Crushed Can: CR-V Wreck Repair for Less Than a G, with CFLOMOTO

A few months ago my own car projects were put on sudden hold when I got the news that my mother-in-law had just crashed her beloved 1997 Honda CR-V into the back of a Civic during a sudden traffic jam on a Northern California interstate. She was devastated, not only because her own mother had passed away that same day and her foot was injured in the crash, but because the car she bought new and enjoyed for the past 18 years had just seemingly been totaled. Fear not, I told her after seeing some initial photos of the wreck – we can fix that! Follow along as we introduce CFLOMOTO, a new corner of Daily Turismo, a place to share tips, tech, tricks, and tales of mechanical cunning. In this first feature, we share how some simple tools, a lucky junkyard find, and a little ingenuity got this Honda back on the road for less than $1000.

We’re not exactly sure of all the details of the collision, but through sympathetic questioning I surmised that impact speed was less than 40mph. We know that she was braking as hard as she could and ran out of space, hence the injured right foot (due to reaction force from the brake pedal on impact) and the mushed CR-V. Luckily the nose dive under braking was enough to cause a fairly high hit, bending a lot of thin decorative sheetmetal but not really touching the “frame” or longitudinal unibody structure. The core support, AC condenser, radiator, and electric fans were all smashed but luckily nothing touched the exhaust manifold or the front side of the engine. The hood creased exactly where it was supposed to, on the pre-weakened thin sections, and did no damage to the hinges or cowl. The inner fenders were only crunched a tiny bit at the fronts and the outer fenders were untouched. Other than that, the damaged parts were all plastic.

The best profile shot we have of the abbreviated CR-V.

The accident happened several hundred miles from home, so I had to make a quick decision about the fate of the car without being able to survey the damage myself. Was it still driveable? Yes – the engine started and ran just fine, with the only major leak being coolant from the taco’d radiator. Were the “frame rails” crumpled? My mother-in-law wasn’t sure, but a helpful tow yard employee took a quick peek and confirmed no buckling. A few engine bay photos were texted my way… and after a minute of self-reflection and a mental inventory of the various heavy bending/prying tools at my disposal I said “sure, OK, I can fix that.” So it wouldn’t get totaled after all, but it wasn’t exactly mobile. Luckily the car could be stored at the nearby home of my wife’s aunt and uncle, avoiding storage fees until I could retrieve it.

Mrs. CFlo’s uncle is a true car guy who not only graciously agreed to store the wreck amongst his Pantera, Mustang, and several Fieros, but was pumped to help out with the repair however possible. One day, I found the photo above in my email inbox. Whoa – he had found all of the sheetmetal and plastic bits we needed to fix the damage, from a identical ’97 CR-V in the same color! No paint required equals minimal labor time and cost, and this was a boon to fixing the car right, fast, and cheap. Not to mention that OE paint, especially from Honda, is always going to be superior to the local Scheib or Maaco. Self service junkyards really are the best, if you can get lucky and find the right donor. helped in this regard – I only wish it worked for So-Cal yards too.

Armed with a basic understanding of the damage, and the knowledge that 95% of the parts I needed were waiting for me with the car, I enlisted the help of good friend Karl. We hitched up a borrowed tandem-axle car trailer to my ’94 Land Cruiser – the Crusher – and headed northward. Upon arriving in Sonoma County wine country, Karl and I didn’t sample a merlot or a chard – no, we promplty test drove my uncle-in-law’s recently engine swapped ’88 Fiero. He went with an L67 Supercharged version of the venerable 3800 Buick V6 – a cost effective and powerful choice. He autocrosses the crap out of it, and let us test it on some spectacular backroads. I’m all too familiar with the ins & outs of turbocharged engines, but I have to say that hearing positive displacement supercharger whine a few inches behind my head while sitting a few inches off the pavement was a new and exciting experience.

The L67 Supercharged 3800 looks right at home in the engine bay of an ’88 Fiero.

The trips up and down Interstate 5 from LA to Sonoma County were mostly uneventful, save for a few of the poorly welded mounts for the trailer’s steel fenders fatiguing en route and necessitating full fender removal. They were strapped to the front of the flatbed and we moved on. The FZJ80 Crusher pulled like a champ and smoothed out with some weight on the trailer. All the “new” junkyard parts were stuffed into the back of the CR-V for transport.

Grille removed, new hood fitted as a reference point. No other changes yet at this point!

