Project Car Diaries: Rust Holes, Meet My Harbor Freight Welder

My 1969 Dodge Charger needs serious bodywork, and I'm not just talking about bolting on bumpers. There will be serious work here, and there will be welding.
Hank O'Hop

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My 1969 Dodge Charger is my battle-proven steed. Since dragging it out of the dirt, I’ve made some notable progress with the driveline and suspension. I’ve been able to put different upgrades and combinations to the test, learning a great deal about what does and what doesn’t work for this application. Though I’ve still got a decent bit of work ahead of me there, it’s time to tackle the loose thread that’s been driving me nuts before we go any further. It’s time to get the sheet metal in shape.

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This Car’s Story So Far

I pulled this car from a field when I was just 17. A rural field can be a great place to find cars—by the time they get there, they’re usually cheap. But unfortunately, they’re also usually rotten from the moisture that tends to be around mud and grass.

Hank O'Hop and his 1969 Dodge Charger project car
A shot of a 22-year-old me biting off way more than I could chew. Hank O’Hop

My Charger was (and is) savable. But after years of putting off the intimidating bodywork I finally realized that if I wanted to do it myself, I had to put aside my desire to make it perfect and just make it good enough to drive.  

It was really bad, though. I ended up replacing the floor pans, quarter panels, and essentially the entire back half of the car. But the desire to drive the thing lead me to skip anything else.

1969 Dodge Charger project car rust repair
The rot seen here is representative of what was found on the entire rear end of the car. The remaining issues aren’t nearly as bad, but still need to be dealt with. Hank O’Hop

During that first round of sheet metal work, I was up against a far greater challenge than I am now. That was my first time doing any kind of bodywork, and the daunting to-do list was made even longer by the fact that I had to learn the skills required to complete it. I had to teach myself how to weld, how panels were bonded together, how they came apart, what kind of replacements to do and why, and so on. I also had to learn that most jobs are much bigger than they seem. 

Knowing that I had a lot to learn, I started that job with the floors. The hundreds of spot welds were a great opportunity to practice the craft. Since that was my first attempt at any of this, I will eventually go back and fix up my manglings. I did an OK job with the front floor pan, but my rear footwell work is horrendous. That’s a story for a later date, though. From there, I moved to the trunk floor pans and then to the outer wheel wells. Another reason for working on inner panels first is that I’d also give the exterior panels a structure to stick to. Of course, I also made sure to patch up the rockers and subframe panels where need be.

1969 Dodge Charger project car outdoor repairs
The Charger after the rear end and floors were fixed up outdoors. Anything that isn’t black is on my to-do list now. Hank O’Hop

Attacking the quarter panels was easy after getting all of my rookie mistakes out of the way elsewhere. I started by rebuilding the panels surrounding the trunk and then the tail panel and rear valance. Again, the idea is that I’d give the larger panels something to weld to. By the time I got there, a few spot welds felt like child’s play. 

The car looks good from certain angles, but there’s a fair amount of rust lingering in all the wrong places. Even if it’s covered up fairly well, I can feel it taunting me whenever I drive or work on the car. I won’t say I hacked the car together shamelessly, but I’ll admit to cutting corners out of necessity. After all, any of the bodywork I’ve done to this point was conducted outdoors and a Pennsylvania driveway is not the optimal environment for perfect paint-laying. 

I never had the right environment to put my best effort into the car. Half of my energy was spent carrying tools to and from the car and fighting to keep debris from polluting my workpiece. All while obstacles presented by the environment ate away at my patience, such as rocks digging into my back or rushing to beat rain.

I’m proud of my ability to overcome that all and achieve what I was able to in that space. However, moving to a garage has proven that I’m capable of producing far better results when only the car can work against me.

What’s on The Agenda?

Even if the garage is a big upgrade for me, it’s not like I have a pro-level fabrication facility at my disposal or the budget to match. I’m basically restricted to the same tools any other DIYer will have to work with, most of which come from discount tool sources or were purchased second-hand. 

The Tool List 

Of these tools, the Milwaukee M12 die grinder and my Chicago Electric flux-core welder are what I’m leaning on the most, with the grinder feeling far more critical to the overall approach. Speaking of which, let’s talk about what I’m taking on. The bullet list below covers all the key areas I know I have to tackle at this point.  

1969 Dodge Charger project car door rust
As you can see, rust doesn’t cover the entire panel, but it’s still present. Most of the existing sheet metal has similar issues. Hank O’Hop

Body Checklist 

  • Doors
  • Door jams 
  • Rocker Panels
  • Fender Patches 
  • Roof Supports 
  • Roof Skin 
  • Trunk 
  • Inner Fender 
  • Firewall 
  • Paint

Anyone who’s battled rust knows just how hefty that seemingly short list can feel, even if most of the sections mentioned only need minor repairs. Thankfully, there are only a few areas that need some major attention. For the most part, I can use some sections of sheet metal I have lying around to fabricate small patches. I’m no wizard, but that Milwaukee M12 grinder, body hammers, and miscellaneous pliers have yet to fail me. 

