Thursday, March 16, 2017

Part 4: Ready for Paint

Since my posts on this project started about a month or so after I started working on the car, my writing has finally caught up to the project. Now I have to be more disciplined in keeping my posts current.
The bodywork and repairs are finished and it looks like the Fiat is ready for a new coat of Imron white. This will give me some time to work on the rest of the bits, so they are ready to go back on when she comes back from paint. There are limited number of test days at the local track and the one in May I need to be ready for.

Newly made fiberglass hood with new stiffeners on the underside
and original machined aluminum air vent grills.
In addition to body work one of my tasks is a new hood (bonnet). After a rules change in 1977, we needed to lighten the car, so the stock steel hood was replaced with a lighter fiberglass one. The original fiberglass hood was pretty sad looking, but I had the mold and it looked pretty good. I have done a lot more fiberglass (FRP) work in the 40 years since, so I was sure I could make a slightly better one than I did when I was 16. The trunk lid was also a fiberglass replacement, it to is in sad shape, but I don't know what happened to that mold. For now I'll use an original Fiat trunk lid and perhaps make a fiberglass replacement in the future.
The problem with the original FRP hood, was it had no structural reinforcement on the under side like sheet metal hoods do. This wasn't a factor when the car was not moving, but at speed, air pressure was bowing the hood up slightly. To add stiffness, I made a template for this reinforce structure that needed to avoid areas that might interfere with components in the engine bay. This template was used to cut 1/2" rigid polyurethane foam, then the foam piece was fiberglassed into the back side of the hood. I also had quick release hood mount pins and 2 machined aluminum grills to fit into the finished hood. Back when we first decided to make a lighter FRP hood, dad and I felt the air vents in the hood would be more successful in aluminum, since reproducing those in fiberglass was beyond my abilities at the time. I removed the vents from the original hood and carefully glassed them into the new hood.

A Stock Fiat 128 sl coupe chassis
As I have said previously, the car is no longer "stock" and it has many modifications But, as I have gone over the car I am amazed at the places my old man got into to TIG weld the roll cage and suspension reinforcements. I'm now about the same age he was when he built this, and with the few difficult places I have had to weld in, rust repair sections, I have trouble imagining how he could have welded some of the places he did. Also, the amount of welding! I have been tempted to measure the total footage of welding on the car, but it would take too long. Here are some images of the things I'm referring to.
The same area of the Fiat 128 ski
Pedal area with the slightly lowered floor.
The two tubes coming through the floor
tie into the control arm mounting assembly.
  Front control arm mounts in a "not stock"
sub assembly, tied into the roll cage.
Custom radius rod brackets, now with
spherical bearings. (removed)
Engine mount (on left) moved down and
duel master cylinder mounting bracket.
Reinforced chassis member  and new
 shock towers, all tied into the tube frame.
Rear suspension mounts again,
all reinforced and raised into the car.
Opening for the ATL Fuel Cell.

After addressing the rust repair, I need to make sure that anything that requires heat, hammering or welding is done now, while the car is bare. With all these modifications, one of these areas I've need to focus on is making sure all of the threaded insets or studs are not damaged. Some I've masked, others I can run a tap into to clean up any residue. Luckily there seems to be no rust damage to any of the mountings.
The last issue I have issue, is I am taller and have bigger feet than my dad. So, I tested out my seating position one more time and have decided I need more room for my feet. The clutch pedal is pretty close to the down tube of the cage/ frame but, I can make that work. But it forces my left foot too close to the brake pedal and I don't need to get my feet tangled finding the brake.  I am hesitant to start cutting pedal brackets on the original set up. Dad did this to get the pedals where they are now, and I'd like to preserve his work here. I internet search shows me Midwest Bayless to the rescue! A complete pedal box & clutch, brake pedal unit is $69.00. I've ordered one and use it to make my re-positioned pedals, keeping the original, well, original.
Pedals still need to be moved back,
but now my feet don't hit the box.
Then there is the sheet metal floor. The passenger side is the stock sheet metal, that just gets painted. After two trips to/ from Alaska on the Al-Can highway, with the Fiat filled with spare parts and belongings, the floor took a pounding and looked like a topographical map of Finland.  Using my hydraulic lift and a custom aluminum "planishing plate" I heated the floor with a rosebud torch and with the plate pressed up from below, planished the dents down to a map of Nebraska. Some small wrinkles, but at least flat. On the drivers side, there was a rusted section that needed to be replaced where water had pooled under the drivers seat. But on this side, most of the Fiat's floor would be covered. In addition to the seat, there was a 16 gauge titanium "skid plate" under the seat and the foot well had a bare aluminum "scuff plate". Dad knew getting in and out of the car would eventually damage the paint here, so the bare aluminum could get scuffed up and still look OK, while offering a little more protection to the drivers feet in case of an "off track" excursion. But with my big size 12 feet, I needed a little more clearance for my toes, as they where hitting the steering linkage and the pedal box. I decided to planish this side flat as well and push the floor down a half inch in the process.
Now my feet have the room.  Off to paint and on to suspension restoration.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Back from the Blasterman.

