Sunday, November 20, 2016

Taking Care of the Chrome On A Tri-Five Classic Chevy

Taking Care of the Chrome

On A Tri-Five Classic Chevy

-Alan Arnell

Comparing a 1957 Chevrolet’s to a 2016 late model car, one would immediately notice a very glaring difference.  The classic Chevy has a ton of chrome!  That lovely chrome has been replaced by plastic, paint and rubber.  To some folks, no big deal, but to us Tri-Five Vintage Chevy cars no chrome means no fun.  But, like all things of the joy and ownership of a Classic Chevy comes responsibility.  I for one take on the care of my 1957 Chevy 2-door, Model 150 sedan’s chrome as a “labor of love!”

With the oil embargo in the 1970’s and other factors the US government passed legislation pertaining to emissions and mileage standards.  That was the beginning death nail for chrome bumpers.   New aerodynamics, styling designs and impact-resistance standards were needed to meet the new rules.  Styles also changes and the way older cars with steel bumpers that were chrome plated extended out from the body which interfered with aerodynamics and better fuel economy.  The public’s tastes went to cars that look sleek and modern, so designers use plastic fascias over steel impact bars and foam absorbers to give a smoother look which also helps aerodynamics.

New rules mandate that all cars must survive an impact of 5 mph or slightly higher with minimal body damage.  To engineer the new requirements for bumpers auto designers had to design and use steel reinforcing bars.  Now .bumpers are attached to the frame or unibody structure which are covered by energy absorbing foam pads which are then covered by plastic body-colored fascias.  A chrome steel bumper would bend or show an obvious dent. The newer designs might weigh a little more than just using a chrome bumper but the better aerodynamics offsets any mileage losses from added weight, so they say, and cost for repairs are less if small accidents are considered.

Today’s bumpers are no doubt more practical, but they lack the dash and style of the 1950’s chrome bumpers and bullets, in this man’s point of view anyway.

Having chrome on you car is one thing: taking care of it is another.  A big part of having a classic car is chrome maintenance.  Unless you de-chrome bumpers and paint them, keeping chrome clean and in good condition has to be a continual task.  Some say that is another reason why our later model cars do not have much chrome.

Before, we start we need to understand the difference between chrome and stainless steel that was used extensively on the beloved Tri-Fives.  Because of defense needs for the US in the 1940’s and early 1950’s chromium and copper, which is used in the chroming process, were both in short supply. Therefore, using stainless steel was the logical alternative.  The side and window moldings on a classic Chevy are made from stainless.  With that known, you must also know that there are a different set of care tips to apply to those stainless auto parts.  My dad used to say, “It’s too bad that all the trim was not made from stainless.  If it were many more bumpers, tail lights bezels, etc., would have survived the ravages of time.

Take a good look at the chrome parts of your car.  They may:
  • Be in great shape and only in need of cleaning or polishing; or
  • Have on minor surfaces corrosion and pitting and are potentially presentable; or and rust and in need of restoration rechroming; or
  • Badly deteriorated and beyond hope of restoration.

If you are lucky enough to have chrome in the first condition described above, or even in the second condition - all you will need to do is polish it.  If there is surface corrosion, use a metal or chrome polish containing a fine abrasive.  How do you know if the polish has abrasive in it?  Rub it between your fingers.  You should be able to feel the abrasive if there is some.  Such polish should remove the light corrosion.  There will hopefully, be enough good chrome underneath to shine up nicely.  Finish with a good quality wax as described below.  Using an abrasive should not be done every time you polish your chrome as abrasive also removes chrome as well.  Sometimes a using a grade 000 extra fine or may be a grade 00 fine steel wool, with some soapy water, will remove pits of rust in chrome.  

Polish is not something you want to use each time you clean, shine or buff you chrome parts.  That is because, each time you use it the abrasive removes the chrome.  Once you have polished your chrome to the point you like, from then on use a good wax for moisture prevention and only clean with soap and water followed by Windex and a good buffing by hand with a microfiber cloth sold at auto parts stores, Walmart, Target,etc., then wax and buff.


Chrome that is badly corroded or pitted may be a candidate for rechroming.  A good chrome shop can remove some of the corrosion and pitting as a part of the plating process.  How to find a good shop?  I believe the best way is word of mouth.  Belonging to a local Classic Chevy club, like my club the Dallas Area Classic Chevy Club, is invaluable to meeting like minded Tri-Five Classic Car nuts like yourself and a great source for a recommendation foundation.

There are limits to what a chrome shop can do to a bad bumper.  A good shop can remove some of the corrosion and pitting as part of the plating process.  Still, there are limits to what they can do.  Serious corrosion and pitting may mean that a piece cannot be saved.  You may want to consult the chrome shop about the decision to re-plate or not to re-plate.  A reputable shop should be honest with that assessment.  Get price bids as knowledge to also seek alternative ways to have shining chrome on your vintage car.

