My Full Custom – Frenched Headlights

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49chevkustomI’m trying to keep a late 40s – early 50s feel to this car. I studied some early custom cars built by George Barris and Harry  Westergard and decided that frenching the stock headlight rings would give me the “bullet look” I wanted.  Naturally, it didn’t work out that way.

To “French” something on a car is to recess it into the body to give the car a smoother, drill_bucketssleeker look. With headlights, that usually means that you need to put them in to the fender from the backside.

Rather than flip and re-use the the old clutch head screws and old clips, I thought I’d just weld some bolts to the bucket so I could remove the buckets easier (fewer screws). The first thing to do was to drill some holes through the buckets and the fenders so the holes would line up when I flipped the buckets. NOTE: If I had it to do over, I’d just drill out 4 of the stock holes and re-use them. I had a few clearance issues with the holes I made. Plus, I’d have trim_bucketsless holes that way. I don’t think I took any photos of this step. Do this with the buckets in the car so everything lines up later when you take it all apart.

Next, I shaved off the lip of the headlight buckets so they’d seat right up against the fender and hammered down any high spots. My long-time hetero project partner Kevin (a.k.a. MercMan1951) was good enough to help me out once again. We cleaned up the area around the fender opening in preparation for welding. To get trimmed_bucketsin the little nooks and crannies, Kevin showed me a bodywork-ninja secret: the sanding star. You take a normal Roloc sanding disc and cut “V” notches around the perimeter until it looks like a star with a dozen or so points. It’s great in the crannies, and the deadly art of the assassin.

At this point we hit a snag. We started roughing up the stock trim ring (which I thought was supposed to be stainless steel ?) and it was brass or something. The “chrome” sanded off and it was a gold colored metal underneath. When I tried to tack it to the car, it wouldn’t weld either. SO, NOW WHAT?

hammer-dollyKevin has a 51 Merc and he is going to use a Winfield style headlight treatment, so he offered up his stock 51 bezels. We held up the Winfield ones on for kicks too. But in the end the 51 Merc bezels looked good, and at $0 they sure fit the budget. We used duck tape to approximate the final shape and hit it with spray paint to get an idea of what it might look like. The Merc bezels also tunneled the headlights a good 3/4″. I played around with tilting the top out to get just the right profile, too.ninja_kevin

In the end, I felt like the Merc bezel was just a little too long, which caused it to disrupt the curve of the fender. Plus it was a little more tunneled than I wanted it to be which also created a gap between the headlight and the inner end of the bezel. I decided to shave 3/8″ off of the end of them. I took a combination square and a sharpie and drew a line around the base and then took a cutoff wheel and trimmed off the excess. I taped them up and liked how they looked. mercbezelThere is still a “dented in” area where they meet, but that will be filled with “glamour putty.”

So now I was ready to weld the rings on. There were a couple dents on the Merc bezels, so I dinged those out. I sanded through the chrome and the copper down to bare shiny steel (can’t weld to chrome or copper). I had to cut out and make patches for the screw holes in the bottom of the bezels as well. I bolted the buckets in and shimmed the bezels on with cardboard to make sure I had an even gap all the way around. bezeltape11NOTE: Really, bolt them in solid. At first I didn’t have them bolted in, and things were off. Then, when I went to adjust the bucket, it fell out and I broke the @#$%^ headlight!

Next I tacked the bezels up and pulled the cardboard out to make damn sure it was perfect before I started welding them in for good. I wound up adjusting one of the bezels. Then, when everything was perfect, I went around and “sticth welded” the whole assembly together. A “stitch weld” is where you tack, move, bezelspacingtack, move, tack, move… it is a painstaking process but it keeps heat from building up on thin sheetmetal and causing warping. About a million tacks later, it was starting to look pretty good!bezel-tackedheap_frenched