The flatbed truck showed up at the house one morning with a silver gray Fiat chassis on it. There is something satisfying in seeing the car all clean down to bare metal. There where remnants of Charlie's Bondo work around the fenders and of course you could now clearly see all the areas that rust had eaten away. Since I had not built a dollie or wheeled frame to move the chassis around on, I screwed a piece of plywood to the bottom of the car to help protect it from dents, and make it easier to drag around. The flatbed driver an I tried to slide the car, but it wasn't moving, but a little application of physics, by putting a piece of steel tubing under the plywood and it rolled onto the trucks lift gate easily. Once I got it in the garage, it would get jacked up and put on jack stands.

In the garage and on stands I took inventory of the damage. The car had been covered by a tarp, and under a awning, but it was still outside for 11 years. The trunk lip was rusted and the drivers rocker would need to be replaced. There was damage to the passenger compartment floor as well as other areas here and there where water could puddle. 
As I walked around the car drinking my coffee, I found my self sliding my hand along the Fiats body, thinking about how my dad loved building things. I had never seen the car like this, all monotone gray, because when the old man added all of the roll cage and other bits, the car still had its stock dark blue paint. So when the car left for paint, it looked a little "Mad Max" with its raw steel tubes and scorched paint from the welder and cutting torch. Now, all bare metal, you could see all of the areas he had added stuff and I thought, how in the world did that broad shouldered, 50 year old guy, get into that tiny spot and TIG weld that roll bar?

As my hand slid across a panel, I'd feel a slight depression that shouldn't be there. After an hour or so, the car had penciled circles all over it. I was probably worrying about things you would never notice on a white race car, but this was the time to do the work and I kept thinking the old man would have wanted these to be fixed if possible.
In my movie prop career, I've used Bondo (body filler) hundreds of times and had to finish surface's for higher scrutiny than this Fiat would likely see, but, this was actually the first time I was using Bondo for it's intended purpose, fixing dents on a car.

First thing though was metal work. The rocker panel needs to be cut out and the front air dam needs tabs welded in where old one have broken out and there is the trunk lip to replace. At my shop, I have sheet metal forming brakes and rolls, a TIG welder and plenty of fabrication equipment of all types. But in my garage, space is limited. So its pattern here, fabricate at the shop, then hope it fits without too much fuss. The rocker panel and trunk lip should be pretty simple. I made two rockers, just in case I needed to replace the passenger side as well. 
Funny how when you have certain equipment, like a 5 HP 2 stage air compressor and a full line of air tools, you develop ways to do things, that, when you don't have those tools, you have to come up with new ways. If I had room at my shop, I would do this there, but building space in LA has gotten very expensiveAt home, I do not have these tools, so a Bosch jig saw made short work of the rocker panel and electric grinders in place of air tools. These are bulkier, but they wok well.

One thing I do have is a full armour shop here. One of my hobbies is medieval history and armour. So moving metal around into very specific shape is something I am very familiar with now. 
Because, one thing I wanted to fix, was an error in judgement my 16 year old self had made, in the amount of distance behind the company truck, and the Fiats right front fender. Boy, that was one day I didn't want to see my old man. He never got really really angry, but I knew he wouldn't be happy about a dent in his brand new race car. Lucky for me, the dent wasn't too severe and because the Imron paint was so tough, most of the dent "popped" out and it required only a tiny bit of repaint and being white you couldn't see the remaining dent unless you knew it was there. But, I know my dad knew it was there. So, at least now I could fix it completely.

Another thing I needed to check, was if I fit in the car. My dad had wide shoulders, but was just around 6 ft. tall. I have wide shoulders but I'm 6'3" with a very long torso, so head room in cars is always a concern. I knew the seat was as low as it could go, so if my helmet wouldn't clear the roll cage, I had no idea what I could do. When we first built the car, Dad was pretty sure we would be under the minimum weight for this car according to SCCA rules at the time. So the seat started as a fiberglass racing seat and he added a stainless steel knee bolster and we then pt a giant trash bag in the seat and using rigid urethane foam, we foam fit him into the seat. I then fiber-glassed the whole thing. When we where done, the seat weighed 22 pounds, but we didn't care.
Lightweight aluminum seat
But when the new rule book came out, they changed the minimum weight of this car and now we looked to be over weight. So in the trash with the 22 lbs seat and he fabricated a new one in aluminum that weighed only 6 pounds. Because the car was so low and the seat was less than an inch from the floor, he was concerned with hitting a piece of debris and getting punched in the jewels. So, there is now a 16 gauge titanium shield under the seat. 

I bolted in the seat, peddles and steering wheel, grabbed my motorcycle helmet and driving shoes and put on the race car. Luckily, I fit. My legs are not much longer than my dad’s, but my feet are. I must look at the peddle area to see if I can get a little more space, so I'm not hitting the peddle box. Once I get my competition helmet and suit, I'll recheck, but it looks like I can drive comfortably in the current position.
Oh and laying off the beer will only help the situation....another thing my dad loved.

Time to start slinging Bondo and a hammer.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Polish Eagle Racing & The Fiat 128 SKI - Cleaning & where to start.

