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Rebuilding Second-Gen Camaro Brake Light Housings

We break out our bag of tricks to bring this 1978 Camaro’s brake lights back to life

Jeff Huneycutt May 16, 2019
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Everybody loves the first-generation Camaro. As long as you can come up with a VIN plate, you can build one "new" by ordering every part out of a catalog. The big grille, early second-gen cars are also very popular. While admiration is growing for the rubber bumper Camaros from the late '70s and early '80s, they don't enjoy the same parts support from aftermarket manufacturers.

That's exactly the problem we faced with this '78 Camaro. Although the brake light lenses were still together for the most part, over decades of use and exposure to the sun, they had turned cloudy and brittle with a myriad of cracks. Replacement lenses were no big deal; a new pair of OER repop lenses were tracked down with a single call to National Parts Depot. Although a bit pricey, even the lens gaskets aren't hard to come by.

No, the problem came when we disassembled the taillight assemblies and realized there was barely enough left of the passenger-side housing to hold the assembly to the car.

It turns out that this is apparently a common problem. Nobody—at least yet—is making new housing moldings (also called bezels) for 1978-'81 Camaros. For that matter, neither could we find any for 1974-'77 Camaros, which use a slightly different housing. Next, we turned to eBay, which turned up a few housings for the driver-side going for $90 or more, but we could find nothing for the passenger-side.

Apparently, the plastic in the housings break down over time and it makes them incredibly fragile. Maybe with patience we could find one in a parts car or used online somewhere, but being impatient cheapskates, we decided to take a shot at repairing the decrepit housing ourselves.

Because of the degradation of the plastic, large chunks of the housing were simply gone. The biggest problem from that were the mounting tabs that were now missing. After a little research online for a solution, we found a product called Plastex Plastic Repair Kit; it looked like it might fit the bill.

Plastex kits are designed to allow the easy repair of hard plastic pieces. What separates it from ordinary glue is that it can be used to re-create complex components by creating molds and "casting" your own rigid plastic pieces.

Each Plastex kit includes a molding bar; a material that becomes pliable with heat that you can use to wrap around something you want to duplicate. When the molding bar cools it hardens a bit while remaining pliable. This allows you to pull it free from the component it has been molded around while still maintaining its shape.

The next step is to mix the supplied Plastex powder with a liquid reagent. When the two mix, the powder will absorb the reagent and after it dries it takes the form of a hard plastic. Then the mold can be pulled away and the resulting piece is ready for use. Normally, the mixture dries in 20 minutes and is fully cured in an hour.

The Plastex pieces we made were surprisingly sturdy. Once it has cured, the material is sandable, paintable, and can be glued to other components with more Plastex, glue, or JB Weld. We found the easiest method was to pour in shallow layers of the powder, moisten it with the reagent and then repeat the process until the mold is full. Thankfully, there is no mixing ratio, so as long as the powder is moist, it will work. Getting it too wet with the reagent only means the mold will take longer to harden.

We even tried using the product to fill in and reinforce cracks, of which it did a decent job. After applying a piece of tape to create a "floor" for the crevice, we poured in the Plastex powder then dripped the reagent in slowly until all the powder was damp. Within a few minutes, the Plastex had bonded to the plastic to significantly stiffen the housing.

We weren't able to completely rebuild the housing. As you can see from the photos, there are still large gaps in the piece, but with the Plastex and a few strips of metal glued to the housing, we were able to make it stable enough to return to service. We won't kid ourselves and say that the Camaro is now concours ready, but the new lenses look great and should stand up to plenty of road miles in the stabilized housing. And that's all that matters, right? CHP

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After four decades of UV exposure, the Camaro's taillight lenses were foggy, brittle, and full of cracks, and the gaskets had virtually rotted away. Original Equipment Reproduction makes repop lenses and gaskets, so acquiring new ones was as simple as a trip to National Parts Depot, which keeps them in stock. The problem came once we started pulling things apart.

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Removing the taillight assembly from the car is as simple as opening the trunk and unthreading by hand the large plastic retaining nuts securing the assembly to the car (there are six per side). Then a quarter-turn twist of the bulb assemblies removes each from the housing. This is the driver-side assembly. So far so good.

