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How to spot workshop action on the car?

Discovering the wreck underneath the as-new exterior

19/06/2013 07:35 |  Comments: 
Car dealers are no gods. They just spend their lives telling roadworthy cars from neatly restored heaps of roadkill junk. Here’s a handful of their tricks; it pays to learn them.

Even though we all love cars, some of us just don't have a clue how to inspect a used car properly – I know this both from personal experience and from all the mails you send me. Those of us out-of-the-know keep reading about scams and little by little they lose their confidence in used cars as well as used car dealers.

So then, what signs should we look for to find out whether a car has been through a minor fender bender or it has been totaled? Typical customers will hang up once they hear that two body panels have been repainted, ignorant of the fact that paint damage may be caused by something as trite as a shopping cart scraping past the doors, or some asshole keying it – but indeed, it can also mean the car has been involved in a serious accident.

Popular belief has it that if a body panel has been repainted you should not buy the car because its structural strength has been compromised. That is rubbish. The structural integrity of a vehicle is not defined by the condition of doors or fenders but of the roof frame, the pillars, the rocker panels, and the front and rear side members

Doors do play a significant role in protecting against lateral collisions, especially if they are equipped with integrated side impact bars, but if you install a new door or a used one in mint condition then you are in fact equipping your car with new door beams. They will be as good as the original ones, meaning there will be no change in structural rigidity.

Now, stop for a moment and think about it: what kind of protection can you honestly expect from a fender if you can literally bend them with your index finger, whether they are made of sheet metal or plastic? Certainly you must have leaned against a car at least once – can you recall how the body flexed under your weight? Push your finger into the front wing of a Renault or a Citroen – it will yield because they are made of plastic. Even my three-year-old daughter can dent it. But try to move a bare front side member and you are sure to let one rip while trying.

If you can lift the entire car weighing 1.5 tons using this extension, that should give you a clue about just what makes cars rigid. All those soft panels attached to the frame have very important roles like absorbing and channeling away part of the energy from an eventual impact, or shaping the pretty outlines of the car. These panels, except for the rear bumper, are usually bolted on to facilitate simple replacement if they are damaged. Replacing these panels will in no way weaken the structural rigidity of your car. This is exactly how cars are assembled in the factory.

Contemporary cars are highly rigid because the quality of automotive steels and engineering has increased significantly since the 80's. Also, manufacturers use a lot more steel to build passenger compartments. If you happen to visit a wrecking yard try find a car that has been cut up. Take a look at a rocker panel or a roof pillar. You will find a smaller rocker panel inside the main one, both highly complex in profile – compare this to older cars where these were little more than tubular structures welded together from two halves.

I visited a local Honda yard to take pictures of some wrecks. Here is one, a Honda Civic rocker panel from 1996. Just like I told you – basically a tube, nothing more. Both roof pillars and roof members are built in a similar fashion.

If these components take a blow they would buckle and be distorted under the load. There is an inherent breakaway point where the B-pillar meets the roof. Apply longitudinal forces to the body and this is where you will have your first rupture. With the A-pillar pushing the front part of the roof upward, roof members will also buckle at the top of the B-pillar, shortening the distance between the A and B pillars. That means less survival space and possibly a jammed door. As an illustration, check out the video below. This is an RHD Civic, but it clearly shows what I am talking about.

Compare that to this Honda Accord from 2006. Here the rear part of the exterior sill and the rear quarter panel has been removed, giving you an excellent insight into the inner structures.

There is a tube inside a tube, with further strengthening structures within these tubes. The latter helps the rocker panel maintain its profile, it makes it stiffer and harder to snap.

This next dissected component is a B-pillar from a Honda Jazz, showing you the tube-in- a-tube construction.

Now take a look at the cross section of the roof member of the same car

The most surprising thing for laymen is just how much steel has gone into it. Rocker panels and roof members are sturdy and stiff so that they can maintain the overall shape and dimension of the passenger cell, thereby facilitating your survival and the easy opening of doors. Check out this next video to see what kind of a difference the stronger rocker panel and roof member makes compared to the Civic.

Now look at this Civic from a previous generation. It has sustained a heavy blow to its left front section, crumbling the left front side member and twisting the wing inside.

The profile view will reveal that the passenger compartment is not compromised. The door frame seems intact, with both the rocker panel and the roof member holding up.

But there was a lot of impact force that needed to be channeled somewhere – energy does not just vanish into thin air. So where did it go? Into the floor panel, that's where.

If you look closer you can see that the firewall, the floor panel and the floor tunnel had all been damaged. These are the components that took on the power of the impact.

At this point it's wise to inspect any car that has been restored after a damage. How can you decide whether a panel has been damaged or not, whether it has been painted or not, and how can you assess the magnitude of damage? Today we are looking at a 2003 Suzuki Liana. This car has had a right frontal damage – nothing serious though, it was an easy fix with the replacement of the right front wing, the right front bumper and the right front headlight. Most people would flee the scene hearing all this but there's no need to do so,as we are to find out.