The garage was set up, most of the parts had been recovered from storage and the car was at the media blaster getting it's tough as nails Imron paint removed. One of the issues with media blasting (like sand blasting but with "softer sand") is if you are too heavy handed and blast an area too hard, you can warp the body panels and this Imron paint was designed to resist such abrasion. Think about it, you have hundreds of thousands of little "rocks" you are slamming into the surface at high speed. They act like miniature hammers and can potentially stretch the surface of the steel, warping the sheet metal. But this guy came recommended by a friend who builds high end hot rods, and it is a race car, not a show car. But still, one thing my dad took pride in, was his projects where always neat, clean and well finished. I considered chemical dipping, but the media blasting seemed a better choice.

While I waited for the chassis, I cleaned parts and took inventory. Cleaning the grime off of race car parts is generally easier than street car parts because they don't have as much "road grim" on them, but these had been stored for 15 years and what oil was on them had had plenty of time to pick up dust and other crap. I bought a parts cleaning tank and some water based de-greaser. The stuff worked pretty well and the parts cleaned quickly. Since most of the components have been in storage, they where in fine shape, just dirty. A few things I knew would need more attention, like the clutch.
In order to mount the engine on the stand, I took off the tansaxel/ transmission, pressure plate and, well something that used to be a "clutch".
The debris in the corner of this picture, was, at one time, a Formula Ford clutch. I don't think I can fix that. I'll source a new one.
As I said, Frank Bernstein did a lot of engine work on the car.
I had tried to find Frank a few times over the years on the internet, but with no luck. I thought I should look again, since I think Frank may be the one who suggested the Formula Ford clutch.
The other day, I was talking to my brother Randy, who, among other things, worked as a model builder for the author Walter Wick in Hartford Connecticut. (
 He tells me, that Walter asked him to attend a small show in Hartford on Walter's work and after the show, Randy had a number of people asking him questions about his models and working with Walter. He told me an elderly lady was standing patiently behind him, waiting her turn to ask Randy a question. When he turned to talk with her, she introduced herself as Mrs Frank Bernstein! I thought how amazing it That! Turns out he didn't get her phone number. But, he looked in an old thing called a phone book and found the number to Franks son, and I was able to reach Frank.

As I said previously, my dad was reading the rule book from front to back to see what was allowed and what fell in between. On most cars, the stock suspensions mounting points are most often mounted in a stiff rubber bushing. This helps absorb road vibration to make the ride smoother, but at a cost. As the suspension flexes in these bushings, the geometry changes and this negatively effects the handling performance. For a race car, this is not ideal, so many companies offer aftermarket replacements that help improve handling. But with the Fiat, these could not be sourced, so Dad did everything custom. First, he modified the mounting points to work with rod ends, a solid bearing swivel. Then he reinforced sections of suspension, as a "Safety precaution" Because the GCR said you couldn't change the stock suspension, but if you where making safety modifications, that was OK. In addition to extra bracing, all of the spot welded places on the production made suspension components got the full TIG treatment on their seams. Then, all of the suspension was satin chromed. Over the years this has started to flake off, so it will need to be redone. In addition I knew I had to try and correct a mistake from 40 years ago.

The Fiat came stock with a "new" suspension design, called a MacPherson strut. While these sealed shock in a strut design had be around since the 50's, they where just finding there way into mainstream car production. Interestingly, a Fiat designer in the 1920's filed a patent for a similar design, likely inspiring MacPherson on his design.
The issue I had, was dad had taken the sealed strut, and cut the top off to get the dampener (Shock absorber) out. He then added a threaded collar and a nut at the top so you could secure an after market performance dampener insert, like Koni. In addition, he added an outer threaded collar that the coil spring rested on, so you could adjust the ride height of the car.

The problem I wanted to correct was, the inserts. These struts where so new, that virtually no one made performance competition inserts. Koni made one for a Volkswagen Rabbit, but it was too long. With all of the suspension mounts moved 3" up into the chassis, the struts needed to be shorter than stock. The top mounting points for the rear dampers could be moved up, since the trunk offered plenty of extra height, but the front was another issue, the hood was in the way. So shorter struts where needed. Dad had contacted Koni and they agreed to make custom inserts for the Fiat. Problem is, when we got them, Koni had copied the stock length, not making them shorter, so dad had to cut open the top of the reinforce shock towers and mount the struts above the tower, rubbing the Fiats hood.
I figured now, with the internet, I could source the correct length inserts. Well in all these years, there have been many improvements to this design and unfortunately, one of these, was to increase the dampers diameter from 39mm to 43.5mm. So forget length, just finding 39mm inserts was difficult. The company Midwest Bayless offers a strut of almost the exact design to the one my father built, but using the larger dampers. But my goal here is to rebuild the car as he designed it and not use modern parts if I can avoid it. I posted some images online on the SCCA GT Lites Facebook page and I was pointed to Angelo at Anze Suspension in upstate New York. After a phone conversation, he thought he could find a solution. We also had to figure out why Dad had added a 3" aluminum spacer above the spring. I vaguely remember that the springs where too soft, so this spacer I think was to raise the cars ride height.
To be continued....