FailCar’s guide to car cleaning

FailCar is back on PetrolBlog! But rather than delight us all with pictures of his lovely 205 GTi, he instead turns his attention to his essential car cleaning guide. Based on how brilliantly he prepared the 205, I’d say his lead is well worth following.

I have to start by saying that this is not going to be some uber-anal cleaning guide. There will be no paint depth gauges or sunlamps here. I am by no stretch of the imagination a detailing expert but everything I have done has come from testing, the internet and I did actually go to a detailing day once. But please don’t hold it against me.

I’m not going to turn into the Astra VXR guy.

Washing

Meguires Gold Class Shampoo and conditionerOK first up you need to give the car a good rinse to get all the loose dirt off. I wouldn’t recommend using a pressure washer on the bodywork as blasting dirt across the car is going to cause swirling etc in the lacquer. But you can go nuts with a pressure washer under the arches, wheels, bug covered glass and crevices full of crud etc.

Once the car has been given a good rinse it’s time to get soapy. Here I use Meguires Gold Class Shampoo and conditioner. Bucket and warm water and crucially a decent wool mitt, not a sponge. Sponges trap dirt between themselves and the paint and this is bad. Especially with darker paint colours as this is what causes swirls in the laquer and you get that ‘cobweb’ effect on the surface.

Starting with the least dirty bits of the car and working your way down generally works best for me. Use a different side of the mitt for the lower really filthy areas, you don’t want to drag any grit etc all over the car. Of course just keep rinsing the car as you go. You really are supposed to use the two-bucket method, but I’m lazy so…I don’t.

Wheels

Bilberry wheel cleanerFor wheels sometimes it’s necessary to use a specialist cleaner as brake dust and crud can really be a right bugger to remove. I use Bilberry Wheel Cleaner, while it might smell rather good and look like blackcurrant cordial it probably doesn’t taste quite so nice. Well, it might but I’m not suggesting that you try it.

It does require mixing with water though and I would basically alter the solution depending on how messy your wheels are. Take note though you will need to get hold of a spray bottle to apply the product.

Give the wheels a bit of a soaking with water first, then simply spray the Bilberry Wheel Cleaner on. It’s quite sticky stuff and will ‘cling’ to the wheels.

It takes ten minutes or so to soak in and then agitate the product with a stiff brush. Hose it all off and like magic the wheels are all shiny and clean. Unless they are really filthy. In which case just repeat the process.

Claying

ClayingOK car all clean now? Well here is the point at which if you want you can get into the ‘claying process’. It takes ages, it’s a pain in the arse and generally being motivated to do it can be hard. But it is worth it.

Claying removes all the crap that can be embedded in the lacquer. So even when you think your car is all nice and clean it can actually be filthy. When I clayed the 205 it was barely believable the amount of stuff that came off of it. There are a few different clays available but the one I like is Poorboys Poly-Elastic Clay. Break a bit off, mould it in your hands so it’s nice and malleable so you have a nice flat piece. You will need a lubricant to make the process work and here a quick detailing spray is good or I actually find that a cheaper method is to use some soapy water.

Mist your lubricant on with a spray bottle and then drag the clay over the bodywork. You will be able to feel the difference in the paint pretty quickly and you can even focus on problem areas with paint-transfer (as I found out when cleaning my girlfriend’s car) and blobs of tar. It will take time and to get a decent technique just takes a bit of practice really.

Check out the before and after shots for some more visible contaminant (sap) removal with clay.

Sap - before claying processSap - after claying process

Glass

Autoglym Glass PolishBest thing to do now is to get the glass polish out. I use Autoglym Glass Polish along with a very useful cloth that I actually got from Halfords.

It has mesh on one side which is great for removing bugs and a decent cloth on the other side for applying/removing the polish.

Cleaning (again)

Poorboys Black Hole GlazeSadly now you have to clean the car again (sorry). It’s going to be covered in claying marks, streaks and that Autoglym stuff also makes a white fine residue appear – so a quick once over with some fresh water and the mitt is required.