The next day after arriving back home, Karl was sick of staring at the car, but his brother Alex was game to practice skills as an understudy to DT’s ace bodyman…er…well, we both kinda just figured it out as we went along. First step was unbolting the folded hood from the hinges and setting it out for the scrap metal vultures. With the replacement hood roughly attached as a first approximation, we could use it as a reference for where everything else in the front end needed to be, and start to get an idea of the the damage’s quantitative severity.

The first and most obvious issue was that the new hood’s latch loop was a good 3 inches (75mm) forward of the latch itself. The core support structure had therefore been pushed back by that amount, and twisted a bit downwards as well.

A few minutes and a shower of plastic later, the crunched grille and bumper cover were off, showing the full story. Above you can see the black “bumper bar” (really the structural bumper – the exterior plastic cover is just that, a cover). The bumper bolts onto the front of the frame spars below each headlight, and the way the beam is cantilevered over the mounting points makes me think it was designed to bend and rotate upwards as it did here. The force of the impact has moved the driver’s side of the bumper up a few inches (yellow arrow), creased the central vertical core support pillar in a few places (blue lines), and creased the upper “slam panel” to which the hood latch is bolted, at four major locations (green arrows). Crucial to determining a solid plan of action for the repair was analyzing the damage this way, and deciding where to concentrate our un-bending efforts.

The view from above might paint the picture a bit more clearly. Here you can see the crumpled slam panel, the tweaked bumper, bent intermediate rail above the bumper, broken headlights, and the captured radiator and AC condenser. Luckily we had replacements for all of these parts except for the upper slam panel which is spot welded in about 10,000 places and is integral to the front core support structure. But steel that was once bent…can be bent again, back into shape.

With all of the easily unboltable parts unbolted, it was time to start pulling. The concept is pretty simple: the crunched metal was pushed into its bent configuration, so pulling it back out in the opposite direction, applying force at strategic points, should bring the steel pretty close to its original geometry. Any areas with sharp creases will be at risk of cracking due to cold working – the metal has been deformed past its yield point and can’t be returned to its original shape without embrittling the area – so care is needed in the most highly damaged areas to prevent cracks and tears. For us, the logical way to pull out the damage was with a comealong, a kind of manual, hand-cranked winch. On the CR-V we chose the point that was pushed farthest back to start with, bolting the looped long end of the cable through the driver’s front corner of the slam panel.

The comealong needed something solid and immovable as an anchor – perfect job for my engineless Volvo 242 project car in the garage. Here you can see we hitched the comealong up to the Volvo’s front tow hook. A large tree with a strap around it would’ve worked equally as well, but I do not have the luxury of such arboreal features on my property. The Volvo didn’t protest at all, and the damage in the thin Honda sheetmetal immediately reversed before our eyes, like a slightly less impressive version of what happens when Christine the ’57 Plymouth regenerates herself after disposing of a few greasers.

Compare the photo above to the last one of the crumpled Honda further up, and you’ll see how a few pulls with the comealong really straightened out that slam panel. The central vertical pillar had some nasty residual stress since a good deal of the impact was focused there by the bent bumper beam, so that was the next spot to pull. A few large fender washers on each side and the cable was ready to do its thing again. Once the majority of the plastically deformed steel was back into place, there were still of course some sharper creases that the comealong couldn’t focus its energy strongly enough on, for which a simple hammer and dolly were my tools of choice. The three vertical supports and the bottom edge of each headlight opening were some of the worst areas for these creases, but luckily they were easily accessible from one side with the hammer and the other with a dolly. I use a cheap Eastwood set of fiberglass handled hammers and Chinesium dollies that has served me well in my amateur body bumping over the past few years. The key is to “release” the energy of the dent by straightening only the worst creases, and letting the elastically deformed metal around them spring back into place without further bashing.

The result of a few of these low-tech pulls was the gratifying “click” of the hood latching properly now that the slam panel and latch mechanism was roughly in the right place. So nice to experience, and this was only about 90 minutes into the job.

With replacement headlights loosely installed we had more reference parts to tell us where the metal was supposed to be – the lights mount at two tabs on the top into the slam panel, and another third tab on the inside edge of each light that hides behind the grille. Using the plastic as a guide we bumped and pulled on the metal in a few additional minor areas to get the holes to line up well enough to bolt the lights on securely.