Really bad chrome items will have to be replaced.  Finding a good chrome part at a salvage yard, as my father did to replace the families rusted through 1957 Chevy four-door hardtop taillight assembly in 1965, does not happen any more due to the advance age of the Tri-Five.   Your choices are to replace with a new part from either Restoration World; they carry Golden Star bumpers, Mutton Hollow or Danchuk.  Another choice would as recommended by (cruzn57) at, “...rechrome the auto part. And, seek out a GOOD chrome there are many poor chrome shops, repops are ok, but OEM is better…”

OEM (pronounced as separate letters) is short for original equipment manufacturer.
OEMs are manufacturers who re-sell another company's
product under their own name and branding.

Would it be cheaper to have a bumper re chromed or buy repop new? Is there much of a market out there to where I could sell my current ones to help offset costs? Well, it would be cheaper to buy a bumper from a vendor.  However, the fit of the re-pop part is always a concern as GM back in the day had loose standards for assembly parts at different parts of the country.  Also, if you want a daily driver chrome job re-pop is the best.  Yet, if you want tripple chrome and a 1000 point car a chrome shop is the way to go.  

Repop is short for reproduction parts. About 85%
of the parts out there are (repop) reproduction parts.
They are new parts made by several different
companies (many in China) which are of different qualities.
On the other hand NOS parts are New Old Stock parts
are parts that have been made long ago by the manufacturer
That  were never used. They are also called
New Obsolete Stock and New Original Stock.

For selling your own parts, I can not give much encouragement on recouping funds or even finding someone to buy the part.  With so many venders selling new parts for Tri-Fives the used parts are a hard sale.  In years past, Classic Chevy magazines and even club newsletters ran a large section of used part ads.  Those ads are now gone.  

I must say parts such as a Taillight Assembly for the most part can not be rechromed.  They were made of pot metal that simply fell apart and usually can not be fixed.  

Pot metal—also known as monkey metal, white metal, or die-cast zinc—is a colloquial term that refers to alloys of low-melting point metals that manufacturers use to make fast, inexpensive castings. The term "pot metal" came about due to the practice at automobile factories in the early 20th century of gathering up non-ferrous metal scraps from the manufacturing processes and melting them in one pot to form into cast products. A small amount of iron usually made it into the castings, but too much iron raised the melting point, so it was minimized.

Image result for 57 chevy pot metal auto parts

There is no metallurgical standard for pot metal. Common metals in pot metal include zinc, lead, copper, tin, magnesium, aluminium, iron, and toxic cadmium. The primary advantage of pot metal is that it is quick and easy to cast. Because of its low melting temperature, it requires no sophisticated foundry equipment or specialized molds. Manufacturers sometimes use it to experiment with molds and ideas (e.g., prototypes) before casting final products in a higher quality alloy. Items created from pot metal include toys, furniture fittings, tool parts, electronics components, and automotive parts.

Depending on the exact metals "thrown into the pot," pot metal can become unstable over time, as it has a tendency to bend, distort, crack, shatter, and pit with age. The low boiling point of zinc and fast cooling of newly cast parts often trap air bubbles within the cast part, weakening it. Many components common in pot metal are susceptible to corrosion from airborne acids and other contaminants, and internal corrosion of the metal often causes decorative plating to flake off.[citation needed] Pot metal is not easily glued, soldered, or welded.

At one time, pot metal referred specifically to a copper alloy that was primarily alloyed with lead. Mixtures of 67% copper with 29% lead and 4% antimony and another one of 80% copper with 20% lead were common formulations.

The primary component of pot metal is zinc, but often the caster adds other metals to the mix to strengthen the cast part, improve flow of the molten metal, or to reduce cost.  With a low melting point of 419 °C (786 °F), zinc is often alloyed with other metals including lead, tin, aluminium, and copper.

If you do have good chrome on the car, or had it re-chromed, you will want to protect the surface.  Like other types of metal, the enemy of chrome is moisture in many places, you will not experience salt on the roads, snow sleet, and heavy rain like you do with your daily driver, but there may be acid rain and fog, air pollution and salt air.  Any combination of these can do a job on chrome plated surfaces.  Protect the chrome like you should paint with a good wax that will repel moisture.  That will be far more effective than ordinary metal or chrome polish.  

".....CHROME: Exterior chrome plated parts are very easy to maintain. For normal cleaning, use glass cleaner. Spray into a towel and wipe to remove grime. Follow with a clean towel and burnish to a streak free gloss. To remove soiling build-up or water spots, clean surface with a chrome or metal polish or a glass polish that is friendly to chrome. (

Another (visible) bumper bolts on a classic Chevys were steel with stainless steel caps.  The steel fall prey to moisture like other parts and can stain the chrome or cause the nuts to rust in place.  New available bolts and mounting hardware are available and can really help the overall appearance of bumpers on you Chevy.  

Now you if did not before, will have show quality chrome.  Keep that labor of love going.

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