Windshield replacement in a vintage car (Part 2)
Last week, I talked about how windshield replacement in a vintage car is usually a different beast than the one-call-shopping that’s available to get a big glass company to come to your driveway with a new windshield and be in and out in an hour. This is due to both the boutique availability of the glass itself and the fact that the job can easily mission-creep its way into paint and bodywork. I gave examples using two of my 1970s BMW 2002s, both of which had shrunken rock-hard windshield gaskets that had to be practically chiseled out and that, when removed, revealed rust on the A pillar that needed to be treated.
Today we’ll get even more obscure and talk about replacing the windshield in my 1974 Lotus Europa Twin Cam Special.
I bought the car knowing that it had been sitting for 35 years, had a seized engine, and needed everything, so the fact that it had a cracked windshield was little more than a footnote. I did some research and found that the windshield was available from Pilkington Glass as part of its “Classics” line for about $400. I could even pick it up in nearby Salem, Massachusetts. In my mind, I checked off the windshield as available, affordable, and not nearly as pressing as getting that Lotus-Ford Twin-Cam engine rebuilt.
That process took six years, as it was punctuated by job loss and career change. When, in the spring of 2019, the Europa rumbled out of the spot in my garage where it had been rolled in 2013, replacing the windshield suddenly took on urgency, as there was no way the car was going to ever pass a Massachusetts state inspection with that big crack right down the center. So I called Pilkington in Salem, recounted my conversation with them six years prior, and said that I’d very much like to pick up that $400 windshield as soon as possible. I was horrified when they told me that, due to low demand, the Europa windshield was one of those no longer available in the United States through the Pilkington Classics program. (Lesson learned—when you know you’ll eventually need something like this, and it’s available and reasonably priced, you buy it.)
I searched on the Europa forums and learned that I wasn’t the only one looking for a windshield—there appeared to be no new ones in the country, and folks were loath to let go of their used ones. Then, in a development representative of why these sort of enthusiast forums are wonderful things, a fellow down in Rhode Island took it upon himself to put together a group buy of windshields directly from Pilkington in England. If there were 10 people within a geographic region, they could have their own crated shipment, and fortunately, since he needed a windshield, one region was centered at his house, about an hour’s drive from me. It took over a year, and the price crept up to $800, but eventually I got the call that there was a giant crate with 10 windshields in it down in Providence, and one of them had my name on it. Last fall, I drove down in a car with a nice, big, soft pillow on the back seat, wrapped my hard-won windshield in a blanket, drove home very carefully, put my prize in a dead-end corner of my front porch, and cordoned it off with caution tape.
This past winter, I finally began the task of windshield replacement. The windshield in all S1 and some S2 Europas is affixed with a rubber gasket and a locking strip like the windshields on my vintage BMWs, but the windshield in all Twin Cam Europas is glued in, as it is in most modern cars. There’s decorative trim around the edge, held in by a ledge that sits under the glass and in the glue. Unfortunately, during the four years that I’d been driving the fragile little fiberglass-bodied car, a number of pieces of trim had flown off, and one of them was the windshield trim on the left A-pillar. The windshield trim is available but expensive, and you get into the slippery-slope issue of one new piece looking out of place against three old ones, or all of the new pieces looking out of place against the rest of the heavily patina’d car.
I did a lot of reading on Europa forums. I learned that the original adhesive is butyl rubber, but replacement should use the same urethane rubber that modern glued-in windshields use. I learned that the car’s fiberglass roof is so thin that the windshield frame sags, and that a 2×4 or other support should be cut to length and used to prop up the roof and frame while the glass is glued in. I learned that the trim is purely decorative, does nothing to actually hold in the glass, can be eliminated if desired, or can be replaced after the glass is installed with generic inch-thick trim that looks remarkably similar and glues to the outside of the glass. And I learned that while you can do the glue-in installation yourself, the urethane adhesive is incredibly messy, and if you screw up, you’ll regret it. I understood this, as I vividly recalled replacing the door seals in a BMW 2002, which uses a similar black adhesive. I didn’t like where one of the seals came to rest, thought I could reposition it, pulled the seal off, and the resulting black gooey web stretched everywhere, including onto one of the seats.
