This one’s more about cars and not so much about baseball so if you’re looking for me to wax poetic about our national pastime, spoiler alert.
I think it was “In baseball, you don’t know nothing”. Yogi’s words are certainly applicable today in more spheres than just sports and baseball in particular. For me it might as well be “In detailing you don’t know nothing”. This is how I felt recently. Where I’m going with this you might ask? Well I’ll tell you, this past weekend I set out to clean my new vehicle for the first time, and by the way I should add that I like the car a lot. Cleaning now means the same as it used to but with a few more steps: vacuuming the interior, clean the remaining interior finishes, clean the tires and wheels, apply the dressing/polish to make both stand out then it’s on to washing the exterior and finishing off with correcting imperfections, removing prior wax/polish layers, applying new paint sealants, waxing, cleaning the glass, and finally polishing. It’s funny, but when I say “clean” I’m really dating myself and not in the romantic sense, but in a chronological sense. At first cars were not items kept on a pedestal and lavished with attention, ok some were, but for the most part they started out as a novelty which both solved and created different problems, and would eventually change our society forever or at least up through the time of this post, but you could check back in a few hours and see if we’re all back to using horses or hoofing it around using our own leg stalks. And let’s be honest that last option hasn’t been cool since some our relatives crossed a land bridge from Russia and went trespassing through Sarah Palin’s backyard. Still, that story-tangent is best saved for another day. Now back to today’s thought, and that is maintaining the finishes of one’s vehicle be it a skateboard, bicycle, horse, smart car, real car or truck. What I’m alluding to is the very word “cleaning” in automotive parlance used to describe both the interior and exterior care of a vehicle’s finishes has evolved from cleaning to washing to detailing in today’s vernacular. I like cars, and was very fortunate to grow up in a family that, in my own humble yet biased opinion, had very good taste in cars with one notable exception being an 82′ Oldsmobile Cutlass bastard diesel abomination that GM perpetrated on the general public during the oil crisis of the late seventies and early eighties. Even after all these years just the mention of said “vehicle” still gets a vein on my dad’s forehead to emerge and cause him to emulate someone with Tourette Syndrome. It used to be funny until it happened to me. And of course I didn’t “get it” until I myself joined my dad in that same exclusive club of cars who’ve screwed us over after July’s fiasco with my own version, 2014 VW JSW TDI. Ok, this is my second tangent, sorry I’ll be more coherent and less stream of consciousness.
Back to detailing. I wanted to give a brief primer of options that exist to the detailing enthusiast today, but before I do I think I should lay out my own personal experience and history which helped form the basis of my understanding of vehicle maintenance. As I mentioned earlier my parents were fortunate enough to have good taste in cars and owned some cool cars. All those cars were treated roughly the same which meant washing-waxing them every Saturday, although that generally made for a long morning. But it taught me several things (see Mike’s patented Man Code): 1) take care of your property because no one else will, 2) even if they don’t say it people form an impression of you based on how you take care of your possessions, and 3) think about the work you’re doing and the best way to accomplish it, and finally 4) no one likes a crier, no one. Now my parents’ recollection about the degree to which I embraced these principles differs greatly (a distance greater than that from the Earth to the moon) than my own crystal clear, spot on, and 100% accurate version while I was a young lad living under their roof. I was absorbing those 4 principles even if I may not have been practicing them all. There was a general system to cleaning the cars that made sense that allowed us to work efficiently and cover most areas of the vehicles so there was very little wasted energy in the process. During that time I paid attention to the process and so it went a little like this at the Doughty household every Saturday (barring pirate incursions, total eclipses, dinosaurs roaming the planet or IU playing basketball (Go Hoosiers!!); 1) pre-wash rinse, 2) cleaning of wheels/tires, 3) progressing on to washing starting on the vehicle’s roof, then progressing down to the hood, back deck, and eventually each of the sides, with the 4) rinse staring on the top and evenly working down each side to the lowest elevation. Afterwards 5) drying each part, wheels/tires and the car body. Next, 6) moving on to wax application and removal. Followed by 7) glass work and then culminating in 8) interior touchups. Now that’s only 8 steps, but if they were performed with any commitment or ownership those 8 steps should take you anywhere from 2-4 hours for each vehicle. Now I say that to make this point, today the process is even more involved with some people committing to no less than 4-8 hours to detail their vehicles. Wazza what? Pardon the Sony Playstation Crash Bandicoot reference. Man, those were great commercials. 4-8 hours, are you serious? Yes I am. Now what follows is by no means representative of formal scientific research supported by multiple people using test cases or control groups, impartial or otherwise, guided by Ouija boards, directed by Magic 8 Balls, or in any way anything other than simply my opinion. And we know if you ask any number of people how to accomplish a task, like as not you’re likely to get just as many different ways to do the same thing. This is just an exercise to bring to your attention a smattering of how many ways exist to maintain your vehicle’s finishes. There are a variety of car and detailing forums that have sections devoted to detailing not to mention great companies like Griot’s Garage or Autogeek that are both knowledgeable and reputable who have their own “how-to” sections for detailing and maintenance. There are certainly more retailers and online vendors to choose from, but those are the two I use most frequently. And again it’s a personal choice that’s served me well. Add to that industry and product sites with even more information for you to assimilate, not to mention tips you’re likely to get from your neighbor/co-worker/car pool pal/dealer representative/parent/in-law and well you get the idea. You’ll quickly find yourself thoroughly overwhelmed or excited. For me it was the latter.
