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Tailgate Party: Putting the fix in a rusty Bronco tailgate

Posted in How To: Body Chassis on November 14, 2016 Comment (0)
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We seldom pay much attention to the tailgates on our rigs until the release handle breaks, a hinge fails, the latch mechanism falls off, something puts a big dent in it, or it’s starting to show signs there’s more rust than paint on the sheetmetal. Or, a combination of all the above. When that happens, the tailgate suddenly becomes a problem you just want fixed.

If you are the owner of a 2000-and newer pickup or SUV with a tailgate that is beyond saving, finding a replacement at a salvage yard or through local classified advertisements websites is relatively easy. Granted, it’ll probably be a different color and show its own signs of age, but it’ll do the job.

Finding tailgates that are in good shape for 4x4s built in the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s isn’t nearly as easy; pickings at most auto recyclers are slim to none when a rig is more than 20 years old. If you are lucky enough to find one on the internet that’s straight, the inner workings are probably suspect – and then you have to wonder in what shape it’ll arrive.

We found that out when searching for a replacement tailgate on a ’91 Ford Bronco. Like the majority of that era SUVs that had tailgates with power windows, it’d succumbed to old age and being exposed for years to the elements. Rust had eaten through the bottom; the power window moved at a snail’s pace; the release latch was sloppy; the lift-assist torsion bar no longer worked; and the weatherstrips were literally falling apart. Every time we reached in to open the latch we wondered if 120 pounds of sheetmetal and glass would be falling in a heap at our feet.

There are a lot of parts that may need to be replaced in a tailgate with a power window. We sourced these for our ’91 Bronco from LMC Truck. (Our new window regulator isn’t pictured.)

One-stop parts source
Fortunately, there is a one-stop source that specializes in all things related to truck body and chassis parts—Long Motor Corporation, aka LMC Truck. LMC Truck’s inventory of some 30,000 parts covers every pickup and SUV made by Chevrolet, Ford and GMC from the late ‘40s to present day.

Finding the parts to overhaul our seriously ill tailgates was as easy as going to LMC’s online catalog pages for our make/model Bronco, looking at the detailed exploded diagram, clicking on the parts needed, and waiting for UPS to deliver them a few days later. That’s what we did.

What surprised us most about ordering from LMC is the great care they take when shipping easily damaged sheetmetal like a tailgate shell. Sheetmetal dents, bends, scratches and dings easily, adding to the cost of repairs if you are concerned about doing paint work afterwards.

LMC shipped the tailgate shell encased in four-inch-thick cardboard filler panels and then placed everything in a bigger box with more foam packing material injected on the ends. The fragile shell arrived smooth and straight, which those working in bodyshops would find nothing short of a miracle in this day and age of rather shoddy shipping practices.

A smartphone and LMC Truck’s exploded parts diagram can be a huge help in overhauling a power-window tailgate in SUVs such as Broncos and Blazers. Take pictures of parts before disassembling for future reference.

No Saturday morning rebuild
At first we thought this would be an easy couple hour rebuild we could do in the garage. But then we had a reality check: Really? Tearing down a complicated tailgate of which we’d never done before? Time for Plan B.

Not wanting to spend a couple days, and very likely hours of frustration muddling through our first power-window tailgate rebuild, we turned to the guys at Versionex Auto Body in Eugene, Oregon, to show us how the pros handle such an overhaul. It was a good move on our part.

The Mitchell flat-rate manual says 3.7 hours to overhaul a Bronco tailgate. But in the real world it would take someone with body shop experience nearly twice that many hours to remove, disassemble, and replace the broken and worn-out parts into a new tailgate shell.

“If you are the typical do-it-yourselfer that has to drive their truck to work on Monday, overhauling a tailgate with a window in it isn’t a job to start Saturday morning,” says Gahlen Yahn who has 14 years of auto body experience, and is an avid weekend wheeler himself. “This is an all day job at best for the DIYer. At worst, give yourself a couple extra days just in case you break something or need to get additional parts – and tailgates like these have a lot of parts.”

Tailgate overhaul tips
Gahlen offers these tips to make the job go easier: 1) Remove the weatherstrips and glass, then work your way from the top down, outside in, center to the edges, one part at a time; 2) Put all the attaching hardware in a multi-compartment parts organizer, labeled and in the order they are removed; 3) Take pictures with your smartphone of everything before taking it apart so you can reference the photos later; 4) Go slow, take your time; 5) Liberally spray the inside of the new tailgate with rust inhibitor and use white lithium grease on all the moving parts; 6) Re-install the components in the reverse order they were removed, which is where the parts organizer comes in handy.

It’s also good to have a helper. SUV tailgates with power windows are heavy and bulky; the glass cumbersome and expensive if it breaks; and re-installing the tailgate, especially one with a torsion bar like in a Bronco, is a challenging two-person job in itself.

Whether having a bodyshop do the overhaul or doing it yourself, it’s rewarding to be able to have the rear window slide quickly and smoothly up and down, the latch working smoothly, and to open or close the tailgate with ease. It’s also comforting knowing the time and money is well spent for such repairs in that the tailgate will be in good working order for at least another couple decades.

