[T3] Chassis restoration: a horror story

Soren Jacobsen snj at blef.org
Wed Oct 31 21:32:40 PDT 2018

Gather round, kids, and brace yourselves for a scary Halloween story!  It's a rather lengthy tale, so grab yourself a warm beverage, plop down in your most comfortable chair, and prepare to be scared.

(Seriously, this is a ridiculously long email.  The short version is: replaced rusty floors in my car.  Ran into lots of dumb problems and hated most of the process.  Finally got the car back on the road today.)


In 2011, I picked up a 1965 sunroof Variant:


This car had a rough life.  As best as I can tell, in the 80s it threw a rod and was taken off of the road.  It sat around for quite some time without glass and was robbed of parts by subsequent owners.  These poor storage conditions resulted in the floors rusting away from the inside out.  There was significant rodent nesting in the rear seat area, which certainly didn't help.  Here's a small portion of it:


Having been abandoned so long ago, the car didn't have a title.  When ownership is in doubt, Washington state makes you get the car inspected by State Patrol.  Assuming the numbers match and it doesn't come up stolen, they'll let you register the car but won't issue a title for three years.  During this time, someone else can make an ownership claim on the car, so who knows, maybe you'll _never_ get a clean title.  Not likely, especially with a car this junky, but I'm not a big risk taker.  I'm also not a great welder.  Paying someone to fix the rotten floors seemed like a pretty big and mildly risky move for a car I didn't even officially own, and I wasn't inclined to do the work myself.

Luckily, I got a wrecked 1968 Squareback at the same time, and although its pan wasn't perfect, it was mostly solid.  Eager to get this car on the road, I put the 1965 body on the 1968 pan.  I put a lot of miles on the car in this configuration, even going from Seattle to the east coast (got to meet Keith on that trip!) and back.  I felt a great deal of shame from that mismatched body and pan, though.  Not only is it legally sketchy, those late model heater control levers are hideous!

To make sure I eventually got the original chassis back under the body, I spent a good chunk of change ($700ish) on reproduction floor pan halves from Klassic Fab:


They look nice, and we're certainly lucky to have _something_ available for our cars, but honestly I wish I'd just held out for nice original metal.  More on that later.

In late 2015, with title in hand, I decided I could take the Variant off the road for a while and have those pretty green pans welded in.  I found a guy in Washington who was willing to do the work.  The plan was to clean up the original chassis and put the body back on it.  I'd then drive the car out to the shop and they'd handle the rest.

With this plan in mind, I started taking the car apart.  I found it rather enjoyable work, knowing I would soon be farming out the difficult work to someone else.  With quick-and-dirty solutions like this improvised battery tray, I soon had the body back on its original chassis and the car was once again drivable:


This was when things started to go south.  The shop flaked out on me and was apparently no longer interested in taking the job (the owner simply stopped responding).  Despondent, I parked the car outside for a year or so, taking short (breezy!) trips every once in a while just to remind myself that it was more than a useless pile of metal taking up space in my carport.  Let me tell you, it's quite chilling driving along at 60MPH and looking down to see the pavement move underneath your feet.  Better make sure anything of value is in a pocket with a zipper!  During this year, birds occasionally got trapped inside the car and made a mess of the interior.  I did get to pick up a trapped hummingbird, though, which was a pretty cool experience.  At the end of this year, I found a guy who was willing to do the pan work, but I'd have to wait several months for him to be available and he was a few hundred miles away.

Reaching peak frustration and feeling the urge to just get something _done_ already, I decided I'd do the work myself.  How hard could it be?  I'd recently seen a thread on TheSamba where a guy showed his floor pan replacement process, and it looked pretty straightforward.  I'd never done a job of this nature, but I figured that I could get it done in a couple months at a lazy pace.

At this point, I should show you the extent of the damage I was dealing with. Ladies and gentlemen, I present... the patient:


The rear halves of the floor were completely gone, the fronts were only solid (and still fairly crusty) in the first 6ish inches.

That's just the bird's eye view of the trouble, though.  Once we go beneath the surface, the _true_ horrors reveal themselves.  Pull the front access plate and we find that the tunnel has been serving as a mouseoleum (be sure to notice my little friend up by the fuel line):


The rusting-from-inside-out was so bad that it ate away part of the tunnel flange and even some of the upright portion of the tunnel:


This car suffered, as many of the early ones do, from a broken clutch cable tube.  Here's the rear attachment point:


Notice that on early cars, there's a big opening where the clutch cable tube and accelerator cable tube exit the chassis and the two of them are supposed to be held in place by a bracket hanging from the top of the inside of the chassis.  In later years, VW simplified things with a much more robust design: an individually sized hole for each tube, to which the tubes are welded.  It's effectively impossible for that to break, and it eliminates the boot that the early cars use (not pictured -- didn't have any at the time, as they're NLA).

