I drive more than 100 new cars a year and being a bit OCD, end up cleaning most of them. I thus have accumulated extensive experience and a list of favourite cleaning products and methods. I have no trouble recommending products based on experience and comparison and have done so here.
Spring cleaning should include your car. If someone has written “wash-me” on the tailgate that might also be a clue that it is time to invest a couple of hours in prepping the vehicle for the warmer weather. Sunny warm days are a treat after the long winter so we don’t want to waste any. The good news is that you do not want to clean your vehicle in the sun. Perfect conditions would be overcast or cloudy with a breeze.
A thorough cleaning job will take two to three hours, or it can be split into shorter periods and tasks. You will need a variety of materials.
- Plenty of clean water – from a hose
- Big sponge or wash mitt
- Car cleaning soap – NOT dish detergent or laundry soap
- Small stiff-bristled detailing brush (or soft toothbrush)
- Larger soft detailing brush (or paint brush)
- Several clean dry towels
- Glass cleaner <Invisible Glass>
- Wheel cleaner <Simple Green>
- Degreaser <Simple Green>
- Tire and dash protectant <Armor-All>
Avoid the sun! Pick a dry spot out of the sun with a plentiful supply of fresh water and plenty of drainage. Sunny warm days are a treat after the long winter, so we don’t want to waste any. Overcast or cloudy conditions, preferably with a breeze are perfect. Even better – a garage or similarly enclosed space.
Completely empty the console, glove box, door pockets, parcel shelf, trunk or cargo area. Position the vehicle where water can run off, and using a hose, preferably one with high pressure, clean the entire surface starting at the top and working down. Pay special attention to seams, where trim is attached, the mirrors and grill. Use a wheel cleaner on the tires and wheels and spray a strong degreaser or commercial cleaner inside the wheel wells where salt and other road junk will have accumulated over the winter. Allow to soak for a few minutes and spray with a heavy stream of water.
Mix soap especially formulated for cleaning cars, not dish detergent or laundry soap, in a large bucket of warm water. With a wash mitt or large sponge, start at the top and work down, cleaning small areas and rinsing them off one at a time. Rinse off the mitt or sponge frequently to ensure no grit gets caught up and scratches the paint. Do the roof and windows first, rinse; hood and trunk, rinse;, one side, rinse; the other, rinse; front, rinse;, rear then rinse. Notice the frequency of rinsing? Use copious amounts of water and clean the mitt or sponge frequently, between each section. More often if necessary . Open the doors, hood and trunk or hatch and first rinse and then clean the areas outside the seals where dirt has accumulated over the winter, or since you bought the vehicle.
Using a brush and soapy water, clean the tires and wheels. Do this last and do not use the brush on anything else as the corrosive materials in the brake dust can damage paint. Also beware or contaminating your wash water with this brush. Use brushes for cleaning cracks, crevices and areas around trim, the grill and all lights. There are a variety of specialized wheel cleaners on the market, designed for this purpose. Choose according to the type of wheel (aluminum chrome, alloy etc) and apply according to directions. Again, use lots of water and rinse often.
You can now dry the vehicle. I am not a big fan of the chamois, preferring instead old cotton towels, which can be turned frequently and washed after each use. Again, starting at the top, dry surfaces one at a time shaking out the towel and turning it frequently. It will usually require two or three large towels to do a thorough job. Do the windows, chrome or metal finish separately. When you are through the exterior, use the damp towel to clean around door openings, the bottoms of the doors and bases of the seats. If you have a leaf blower, vacuum that can be reversed o a compressor, blow around the door seals and pieces of trim where water can hide.
This is a good time to clean the interior trim and areas of the dash and center console. Use the damp towel for the first wipe, then a cleaner and finally a protectant.
If you plan to wax the vehicle now is as good a time as any. Use a proper applicator and follow the directions from the wax manufacturer. Most common car waxes contain a cleaning agent which includes some abrasive material, so do not push too hard, stay in one place very long, or use a power applicator unless you are very familiar with it. Remove the wax with a clean, dry cloth – here again a towel is useful for both removal and a subsequent buffing. Wax serves two purposes – shine and protect and will do neither for more than six months in today’s climate. The use of commercial car washes or detergents will considerably shorten the life of a wax job – in some cases removing it completely in one event.
Now clean all glass inside and out including mirrors. Remove any jewellery on your hands as it may scratch the glass, especially when doing the windshield and rear windows which frequently require getting into a weird position to reach the edges. It is wise to do the interior glass twice as all the plastics in today’s vehicles actually give off a fine gas that leaves a film on the glass.
Pull out the floor mats, spray them with a cleaner, soak with a hose and allow them to sit while you vacuum the interior paying special attention to the areas under the seats, moving them all the way fore and then aft to make it easier to get beneath. Do the trunk and cargo area at the same time. Now use a stiff brush to scrub the floor mats to loosen up caked-on salt and dirt. Rinse thoroughly and when you think you are done, rinse some more. Hang the mats up or if they are stiff enough, lean them against something to drip and dry.
Now it’s detail time. Break out the small soft brush and go at every little nook and cranny you can find on the instrument panel, especially in and around the vents. Use a very soft and clean cloth to clean the plastic faces of the instrument panel. As a finishing touch, apply a protectant to all surfaces to prevent damage from the hot sun. You can also apply a treatment to the tires and other exterior rubber surfaces like bump strips, window moldings, wiper arms and mud flaps. If you’ve got a set of alloy wheels use Wheel Wax to provide a protective coating against those nasty brake materials.
Now stand back and enjoy the view.