Next on the list was the hood to fender gap on both sides. With the hood latch functional again, I could adjust the rubber bumpers and get the hood to sit flush – on the same plane – with the tops of the fenders. The gaps at the back near the hinges were fine, but tapered out much wider as the fender followed the hood towards the front edge on each side. The worst was on the driver’s side front, where the gap was a full 1/2 inch (12.7 mm), vs. a much tidier ~3/16 inch (4.8 mm) Honda quality gap at the rear. The fenders themselves weren’t damaged in the wreck, but the inner structure they mount on was squashed just enough to cause this unsightly chasm.

Instead of removing the fenders or trying to bash the inner panels inwards from the outside, I took what seemed like the course of least resistance. The comealong was still sitting around after the nose pull was complete, and I realized I could reel up the cable short enough, and bolt the loops through the frontmost fender mount hole on each side of the car.

With the comalong secured, I used the ratcheting mechanism to exert a nice easy, controllable tension inwards at the front, squeezing the fenders back closer to the hood where they belonged. I made sure to go a bit past where I needed to be since good sheet steel will always spring back a bit when bending stress is relieved – or the comealong is released, in this case.

With the gaps set as close to Ferdinand Honda’s factory specs as humanly possible with my crude hand tools, I moved on to a few final minor adjustments. The core support or “slam” panel was in the right position fore/aft now, but still slightly rolled downwards toward the front when sighting along the panel from either side. Again, instead of brute force hammer smashing I used a steady but powerful technique to rotate the front of the panel upwards without causing undue extra creases or messing up my panel alignment. The old trusty cherry picker / engine hoist combined with the comealong again let me pull purely upwards on the slam panel with precise pumps of the hydraulic jack handle. I could have gone on like this for a few more days, but once the panel alignment variation was imperceptible to even a studied eye, I called it good, touch-up painted over the bare steel areas where the creases had been, and started final reassembly.

From the front – would you ever have known this thing was a mangled wreck just a few days prior?

Apart from the stubborn plastic bumper cover not quite cooperating, the only giveaway that anything has been altered here is the new hood’s deeper shade of red vs. the original fenders’ slight fade. I’ll call that panel gap ball-bearing-beautiful and be satisfied with a job well (and cheaply) done at home.

Apart from getting the evacuated air conditioning system recharged with the new condenser installed, the only other casualties to address in the CR-V were the airbags. Both driver’s and passenger’s bags deployed, sending their nasty powder everywhere and lending a general CSI-ish air to the interior. The car was still drivable this way of course, and to move it around we simply cut the cloth bags out and taped the flaps shut until I finished the metal work and could find replacements.

I found that ebay is your friend when searching for used, yet un-used airbag modules. I managed to source the driver’s side bag assembly complete with horn buttons and the passenger’s side upper dash mounted bag for around $75 each on the ‘bay. Following the factory service manual procedure for replacing the airbags – disconnecting the battery first of course – I was disheartened to see the orange SRS light still flashing after getting everything buttoned back up. Turns out the control unit for the airbag system stores trouble codes, and any history of the bags deploying, and is intended to be replaced or reset by a factory trained technician after an accident. This being DT, I knew there had to be a cheaper way – and ebay saved me again, this time with a reset service. You remove the airbag ECU, box it up, ship it to MyAirbags in Duluth, Georgia, and wait about a week. When the controller returned it looked the same but upon reinstallation…the SRS warning light went out, and the system is good to go, all for about $45.

At the end of this little unplanned project, we have a functional car that retains its clean title, is really no worse for wear, and looks pretty darn close to (in some respects better than) how it appeared before the unfortunate accident. My mother-in-law was grateful; thrilled to have her baby Honda back in one piece, and stepping up for family in need of car-related help is part of the DT way. All told, not including transporting the car across the state, the total bill was a hair less than $1000 to get the CR-V back on the road. Hmm…now I’m tempted to buy a few more lighly-wrecked but otherwise nice vehicles for cheap…someone help!

We’d love to hear your similar tales of frugal fixin’ – feel free to share in the comments below. We hope you enjoyed the first CFLOMOTO article.

CFlo is Daily Turismo’s co-founder and Technical Editor. When he’s not driving an “emissions spewing” TDI he’s underneath a Volvo, on top of a Land Cruiser, cursing at a broken BMW, or driving the piss out of a crapcan race car. And that’s all before 10AM.