East Coast Garage: When restoring a 1963 Corvette, materials matter

There’s a putty, glaze, primer, glue, sealer, top coat, welding wire, clearcoat, tape, undercoat and masking paper for every job. And that can add up to thousands.

*Part 4 of Jeff Melnychuk’s series on rebuilding a 1963 Corvette Sting Ray. Click here for Part 1.

I know this is supposed to be about a Corvette, but by now you’ve met our 1970 Project Plymouth, which also happens to be the first car I ever bought.

Back in 1984, I did what any aspiring university sophomore would do: Spend some of his precious student-loan to repaint his car. Stupid? Likely, but at the time it seemed that having a cool car to woo the campus ladies was just as important as attending physics classes, astronomy labs and acing a history course (one of those pesky “arts” requirements).

I took the car to a local body shop where the foreman there, a short little Scotsman — named Scotty of course — quoted a lofty price of $600, $200 less than a competing body shop about six blocks away. The only catch was I had to do a lot of the prep and sanding myself.

Factoring my work into the equation and noting how much there was to do, I guess that the material costs couldn’t have been any more than about 10 cents. Not literally, of course, but there’s just no way they made money on that repaint. It wasn’t a show paint job by any stretch of the imagination.

It’s safe to say that $600 25 years later would hardly cover the cost of sandpaper and masking tape for the 1963 Corvette, let alone the cost of fibreglass cloth, resin, sprayable body filler, epoxy primer and all the labour that went into the project. Heck, the clearcoat cost $1,000 all by itself.

Once the bodywork is done, it’s time to spray on the high-build primer. As the name implies, it goes on thick so it can fill in low spots. The motto? Keep sanding.

 

A project car will always throw you some surprises and cost more than you think

This Corvette, given its more-than-extensive body rebuild, is not really an anomaly either, but there’s some simple math here at play: the larger the vehicle, the more you will spend on materials. That makes sense since you have to repair, sand, prime and paint more surface area. Had this been a 1970s Cadillac Eldorado, I would probably still be at it.

Wisely, the specialist I contracted to take care of the Corvette — Mike Poirier from Shediac, N.B. — negotiated a labour price plus materials. There was no way he was going to be stuck buying materials he hadn’t accounted for.

I said I needed to OK the purchase of all materials so that I knew what was going on the car and to monitor the costs and know about any surprises in advance. That was an eye-opener. The first tally was around $1,800 and didn’t even get us the Sebring Silver base coat or the clearcoat to put over top of that.

Surprises? On a project of this scale, everything is a surprise.

The thing about a fibreglass car is that once they’re stripped to the bare shell, you have to put something on top to seal it back up before painting. In this case, we used expensive sprayable polyester body filler that once applied needs to be sanded smooth.

Need to smooth out some more ripples? Just spray on more filler and keep sanding.

This is in addition to the gallons of fibreglass resin and acres of cloth needed to rebuild many sections of the Corvette.

On a vehicle made of metal, “materials” might include welding wire and gas, plenty of sheetmetal, and special primers. On a fibreglass car, there are yards of mesh fabric, resin, masking tape and putty.

 

Of course there’s a sealer to form a barrier between the bodywork and the paint and lots high-build primer that’s sanded within a micron of its life to bring the body to perfection. What’s often overlooked are the tubes of seam sealer — applied using a caulking gun — and any type of undercoating or hard finish for the bottom of the car, if that’s on the menu.

From there it’s several base coats of the body color, which dries to a dull finish, and then the clear coats — three in this case — the very-fine-grit sandpaper to smooth it out, plus the buffing pads and compound to make it shine like glass.

Base coat and clear coat costs are directly proportional to the size of the vehicle, although it also varies by the brand selected as well as the colour. Pigments also affect price.

 

You get what you pay for

While I’m sure there are a few receipts unaccounted for, the grand total for materials was about $3,500, which seems crazy. It’s not, actually.

Many body specialists will tell you that material costs have risen because regulations have reduced or killed airborne paint solvents and manufactures have had to spend serious money on new formulations that are still tough enough for autos and comply to environmental regulations.

Materials include lots of tape and masking paper as this process will have to be repeated at different stages.

 

I could have saved some money buying body-shop clearcoat versus the best-of-the-best clearcoat from House of Kolor, but the rest is considered pretty normal for a project of this size and build standard, which is a very important distinction to make since corners can be cut to make the job cheaper at the expense of quality.

Just look at the 1984 paint job on the Plymouth that began flaking off within a year, the body filler that began bubbling up and the inevitable resurrection that it’s also undergoing now.

 

*Continue the series:

1963 Corvette Rebuild: Part 1 here

1963 Corvette Rebuild: Part 2 here.

1963 Corvette Rebuild: Part 3 here.

1963 Corvette Rebuild: Part 4 here. (You are here)

1963 Corvette Rebuild: Part 5 here

1963 Corvette Rebuild: Part 6 here

1963 Corvette Rebuild: Part 7 here.

1963 Corvette Rebuild: Part 8 here.

1963 Corvette Rebuild: Part 9 here.

1963 Corvette Rebuild: Part 10 here.

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