Well, OK then.
I set about getting the trim and glass out. This wasn’t nearly as bad as it was with the windshield gaskets in the BMWs—the nearly 50-year-old butyl rubber adhesive was still pliant. Still, it required a lot of time spent with a plastic scraper removing the bulk of the dirt and rubber, then a metal scraper to get down to the fiberglass, then paper towels and solvent to get the last of the goo out. Flick through the whole painstaking ordeal in the slideshow below:
Although fiberglass obviously doesn’t rust like steel does, there were some divots and indentations in the windshield frame. The upper left corner was the worst. I filled them with epoxy.
When spring came and I was girding my loins to install the precious new glass, a local friend posted on Facebook that he had a freelance glass pro come to his house and install the windshield in the BMW 2002 he’s restoring. I was surprised since, as I said a few weeks ago, a good friend who works at a local repair shop that specializes in classics said they now do their own glass work since they couldn’t find anyone who does it. This fellow said that he was very satisfied with both the work and the price. I called the glass guy, described the situation with the Europa, and asked if he had experience gluing windshields into fiberglass-bodied vehicles. He said that describes most RVs, so yeah. I told him that I do most things myself, and I had recently roped in two gasketed windshields (with help). However, the fact that you can’t gracefully back your way out of a urethane installation if something’s wrong gave me pause. He laughed and said, “Yeah, if you don’t know what you’re doing, the stuff gets everywhere and is very difficult to clean off.” He quoted me a price of $200. I jumped at it.
A week later, Joe Maki of “On the fly auto glass” showed up with his helper-son, a collapsible stand, a pair of suction cups, and the biggest glue gun in the world. He double-checked my work cleaning the windshield frame, then test fit the glass, determining how many shims were needed at the bottom to keep gravity from allowing it to drift down. Joe noted that either the car’s fiberglass body wasn’t quite true or the glass had a slight twist in it, as one of the upper corners was a bit higher than the other, but it wasn’t anything acute.
Then Joe scuffed up the fiberglass with a Scotch-Brite pad, laid a swath of adhesive primer on both the windshield frame and the glass, employed that giant electric glue gun to lay down a beautiful perfectly peaked pyramidal bead, plopped the glass down, seated it, and taped it at the top. Done.
Because no trim was installed, I thought that the lack of adhesive coming up to the edge of the upper corners looked a little funny, and asked joe to fill them in. This part wasn’t quite as clean-looking as the rest, but it was my request.
So it’s done. At some point I’ll deal with the question of the trim. The original trim is a bit chunky—it’s thicker than the trim around the windows—but it does brighten up the front of the car. Without it on, it looks like something’s missing.
Disposing of the old windshield was a surprise. In the past, a local auto glass place let me toss windshields in their dumpster, but this time I was denied. I read that laminated auto glass can be recycled, but neither the town recycling center nor two other glass shops I called take it. Someone at the town dump said that I should break it up and put it in the trash. I was surprised at that, but with the crack already right down the center, it gave it up with just a light foot squash.
The takeaway message in all of this is that if you’re looking to buy a vintage car that, among its other issues, has a cracked windshield, don’t trivialize it. The glass itself may be unavailable, other body and paint issues may rudely present themselves once the glass is out and the windshield frame is exposed, and installing replacement glass may be outside your backyard mechanic wheelhouse. Ten years ago when I bought the Lotus, I never would’ve expected that I’d spend a thousand bucks removing the old glass and cleaning the frame myself, sourcing a new windshield, having a very reasonably-priced glass pro come to my garage, and electing not to buy new expensive correct reproduction windshield trim.
Now that I finally have crack-free front glass, I guess I should get the thing inspected.
Rob’s latest book, The Best of the Hack Mechanic™: 35 years of Hacks, Kluges, and Assorted Automotive Mayhem is available on Amazon here. His other seven books are available here on Amazon, or you can order personally inscribed copies from Rob’s website, www.robsiegel.com.