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Fiberglass Body Panels - New Skin For Your Old Rig

Posted in How To: Body Chassis on October 1, 2002
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Photographers: John Cappa

Many of us have 4x4s that probably started out as really nice vehicles. You could pick up a date and drive down the street without attracting cops like a sprinkled donut. After years of tree ditching, mud boggin', fender trimming, and general off-road abuse, the old gray mare...well, you know. You look at your monument to off-roading, try to figure out how certain dents, scrapes, and cracks got there in the first place, and realize that the beast just doesn't look so good anymore-and may not even be street legal. Finally, you say, "Screw it," tear off all the "unnecessary" parts of twisted metal, and end up with an open-wheel cab-truck, or worse. The problem is that you can't very well drive down a freeway at 70 mph flinging mud off of 44-inch Swampers onto somebody's $50,000 SUV. Well, maybe you can, but they sure don't like it much. With that in mind and a desire to use our beater on the street, we visited the folks at Boatec, who have an answer for almost any truck with body problems.

Fiberglass bodies and body panels have been around for a long time, but finding pieces that you could readily bolt on to your rig, or even afford, was nearly impossible. Whether you run a stock truck or a tube-chassis creation, fiberglass can be a good alternative to steel panels. In some cases they even utilize the existing mounting points. Boatec gives people choices on how they want to mount their 'glass as well as the size of flare needed to fit larger tire sizes.

Although fiberglass has a tendency to crack under pressure, it will also flex without denting. If you do crush or crack it, repairs can be made with a fiberglass repair kit from your local hardware store. Fiberglass is also much lighter than the steel it replaces, and can of course be painted to match whatever color you choose.

We found that upgrading our truck's body style was relatively easy, as we made an '82 Toyota cab-truck look more like a newer Toyota Tacoma. Mounting all of the panels can be a little tricky if you're not using the straight bolt-on fiberglass pieces, so we took a trip to California Pre-Fun in Beaumont to see off-road racing legend Curt LeDuc. Here's a few things he showed us and some lessons we learned along the way.

You need to figure out how much body you want to replace, the tire size you want to fit, and what type of fiberglass you want to run. Boatec has a variety of years, makes, and models. Bedsides come with or without an opening for your gas cap. Most pieces have tabs that allow you to mount to the stock locations.

In our case, there wasn't much usable body left on the truck. The doors wouldn't close, all the windows were broken out, and you couldn't find a square inch without some damage. We opted to scrap most of what was left and change the body style from an '82 Toyota to an '01 Tacoma. Fenders, hood, roof, door skins, and bedsides were needed.

Now comes the fun part-ripping sheetmetal off your rig any which way you can. Saber saws, tin snips, and of course the crowd favorite, an oxy-acetylene torch set. It's like taking your rig to Jenny Craig. Our advice is to mark the area you want to cut and remove anything that could catch fire or release toxic fumes. Otherwise you may find yourself doing more work than necessary. Level out the vehicle for reference-such as frame to floor-so all the new parts will hang correctly.

We bought an '01 Tacoma roof skin and grille from Pinehurst Toyota and slapped it on. It's good to start here and work around it, especially if you already have a rollcage. Lots of tedious trimming is necessary. There isn't a no-hassle return policy on mistakes. We recommend a particle mask to keep from petrifying your lungs. You'll want to trim the door skin at the same time to make sure the window frame is level. The roof should be bolted on in case the unmentionable happens, because you'll want to keep steel over your head.

Temporarily bolt the hood and fenders together, since they're easier to work with as one piece. Notice the extra X support that Boatec puts into the fiberglass for added strength. The holes in the hood are for the big shock hoops on the front of the truck. We simply started cutting the fiberglass until the hoops fit through the hood.

Mock up the front clip with the doors. It helps to have someone hold the doors up for you. The fenders should fit to the door with some trimming. Make sure you have the proper tire clearance or you'll rip off the front clip with your first turn.

Once the body is set up, you need to build an infrastructure to hold it in place. That's when you call Cliff at G&J Aircraft. The company has an ample supply of fasteners, rod ends, and doodads for the at-home fabricator. The quick-release Dzus fasteners we used come in three parts: mount plate, spring, and fastener. If you have ever used them before you know it's just a simple turn of a really big screwdriver to mount and dismount.

We cut holes for our lighting, did some minor fender trimming, and fit the new grille in place. Who says you can't judge a book by its cover? It almost looks street legal. Now that it's brand-spanking-new, we can go out and brush it up against a tree or roll it in a ditch.

After you tack-weld the subframe, mount up the panels. We used a spray bottle of water to cool off the mounts so as not to melt the fiberglass during welding. The amount of Dzus fasteners you need per piece is up to you. Our project took 38-6 per bedside, 7 per door, and 12 for the front clip. Check the level and bodylines of all the panels to make sure they all match. Minor adjustments are easy because the mounting plates are thin enough to bend, but thick enough to hold the fiberglass.

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