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How to wash your classic car

How To Wash Your Classic

Kinda sounds dumb, doesn’t it - how to wash your classic car? Well, that’s what I use to think until I found out that some of the cleaning methods that I was using were actually damaging my paint. So I did a little research and found some information to share with you.

Dish detergent is for dishes

There are still quite a few people that think soap is soap. If it will work on my dishes, it will work on my car. If you’re the type of person who likes to wax their car after every wash, then dish detergent will work fine for you. The reason dish detergent is a definite no-no for your car is the exact same reason that it’s great for your dishes – it’s a grease remover. It will remove that protective layer of wax just as quickly and easily as it removes the leftovers from your supper dishes. The best detergents to use on your car are ones designed for automotive surfaces. Most of these products are pH balanced, contain shine enhancers, and even a water-based wax to protect, rather than harm, your finish. Keep in mind that this does not replace a proper wax job, but it does help to keep the shine lasting just a little bit longer. Which brand is best? Ask six people and you’ll probably get six different answers, but my suggestion would be to look for a quality name brand product and keep in mind that you get what you pay for. If one brand sells theirs in a pop-bottle sized container for six bucks and another has a 4 litre jug for half that price, there’s got to be more of a difference between them than the name on the front. The most expensive product on the shelf may not be the best value, but neither is the cheapest. My personal preference is a Kleen-Flo product called Wash'n Wax. You can pick it up at your local NAPA store. Please note: if any Kleen-Flo or NAPA reps are reading this, please feel free to send me a few bottles as your way of saying "Thanks for the endorsement".

Black cars look better in the shade

Well, at least according to Gino Vanelli they do. All cars look better when they’re washed in the shade. Your car make look cool, but make sure it feels cool to the touch before you wash it. Sunshine and hot body panels will cause water to evaporate quickly and leave your detergent behind. Make sure your car is cool enough to leave your hand on, out of the sun, and keep it wet at all times while washing it.

One glub or two?

Start with a large, clean plastic bucket (plastic is less likely to scratch if it gets knocked over & hits your car), add a small amount of detergent, and fill with cool or warm water. Don’t use hot water because it can actually soften your car’s wax (remember, you’re not doing dishes – you don’t need to sterilize the paint). How much detergent is too much? Read the directions on the bottle and use about half that amount. A detergent’s job is to break the electrostatic bond between the dirt and your car. It lifts the dirt up and your wash mitt whisks it away. Washing your car with a detergent will always remove a bit of wax, so don’t use more than you have to.

Sponge, ratty old t-shirt, or wash mitt?

Sponges are great for holding water, but they can also hold dirt on their surface and leave fine scratches in your paint. Old t-shirts or cotton cloths are best used for checking fluid levels under the hood. The label may say 100% cotton, but don’t always believe what you read. That cloth could also contain fibers that can scratch. One quick, easy way to tell is to roll up a small piece and set fire to it. If you get a clean flame, you’re burning cotton. If you get black smoke & melting, you’ve got fibers that can scratch. I’ve found that a thick wash mitt works best. Dunk your mitt often and stir it around to remove any loose dirt before going back to your car. You can also fill it with water and lift it straight out of the bucket by the wrist strap so that the water will be strained through it and take away any surface dirt with it. And remember, wash mitts are inexpensive, so don't hold on to them and treasure them. Replace them often.

Crank up the hose and blast away the dirt.

I once used a pressure washer to remove the paint from my deck one summer. Hopefully the paint on your car has a better bond with the surface than what was on my deck, but too much pressure is a bad thing. A strong spray can grind the dirt into your car’s surface as it gets pushed along. A gentle spray will rinse away the detergent and dirt without scratching. If you want to play it really safe, remove the nozzle from your hose and use the gentle stream instead. Wet the entire car, removing any loose dirt with the hose as you go, and when you're ready for the wash mitt, rewet the roof and start washing there. Wash your car in sections and thoroughly rinse the soap off before moving on to the next section. Doing it this way will take longer, but it won’t give the detergent a chance to dry on your paint. When you rinse (especially when doing the top, hood, or trunk), rinse all sides of your car to make sure no detergent is left behind. When I wash my car, I do the top, hood, trunk, and then the sides. If it’s been awhile since the last wash or if there is a fair amount of grime, I’ll do the top part of the sides before letting the mitt hit the dirtier sections.

Speed dry or chamois?

A speed dry is a quick run on the highway at 120 kmh because you’re late for the car show. Wet car + 120 kmh winds + airborne dirt = mud drying on your paint. Do this to your daily driver, but don’t mistreat your classic this way. Use a chamois to remove the water from your car and eliminate water spots. I’ve heard that a natural chamois can contain tanning acids that can remove wax. I’ve also heard that a synthetic chamois doesn’t work as well. I do know that using a blow dryer isn’t a good idea either. Whether you use towels to blot the water away or use a chamois is up to you, but don’t leave the car to dry by itself and leave spots behind.

Birds love shiny objects

That old clunker in your neighbour’s driveway never gets hit by bird droppings, but you can’t put your bucket and hose away before the pigeons are lining up on the telephone wires planning their attack mission. Bird droppings are acidic, and since birds use gravel to aid in digestion, their “presents” also contain dirt. If you happen to be out somewhere with your classic and notice one of these gifts from above on your car, resist the urge to wipe it (and the dirt it contains) across your paint. Instead, buy a bottle of carbonated water, shake it up, and with your thumb over the top, rinse away the offending spot. Wash it properly as soon as you can and consider touching up with spot with a little wax as well.


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