December 4, 2023

Painting a car can be tricky. Not only can a project veer off into the automotive version of quicksand, but any missteps can elongate the process and increase costs. Tackling a project with no strategy in place can be exhausting and a major buzzkill as well.

If you have the skills and a place to work on your car, there can be significant cost savings to tackle some of the pre-production work of a paintjob yourself, as well as simplifying the logistics of getting all the parts and labor sequenced correctly. Just as a paintjob is only as good as the prep that preceded it, a finished car is only as good as its elements i.e., paint, trim, lenses, and badging.

Your humble author has owned over 35 cars and has done everything from full resto projects to fix-and-flip resales. The following is what I’ve learned about buying and fixing cars over the years, specifically what a DIY person can do to get a car ready for the paint shop.

By doing most of the prep work yourself, besides saving labor costs, you can also reduce the time the car is in the shop. Another benefit is that you oversee the final assembly process and make sure that the car goes back together correctly. The focus of this article isn’t about the logistics of removing bumpers and trim, but about how to assess your project and lay out an actionable plan to get the best possible results at the lowest cost. In fact, a considerable amount of work begins after the car is painted.

Create An Honest Assessment Of Your Car

For the purposes of this article, let’s look at my 1976 Cadillac Seville, an 88k-original-mile survivor that formerly resided in Beverly Hills, California. The car is bone stock and was well maintained throughout its life, but now needs some love. The Seville is sporting about 75-percent of its original paint as the front passenger fender and door have seen bodywork at some point over the years.

The only rust on the car is on the lower right where the molding trapped water. That will be fixed when the top is removed and replaced. If you think the emblem looks crappy here, wait until it resides alongside fresh paint and vinyl. The gods live in the details and we’ll have that fixed up soon enough.

The front bumper was replaced at some point and the rub strip is a different color than the rear unit. The white vinyl top is in remarkably good shape for pushing the half-century mark. The car shows well at fifty feet, but is cosmetically tired and a respray of the factory “Innsbruck Blue” paint would go a long way to leveling up the condition of the car.

As you can see here the front passenger side door and fender have been painted. It was probably a slap-dash fix to get the car on the market and God only knows what’s under the paint, but we’ll soon find out.

I’ve owned the car since 2017 and several issues need to be addressed. An additional result of the accident is the front passenger headlight cluster doesn’t fit correctly and is from a newer Seville.

The Seville suffered from “old person syndrome,” and “parking by braille.”  The car has numerous nicks and dents all over it although it looks good from a distance. I think the elderly woman owner raked the passenger side front corner up against a pillar when parking and they rustled up a cheap replacement cluster from a later model Seville. It is also missing mounting hardware and is drooping. Sevilles from 1976 have clear turn signals with amber bulbs.

Only when the car is stripped, can the extent of the damage to the front passenger side corner be fully assessed. If it was repaired correctly, great, if not, it might need a new front fender.

We talked with Matt from Best Of Show Coachworks in Escondido, California about assessing what route to take when replacing a fender. “Generally if you can find original stuff in good shape at a decent price, go with it. There are benefits to locating the original sheetmetal. The factory stamping is always going to offer good fitment because they were all made around the same time. But the aftermarket has come a long way over the past decade and really hit their stride and offer great quality parts.” So in lieu of buying a parts car, companies like Auto Metal Direct are a great resource for OEM correct sheetmetal and they have thousands of parts to choose from.

The car has hand-painted pinstripes, (not decals) from the factory and I want to replicate that with the finished product. There are various emblems and badges that I want to return to showroom condition as well, so they will be removed and documented to make reinstallation accurate.  If you’re gonna go the custom route and shave all the superfluous trim you can skip this part.

There is an old saying, “restoration is destruction,” and if you approach your project with that in mind, you are likely going to be less frustrated when you damage parts during the removal process. You WILL break things and encounter problems when removing parts on a 46-year-old car. It’s critical to take your time. WD-40 or a similar penetrant is your friend here. A torch won’t take no for an answer either.

