Rocker panel rusted and looking for ideas

My 96 Dodge Intrepid has pretty rusted rocker panel on one side. The plastic covers are fine, the metal beneath them are in tough shape.

I would like to keep the car another year but not sure if I can pass inspection.

Someone suggested to me to look into replacement rocker panels that can be attached by an adhesive. He said he did this on his Chevy.

I took a quick look and could not find any for this car. Does not mean they are not out there. I just did not find them. Does anyone out there know where to look?

Another person suggested I make some sheet metal brackets and attached the plastic covers and that should suffice. Easier said than done.

Thanks for any practical ideas!

The only correct way I know of fixing rusted rocker panels is cut out the rusted metal, and weld in new metal.

Never heard of a glue on rocker panel.


If you put plastic covers on you’ll just make it worse. It is merely cosmetic and the covers will just help hold moisture in there. It would be the same - even if there were ones that you could just “glue” on. As tester said - the only way to deal with it is to cut it out and weld new in.

You have a unibody constructed vehicle and the crash tests for your car were conducted with one without rust. If you expect to make the car safe, the rust should be cut out and a new piece welded in. If you have a rust hole in the rocker panel, it is doubtful you do not have rust elsewhere. The rust you see, is a small percent of what there is. Often, jacking points are around the rocker panels so your car may not even take a lift except by the wheels. We could give you all sorts advice on how to hide the hole, but the safe thing to do is take it to a body shop for an inspection. You should get no unsafe advice here.

Folks who restore old classics have to handle this problem all the time. Ask around, see if you can find somebody who restores old cars either for a living or on the side as a hobby. There’s probably someone in your neighborhood who as an old classic, a model A or something, parked in their driveway. They’ll likely be able to steer you in the right direction. As others above say, this isn’t something I’d try to Mickey Mouse as it might not be safe.

Agreed. No cheap fix is possible. The rocker panels are a part of the structrual rigidity of the car. If they are badly rusted, as you mentioned, this car is practically a goner. Where you see rust is only the beginning. There are going to be worse rust issues where you cannot see. And an 18 year old Intrepid is not a good candidate for extensive chassis repair. Time to cut it loose.

I agree that the car is no longer structurally sound, but if the OP is willing to take chances with his safety and the safety of his passengers, there are “cosmetic” approaches that will at least conceal the body rot and–perhaps–allow him to pass inspection.

Back in the '50s & '60s, when essentially every car from states using road salt had rotted-out rocker panels after 3 years or so, there were fiberglass repair kits available. I can vividly recall my mother soaking the strips of fiberglass and “plastering” them onto the rocker panels of our '55 Plymouth. Then, it was my job to sand the area after it had dried, and–later–to do a quick & dirty paint job with a spray can.

Of course, the cars in those days had separate bodies & frames, so we weren’t endangering ourselves too much…

If the OP takes a look at a place like Pep Boys, he just might find a fiberglass repair kit such as we used years ago.

And @VDCDriver, they didn’t have to pass crash tests when crashes were resulting in much higher instances of death and injuring. Even today’s body and frame trucks and SUVs are really hybrid construction. The body shell that fits on a frame in today’s trucks is unibody too. A marvelous concoction of steel and computer enhanced geometry that is also compromised by rust holes. I laugh when people refer to rust areas as “surface rust” as if that excuses the rust as being benign. Steel box frames and unibody steel thickness is quite thin and nearly any rust works over time to compromise it. Nearly every structure is weakens by rust. If you were inside of a car body panel looking out, the rust that does the most damage would appear as “surface rust”.

Rust is a designed in characteristic that does not have to be but is actually encouraged in some instances by practices designed to keep the car inventory moving from one shinny piece of metal to another rusting hulk.

@dagosa–I hope you realize that I agree with you.
I was merely trying to give the OP a possible approach to a cosmetic–albeit unsafe–way to conceal this structural damage on his car.

I’d recommend that you change your goal from getting the car past inspection to keeping yourself and your loved ones safe. Would you want to have your wife or kids killed because the car’s critical structural areas were too rotted out to be safe and you cheated to get it past the inspector?

Of course I got that idea when you prefaced your discussion about repair with what we did in the past and it was just cosmetic. When I was too lazy to quote your original statement that they are no longer structurally sound and our practices with cars of old lead to the confusion. “And…they didn’t have to pass crash tests” was just a general supplement to both cars of old with frames and unibodies today. Heck, we all used a little Bondo over a mesh for structural rusted out areas. You did a good job of CYA…I just rambled about my favorite subject. :wink:

The other thing that gets little attention is exhaust intrusion.
On a rear rocker panel, we don’t know which sections are fully enclosed in the rear rocket near the exhaust when in traffic, once the exterior has been compromised. The trim access to the rocker area are often inside the car door seals. It’s this trim I remove for rust control of the rockers in my cars. I pop them off first. Exhaust could easily leak under this trim. We don’t run around with our windows open anymore. Any rust through on the lower portion of the car, not just the floor boards, are possible exhaust entry points in traffic. I just refuse to allow any potential rust holes, even small ones, to start in this area.