Since I can’t conjure metal out of nothing (again, not a wizard) I needed some clean compatible pieces of car body to graft onto my Charger. A friend of mine is currently working on his own Mopar project, converting a Coronet into a Charger 500, and he helped me collect some patch panels. 

He cut the entire roof off his car, and I’m using that to source parts I need. Multiple parts of that roof will be used to revive my own, but I can’t just swap it in place as the skins are entirely different between the Charger and Coronet. I also grabbed a reproduction fender patch, and an inner fender patch from another donor car from eBay. I’ll need a new battery tray too, once I get that far. Other than that, I’m making what I can from scratch. I did also land new drip rails for pennies on the dollar in an eBay auction a while back as well.

1969 Dodge Charger project car rust spots
I have a lot of Swiss cheese to deal with, but, luckily, most of it is easy to deal with. Hank O’Hop

In a perfect world, I’d just buy entire panels to swap with the old. But that’s just not going to work for this project. For one, I don’t have thousands of dollars to shell out for all-new sheet metal. Even with most of the heavy lifting behind me, going with all-new panels to repair the remaining rust issues would run me $3,500 on the low end. Secondly, I’ve already replaced a good portion of the car, and the idea that very little of the original sheet metal is present just doesn’t sit well with me. 

At this point, I have under $300 invested in patch panels, and that’s mostly thanks to my friend being so kind and letting me have what he no longer needs. Saving that kind of money means that this project is going anywhere but Easy Street, though. 

Replacing entire panels can be a lot of work, but the process is generally much easier than grafting in patches. A lot of care needs to go into where you make your cuts to ensure everything lines up properly. For the most part, you’ll spend a ton of time carefully massaging panels until everything matches up. That’s a very time-consuming process, especially if you’re making patches from scratch. Welding is nothing to lose your patience with either. Rushing through it can warp the panels, adding even more to the process. 

This is the kind of work that makes you appreciate folks finding different hobbies or leaving it to the pros. It’s hard work that really puts your patience to the test. It forces you to think critically and act creatively, as your understanding of physics is turned on its head, and most things fail to go to plan. Things move along very slowly, and it becomes clear why you rarely see this work in full on build shows and social media. 

For me, the grueling nature of this undertaking is what makes it attractive, though. Sure, my love for the shape of this car’s sheet metal is enough to keep me moving. But putting myself to the test, pushing my personal limits, and forcing myself to grow, all for a car that probably should have ended up as scrap metal, well, that’s the real draw.

The Biggest Challenges I’m Expecting 

I’ve already begun to finish sculpting the Charger from the rusty chunk of steel in front of me. Just like any other piece of art, the energy you put into a project defines the end product. And while I’ve accepted that perfection isn’t worth chasing this time, I do want to do right by the car and be able to take pride in the car once I’ve moved on from restoration to maintenance. 

I expect the roof skin to be the main villain of this phase. There’s a good bit of work that needs to be done to the support rails beneath, which does mean I’ll need to tear away quite a bit to do repairs properly. Then when I transition to patching the skin itself, I’ll be forced to move slowly as the super thin metal is bound to pull if I try to move too quickly. I already ran into that issue with the door skins, which I’m currently working on, and don’t want to deal with it again on the uppermost panel of the car. 

1969 Dodge Charger project car body work
The door jams and doors have been repaired at the time of writing this. Now I am tackling the roof, which I expect to be the hardest part of this project. Hank O’Hop

To that end, I’m focusing my attention on making improvements to the car in the sense that they make it a better driver.

It’s a lot of work, but for a car that’s a keeper, it’ll be worth it. Removing the rust solves a number of problems, making it safer and more likely to solve a safety inspection, while paint prevents it from coming back.

Ultimately, I want the Charger to be everything it is now, just done right. I’m not building it to live up to someone else’s standards, only my own. I’ll do the work to the best of my ability, but I’m not going to kill myself in an attempt to live up to the expectations of others. I want it to look like something I put together myself and built a real bond with because that’s exactly what it is.

I have a long road ahead of me and a few uphill battles as far as the body and paint go. After that, some new seats and general freshening up will have a hugely positive impact on my driving experience.

If I can make it through all that, it’s back to daily driving, trying different things to find out what works with my focus directed primarily to the suspension and driveline. Stay tuned.

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