Now the car is naked. So best start working on the paint then. Most cars will suffer from swirl marks so there are products on the market to deal with this fairly easily. There are varying levels of corrections and to be honest I could spend all day doing a guide just on that and the various products and methods (wet sanding etc) to deal with it. For the sake of this guide I will just stick to one of the quick products that I use. Poorboys Black Hole Glaze.

This stuff is for darker colours however there is a version for lighter coloured paint. Applying it is simple it goes on just like a polish. For application you can use a pad or do it by machine. I use a Kestrel DA that I always borrow off a mate, (I’m a tight arse and refuse to buy my own). But to be honest you can get fairly decent results by hand. It works by ‘filling’ in the swirls rather than actually eradicating them like an abrasive compound would. But for a quick job for a bit of amateur cleaning it’s spot on.

Polishing

Poorboys Professional PolishNext up it’s time for the polishing stage. This is what gives the car a depth of shine. Again this can be done by machine or hand. I use Poorboys Professional Polish. It can be quite tough stuff to buff off so it’s best to do a panel and then buff it right off rather than doing the whole car and then going round afterwards.

Wait – I did mention to buy loads of decent microfiber cloths for all this buffing, didn’t I?

Waxing

R222 wax for summer and Collinite Insulator for ultimate winter protectionWith the paint all nice and polished you really need to seal in all your good work and give it a nice shine too. This is where a decent wax will come in. You can spend silly amounts on wax that comes in containers made from unobtanium and mixed using unicorn semen. I heard from a pro guy that works for one of the major detailing companies that it’s mostly marketing balls.

I use two kinds of wax, R222 for summer and Collinite Insulator for ultimate winter protection. R222 is a hard wax and I use a Meguires even coat applicator to put it on.  Once it’s warmed up it’s very easy to apply. Wait until the wax has dried before buffing it off, the way to test this is to run your finger on the surface, if it smears across then it’s still wet. If it comes off then it’s time to get buffing.

Wipe it all off with a microfiber and then stand back and admire your sheeny shiny car. Oooo…pretty. This is usually the point at which when you are cleaning a car in order to sell it you then decide you actually want to keep it. Or is it just me that does that?

I usually finish off the job with a bit of tyre dressing. Autoglym Tyre Dressing is quick and easy to apply and it looks pretty decent too. It won’t last for very long but in my experience tyre dressings never do.

The result

Once you have done all this the car is all sealed with the wax protection so next time just a quick clean and a chamois will do. You probably won’t have to do this whole process again for a few months. This means for a couple of hours of effort the car will be easier to clean in future and will look great when you’re done.

In the winter I tend to lather the car up with insulator wax and just let it get filthy. Sometimes, filth can just look damn good on a car See I’m not totally OCD, right?

FailCar's Mazda MX-5 - car cleaning guide

Back of FailCar's Mazda MX-5

FailCar's Mazda MX-5

FailCar's Mazda MX-5 roof off

I’m off to re-arrange all the Coke cans in the fridge so they are facing forwards, and I think the salt shaker had more granules in than the pepper which just messes with the balan…

Wait, is that some dust on my monitor?

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ABOUT AUTHOR
FailCar
PetrolBlog’s very own Stig. Only a select few people know the true identity of FailCar, but his forthright and strong views on automotive matters have won him fans the world over. Like MajorGav, FailCar has a love of 80s cars and has spent the best part of 2011 painstakingly restoring a Peugeot 205 GTi using nothing more than a toothbrush, a lint-free cloth and some Creeping Crack Cure. Some say he lives in an ark-shaped barn in the middle of the country, surrounded by two of every single car made during the 1980s. All we know is, he’s called FailCar.

13 comments

  1. September 27, 2011
    Joseph

    A very good piece on car cleaning. I have sometimes been known to wash my motor on three consecutive days, but then I really am that sad! I have noticed that a clean car tends to get noticed by others – even though I drive a bog-standard basic VW Polo 1.0, once it is all washed and polished up until the metallic silver is gleaming, people DO give it a second admiring glance when they see it, as opposed to when it is dirty and no-one bats an eye!

    Another tip is to clean your car before taking it to your garage for a service/MOT. I have realised that mechanics tend to take a bit extra care when working on it and it is likely to be returned to me without oily smudges on the bodywork and dirty steering wheel, for example.

