Back when music was thriving on vinyl records, I had a three-hit rule: I could justify buying the album if it had three hit songs. Today, the same directive applies to my long-suffering daughter’s 2009 Pontiac Vibe. After three hits, it is worth repairing the body. Let’s say it’s known to bodybuilders here.
I no longer ask for new bumps. My daughter, Julia, is a coach and sometimes drives her athletes on the subway after practice. Athletes can be careless with their gear, and the Vibe takes the brunt of it. Still, the final bump was a big bruise on the driver’s door above the character line, so it caught the sun every time.
Rather than going to a body shop, I looked at a few body repair services in the GTA. One featured an online estimator, so I entered the information to get the cost of a door bump: $320. Not near the $100-150 these places often advertise.
I started watching the do-it-yourself dent repair videos on YouTube and looked at the kits you can buy on Amazon. The tutorials made it look easy – and I draw pretty quickly with a glue gun. So I pulled the trigger on a paintless dent repair (PDR) kit for $63.
My kit arrived 24 hours later in an incredibly small box. Inside were a “dent removal” tool, a small hot glue gun, glue sticks, plastic tabs, two plastic scrapers and a small hammer. There are cheaper kits, but I liked the solid metal pusher as it seemed to offer more finesse when re-shaping the steel.
PDR involves sticking a plastic tab in the center of the dent and using the tool to pull the metal out of its depression. It’s almost impossible to do it all at once. Usually the glue loosens and you have to remove the residue with 95% alcohol, stick another tab and use the tool to pull again. And even.
Done correctly, PDR is a great solution because there’s no messy filler, sanding, or painting involved. You can beat a small bump in an hour once you get the hang of it. But there are caveats, as I soon discovered.
A bump can occur at any time, including the wrong half of the year when the days are short and the weather is freezing. Being in November, I waited for a mild Sunday and washed the car so I could examine every flaw. The smallest was a horizontal bump on the front fender. I decided to tackle it first by learning how to use the extractor.
I chose a small, elongated tab and covered it in hot glue before quickly gluing it to the small depression and waiting five minutes for it to solidify. I adjusted the push rod, making sure the knurled end of the tab fits properly in the tool, then adjusted the feet so they spread over the bump with room to resell. The tool should be mounted vertically so that it pushes against the curve of the wing – not perpendicular to it – to prevent further bumps.
Squeezing the spring-loaded handles, the tool pulled the tab outward, dragging the metal with it. Videos often show the user squeezing and releasing the tool in quick bursts, prompting the metal to snap into shape. The other option is to do it all at once, which is not recommended when the bump is shallow.
In my case, the glue let go, but not before I got the dent out, maybe 70% out. I repeated this two more times – after cleaning off the dried glue each time – until I was satisfied that the dent was mostly gone.
To be honest, my definition of a successful dent repair is not what the pros would consider a job well done. I could make out a tiny ripple where the twisted metal spent its energy after being forced back into shape. However, no one would notice the ripple except a pro. Let’s face it: the Vibe is a $3,000 car.
I moved on to the second bump on the rear quarter panel, where it meets the plastic bumper cover. This was a larger elongated bump, complicated by the fact that it bent part of the fender flare over the rear wheel. To my surprise, the big tab I used held on and it took a good minute of vigorous pulling before the glue let go.
The result was surprisingly good; I restored about 60% of the dent in one pull. But my first success was thwarted when I could no longer fix the dent, despite applying different sized tabs four more times. I was wasting a lot of time cleaning up dried glue and hadn’t even made it to the main event yet.
The door bump was 10 centimeters long and also deep, but what really made it a challenge was the crease in the middle. I couldn’t affix a big tab to the crease and expect good grip since it wasn’t a flat surface. I tried gluing on either side of the crease, but the dent was stubborn.
The tool I had did not lend itself well to this kind of bump. I used four different large tabs, and none of them moved the metal noticeably. Larger dents respond better to traditional dent pullers, those steel rods with a sliding weight that pulls the metal in one violent motion before the adhesive lets go.
After four hours of futzing on the driveway, dark rain clouds rolled in, prompting me to grab my tools and head inside. It was cold anyway. It occurred to me that I was going to need help.
Juderaj Anthony is a 15 year veteran in the body repair business and owner of Auto Dent Solutions. He greeted me outside his nondescript industrial unit in Scarborough and ran his hand over the bump in the door. “You don’t use a glue extractor for this. I have $15,000 worth of tools to do the job properly,” Anthony said. Calm and unpretentious, I immediately liked the guy.
Anthony worked at a car dealership detailing vehicles. Every once in a while he would see someone come in with steel rods and work the metal out of the underside of a door skin or hood and magically push the dents and dings of a vehicle onto the ground.
“He was paid $100 for an hour of work – I had to work a long day to earn that kind of money,” Anthony said. He decided to trade in his sponges and polish for a new set of tools.
Anthony trained extensively to learn the technique, mastering the long hook-like rods that descend inside the door and carefully push against the steel skin to remove the dent from behind. Unavoidable high spots are corrected with removable tools often covered in plastic or even leather.
Anthony became a mobile body repairer, traveling from dealership to dealership, fixing new and used vehicles marred by unsightly dents. The promised land is apparently Alberta, where a skilled worker can earn hundreds of thousands of dollars. Why there?
“Hailstorms,” Anthony said.
I left the unfortunate Pontiac in Anthony’s good hands the next morning, and by lunchtime he had called me to pick it up. He charged me $150 for the repair, a reasonable fee that I was happy to pay.
The door looked immaculate in its garage, but when I took it out into the sun, I could make out the slightest ripple where the dent was. I was not deceived. It was, after all, a high-mileage Pontiac Vibe. He would live to get hit another day.