Moving frontward, the clutch cable tube was _also_ broken at the middle attachment point.  A previous owner had apparently discovered this problem and attempted to fix it, but they took a very unconventional and sloppy approach:


Yes, that's a muffler clamp bolted to the tunnel.  Although the crude nature of it makes me shudder, I have to admit it did a great job of keeping the tube from moving.  Unfortunately, though, the previous owner got the repair location wrong.  That hideous hole they hacked is just rear of the seat belt mount point, but that's too far forward.  It's supposed to roughly in line with the rearmost subframe nut plate on the floor.  The clamp fix also moved the height of the clutch cable tube, which removed some of the sag built in to the design.  Bad thing to do if you want a smooth clutch.

The bottom couple inches of the rear seat support and kick panel were rotten, including both the support towers. Patching up all those intricate pieces was a bit too daunting considering my limited abilities, so I removed the whole piece and planned to use the panel from the 1968 as donor.  Here they are, donor on the left, original on the right:


The eagle-eyed reader may be screaming "But they're different!"  Yes, they certainly are.  I still lose sleep over it.  I kept the original panel, with the insane hope that one day I'll get it fixed up properly and restore it to its rightful place.


Having accepted the unsettling facts above, and remaining firm in my resolve to rid this chassis of its demons, I set about the business of creating a proper work environment.

First, I pulled the body and built a cart for it to sit on while I worked on the chassis:


For the chassis, which I figured I'd need to be flipping around often, I made a little spit out of an engine stand and a sawhorse:


Then the real work began.  I started off by measuring everything I could (holes and nut plates that would have to be added to the reproduction metal, outer floor perimeter distance from tunnel at multiple points, brake pedal stop nut position, other stuff I'm now forgetting).  I realized I couldn't easily take measurements for the front corners of the pan where they curve, so I decided to put my trust in templates instead:


Once I was confident I had taken note of everything that needed noting, I set in to cutting.  I cut out most of the floor, then ground away the remnants at the tunnel flange and the front and rear crossmembers.  This was nerve-racking work and I'm sure I aged a few years in the hours I spent on it.  Little did I know that this would be the end of the straightforward work.  I probably would've appreciated it more had I known then what I know now.

Things got considerably more frustrating from this point on.  I began trimming the passenger side floor pan to fit.  Trim a tiny bit, check, trim some more, check.  Over and over and over, a little bit at a time so as not to take off too much.  It's surprisingly difficult to measure most of these cuts, because you can't seat the pan half fully until it's been trimmed down significantly.  Not a simple "measure this distance, cut down to size, drop in, done" process, unfortunately.

After I got the pan trimmed down enough that it could be fully seated, I discovered that the pan halves aren't shaped quite right at the outer edge.  The front corners particular are particularly bad, and the holes cut for the body mounting bolts are slightly off.  Overall adjustment of the panel is very limited if you install the floors like I did, cutting out the old stuff completely.  The way this is constructed, there are pockets on the frame and the floor pan has bumps that fit up into them.  In the front you're limited side left to right, and at the rear you're limited front to back.  Pictures tell the story much better than words, so here's what we're dealing with:


To be fair, there's a little bit of wiggle room (1/8", perhaps), but combined with the improper shape of the outer edge of the floor pan pieces, the position you settle on will be a compromise no matter what.  At this point, a deep dread set in, and I began to seriously regret my decision to do this job myself.  I bit my nails, did a lot of frowning, trimmed the pan half a bit more, realized it was as close as I could get it, frowned a lot more, and walked away from the project.

Ski season was in full swing, so I spent most of my free time in the mountains, happily avoiding the misery of all that metal.  Spring came around, and with the warming weather I figured it was time to take another look at the floor pan.  Approaching the project with a clear head, I realized that unless I held out for clean original metal, there was nothing I could really do other than accept the fact that the pans weren't going to fit perfectly.  It's a junky car anyway, and it should be grateful I put _any_ work its rotten chassis.  Even a sloppy floor pan replacement job would be a big improvement, and as long as it all fits together at the end, who really cares?  With this mindset, I started tacking in the passenger pan:


A couple gripes to point out in that picture.  First, notice the hole for the brake pedal stop.  Both sides of these pans ship with a nut welded to them, to avoid leaving RHD folks out.  I wish neither side had the nut.  It's a hassle having to close up a hole on the passenger side, and the nut was too far rearward on the driver side, so I ended up having to take that one off too.  Second, notice the small pressing that runs up next to the tunnel near the front.  This is where the accelerator pedal bracket is attached on an early car.  This pressing is...you guessed it, in the wrong place!  It's too far inward, meaning the floor pan isn't actually _flat_ there where it meets the tunnel.  Again, the floor pan adjustment left to right is essentially locked in up front.