    I would like to remind those that are passionate about their cars’ appearance as well: Bird droppings MUST be removed ASAP, trust me, they WILL damage your paintwork if left!

    Reply
    • September 27, 2011
      MajorGav

      That is so true about bird droppings. In the hot sun, they can start to damage the paint within a few hours.

      Of course, as FailCar touches on in the article, polishing and waxing the car makes it so much easier to wash in the future.

      Reply
  2. September 27, 2011
    Ronnie

    That has to be the best article I’ve seen about how to clean a car properly.

    I was just wondering when cleaning the wipers do you still use the wool mitt or go with a sponge for that.

    Reply
  3. September 27, 2011
    FailCar

    Cheers, for the feedback. I wrote it purely because if I had read something like this when I started getting into ‘detailing’ then it would have saved me a lot of time, money and effort!

    When it comes to wipers I just use the mitt, but to be honest I don’t think it really matters too much for them

    Must also say the clean car going into a garage thing is true, they do tend to take more care. Bird droppings can be really nasty to paint BUT be carful when removing them, if you just wipe them off you can actually scratch the lacquer (I know because I did this on an old car!) make sure it’s soaked and remove it carefully to avoid damage.

    Reply
  4. September 28, 2011
    Rut the Nut

    Nice write-up. Sounds somewhat similar to my approach for when I do get to clean the car ‘properly’. When done that way, cleaning is easier and a further coat of wax just improves the beading of water yet further.

    Reply
    • September 28, 2011
      MajorGav

      If you’re anything like me, you’ll look forward to the first bit of rain to check the results of the waxing. Beading = win!

      Reply
  5. September 28, 2011
    Ton

    Dear Mr. FailCar. Excellent write up, thanks a lot. I do have a question, though. I was a bit surprised to read you first fill the swirls with that (buying this product will make you) Poorboy product, and then polishing. Wouldn’t I be introducing new swirls and/or removing the filler in that order?

    Reply
  6. September 28, 2011
    FailCar

    To be honest I have done this both ways round and with this combo it has made little difference. – Once the Glaze has dried it appears to not be affected by the very ‘gentle’ non-agressive Poorboys pro polish. However if you are using a more agressive polish then you could indeed remove the Glaze.

    On the note of wax and water beading it is awesome, espc after some rain and hard acceleration!

    Reply
  7. September 28, 2011
    darrenvleslie

    That’s a bit bizarre, I have taken the week off to, amongst other things, give our two cars a good clean and wax, using the same method and type of products. I was also going to provide a brief write up, but since you’ve put it in a far better way than I ever could, you’ve managed to save me some time.
    I would like to point out two things if I may. Firstly, a couple of hours is mentioned. This, in my case at least, is more like 6. Secondly, it is possible to use the clay on the windows for the same reasons as you would on the body work.

    Reply
  8. September 28, 2011
    failcar

    Depends on the level of filth on the car, just cleaning my 205 took around four hours or more when I first purchased it, but yes if you do everything to the point of perfection you can easily write off a day. I actually used clay to do the headlights as they had light deflector adhesive on them. I have never used it on the other glass on the car though, I see no reason why not, but for me the Autoglym stuff has done the job.

    Reply
  9. September 28, 2011
    failcar

    On a separate note I find with detailing the ability to say “that’ll do” has a vast effect on the time taken and how deep into detailing you want to go.

    Reply
  10. September 29, 2011
    Joseph

    I must also add another follow-on comment to my previous one. I’m sure most of you will already realise this, but for those who are maybe unaware: Never, ever use washing up liquid to clean your car. It contains salt and as most of us already know what this does to cars, enough said! I find that Triplewax is a good shampoo to use, but it can be quite ‘streaky’ if too much is used in direct sunlight. I agree with polishing and waxing making a car easier to clean in future washes. Only problem with polishing a car is that everyone suddenly wants to feel how smooth your paintwork is!

    Reply
  11. September 30, 2011
    FailCar

    Indeed, washing up liquid is a big no-no. I find the megs shampoos is very good and it also has a very low sud formula which I think makes it much better being able to see what you are cleaning. Apparenltly in the states they love stuff with lots of suds as that is how they deem value from a car cleaning product!

    Reply

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