One of the drawbacks to fleet old car ownership is space; I only have room at home for four old cars, which means that three are always in storage. Therefore, every time one is dismantled at home, there is room for one less available car to drive; and since I love to drive old cars, that makes me sad. To assuage the malaise, I try every summer to do jobs that won’t take too long, saving the tasks that are wider in scope for our endlessly cold Michigan winters. Last summer, I finally put the stalwart Skylark on the list for some deferred maintenance. As it always does, hilarity ensued.
The first job of several was to do something about this passenger side inner wheelhouse. The battery had long ago rotted it, and this artistically destructive rust formation was part of the meager purchase price back in 2003. It was barely visible inside the engine compartment, so I never thought much about it. If my Skylark were a well-restored local show contender, I would have found a used wheelhouse, but since the car sports ancient lacquer paint with dings and scars too numerous to count, I dug into my sheet metal pile and gave it hell.
I spent an afternoon bending and hammering some sheetmetal to fix the rust. Normally, I would use some fiberglass filler to smooth out the repair, but since it’s almost completely hidden by the battery box, I ground the welds and covered it with some black paint.
When this was done, I decided to remove the fender and realign it, as the back edge has never aligned with the door properly. I soon discovered why nothing was done about this: the lower fender bolt was rusted into the cowl. If you’ve ever dealt with this problem, you may know that the bolt is held in by a captured nut. This nut, when forced by a breaker bar or impact gun on a rusty nut, will immediately deform its cage and endlessly spin without ever coming loose. As an aside, please forgive my memory…I might be talking about my Firebird’s subframe mounts here. The Skylark’s captive nut may have been welded to the inner cowl, and the weld broke. I did both jobs last summer, and they were both pretty bad.
Needless to say, I needed to cut the bolt to remove the fender, and then I needed to fabricate something new with which to reattach it. My solution was to weld a nut to a piece of sheet metal with a hole large enough for a bolt to pass through it, and to weld the piece where the old welded/captured nut was. A picture would say a thousand words, but I don’t have one. The idea worked, but the fender still didn’t line up quite right. Judging by some other evidence, I feel like the car might have taken a hit on the passenger side at some point in its long history, causing this most recent of my many frustrations.
As you can see above, I also replaced the upper control arms, as the originals had worn out upper bushings. Normally, I would press out the bushings and install new ones, but 1965 Skylarks had one year only bushings that cost more than a whole new upper control arm for almost any other A-Body. Since the parts are interchangeable, I decided on new ones. Afterward, I did a front end alignment at home using tools from an outfit called Longacre Racing. It takes some time and patience, but I can usually dial in an alignment perfectly.
As I wrestled with the fender, a subpar repair I had performed early in my ownership experience cracked, meaning I had to do some patching.
So I reached out to the sheetmetal pile again…
And welded in a patch. Probably out of exasperation at this point, I didn’t take a picture of the finished product, which actually came out really well. The paint matched perfectly, and nobody would ever notice I was in there.
It’s tough to see the fender repair here, but this is the reassembled car last October.
After all that, there was another job on the list. I discovered a seeping head gasket on the passenger side, and had planned to only replace that gasket. Unfortunately, I also discovered that someone had installed steel shim head gaskets (without any sealer), and I planned to use thicker composite gaskets. Therefore, to ensure even compression on both banks, I had to replace the driver’s side gasket as well (on which a previous mechanic HAD used sealer, and which was NOT leaking).
I cleaned both cylinder heads and checked for warpage; they were both BARELY within limits. Jobs like these tend to snowball. Since the car literally runs perfectly, and “just a head milling” turns into “cylinder head rebuilding” faster than you can pull out your credit card, I quickly reinstalled them before I changed my mind. Call me a hack mechanic if you want, but I’ve fixed what wasn’t broken plenty of times. Needless to say, I’ve driven the car at least 500 miles since this repair, and it still runs perfectly and doesn’t leak.
The only problem is a VERY slight lifter tick that I can only hear when the engine is idling inside the garage. Buick 300s do not have adjustable rocker arms, and the thicker head gaskets have altered the lifter adjustment depth. Longer pushrods would be the best answer, but Buick 300 pushrods are not easy to come by. Chances are, a little run time will quiet the lifter; if not, almost everything I own makes some strange noise. The quirks make the character.
These jobs took me about two weeks, and I finally finished just after Independence Day. I drove the car about 50 miles and immediately took it out to storage and picked up my Firebird. After wrestling with the Skylark as I did, a little time off was in order. I don’t think I drove it again for two months.
That’s the nice thing about having too many old cars. If one misbehaves, or if you simply get frustrated with it, you can always put it in “time out.”