I quickly found myself discouraged again, and my motivation quickly disappeared.  I spent quite some time welding and grinding that long seam front to back, trying to make it look perfect.  This was a colossal waste of time/effort. In the end I got it looking pretty damn good, but I look back on it and wish I could've let it go much sooner.  If you are someone with perfectionistic tendencies, I would STRONGLY suggest that you never replace the pans on your type 3.

Before fitting the driver side pan half, I had to address the rust on the tunnel flange.  I cut out some donor metal from the 1968 pan and started welding it in:


Notice the hole drilled higher up on the tunnel.  That's part of a previous owner's hack to attempt to keep the shift rod from falling to the floor after the shift rod hanger broke.  SIGH.

Keeping with the theme of previous owner hacks, my next task was to fix the broken clutch cable tube, starting at the rear attachment point.  My fix was to add a bracket to the _bottom_ of the pan.  I made an L-shaped piece with two semi-circles cut into it that the clutch and accelerator cable tubes could rest in.  I wedged the L bracket up into place, welded it through the bottom of the chassis, and then for good measure, attempted to weld the tubes back to the original bracket.  This last part of the fix went _very_ poorly, and I'm almost too ashamed to show this picture, but here's what I ended up with:


You can see the bracket I added and the horrible welds.  The welds at the accelerator cable tube didn't even take on both surfaces, but the bracket holds it in place and I was more afraid of burning through than I was of not having a bulletproof accelerator cable tube.  As I mentioned above, I'm not much of a welder, and that access hole is tiny!

Once again, I got frustrated with how imperfectly the project was going, it started snowing in the mountains, and I stepped away for a few months to do something _enjoyable_ in my spare time.  It took about 6 months for me to get back to work on it.

In spring, I got the other pan half trimmed down and welded in much quicker than the first.  This time I knew it'd be a bad fit no matter what I did, so I didn't agonize over it quite as much.  I got to work, it all went "fine," and I moved on to my next paranoia-induced task: a test fitting of the body to the pan.  What if, after all this work, the body wouldn't actually bolt up to the pans?!  Perhaps I'd overlooked something.  Perhaps my templates weren't good enough and _that's_ why I'd had all that trouble getting the pans properly positioned.  I bolted up the front and rear suspensions to the chassis and plopped the body on top of it all.

Things basically fit.  It was close, but I had to grind away a little bit of metal on the edge of the pans at the front corners.  Just the lower lip, nothing serious.  This was still a hearty dose of frustration for me, though.  I looked everything over, trying to figure out what I could have done wrong.  Nobody but ISP West (who sell their own stuff, so...) complains about these pans online, they just say "GOT NEW GERSON PANS! LOVE 'EM! LOOK AT MY SHINY POWDERCOATED CHASSIS!"  In the end, my conclusion remains that the pans are simply not made well enough to provide a proper fit if installed fully.  Here are some photos from the test fit that illustrate the problem:


The first image shows the rear crossmember locking in the front to back position of the pan.  The second shows the corner, where you can't quite see it, but the pan and body actually match quite well.  The third shows the front corner, where...it fits like crap!  That front corner needs to be moved forward, but it's impossible if you're using the full pan piece.  I shrugged my shoulders, elongated some holes in the perimeter of the pan, and moved on.

With the floors locked in, I moved on to more finishing details.  First up was seat rails, which aren't included in the replacement pans.  Luckily between the two cars I had a decent set, so I cleaned them up and went about test fitting things.  The factory manual has diagrams for a jig to be used for getting the alignment correct, but it's not really necessary to build one in my opinion.  This was one of those tasks I thought would be a pain but ended up being fairly straightforward.  You just take the measurement from the jig diagram, set the rail appropriately, clamp it down, test fit with a seat just to make sure it's ok.