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Our plans for an easy and quick upgrade came crashing down once we saw the state of the housing on the passenger side. That's it on the bottom in this photo. Whether it had seen abuse or simply deteriorated over time we're not sure, but the damage is bad. Unfortunately, as this went to print, no manufacturer is making repop taillight housings for 1974-'81 Camaros, and we couldn't even find a decent used option on eBay. Our only course of action was to do what we could with this decrepit piece of plastic to make it usable once again.

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Here's everything once we had both taillight assemblies torn apart and laid out on the worktable. As you can see, the passenger-side housing would be thrown in the trash if we had absolutely any options for a decent replacement. The gaskets were also dried, brittle, and broken in several places.

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At first, we tried repairing the cracks in the passenger-side housing with super glue, but it took forever to dry (that's why you see zip ties holding the splits in the housing together). Next, we picked up a tube of Loctite five-minute epoxy. The self-mixing end is a nice touch, but the stuff dries so fast that after the first application it would dry in the tube before we were ready to use it again. So we ended up hand-mixing the rest on a piece of cardboard. Still, it did a good job of fixing the small stuff.

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For the more complex repairs, we turned to a Plastex rigid plastic repair kit sold on their website (plastix.net). The kits are offered in several sizes and in white, black, and clear. This is the smallest kit, which turned out to be more than enough for our project. Typically, we would have gone with the black powder but chose white this time simply because it would show up better in the photography.

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The coolest part of the Plastex kit is how it allows you to mold and cast plastic pieces in complex shapes. The molding bar included feels like hard rubber at room temperature, but becomes soft and moldable when heated to 120 degrees Fahrenheit. This is easily done by letting it soak in a cup of hot water.

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Gluing cracks together is one thing, but to make the old housing work, we needed to re-create at least two tabs that hold the lenses in place. We found a good tab on the driver-side housing, squeezed the mold around it and held it there until it cooled and stiffened. The molding bar is still pliable once back to room temperature so it can be pulled off the tab and still maintain the proper shape in the cavity.

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Next, we created a new tab by pouring a shallow layer of Plastex powder into the mold and then wetting it with the liquid reagent. We repeated those steps until the mold was topped off and then let it sit for half an hour. The Plastex powder has no ideal mixing ratio. So as long as it is moistened by the reagent, it will work. Getting it too wet only results in a longer drying time.

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After cleaning away the flashing, here is a look at the "new" tab. It obviously isn't a perfect fit against the broken housing, but that isn't a big deal. We placed the lens in the housing and screwed the tab into the lens to find the proper angle and spacing in relation to the housing, as you can see here.

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We used more Plastex to secure the new tab to the old housing. First, the lens was covered in tape so it could be removed later. Then, we repeated the process of layering powder and reagent to carefully build up the area between the housing and the tab.

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And here is the result of our handiwork. The bond between the housing and the new tab is surprisingly strong.

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We couldn't figure out a way to re-create the large gaps in the housing so we simply braced them with strips of 22-gauge steel and glued them in place with the epoxy. As you can see, we subscribe to the "just glob it on there and let it dry" method of application.

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Once we had both housings back in decent shape, a quick coat of silver paint was applied to help reflect light and the new lenses are ready to be dropped in place. You can see the interior lens gasket already in place on the housing that helps keep moisture out to protect the old-school bulbs.

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There's a second gasket that sandwiches between the lens and the housing. It also helps keep moisture out, but its apparent main purpose is to mask the seam between the Camaro's body and the brake lights to improve appearance.

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Although it's not technically brake lights, the attached fuel filler door was looking pretty grungy—and especially bad against the brand-new lenses. So we also sourced a repop OER door and emblem from National Parts to spruce things up a bit.

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The refurbished assemblies are secured to the Camaro with six retaining nuts on each side, which are tightened by hand.

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The original fuel filler door attached with sheetmetal screws, but the repop door has adjustment slots so you can align the fitment. We used M5 bolts and nuts (1/4-20 SAE were too large) and made final adjustments once everything was in place.

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And with that, the Camaro is back together and ready for more miles of fun.

 

Photography by Jeff Huneycutt

Sources

Plastex Plastic Repair Kit
Reno, NV

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