If you get in a pinch during reassembly, you’ll thank yourself later by photo-documenting everything you pull off. It might seem fussy, but trust me, a quick reference picture can solve snags instantly.

You’ll need a socket set, flathead screwdrivers, Phillips screwdrivers, a trim-removal tool, metal and plastic polish, and plastic bags. A buffer and Dremel rotary tool are crucial to the project as well.

Create Your Punch List Of To-Do Items 

Based on our walkaround, we now have an outline of what the car needs. Everything gets bagged and tagged. Here’s the list:

  • Remove both headlight clusters, grille, and chrome strip on the hood
  • Remove both taillights
  • Remove chrome molding on the trunk lid
  • Remove both side-view mirrors
  • Remove antenna and molding
  • Locate a 1976 model-year passenger front cluster with the correct turn signal lens.
  • Remove both bumpers
  • Remove all the wheelwell trim
  • Remove hood ornament and fender top turn signal lights
  • Remove all sheetmetal emblems and badges
  • Pull all the interior door panels and remove all the door handles and exterior locks
  • Remove door edge guards and horizontal door ding strips
  • Remove rocker panel moldings
  • Lastly, the vinyl top will be replaced but is beyond the scope of our skills so we’ll let the shop handle that portion of the project.

Another consideration is drivability and ingress/egress when the car is stripped. With the door panels and door handles removed, you’ll have to create a way to open the doors and roll the windows up and down. The best practice might be to leave the driver’s door handle on and let the shop take it off when they take possession of the car. With the headlights and taillights removed, you’ll have to compensate accordingly. Access to a trailer is a good idea.

We’ll need ample time to get our list sussed-out as well. We’ll have to locate the front light cluster, maybe a front fender, match the color of the rub strips, and replace missing or broken components.

Lastly, you could strip the paint yourself. Whether with chemicals or by blasting. This will save time and money as well. A call to your paint shop ahead of time would go a long way here.  Most shops are candid about what they want to see when you drop off the car.

This little Rambler is a good blueprint of what you want your car to look when your car hits the paint booth.

A C3 Corvette ready for metamorphosis

While The Car Is In The Shop

  • Clean all of the removed parts
  • Troubleshoot taillights
  • Troubleshoot headlights
  • Address any lost or broken fasteners
  • Wire brush all of the hardware
  • Straighten and polish stainless trim and badges.
  • Refinish emblems or farm them out to a restoration shop
  • Polish bumpers
  • Paint front and rear bumper strips
  • Locate replacement parts if needed

Soap and water are cheap and can go a long way towards the finished product. I start my projects by cleaning all the parts that came off the car. It’s easier to buff up the parts on a table without straining or bending over for hours on end. This is a good time to clean all lighting lenses, both inside and out, too. A good polishing will restore clarity and brightness to your lenses as well.

Good old elbow grease is critical here. Metal and plastic polish are rejuvenating potions that can return your parts to a factory-fresh finish without a big budget. A small pick, sandbag, and a table vice are good tools to remove dents from the trim. Your random orbital paint buffer might go a long way on the bumpers. If you need more muscle. simply visit your local rental store and rent a professional rotary buffer.

Progress moves slowly when removing the trim, but you will reap big dividends when it all comes back together.

When The Car Comes Out Of The Shop

New paint needs time to cure, and rushing the reassembly process could prove to be disastrous. We recommend that you only take delivery of your car when the paint is fully hardened and buffed out. You’ll need a buddy to help with the bumper reinstallation, but other than that, reassembly can be at your own pace and is a one-man job. Patience and a roll of low-adhesion painter’s tape are critical here. Test fitting the parts without protection could scratch precious new paint, so again take your time and plan for any SNAFU. Have some lacquer thinner handy to clean up any overspray that might have gotten through the taping-off process.

Beautiful new paint, bright trim, and shiny bumpers are the crowning elements of any project, so get out your pad and pencil and grab your project by the horns.


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