Rust on classic cars can be a beautiful thing if they’re yard art. However, to a collector who treasures the beauty of the original gleaming paint and chrome, rust can make a grown person sob.
While every enthusiast of classic cars wants a car that has zero rust, it’s rare to find decade’s old vehicles without signs of rust. Most professionals will tell you to run from the purchase of a vehicle with rust. Once a rusty car, always a rusty car.
The key is to know where to look for the prevalent rust and determine how extensive the damage is. Will it be easy to repair?
Surface rust is exactly as it sounds: Rust on the surface of the metal, usually where the paint has worn thin and moisture from the air has gotten to the surface metal. This is the easiest to repair and the least destructive if caught in time. A light sanding down to bare metal and the application of paint primer will normally cure the problem with little detrimental effect to the vehicle.
Pitted metal is rust that has penetrated the body panel to the point of creating pits in the surface, but it has not yet rusted through the metal. While not great to see, this rust is still relatively easy to arrest. Again, sanding the surface or using a wire brush to remove loose rust will get to a more solid surface. Products containing phosphoric acid can be applied to encapsulate the rust. Once dry, the area can be sanded, then primer can be applied to cover the surface.
Rarely are the only rusted-through panels the easily removable body parts. The doors, hood, truck and bolted-on fenders are the easiest to replace if rusted to the point of not saving.
Look for large bubbles in the paint or rust-created holes in the lower door, the lower fenders just behind the wheel, in front fenders and in front of the wheel at the rear fenders. If you see through a steel panel, replace it.
More problematic are rusted-through panels that will need to be cut out with new replacement panels welded in place. Some areas are not as dire as others. Look at the door sills, the top and bottom of the windshield and rear window or the trunk floor. Though these areas may require extensive work, it is possible to do without major panel replacement.
Before you buy a project, check for major structural damage. Think long and hard before buying, as this can signal a major reconstruction. Check the floor under the pedal cluster. If there are small areas where it has rusted through, it may be OK — but if you can see a clear view of the ground below, it may be time to continue looking for a different classic car project. Major structural rust-through can be expensive or even the end of the line for this particular vehicle.
As we point out in all of our columns; nothing can substitute an abundance of research on the vehicle you are considering. The more knowledge and information you have in your arsenal, the better educated you are — and the greater possibility there is that you will come away with a project that will be rewarding and exciting.