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Frame Off Restoration - Step 2 - Dealing with the Surface Electrics


Every car has some form of surface electric assemblies. While I generally refer to the various light assemblies, this could also include ower antennas and other options. This totally depends on the specific car you're working on especially it's age. The more modern the car the more likely you are to have more satellite electrical assemblies. Also, since we're dealing with electrical bits make sure that the battery has either been removed or is disconnected before you start working.


I like to start at the back of the car and work forward. There's not necessarily a specific reason for this, I think it comes from the rear of the vehicle being simpler than the front. At the rear of the vehicle you'll inevitably have some form of tail light assembly consisting of a running lamp, brake lamp, reverse lamp and turn signal lamp. Some vehicles use the same part of the assembly for multiple purposes. Expose the wiring connectors at the back o the assembly. Clean off the wiring so that you can correctly see the wire color codes. Once you've photographed the connections remove each wire singly. Mark the wire with a masking tape label identifying the purpose of the wire. If you have a wiring diagram handy (which is strongly recommended) compare the wiring in your vehicle to ensure that it matches the original specifications. Any time you find any inconsistencies make note of them. This generally means the car's been rewired or modified at some point.

Once you've disconnected all the wiring it's time to remove the tail light assembly. Generally you will either have a single multipurpose assembly or each light is installed individually. Regardless of composition the rear lighting most frequently consists of a lens (glass or plastic), a light surround (chrome, stainless, pot metal, painted), bulb and bulb holder, gaskets (rubber) and some assorted nuts, bolts and washers.

Disassembly and Restoration

Now that it's off the vehicle take it to the bench for scrutiny. You want to look closely at the lenses for cracking, pitting and discoloration. Older glass assemblies tend to wear a lot better than plastic ones (UV Light breaks plastic down over time and makes it brittle). Now, When it comes to the lenses, evaluate the quality level of the restoration. Concours restorations must be perfect. After you clean the lenses (I start with windex and a shop towel and then finish by running them through the dishwasher) evaluate their condition. If they are good enough for your restoration, then you're all set. If they aren't, then you'll need to add them to your parts list. Whatever you do,don't toss them. Even ones in relatively poor condition may be of use down the road (It's also good for bartering purposes).

Remove the bulbs from the bulb holders. Make note of the bulb markings / serial numbers and what their use it. Frequently parts catalogs are extremely dated in terms of consumable parts. Having these numbers will assist in finding modern replacements. If the bulbs are good, save them. If they're burnt out, toss them.

It's time to focus on the surrounds. They may be painted the color of the car, chrome, or stainless. In addition, that chrome may be over a piece of pot metal. If the surrouds are chrome, it's time for the first big decision of the restoration process: re-chrome or polish? Take into account the level of restoration you're attempting. Also keep in mind that should you decide to work with the parts as is you can always send them out at a later date. Before I send any parts out for re-chroming I always evaluate the parts as a whole as well as in detail. At a minimum I go over all the parts with chrome polish and then either hit them with a hand held buffer or run them against my polishing wheel. It is possible to restore enough shine to the parts to not feel the need to send them off to a shop. I follow the same process for stainless parts. That being said, I've found that stainless parts tend to polish up better and smoother on the polishing wheel which saves having them replated. If you opt for the replating route you're nice and early in the restoration process, and this gives you a fair amount of time to find a reputable shop to assist you with the work. Now, I'll note it now, chrome plating, because of the nasty chemicals involved, is really expensive. So, deciding now allows you to plan for the expense.

If the surrounds are the color of the vehicle, then you won't be dealing with plating issues. Instead the challenge will be in ensuring that they match the color of the final paint job. Now, if you plan on painting the car yourself you have one set of issues. If you want to farm it out you have a separate set of issues. In either case you should sandblast, sand and prepare the part. Once the metal is clean hit it lightly with a primer coat. With a primer coat in place you've done 70% of the painting work and the part is ready to either paint when you do the whole vehicle or be handed off to the painter.

The last segment of the lighting assembly is the gaskets. Generally speaking these gaskets are made from rubber or some other plastic based component. Only really old vehicles will have something other than this. I always assume that these need to be replaced. On the off chance that you're working on something special, what I like to do is trace the gasket into my journal and then note the thickness. This way, should I need to reproduce the gasket from scratch I have a template to use. Add the gaskets to your parts list.

Finally, check any bolts or threaded segments. Take all the bolts, washers and nuts and use something akin to a wire wheel on a dremel to clean them up. If they are standard sizes, and you can identify the sizes, get replacements. If not, havig run the dremel over the threads and such will ease reassembly when you're done.

While this covers a single lighting assembly (rear tail lights) it is applicable for all the satellite electricals on the vehicle. Always take copious notes and photographs. Once you finish the necessary restoration steps on a given assembly piece, reassemble it, put it in a shopping bag and then store it in a good box container. Label the outside of the container with its contents.


You're not likely to be able to buy the necessary restoration bits the day you take the assemblies off the car. Instead, put an order in for the parts you need to replace. When you recieve the parts, integrate them in with what you have on hand to create the final assemblies. If you plan on painting yourself, or using a standard paint formula, you can do the part painting necessary so that it's done far in advance of painting the body. I like to go to the local automotive paint shop (once I've decided the color) and get a few rattle cans (spray cans) made up of the final color. With these in hand I can easily paint any of the assembly pieces that must match the vehicle's final color.

Once the ordered parts have arrived and been integrated in to the assemblies, then it is then time so set it aside for the next steps of the process. Remember the further along you can get now, the less work needs to be done at the tail end of the restoration.

This basic process should be repeated for all discovered surface electrics.

On to Step 3: Exhaust System

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Contents copyright 2008, 2009 - Jody F. Kerr

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