Zen And The Art Of Keeping Your Car Looking Beautiful
Proper car maintenance means a car should look as good as it runs. At the least, cosmetic car care should involve a thorough cleaning on an as-needed basis. Sure you could simply take it to the car wash, or if you’re feeling flush pay a professional detailer several hundred dollars to slave over its appearance, but it’s easy enough to do the job yourself.
Not only will you save money, you’ll find yourself connecting with your ride like never before. It’s a great way to spend a warm weekend afternoon with the ball game on the radio and a beverage or two at hand. We’ve always felt a certain Zen-like (if not overtly sexual) allure to the act of running one’s hands along a car’s gentle curves, while soaping, rinsing, rubbing and buffing the bodywork to bring back the sparkle and shine that once won your heart from across a crowded showroom floor.
Even better, maintaining a meticulously kept vehicle will bring in additional cash when it finally comes time to trade it in.
“Keeping your vehicle clean not only protects your valuable vehicle investment, it also fosters a sense of pride and accomplishment,” says Rich White, executive director of the Car Care Council in Bethesda, MD. “It’s a task that takes very little money or effort, but has huge returns.”
What kind of returns are we talking about? According to Kelley Blue Book data, a three-year-old BMW 535i sedan that’s in “very good” condition with only minor wear or visible defects on the body and interior is currently worth about $3,700 more in trade-in value than an otherwise comparable version that’s in only “fair” condition (in which the paint, body and/or interior need reconditioning).
Here’s our time-tested three-step process to help “become one with your car” and restore its original appearance in the process:
1. Work From The Inside Out. Always clean a vehicle’s passenger cabin before washing the exterior to avoid getting dust and dirt on what would otherwise be spotless body panels. Start by vacuuming and spot-shampooing the carpeting – household rug-cleaning spray-foam will usually do the trick – especially after extended bouts of bad weather, to avoid permanent stains from ground-in mud or road salt.
For cloth seats, vacuum the upholstery using an upholstery attachment, and shampoo as necessary, using a spray-foam upholstery-cleaning product. Vacuuming the cushions prevents dirt from acting as tiny knives that will ruin fabrics. To repel dirt and stains, treat the seats with a spray-on fabric protector. For leather seats, apply a leather-restoring cream using a clean terrycloth towel.
Treat vinyl upholstery, as well as the dashboard and trim items, with a spray-on product specifically designed for plastic and rubber surfaces. In addition to restoring a like-new gloss, this will keep such surfaces from drying, fading or cracking. Use a cotton swab to work the treatment into seams and to brighten up vents, crevices and other irregular surfaces.
Common household window cleaners work well for most automotive glass surfaces, but a mixture of white vinegar and water is often recommended for tinted windows.
2. Wash (And Wax) Poetically. Once the inside is ship-shape, it’s time to pay attention to a vehicle’s exterior. Always wash and wax a car or truck in a shaded area to prevent water spotting and to keep the wax from drying too quickly and baking onto the car’s surface (sun-hardened wax is especially difficult to remove).
Inspect the bodywork regularly and fix small scratches and chips as soon as possible to avoid rusting. Most new-car dealers sell small bottles of paint for the vehicles they service that are ideal for touch-ups. Clean the damaged area and apply the paint sparingly with the brush provided. If the chip or scratch has already begun to rust, lightly sand the area, and apply a thin coat of primer to any bare metal before painting.
Be sure to use a soft rag, either made of terrycloth or flannel, when washing or waxing a vehicle. Nylon or synthetic towels or paper products are not as absorbent, and may scratch the finish.
Completely hose off the car and begin shampooing its exterior from the top down, using an acid-free non-abrasive cleaner that’s been diluted with water according to the manufacturer’s directions. While some owners may use common dishwashing soap, be aware that household cleansers or detergents that can remove the protective polymer coating from a car’s surface. Scrub wheels and tires using a stiff bristle brush, and a proprietary wheel-cleaning product if necessary, to remove dirt, grease and disc-brake powder.
Rinse off the soap, again spraying from top to bottom, letting an adequate supply of water stream down the finish. Be sure to spray thoroughly underneath the car and inside the wheel wells to loosen road grime. Allow the car’s surface to dry. Especially if you won’t be waxing the car that day, remove water beads using an absorbent chamois.
Before wiping down the bodywork, however, pay attention to the water beads that form on the surface. If the beads are smaller than a quarter, the surface’s wax barrier is still active. If water starts to form elongated beads or a thin sheet on the horizontal panels, it is time to re-wax the car.
Apply a coat of wax to the car according to the information provided on the can or bottle – for example, many waxes must be applied using a damp cloth. Various kinds of products are offered in this category including liquid and spray-on waxes in addition to the traditional paste variety. Unless the vehicle’s surface is badly dulled or oxidized, avoid using waxes that contain an abrasive compound. While most name-brand waxes will suffice, enthusiasts often sing the praises of pure carnauba wax for the dazzlingly deep shine it affords, but it’s costly, is more difficult to apply and tends not to last as long as silicone-based products. Still, a vehicle’s final appearance is generally proportional to the time and care that goes into waxing it.
3. Pay Attention To The Details. Finally, treat the tires, exterior rubber and/or plastic trim with the aforementioned plastic/rubber protector. You can also use a specific tire foam/shine product to give your car’s tires a wet-look shine and further protect the rubber compound against fading and cracking. Use a chrome treatment to polish exterior trim (but be sure the surfaces are actually metal, not merely brightly painted plastic). A household window-cleaner can suffice to shine metal surfaces, but apply it with a rag to avoid spraying an ammonia-based product onto freshly waxed paint.
If your car is more than a few years old, you may want to use a headlight lens restorer to help bring yellowed plastic headlight lenses back to their original transparency. It’s usually sold as a kit that includes sanding and buffing items as well as the lens polishing chemicals; it takes a bit of time and effort to accomplish, however.
Now it’s time to show off your vehicular companion out on the open road, riding with the wind in your hair and racing the sun to the horizon to complete, in the Zen vernacular, your “attainment of enlightenment and personal expression.” Just be sure not to get a speeding ticket in the process.