair.) The deck lid came from another reader’s garage—which was located not 30 miles from where we found the car.

Step 5: Time to begin the surgery. We used a cutoff wheel to remove the jagged remains of the right-rear quarter panel. A reciprocating saw was used to cut out the thicker parts of the body. Notice that we’re wearing a respirator for this: Fiberglass dust is nasty stuff. 

Step 6: The body damage wasn’t limited to the fiberglass, as the steel inner framework was also bent and rusted. 

Steps 7 and 8: Before reattaching any panels, we carefully measured every aspect of the car’s body. Most of our measurements were taken off the body’s centerline, and measurements were taken and retaken throughout the repair process. Notice that we have the body on the chassis for all of this work: This stiffens the tub and also ensures that the repaired body will still correctly fit the chassis.

Step 9: Now that the mangled fiberglass and metal have been cut away, this starts to look like a rather standard repair rather than an impossible restoration. We did one side at a time to keep ourselves sane—and to help ensure that the car stayed straight and symmetrical. 

Step 10: Those replacement corners weren’t just going to jump onto the car; they needed to be glassed in place. We decided to join the rear quarter panel at one of the strongest and most inconspicuous spots—right under the front seat in a curved strengthening area. We figured that we could easily disguise the repair here. After grinding back about an inch of fiberglass on both the repair piece and the body itself, we’d feather the two areas together. The goal is to make the repair the same thickness as the body so everything looks uniform.  

Step 11: To actually join in the new piece, we first clamped it in place. Then we also secured it with self-tapping screws and metal brackets made from scrap. This will allow the 3M Panel Bonding Adhesive to set up. 

Step 12: To square up that replacement left-rear quarter panel, however, we needed to recreate the entire back of the car. We stabilized the damaged right-rear quarter panel with some metal braces and then reinstalled our taillight panel. Before making any permanent repairs, we took our measurements and double-checked them. Our Elan is looking much more like a car at this point.

Step 13: Success! We have our left-rear quarter screwed and glued in place. Next we can start fiberglassing everything together.

Step 14: The fiberglass mat is saturated with resin and hardener. How quickly the resin hardens depends on the ratio of hardener to resin as well as the ambient temperature. We like to have a mixture that gives us about 20 minutes before the fiberglass “kicks,” as the hardening process is called. 

Step 15: We applied that fiberglass over the bonded repair seam, which is the seam between the two rear corners of the car. The body had sagged here after years in the sun, so we propped it up with scraps of wood. Once the fiberglass dries, this area should sag no longer.

Step 16: Now we could install the steel reinforcements that we laboriously cut from a Lotus Elan parts car. After clamping the steel in place, we could tack weld it to some of the remaining original reinforcement. 

Step 17: With the major cutting and joining complete, we could attack some of the more minor blemishes on the body. We filled in the minor star cracks with resin. Our nose needed this kind of attention. 

Step 18: We wanted to retain as much of the original right-rear quarter panel as possible, so we only replaced about half of it with the new piece. The remaining portion was missing a chunk, though. Thankfully we had grabbed every fiberglass fragment when we retrieved the car, so we were able to feather in the piece that had been knocked loose. 

Step 19: We wanted the bottom of the car to look as good as the top—especially important since it’s heading to the Amelia Island Concours this coming March. Our new fiberglass mold will allow us to properly patch the hole in the trunk. (Skip ahead to see that process.)

Step 20: At this point our body is fully repaired. After much sanding and some filling with our fiberglass mat and resin, we will gelcoat the body and then prep it for paint.


Making a Mold for Fiberglass Repair

Fiberglass parts, including car bodies, are made using a mold. That mold can be made of nearly anything that holds its shape, from steel to plastic to even fiberglass itself.

Once a mold has been procured, the assembly process is rather simple. First, a layer of gelcoat is sprayed inside that mold. When the fiberglass piece is pulled from the mold, this gel coat will give the completed piece its finished look. 

Then the fiberglass mat itself, as well as the resin and hardener, follow the gelcoat. The mat can be laid down by hand or sprayed in with a chopper gun. While the gelcoat side of the piece will have a smooth finish, the backside won’t since the hardened fiberglass mat has a rough appearance.

Our Elan needed a new trunk floor. Rather than just source the panel, we decided that it would be quicker and less expensive to duplicate the factory process by forming our own mold. 

The mold for our Elan’s replacement trunk floor needed to start with an Elan with a good trunk floor. Solution: We borrowed a friend’s partially restored Elan.

Here we had to get creative. Ideally we would have flipped the car over and made a mold off the trunk floor’s bottom surface. Then we would have sprayed our gelcoat into that mold before building the piece out of fiberglass. This process would yield a smooth finish for the interior surface of our trunk floor.

Since we didn’t want to put someone else’s car on its lid, we decided to make our mold of the trunk floor from the inside of the trunk. This game plan, though, would put our patch panel’s smooth finish on the outside surface, not the inside, of our new trunk floor.

So we had to get creative. After making our mold, we had to smooth out the backside so that the interior side of our trunk floor would have a finished finish. Confused? Follow along and we’ll explain the process. 

Step 1: The first step in making a fiberglass mold to create a replacement part is to find a donor; we borrowed a friend’s partially restored Elan. Then the surface to be replicated needs to be cleaned. 

Step 2: You will need $20 worth of materials from a home improvement store plus a few basic tools, some wire mesh, plaster of paris and a 5-gallon bucket. A mixing attachment for an electric drill will save a lot of time. We also grabbed some tape, a utility knife and some tools for spreading the plaster. 

Step 3: To keep things clean, we covered the donor car’s trunk with plastic. 

Step 4: Unless the mold is very small, plan to place a piece of wire mesh or chicken wire in the mold. This reinforcement needs to be completely covered by plaster so it provides adequate strength, yet doesn’t affect the look of the finished fiberglass piece. 

Step 5: Our favorite body and paint man, Tom Prescott (at right), helped us properly mix the plaster. You are looking for a medium consistency. If the plaster is too runny, you’ll have trouble manipulating it up the sides of your mold. And if the plaster is too thick, it will have trouble going through the mesh and fitting into every little crevice. 

Steps 6 and 7: You need to work fast and quickly spread the plaster over the entire area that is creating your mold. Plaster of paris has a working time of about 20 minutes. 

Step 8: Once you make your mold, let it harden, preferably overnight. Then it can be pried free and used to create your new fiberglass part.

Step 9: After molding our new trunk floor, we installed the finished piece. 

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