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Toyota Tacoma Rotted Frame Fix

Safe-T-Cap saves our Tacoma from the grave

Christian HazelPhotographer, WriterAuto Rust TechniciansPhotographer

There are some things you can be sure of: death, taxes, Internet trolls, and winter road salt eating your vehicle. However, it’s not just road salt that causes automotive cancer. Vehicles subjected to heavy rains and monsoonal moisture, that live near the ocean, or are operated in extremely alkaline conditions may see unprotected areas of once-good metal converted into red, flaky, powdery, crumbling dust. Our ’01 Toyota Tacoma was a daily-driven vehicle that suffered from a triple-whammy cocktail of rust promoters. It spent its 325,000 miles of existence in Massachusetts parked in a driveway three doors down from the Atlantic Ocean, drove to and from work in frequent rain (which is most days in the summer…and spring…and winter…and fall), and was submerged in a saline cocktail of road salt and melted snow from December to April each year. Add to this onslaught the fact many Toyotas of this era left the factory with improperly coated frames that rotted so severely Toyota instituted a complete frame replacement recall, it wasn’t surprising that our Tacoma had rear framerails in critical areas so bad it threatened to send the whole truck to the scrap heap.

Unfortunately, our Tacoma was never taken in for the frame replacement recall offered by Toyota and by the time ownership passed to us the truck was too old and had too many miles on it. It held a lot of sentimental value, and despite the rotted frame, the body, interior, and drivetrain was still perfectly good. Fortunately, we knew the good folks at Auto Rust Technicians, which happened to be right down the road. The company, founded by Jerry Carlson, has been repairing severe vehicle rot since 1977. Over time, Auto Rust Technicians discovered it was seeing certain models frequently needing the same problem areas fixed. Light bulb!

Rather than fab the same individual repair plates for the same vehicles over and over, Carlson originally developed his precision-fit Safe-T-Cap repair system to speed up the repairs his shop was doing. The Safe-T-Cap system is designed to tightly hug the frame or unibody and be welded in to replace rotten sections. Eventually, Auto Rust Technicians began selling the Safe-T-Caps all over the world for a huge variety of vehicles. The plates are plasma cut from heavy-gauge steel and welded in-house at the company’s Cranston, Rhode Island, facility on an actual section of frame or unibody to ensure a perfect fit. Over time, the company expanded its product line to include structural components for a huge number of popular applications, from early muscle cars to soccer mom SUVs. Not every vehicle can be saved with a Safe-T-Cap system, but in most cases the product can be used to salvage an otherwise unsafe chassis—or at least greatly extend the useful life of an otherwise good vehicle.

Follow along as Auto Rust Technicians installs its Safe-T-Cap system on the rear of our Tacoma to make it safe for a cross-country journey you’ll read about soon in Four Wheeler.

Wicked New Englandah—A Red Sox hat, a Dunk’s coffee, and a vehicle with a frame that’s so rotted it’s about to fall in half! Pissah!

We dropped our pickup off at Auto Rust Technicians in Cranston, Rhode Island. The first thing the crew did was sand blast the frame to determine the full extent of the rot problems.

Toyota Tacomas from about ’96-’04 are very susceptible to frame rot, especially the area around the rear spring hanger, and our pickup was no different. Some are so bad that vehicles have actually folded in half between the bed and cab when put on a lift. Ours wasn’t quite that far gone, but it was close.

Our worst section was on the driver side, right next to the fuel tank where most of the metal around the rear spring hanger was, well, missing. With the Safe-T-Cap install, all this rotten area is cut out and replaced with heavy-gauge steel that’s welded to the surviving structural steel of the frame.

Because the Safe-T-Cap for ’96-’04 Tacomas requires the rear spring hanger to be cut off, measurements are taken from a fixed point of reference so the spring hanger can be welded back in the same position once the Safe-T-Cap is in place.

With the weight of the vehicle supported by scissors jacks between the leaf spring and frame, a plasma cutter is used to remove the remaining rotted sections of the frame and sever the spring perch from its mount. The spring eyebolts are not removed for this operation since almost every Rust Belt vehicle has the eyebolts solidly rust-welded to the bushing sleeves.

The Safe-T-Caps are built completely in-house at the company’s Cranston facility. It all starts with a CAD program that plasma-cuts the Safe-T-Cap pieces out of a sheet of heavy-gauge steel.

The pieces are then taken to jigs made from actual sections of vehicle frame, unibody, or whatever it is that’s being duplicated. Rather than brake-forming the Safe-T-Caps, Auto Rust Technicians prefers to weld individual pieces together to form its caps. The finished product comes out very uniformly for an exact fit on the vehicle.

Sure enough, the Safe-T-Caps for our vehicle dropped right on like the tailor-fit pieces of hardware they are. They’re a pretty tight fit on the framerail, so a little help from a dead blow mallet was required but no trimming or grinding was necessary. Note how the cap hugs the inside and outside of the framerail as well as indexing on the body mounts.

With the Safe-T-Cap position verified and clamped down, Auto Rust Technicians fully welds along every edge of the Safe-T-Cap leaving nothing to chance. No stitch welding or simple spot welds.

Here’s the finished product, fully welded and ready for another 15 years of dutiful service. If you’re doing the labor yourself, it’s critical to get the original frame down to bare metal for a solid weld, so renting a sand blaster is much preferable to a grinder or wire wheel.

Since we were driving this vehicle from Massachusetts to its new home in California, we asked the company to merely hit the repaired area with a coat of black paint. However, for its clients remaining in the Rust Belt, Auto Rust Technicians normally applies a heavy undercoating to the repaired section to ensure maximum survival for many years to come.

In all, the Tacoma Safe-T-Cap covers about 30 inches of frame area. Our Tacoma required one or two other small patches here and there, which were done in order to make the truck safe for its cross-country journey. Had we more time to leave the truck with them, we would have let the company fix the rear shock mounts and the area around the rear shackle hangers, but as is, it’s safe enough to make the cross-country journey, which is what we were after. We’ll be bringing you more on this little Tacoma in the future.