If you care about your car, you’re obligated by decades of sacred car-nut code to keep it clean. Keeping accumulated earthly slime off your paint protects the finish, and your vehicle’s condition reflects directly on you. A neglected, scuzzy LaFerrari will earn you no props; a minty Pinto will get you high-fives from car guys. Especially now, as road-salt season looms, it’s important to keep clean.
But how? Run it through the automatic wash or crack out your buckets at home? We asked renowned Los Angeles auto tuner RJ de Vera — who also works with auto-finish pro Meguiar’s and its paint-protecting overlord, 3M — what advice he and his colleagues dispense to those who are uncertain about how to keep their cars in showroom condition. “For anybody who’s a car enthusiast, there’s a joy and pride that comes with having a good-looking car,” he said. “For some guys, using a quick detailer is enough, but others spend hours on it, because it’s therapy for them, and it gives them the equivalent of a good-looking house or a well-tailored suit.”
To keep your machine in great shape, follow these tips from de Vera and Meguiar’s global training director, Mike Pennington — then scope out the car wash essentials below.
1 Understand the threat. Modern paint finishes are extremely durable to all kinds of threats, from solar/UV damage to road debris to salt, dirt, and assorted animal matter — so long as it’s removed as quickly as possible. Otherwise crud eats into the clear coat and dulls your finish. So you should be in the habit of washing your car once a week if it’s a daily driver, and stay vigilant about bird droppings, accumulated insect carcasses, general road grit, and even tree sap. (It’s always better to park in direct sunlight than under a tree, Pennington says.) Also, sprays from construction sites can land on your car, as can atmospheric pollutants. “As water evaporates, it acts like a magnifying glass and can etch your clear coat,” de Vera says. “So basically, if you can see marks on there or visible dirt, or if you rub your hands over the surface and it feels like sandpaper, it’s time to wash the car.”
2 Try DIY first. When it’s time to give your baby a bath, washing at home will generally give you the best results, Pennington says, because you can control the water flow and can ensure that the right tools are used. (Boar’s hair or microfiber is the way to go.) Don’t use dish detergent because it will strip petroleum-based protections, like wax, off of your paint. Wax is considered a “sacrificial barrier” on a finish — so it’s what absorbs the damage of accumulated gunk. (If it’s not there, your finish is vulnerable.)
In terms of your home-wash strategy, go for the two-bucket method: pH-balanced automotive shampoo in one bucket and plain water in the second. Rinse the car first with your hose, then start washing from the top down. Each time you need to refresh the towel or brush, do so in the clear water, then saturate it in the suds afterwards to ensure dirt doesn’t go back on the car and scratch or swirl the clear coat. Do this all in the shade, one section at a time to minimize the chance that the water will dry on its own, leaving spots.
Once that’s done, dry the car with a chamois towel or, better yet, a leaf-blower — ideal because it removes water in wheels, mirrors and other crevices. It’s also faster.
3 Be cautious about car washes. Be selective about mechanized washers, Pennington says. “Go visit a wash and see how well they treat the cars,” he advises. “See how they take care of their towels.” Washes that use the spinning agitators should probably be avoided, as they can etch micro-scratches into your clear coat. Even the large felt strips dragged over your car may have debris embedded that will scratch your finish. Touchless washes are better, but may use harsher chemicals, potentially damaging your finish over time.
4 Customize the self-serve bays. Though self-served brushes might retain grit from previous washes, you can blast it out with the pressure washer before washing. Or bring your own boar’s hair brush (not nylon!) and water bucket and use the self-serve bay simply for its pressure-washing benefit — particularly helpful for cleaning wheels.
5 Prep for the elements. Wax your car several times a year to ensure maximum protection. Spray waxes that are mixed in with detailers or shampoos are meant to be touch-ups, not replacements. Use a liquid or paste with a carnauba base as your foundation. Beforehand, use an automotive clay to prep the car for waxing and to remove previous layers of the wax. If there are swirls or scratches in the clear coat, use a rubbing compound to smooth them. Only apply wax once your surface is fully prepped. This will all take some time, and you’ll feel it in your shoulders and elbows, but the results will absolutely be worth it.
Gold Class Car Wash Shampoo & Conditioner by Meguiar’s $8
Montana Original Boars Hair Car Wash Brush $90
Ultimate Car Wash Bucket by Griot’s Garage $45
Clear Coat Safe Rubbing Compound by Meguiar’s $8
Natural Chamois Cloths by Ever New $100