Your “rocker panels” are actually rocker boxes and are the only frame connecting the front and rear of your car and If bad enough can do all sort of nasty things while driving even if you don’t get hit. They can also make it impossible to jack up the car to change a flat.
If rust causes the trailing arm to break free, the parking brake cable will immediately lock up one rear wheel. Wouldn’t that be exciting on the expressway?

Right @oldtimer.

Two weeks ago, a friend asked me to "prolong the life of his car life " for a year because it had the obvious small rust holes around the fender. I took out a pocket knife to check other areas, and he immediately got defensive and said, “oh, don’t poke into anything else”. So I put the knife away and within 30 seconds found a hole in the rocker panel big enough to put my fist through with out any prodding. The car is exactly ten years old. What is it worth compared to a ten year old car with a solid body that may need estensive brake work instead ? To me the answer is obvious.

That’s why my advice still stands. The whole car needs an inspection. Maybe it’s time to walk away now. We have inspections in many states for a reason. This is a big one. We call rust cancer for a reason that frightens all of us. We are always afraid it isn’t isolated.

Btw, I had offered to help my friend do rust prevention measures on his car several years earlier for nothing when it appeared completely solid on inspection. He refused . He couldn’t be bothered. Now, instead taking advantage of a friend with who could have helped him, he needs a magician. OP, you need one too.

Thanks for all the comments.
It appears I was not all that clear in my post. Sorry about that. The structural part of the panels seems sound. No holes or terrible rust. I had it on the lift last week and it was not too bad overall.

The way the plastic rocker covers are mounted is with a relatively thin sheet metal piece that is welded to the rocker panel and that part of the panel is in tough shape. As one person astutely noted water gets between the plastic and the steel metal and it rusts.

I am not interested in doing something unsafe. I don’t want to invest more than the cost of a similar used car in better shape. I am not crazy or stupid!

I do know that state inspections can often be overly conservative, dogmatic, indiscriminate, self serving to the inspector’s employer and Dilbert like.

I believe the guy who said he glued on the panels purchased a rocker repair kit from a company that sells aftermarket body parts. I may have totally misunderstood him but I thought it was a way to repair / replace the plastic cover mounting brackets(which are welded to the rockers). I never saw it, and I am going on one conversation which he made sound relatively simple.

It may not exist as I understood it. I don’t know how to get in touch with this person for clarification. So I am posing the question here to a community of motor heads and with some luck I thought I may get some direction. Thanks to all who weighed in and thanks in advance to others who still may want to do so.

Without pictures it’s tough to make a general assessment and without being there, it’s tough to make a specific one. Sorry for sounding so pessimistic, but even No rust holes or no “terrible rust” is pretty difficult to get a handle on. The only thing that we must always conclude about rust is, if it emanates from the interior and not from body damage and a scratch for example, it is less then 10% of the rust on the other side. All rust weakens the structure and cars in this state are a very short time from having holes appear. Once holes appear the rust accelerates dramatically because now moisture is entering the area from both sides. Generally, on inspection, if they can start discerning holes, your car will not pass inspection in most states and at this time, it can happen tomorrow…I would make plans for a new car, realizing, what you have isn’t worth much. If you can’t find discernible holes, i supose any effort is worth trying to pass inspection but; You will never know at this time if your car is unsafe till you are in accident. Do people milk rust buckets…sure. But in all good conscience, I for one can’t recomend it unkess you actually replace bad metal with good, even with your “new” information.

I have an 02 Focus with the same cancer. Body shop says they would not take on the job and that the car is unsafe. Why can’t I weld in 2 strips of deck plate metal to reinforce the area. Nothing was showing last fall and then mid winter both sides popped open, now both the inner and outer are about 1/2 rusted away. I can cut back to solid metal and then treat the infected area. The car looks like new, inside and out - except the rockers.

On the contrary, I see rust bubbling up on the leading edge of the passenger side door and on top of the body side molding. The rust you see is a fraction of the rust that is there. And, you cannot see the rust building up inside the structural panels until the holes open up. Also, your rear passenger side tire is dangerously low on pressure.

I’m not a body man but several cars have been brought to me with complaints of doors that either won’t close completely or jamb shut and find that the unit-body has weakened and the car is sagging. And that is here in the south where winters don’t require salting the roads. The cars I speak of had little or no apparent rust on the rocker panels but when inspected from underneath, poking through with a pick at the back of each rocker panel the damage was obviously substantial. If a knowledgeable and honest unit body mechanic thinks it isn’t worthwhile to repair the car I would advise that you cut your losses and move on. If his professional opinion is that the damage is only cosmetic a weekend with a can of Bondo, sand paper and paint might take care of the aesthetics for a year or so.

A junkyard owner friend calls the rust termites and says it is a significant cause for scrapping cars that seem mechanically sound.

@02Focus, in regards to your car it is in likely far worse shape than you realize. The body shop should not be faulted for refusing to touch it.

It’s not only one of those what next type of repairs but there’s also a huge liability issue.

Yes, I did not fault the body shop, and yes, the tire has been fixed.

Currently - 2.5 years under employed and no $$ to look into a replacement right now.