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I was preparing my Passat wagon for Midwest Treffen this year when I made a grisly discovery. Well, two, actually. My rear bumper cover was coated with green paint. It matched a car in the parking lot at work. There are only two green cars at work, and one of them is an SHO Taurus. The SHO didn’t hit me, and the front end of the Civic was trashed. This would ordinarily not be noticeable due to the severe damage that area of the car suffered back in Philadelphia, but this was a lot of green paint. That didn’t faze me much. I have been planning to replace the bumper cover for ages. I suppose it was good I waited.
The real problem was up front. As I dragged the rag soaked in Back-to-Black over my grille, it snagged. I gently released it and investigated for the source of the problem. I discovered that not only was my beautiful stock grille cracked in several places, but whoever did it managed to take out a good bit of paint on my front bumper cover, too. It appears that hitting my bumper (or pushing me into another car?) wasn’t enough for them, they had to slide up over it, remove sections of paint and go for the grille, too. I know not everyone loves Volkswagens, but do you have to damage them? Argh! Now I’m out for two bumper covers and a grille. I don’t even want to know how much a stock grille costs. I already know how much a stock bumper cover costs.
I stared longingly at my banged up front end and confronted one of my favorite conundrums: I love the big blingin’ VW badge on the front. I ADORE it. I wear it with pride. But I also love those slinky little mesh grilles you can get from the aftermarket. And I love the satiny black paint they are painted with. I love their sleek and stealthy looks. But they are expensive and they take away the giant shiny VW badge.
Then the worst part of it all happened: as I opened the bonnet to investigate further, my big blingin’ VW badge fell out of my broken grille. My car debadged itself. Sometimes, you have to realize that you’re seeing a sign. I guessed that this was one of those times.
I’ve toyed with the idea of custom fabrication for a long time. I weld a bit and can bang metal decently, but I’ve never done a real start-from-scratch bodywork fabrication project. I am also not one to walk away from the door when opportunity knocks. I took the autodebadging as the proverbial sign from above. If I was going to spend $100, it was going to be on some sheet metal.
There’s one thing they don’t tell you about that cool-looking mesh stuff. The holes aren’t very big. The average open area of expanded metal mesh is 50%. The average open area of your basic plastic grille is closer to 90%. That’s a huge airflow penalty. I set out in search of the most open mesh I could find and settled on some 0.5” hexagonal perf. At 80% open area, it would look sharp and work. Eight square feet arrived at the loading dock at work the next day. I opened the package to admire my purchase and my heart fell – nothing says Pontiac like a honeycomb grille. But my head won out over my heart and the 80% open area hexagonal mesh would work, no matter what I thought it might look like.
I rummaged around at work and snagged a couple of loops of 8g high carbon steel wire. I checked with the paint guy in anticipation of a little government work in the paint lab. Satin black powdercoat over Bonderite ® NT-1 was a go. The Bonderite ® keeps the rust at bay even if you nick the paint. It’s nanotechnology, yo. Yippee. I checked my scrap steel stock at home. I was good to go. I would Foose it.
Shows like Overhaulin’ and Pimp My Ride show you the tiny details and the forest level view. They talk about timelines and how long things will take, but they don’t really show you the ugly side of fabrication. You rarely see the welds that went bad or the paint that ran or the carpet that didn’t match up. You hear some blowhard screaming at his abundant staff about meaningless little nitpicking stuff while the big problems are glossed over. You hear an endless stream of personalities bent more on making good drama than on good parts. The end result is usually a nice car, but the path they take to get there is torturous. And even my kids complain about the language.
Working by myself is way more interesting. I like it because I have no one else to blame if things go wrong. I am comfortable screwing up, but I like to do things right and be able to take credit for it. Before I get started, I am really looking forward to this grille fab – it’s a small job that should take not much more than a weekend worth of working and look very nice on the car. Perhaps I will have a little girl! badge made up for it so I can show it off better.
I started with the lower wireframe. Working with mesh requires some sort of bracing and edging material to support the shape. You need something to attach your clips or mounting points to. The wireframe also adds shape – the mesh will be ground off to the edge of the wireframe after welding. This will clean it up and remove any burrs. I put the wire on the back side, just to be different.
Welding is always fun process – the material can warp as it’s heated, you can make holes, you can crack the metal, all sorts of things can go wrong. So I tacked the mesh into place using every fabbers’ friends (zipties, duh) to hold the whole thing together. I would be remiss if I didn’t admit that I burned most of them. After tacking, you have to decide whether you want to weld it all or just rely on the tacks. I welded it all. Well, as much of it as I could stand to.
With the metal welded up, it was time to put the clips on. This was the hard part – the clips have to align, otherwise the thing won’t stay on the car. Instead of eight, I used four (like the fancy aftermarket grilles I so admire). It stayed on, and I took it in for paint.
I learned a lot during this project. I learned that 80% open area means your new grille looks like it’s not there from most angles. I learned that the wire on the back side looks really clean. I learned that I can do some fabrication. I learned that maybe the car does look kind of nice without the badge. My sons learned that you can do customization with out swearing like a sailor.
So go ahead and Foose it next time you are faced with body damage. While this wasn’t the most complex fab or even a minor sheet metal job, it gave me more confidence to work on my cars and something to show off at shows. The satisfaction of saying “I made it myself” will go a long way. I even think it might be time to tackle that bonnet project I have in mind…..
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