Actor Steve McQueen always kept his cars immaculately clean. At least that’s the way he kept them when McQueen used to bring his sports cars in for service at a specialty repair shop called Hector’s Alfa Romeo service in North Hollywood, California.
In my early days as an auto technician, I used to stop by and talk cars, or “bench race” as car lingo goes, with Hector. Hector has since retired and sold his shop, but I’ll never forget what he once told me. When we were talking about his many celebrity customers, he explained that he took pride in working on all of their cars. But he said he couldn’t help but care more about cars that showed the pride of their owners, like McQueen and his clean machines.
“If people want you to care about working on their cars,” Hector said, “then they should care about their cars by keeping them clean!” That’s the way someone who’s passionate about cars talks.
Car enthusiasts wash their cars to keep them looking pristine, but also to help their cars retain their showroom finish for maximum value at resale time. And the majority of other motorists can relate to that “value” factor — it’s a budget issue.
Yet there’s more to a truly clean car than what you can actually see. The underside of a car is where many cases of rust begin to erode body sheet metal. Road debris, mud and sand accumulate under fenders, on suspension components and on the under structure (chassis or “subframe” hardware). When these foreign materials build up, they harbor the moisture for extra hours and even days beyond a rainy spell — contributing to the development of rust.
In Santa Barbara we are fortunate in that we don’t have the extra obstacle of road salt to contend with as people do in severe winter regions of the United States. However, we do live near the Pacific ocean — and that means that we have salt in our air which threatens paint and metal surfaces. So car washing here is more than just an aesthetic consideration, but an important preventive maintenance item, too.
Now, I have heard more theories an opinions on techniques and tips for car washing than I can remember. What I do remember is my own lesson with one of the worst things that you should never use when washing your car: household laundry detergent! Household detergents are too severe for automobile paint surfaces — and that’s one universal “don’t” that I can pass along.
Which brings us to today’s “do’s” that you can keep in mind when you give your car a bath. In light of the need for conservation of our water in Santa Barbara, it might even be better to call it giving your car a quick shower. Or, how about just …
Keeping It Clean, Like McQueen
Tip #1 Use a Mild Commercial Car Wash Soap
Visit your new car dealer, an auto parts store or automotive department in a department store and you will find a variety of excellent car wash soaps. They cost only a few dollars and will deliver quality performance and peace of mind. Never use a kitchen or household liquid detergent to wash your car as these products can damage your car’s paint finish.
Tip #2 Before the Wash, Check for “Pre-wash” Areas
Look closely at the paint for signs of road tar (especially in the lower body panel areas). Also look for dried bugs (again, especially on the front section of the car: leading edge of hood, body areas around headlights and air dam (if so equipped). You can find special solvents made especially for removing road tar at the same place you purchase your car wash soap. Dried bugs can be easily removed with a mixture of baking soda and water (be sure the baking soda is completely dissolved to ensure that it will not be abrasive). Remember, it’s easiest to see and treat these “pre-wash” areas when the car is dry — and since of these cleaning techniques remove surface wax, don’t forget to re-wax the areas after the wash.
Tip #3 Wash Your Car in the Shade
WASH STEP ONE: START WITH A SURFACE SOAK
As a first step, spray the body surface with water to soak the film of dirt, dust and grime that has accumulated on the paint finish. By leaving the water to soak for a minute or two, much of the dirt will easily float off the car when you go to sponge it clean.
WASH STEP TWO: RINSE THE BOTTOM OF THE CAR
While the top of the car is soaking, get beneath the car and rinse off the dirt, mud and debris from all of the underbody areas: inside fenders, above and below the exhaust system hardware, off of the underpan area, etc. Don’t forget those potential dirt “hiding” spots behind bumpers, too.
WASH STEP THREE: BUBBLE BATH
Now with the car wash soap blended with cool water, use a large sponge or washing mitt to apply the mixture. Remember to rinse the sponge/mitt regularly to rid it of dirt the can accumulate and scratch the paint — and also rub the sponge gently as you work the suds over the body surface. Work from the roof and windows down, hood to trunk and upper-to-lower sides. It’s a good idea to give a quick scrub to the headlights and other light lenses while your on the front and back sections, too.
WASH STEP FIVE: RINSE AND DRY
It’s all downhill from here. Allowing the water to dry on the body paint surface will frequently leave a spotty film, as it’s difficult to completely eliminate soap with just the spray rinse. So, It’s best to use a large chamois to wipe down the entire paint surface — wringing the chamois as you go — so that no areas are left to “air dry.”