Project Car Diaries: Cannibalizing a Dodge Coronet to Fix My ’69 Charger’s Rusty Roof
Using old found material from a Dodge Coronet and some newfound welding skill, I was able to replace my rusty roof without spending too much money.
My 1969 Dodge Charger wasn't the best candidate for a full-on restoration. It was hardly even worthy of being a parts car when I found it. Not only because mother nature had eaten away most of the sheet metal, but she'd also taken some bites out of the unibody that left the car structurally compromised. Shaping the derelict back into a car would take a lot of money, or, time and creativity. Guess which path I chose.
The patches to the subframe and replaced floor pans weren’t much of an issue. I'd replace the entire floor and rockers anyway, and I'd be able to shape patches within minutes wherever I needed them on the frame rails. That’s not what’s haunted me, though. It’s the roof that’s kept me from ever really feeling good about the car.
Unfortunately, rust had absolutely mangled the unibody, drip rails, and parts of the skin. I'd try to salvage what I could to make it somewhat decent, but not a day went by where I'd not be bothered by the decay. Even if everything else on the car was working right, the rust in those areas tore away at my sanity.
Reproduction panels do exist, but a price tag of nearly $1,500 meant I'd rather spend countless hours and lose plenty of sleep figuring something else out. For once, my madness truly paid off. With a little bit of patience and some luck, and a whole lot of grinding, I managed to pull off the extensive roof repairs I needed for around $300.
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Sourcing Rare Parts on the Cheap
I've mentioned on a few occasions that I sourced a donor roof from a friend who's working on his own Charger transformation. Only, it isn’t a Charger roof. It’s from a Coronet. Though that sheet metal isn't a direct match with mine, it is a prime source for patches, especially since the structural parts are all beneath it. He actually wanted to give me the roof because it was useless to him, but I did throw him the $100 I could spare as a freelance writer at the time.
Unfortunately, the drip rails on that roof had met the same fate as mine, and I'd have to look on for a solution. The good news is that reproduction drip rails are available. Even better news came when I found a set on eBay for $120. I don't remember the shipping costs, as that was a few years ago, but we'll assume they brought the price up to $150. Having only $250 invested into all the sheet metal I'd need to make this happen isn't bad, considering a new roof skin alone will run 1968-70 Charger owners roughly $1200 when all is said and done.
As for the rest of the loadout, I kept it pretty cheap, too. And before you ask, yes. My Harbor Freight flux core welder went to war with me. It isn’t the shiniest, highest performing piece, but it did absolutely everything I needed it to here and I couldn’t be happier with its performance for the money.
Since I already had all the tools I needed to handle the job, I can’t consider them part of the investment for this project. Though, I think it’s fair to say that the little bit of lead, body filler, and welding wire quickly bring my cost of materials up to $300, if not a little higher.
Saving that kind of money is a huge deal, especially considering how much I still have to invest in other parts of the car. I mean, what I save here will quickly be eaten up by just the seats I've got my eye on. Bargains don’t come easy though.
See, the exchange for saving big on all new sheet metal is the hours upon hours of grueling work that is revitalizing old steel. Even though I'm about to quickly summarize what I did to make it happen in a few short paragraphs, it took a month straight of pounding, grinding, welding, and bleeding to pull it off. Worth it? Yeah, because now I have some serious bragging rights, I’m slightly less broke, and have a structurally sound and decently presentable Dodge Charger. Well, I'm at least a little closer to that last part anyway.
Tackling the Roof Project
Getting my roof in order started with the sections of the unibody running from the front to the rear. They, along with the drip rails, had some major rust issues. It's amazing I didn't wind up with a serious tetanus problem driving the car around like that for all of these years.
For those of you who don't know, Chargers and Coronets are on the same platform. In fact, you can even call the Coronet the Charger's daddy, but that's a history lesson for another day. All that's important to know right now is that the two cars are structurally the same. Though the sheet metal might be a little different, the supports behind it are the same. That meant my donor roof had the sections of unibody I needed to fix up my Charger.