Overhaul Cost: ‘86-‘96 Bronco Tailgate

(Parts sourced from LMC Truck)
Tailgate shell …… $289.95
Latch control assy… 49.95
Torsion bar …..…. 99.95
Torsion bar brkts … 35.90
Reg. assy ……….. 79.95
Reg. motor ……… 49.95
Weatherstrips ....... 69.90
Misc items……… 20.00
Labor: 5hrs @$80/hr … $400.00
Total: $1,095.55
Note: Your overhaul may not require all of the above parts.

The window needs to be opened half-way to access the bolts that hold it to the regulator. Once the weatherstrips are removed and the window pulled, the real disassembly can begin.

Tailgate windows are cumbersome and heavy, they are also costly to replace if dropped. Here Versionex Auto Body tech Gahlen Yahn (right) gets a helping hand from fellow bodyman Jeff Greenough in removing our Bronco’s rear glass.

One of the reasons tailgates on older SUVs rust out is the weatherstrips disintegrate over time from exposure to sunlight and the elements. That gives water a straight shot to sheetmetal that didn’t have the rust-inhibiting properties like they do now.

Must-have parts in a tailgate overhaul are new plastic clips that hold the various rods to the latch mechanism assembly. Old clips are brittle and almost always break when the rods are re-attached.

There’s a hidden bolt under the regulator assembly that can only be accessed by rotating the driver’s side gear so this hole is positioned above the bolt head. Gahlen powered the regulator until everything lined up, removed the bolt, and then disconnected the wiring harness from the electric motor.

The trick to removing the window regulator is to have the regulator arms parallel and then lifting the assembly out, driver’s arm first with the motor tilted upward.

The reason this Bronco tailgate felt like it weighed a ton is because the torsion bar that normally supports most of the tailgate’s bulk had rusted completely through. The bar and rusted mounting brackets were replaced with new ones sourced from LMC Truck.

Sometimes tailgates can be repaired. But Gahlen says when rust eats up the bottom like this, there’s no point trying to fix it. So we bought a new tailgate shell along with the other parts we got from LMC Truck.

It’s possible the rear window regulator on a lot of older SUVs may still be in good working order. But Gahlen said the rollers that slide and align the glass in the side tracks should always be replaced.

Every nut, bolt, clip, and washer that came off in a parts organizer was put in this $10 Harbor Freight part’s organizer and labeled accordingly. This helps keep track of the order parts in which they are removed, and ensures they go back in the right places.

A heavy support brace inside the tailgate supports the tire carrier. Pay attention to how it is positioned before removing.

The window channels, one on each side, are curved. They must go back the same way they came out. They are not interchangeable. Label accordingly.

The tailgate strikers should be labeled just like the window channels that were removed earlier. They are not interchangeable side-to-side.

The key lock assembly is tricky and worth taking a couple photos with your smartphone before the clips are removed. It’s prudent to use a new flat spring clip and lock cylinder wire clip during reassembly.

After the lock assembly was loose, Gahlen removed the driver’s-side taillight and pulled the wire harness out from the inside of the tailgate.

Be very careful removing the aluminum trim panel, which is found on Eddie Bauer and upper trim models. The new tailgate shell doesn’t have the holes pre-drilled for this, so that’s an added bit of time. Also, if the panel is bent or damaged, expect to pay $150-$200 for a used one.

It takes a little maneuvering to get the torsion bar and its brackets into place. But Gahlen and fellow Versionex Auto Body co-worker Jeff Greenough knew just how to get everything aligned and bolted down.

It’s a lot easier bolting the tailgate hinges to the body with two people than doing it alone.

The most difficult part of installing a rebuilt tailgate is getting the bracket holding the torsion bar (under tension) bolted to the body. A ½-inch deep socket and extension or, as Jeff does, use an inch-wide flat steel bar with a ½-inch slot on the end to push/hold tension on the torsion bar. Watch your fingers doing this part of the job!

LMC Truck’s new tailgate shells don’t have pre-drilled holes for the spare tire carrier. Gahlen had to mark and drill the holes, elongating them to match those on the tire carrier’s latch assembly to allow adjustment of the striker.

Some overhauls may not require a new latch assembly (right.) But ours did because the center spring was heavily corroded and we didn’t want to take a chance it’d fail later down the road.

“Rear window regulators are finger eaters!” says Gahlen. “The arms are spring-loaded to help carry the weight of the window, and the motor is what keeps the tension on the arms.” He advises a helper hold the window regulator’s lift arms straight when removing/replacing a motor – and keep hands away from the gears.

Another must-do in a tailgate overhaul: liberally coat the inside of the shell and all the parts (except the window) with a rust inhibitor. Gahlen sprayed half a can of 3M’s #8892 Rust Fighter-I inside our tailgate. The waxy material doesn’t affect electrical components and it doesn’t dry out over time.

Re-assembly is just a matter of replacing the parts in the reverse order they were removed. When the regulator is installed, make sure the motor and lock works before going on to installing the other parts. It’s also good to spray the side channel tracks with Wurth Rubber Care or similar lubricant.

Sources

LMC Truck
Lenexa, KS 66219
800-562-8782
www.lmctruck.com
Versionex Auto Body
541-286-7166
www.versionex.com

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