This Suzuki comes with exemplary documentation, including the service booklet and all maintenance invoices. There is also an itemized invoice for the repair of this damage, amounting to some €1300 – yup, that is not a typo, it cost thirteen hundred Euros. Starting with the early 90's Japanese manufacturers began to paint engine bays and luggage compartments in grey or in a tone similar but not identical to the body colour. Not all cars were painted like this, but most were. After coating the entire body with a primer, operators would close the bonnet and the boot and paint the body. This paint would ooze through the narrow gaps into the crevices, yielding a colour strip gradually fading away from the edge. It is ugly but that's what it is supposed to look like. Now let's inspect the Liana.

Open the bonnet and compare the two sides of the engine bay. Check the fender, the inside of the bonnet and the bolts holding the latch cross member. If there has ever been a spanner or socket wrench used on these bolts you would clearly see that the paint had rubbed off the sides. Hardly anyone goes into the trouble of repainting the bolts, certainly not in an authorized repair shop. They don't care, and independent car dealers rarely do it either. There is visible paint on the inner edge of the left side fender as it seeped in through the bonnet gap, with less and less paint as you move inwards. The VIN sticker is also placed on top of the paint mark.

VIN numbers are not usually marked on all body parts, so please don't go into pestering the dealer about why a particular BMW does not have them. Wings are also attached to the A-pillar, you can also check bolt heads there.

If you look at the other fender it is obvious it had been painted separately on a painting frame, with plenty of paint going everywhere. Also, there is no VIN sticker. Bolts have been painted over as the grey bolts would have looked silly against the green surface.

Going further within the engine bay you can see that the fastening bolts for the bonnet itself are untouched. That means the bonnet itself has never been removed.

Looking at its edges you can spot marks of spray paint, and the VIN sticker.

Looking at the latch cross member you can see how far the leading edge of the bonnet covered over the surface.

Bolts holding this cross member are also untouched

Move on and take a look under the headlights, onto the extensions, as far as the lights allow. Compare the two surfaces, the bulges of the sheet metal, and so forth. Examine fenders as well as the gasket applied to where fenders, pillars and panels meet. Gasket is applied by robots, with identical feed, amount and pressure, resulting in identical surfaces. Looking at these surfaces you can spot the wave structure that was formed as the newly applied, fresh gasket rushed out of the nozzle. It is very difficult to emulate this surface.

Of course there are self-proclaimed artists who can create something similar. There are only a handful of them, and they cannot make it look identical, only similar, something you can almost always spot. Compare the strut towers on both sides to see whether the gasket is uniform where the fenders and the towers meet.

Next up open the doors, and check the bolts fastening them. There are two types of these: two bolts securing the hinges to the body, and two other to the door. The bolts towards the body are painted; these are only removed if the pillar has been damaged and the hinges are either damaged themselves too or are in the way for repairs. Looking at the bolt heads you could tell if they had been removed or not. The other types of bolts attach the doors to the hinges. These are simply surface treated and therefore it is almost impossible to tell if they had been removed. However sometimes these bolts are also painted, in which case you can clearly see marks of eventual manipulation.

Located on the inside wheel arch, near the rear door latch area, there is a VIN sticker on one side or the other. If you cannot see the sticker it means one of those body panels has been repainted: it is a lot easier to remove both than to replace the one that has been covered in paint. Further back in the boot you will see grey paint with the now customary paint spray gradually fading from the edges; and a VIN sticker. Don't forget to check bolt heads.

Finally look for the thin gasket line where the rear fender is attached to the body. This should be identical on both sides. Lift the boot floor carpet to reveal the spare wheel housing. Paint oozing through the rear lamp apertures should also be visible here. Check if this spray pattern is even; look for signs of hammering or surface irregularities that do not match original moldings. There is a tar sheet covering the base plate – check if it is damaged or shows signs of melting caused by a welding gun.

That concludes our car survey. That wasn't exhausting, was it?

One more thing, ladies and gentlemen. Next time you are planning to buy a car and are checking out all the bolts: if you bump into a bunch of them that have been loosened, do not automatically assume the car is disqualified and should be avoided. Despite the obvious signs of repair it may still be an excellent vehicle – one that has been repaired. After all damages should be repaired, right? When your car gets scraped and you have the ugly scratches removed, does that make your car less roadworthy? I thought so.

Please read these insights again, and keep inspecting cars but for heaven's sake, don't start and try to outsmart dealers because you'll just make a fool of yourself. I have seen bakers but I sure couldn't bake bread. It takes a lot of experience to recognize and analyze these signs – keep practicing and you'll get better at it.

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