The massive obstacle here is the roof skin above the sections I needed. I originally had the plan to cut away the skin in that area, chop out the supports, and butt-weld them in place on the Charger. But since the roof skin is paper thin, and I'm no ace body man, that simply wouldn't work. Luckily, I found that just the sections facing the interior of the car were rotted.
As much as I hate rust, this was a huge win. It meant that I could get away with cutting out just the inner sections and graft them in place, which is exactly what I did. I did spend way more time welding and grinding than I otherwise would have, but not having a warped, misshapen roof skin staring at me every time I get in the car warrants the extra work.
Easier Than Some Alternatives, but Not 'Easy'
Installing the drip rails seems like a ride down Easy Street in comparison to the opener of this project. Unlike my unibody patches that needed to be butt-welded in place in carefully-cut sections, these were entire pieces mounted in place with a few spot welds. There was a unique obstacle, though. The sections of the roof skin that meet the drip rail were rotted away in various spots, meaning I wasn’t in for a simple splice.
The good news is that the Charger features painted seam sealer in this area. I can get away with less-than-perfect work here because it'll be hidden anyway. And thankfully, the Coronet and Charger have the same window line, and I could source most of the patches I needed from it to fix that up.
To my surprise, patching the skin went along much more quickly and smoothly than I anticipated. While I did have to work rather slowly to prevent warping the metal, I was able to achieve far better results with my flux core welder than I had initially thought. I will admit that I am still thankful for the painted seam sealer.
What made the drip rails difficult was the angle I was forced to work in. Working overhead in the front seat of a car isn't usually that bad. However, I did have to wear a welding helmet. I had to force myself into some awkwardly strenuous positions to get to work on the pinch weld. I could hardly see and rogue slag set me on fire on more than one occasion, but I did ultimately get it done. Still, I couldn't be happier to finally crawl out of the car after all of that welding and grinding on the inside was finally through.
One Last Chaotic Clash To Finish It Off
Despite feeling like I'd already gone ten rounds with an iron monster, the fight wasn't over just yet. I'd still need to drag myself to the rear of the car. Even after making a meal of the underside of the roof, Mother Nature was still hungry enough to chew on the rear window channel and sail panels.
Thankfully, the window channel was done within a day or two, and I cut most of what I needed from the Coronet roof. Even if that was rotted, I only needed a few key components to patch what the Charger was lacking, and I quickly jammed out any other small patches I needed with some thin sheet metal I had laying around the shop.
The sail panels were a bit of a different story. I was able to splice in what I needed from the Coronet roof, but the driver's side was almost as bad as what the Charger was working with. So before I could weld it to the Charger, I had to patch the patch, which worked out just all right. The metal pulled a little, and I'll need a little more filler than I'd hoped to make it all look nice, but I'm not going to turn my nose up at the results the month-long fight produced.
Fixing my roof up was the hardest part of this restoration and is by far my proudest accomplishment. To me, it was the impossible. I went into it with minimal skills and no idea how I'd pull it off. But I worked tirelessly, put my mind to use, and figured it out. Even if my work can't rival that of high-end shops, it's real, and the journey was an excellent reminder to myself of what I'm truly capable of and what I'm all about as a person. Saving north of $1000 is a really nice bonus, though.
That's not all I was able to accomplish since my last update, though. I actually knocked out the majority of the to-do list I dropped then and even smashed out a ton more issues I discovered along the way.
Doors Door jams Rocker Panels
- Fender Patches
Roof Supports Roof Skin Trunk
- Inner Fender
At this point, the rear of the car is in good shape, and I can move to the front and start wrapping things up. I partially expect things to go pretty smoothly in terms of bodywork. However, some of the rust exists in some hard-to-reach spots that might require some more heavy-duty work. Either way, I'm really not that worried about it. I'm ready for just about anything after finally conquering the beast of a battle I'd been dreading for the past few years.
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