The pans, of course, are slightly wrong in their pressings in this area (the depression where the rails sit isn't significant enough, moreso on the left half than the right) so you'll probably have to do a lot of fiddling to actually get it aligned properly, but it's not the end of the world.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, here's something I figured would be a breeze but wasn't: the jack points.  Once again, these repro pans disappointed me.  I very carefully saved the jack points from the 1968, taking care to grind away the floor from the jack point.  In other words, the ones I had were pristine and unbent.  But how do they fit against the brand new floor?  Horribly:


One side of the pan was shaped a little bit better, but in both cases I ended up having to mangle the jack points to get them to fit.  Blah.

Next, I moved on to the pedal stop bolt.  As noted earlier, it was too far rear, which made it impossible to get the brake pedals adjusted properly.  I removed the nut, pushed it forward as far as it'd go, found that _still_ wasn't forward enough, so I had to grind off part of the nut to make room (since it runs up against the wall of a bumped out section of the floor).  Another big sigh and cursing of the overall shape of these pans combined with my decision to install them whole.

Next task, next disappointment!  The profile of the pans near the rear subframe reinforcement isn't a very good match to the originals.  I had a beautiful (relatively speaking) set of original nut plates ready to go, so naturally they didn't fit:


To be fair, I probably could've made them work on one side, but I didn't want to have it mismatched, so leaning into my misery, I cut down some body mounting plates and just used them for all four.  No picture for you all here, because...ugh.  

At the front corners of the pan, where they meet the framehead, there's a thick plate that ties everything together.  I made the pieces, tacked them in, and screwed up something that I didn't realize in time.  Make sure the cutout for the four front mounting bolts is a _larger_ diameter than the slot on the framehead.  It needs to be able to fit a bolt head and washer, not just the shaft of the bolt.  Durrrrr.  Anyway, they were at least fun pieces to cut:


That picture also shows how far off the mounting holes ended up being on that side.  Blah.  I should've left that corner alone, it turns out, because there's not even enough room to get a bolt tightened down.

Moving forward, I closed up a big hole that some fool cut and then left open.  Presumably they were looking to see if the clutch cable had broken at its front attachment point.  This was rather gratifying.

To keep the good vibes going, I set my sights on the horrible muffler clamp fix for the middle clutch cable tube attachment point.  I felt proper _righteous_ when I undid that hack.  I cut a CLEAN hole in the proper location and reattached the tube to its factory mount point, restoring the proper shape of the tube:


You can just barely see a little metal bracket on the tubes there.  It's supposed to be welded to that sizable bracket sticking up from the bottom (left in the picture) of the tunnel.  This car had a very short bead originally, which obviously broke free.  I checked the 1968 chassis and it had a much more sizable area welded.  I expect later cars are, again, far less failure prone.

Feeling somewhat emboldened by these feel-good fixes, I decided to move on to the part of the project that was scaring me most: the rear kick panel.  I mentioned earlier that there were some differences between the one original to my car and the one from the 1968, which I was using.  I was able to address a couple of them.  First, there are some tabs at the bottom of the 1968 panel.  I assume they hold carpet in place?  In any case, the 1965 version is flat, so I cut off those tabs and made patches pieces for the holes.  Second, the battery hold down section is different.  6V cars just had a little hook, and 12V cars have that bracket for the battery to slide under.  Thankfully, they also feature a little hook (dual purpose replacement, I suppose), so I compromised and cut away everything but the hook, making it close to original but not quite right (the original hook has a little bit of a taper at the bottom, which is non-functional but looks cool).  Next, it was on to the real task: fixing the rusty bottom section.  The patch piece for the bottom, near the battery tray, wasn't too bad.  A simple bend covered most of the area, and I only had to fiddle around with some curves in a few small sections.  It came out fairly well.  The support tower was also rotten at the very bottom, and this was an area where I kinda phoned it in, because there are complex curves down there, and replicating them was beyond my abilities.  I hacked something together, and I won't show a detailed picture because it's gross, but it worked.  Here's the kick panel, all patched up:


After welding the kick panel in, everything was in place and all that was left was painting:


Painting ended up being more of a hassle than I anticipated.  I used KBS RustSeal.  I found the prep work tedious and ungratifying, painting itself rather miserable (ugh, those fumes!), and in the end...I have a good number of runs.  But hey, it's usually not visible, right?  Here's the final product:


Naturally, I scratched the paint almost immediately after taking the chassis off of its spit.


Over the last few weeks, I've been slowly reassembling the car, and earlier today I took it out for its first drive in nearly TWO YEARS.  I could include a shot of the car overall, but I'd rather finish with what I think is the biggest improvement after all of this: getting the original style heat controls back!  So here it is, my moment of triumph:


Any questions?


P.S. If you read all that, congratulations!  Sorry for taking so much of your time.

More information about the type3-vwtype3.org mailing list