A messy cleaning job

April 1, 2019 | By Staff


I am restoring a 1949 Dodge Wayfarer that was given to me by my older brother. I am a beginner at this, but I have worked on cars for years. I don’t want to take the body off of the frame because the car has never been in an accident and everything fits and lines up perfectly. There is very little rust, but the engine will need to be done, and the car will need to be painted. Is there a good way to clean the chassis and running gear before I get going on the other stuff?


You are in for a messy job, but when you are all done; your restoration candidate will be more pleasant to work on. You have chosen the right place to start too. Frame-on restorations are a good way to go because removing the body from the frame has to be done very carefully, and getting everything back together and properly aligned is tricky. That kind of work is best left to a pro.

Your first impulse might be to take your car to a steam cleaner, but I don’t recommend it. Steam cleaning and even media blasting doesn’t affect caked-on muck, and they will damage distributors, generators, voltage regulators and other electronics, even if such items are covered with plastic. And blowing dirty water or grit into the induction system or into air vents isn’t a great idea either.

Before you begin, spread a tarp to catch the filth, and then drive your Dodge onto the tarp. Put the vehicle up on jack stands at each corner so you can get under it easily, and remove the wheels so you can get to the brake backing plates. Now put on some longsleeved coveralls, a hat and safety glasses and roll underneath. Work outdoors and keep a fire extinguisher handy.

The worst you’ll have to deal with is the dirt-and-oil combination that forms a tough, asphalt coating wherever it sticks. Dissolving all of it with solvent is really messy. Heating it with a propane torch and scraping it off with a stiff putty knife is the most effective approach to its removal, but that requires a lot of caution. A cheap heat gun from Harbor Freight might be a better alternative, though I have yet to try it. Scraping will remove most of the grit, and you can use twine to saw dirt from around bolts and in seams. Wire brushes are helpful too.

Put a little lacquer thinner in your squirt can and squirt it onto stubborn or hard-to-reach places to dissolve the grease. Lacquer thinner is volatile so be careful. Use old rags to clean up your mess, and dispose of them properly so as not to risk a fire.

Now put a stiff wire wheel in your electric drill and clean as much of the remaining dirt and rust off of everything as you can. There are several shapes of wire wheels that range from the fine, to the heavy-duty twisted steel brushes. You’ll want an assortment for chassis cleaning.

Next, install a sanding disk with #200-grit open coat sandpaper in your drill and sand as much stubborn rust and discoloration off of everything as you can. Areas that cannot be reached by your sanding disk will need to be done by hand. This is a lot of work, but the cleaner the metal on your classic’s chassis, the longer its new paint will last.

When you have everything clean and bright you are ready to wash the chassis. Mix up a strong solution of TSP and hot water and put on neoprene gloves and goggles. Now wash everything down from front to back to remove any remaining grease or oil. Finally, rinse your work thoroughly, and then go over it with a good metal etching rust converter just to make sure that any rust that is in pits or crevices is neutralized.

When the chassis has dried thoroughly, if you have a compressor and spray gun, mix up a pot of RustOleum’s Rusty Metal Primer and shoot it on. Use big pieces of cardboard to shield fenders, bumpers and running gear from overspray. Give the primer about 45 minutes to dry, and then mix up some Rust-Oleum satin finish black paint. Use a touch-up gun or an aerosol spray can to get into tight places. (You can do the entire chassis with rattle cans, and I have done this, but it takes time.)

Let your car sit for at least a couple of days before driving anywhere. Rust-Oleum takes a while to dry, but when it finally does, it is very tough and will last for years. I did my 1940 Packard chassis back in 1983 and it still looks good. The satin finish black is correct for most production cars made in the last 80 years, and the results will surprise you.