There are 9 cleaning options, yes count them, available to you today. I say 9, but realistically there’s only 8. We’ll get to the 9th option a little later. Option 1 in terms of immediate bad results and long lasting effects are the old-school first generation automated wash systems, and I lump the ubiquitous combo units found at the local filling station into this first option. Option 2 is what the industry now call “soft” brush cleaning automated systems. Soft is a relative term as this process is more lenient than the first in that it wouldn’t strip your car’s finish outright instead just leaving your vehicle a semi-permanent souvenir of the visit in the form of swirls in the paint finish. Option 3 is the DIY method where it can be as simple as washing it at home using the garden hose and bucket or more involved stretching it into the better part of a day. Option 4 is hiring a pro to do the work for you, the professional detailer. You’ll make an appointment, drop off the car, and voilà just a few short hours later the car is restored to a near showroom like condition. Of course the finished results all depend on what they are given to work with, I mean a beater will end up just being a cleaner beater when finished, they’re not turning water into wine people. Be realistic. If that’s what you want I’d like to show you the section of the store you’ll be happy in it’s called magic. Option 5 is what I like to call Mother-Nature, when it rains you apply some detergent and let nature take its course and gently massage your vehicle in the most natural agitation and environmentally friendly process known to man. The bad thing about that option’s benefit is it’s all bunk, I mean I made it up. If you’re “method” of car care is to wait until it rains, and only then apply detergent you may be pro-water, but not pro-car. Option 6 is just like Mother-Nature, without adding detergent to the car’s surface when it rains and adding complete and total apathy. I call it Anti-Care. Using this method studies show the vehicle will eventually return to the ground from whence it sprung. If this is your preferred method, you are not a car person. Next is Option 7 the “rinse less” method. Option 8 or the “brushless” method. Last and certainly the least is Option 9, which is not an option unless you don’t like kids or causes selling stuff door to door. You guessed it, I’m referring to car washes sponsored by charities or the school band or sports team trying to raise money for a trip or some new equipment. You’re better off buying them what they need instead. Think of it this way, would you feel the same way about helping the kids if instead they were conducting exploratory surgery or laser vision correction procedures? Just roll down the window, give the kid with the lockbox your cash, and drive on. Win-win. Anything else, in a legally protected right to of free speech granted by the US constitution, it’s just the same as setting that money on fire.
There’s a balance at play in determining which cleaning option is best for you based on a variety of factors such as: how attached you are to the car, how much time you are willing or able to committ to maintaining the finish, whether you even care about maintaining the finish, your confidence in doing the work yourself, and finally the amount of money you’re willing to commit this maintenance. All of those play a part in steering you to one or more of the options below during your ownership of a vehicle. Some of these options are just a portion of a program (1, 7, and 8) while others offer the complete service (2, 3, and 4)
Option 1: The 2nd generation automatic washes (still in service today)
The one most of us are probably familiar with is also likely the most numerous, the filling station car wash. These were and probably are still popular options for those with fleet vehicles or folks who just can’t wait to utilize another option or have the confidence and/or patience to do it yourself. These filling station and first-second generation car washes are similar in the brutality and pain they inflict on your vehicle all in the name of convenience and low cost option for you. Thinking of your vehicle being beaten with bags of dried cobs of corn. The experience for you however is slightly different. You drive up to a box on a stand in front of the small outbuilding next to the station and either inserted a token or punched in a code found on your receipt after filling up. The traffic tree light at the side of the building would then turn green and have some sort of script printed on the light to tell you the adventure was about to begin. This could either be one that you placed your car’s transmission in neutral and let compartmentalized drive lanes snag your wheels “gently” and usher you into the washing house of horrors or if it wasn’t a fancy establishment you had to drive yourself inside and then put it in park and wait for the “system” to begin. As is this wasn’t a sign that your vehicle was having a day at the spa there might even be sign boards with lights next to each phase that would light up in turn just in case you couldn’t tell what phase of the “cleaning” was occurring…that was until the whirling-spinning bales of either blue or red plastic strips would descend from overhead and assault your car. And if you think I’m being facetious ask anyone whether they could hear anything while the that rotary drum of hard plastic strips or brushes skinned the outer layer of paint from your vehicle with the precision of a Swiss watch. The only good thing about this was convenience of location and your fill up subsidized the automotive
abuse err cleaning. This option is the bottom rung or effectively a 1 on the 1 to 10 scale where 10 is good and 1 is not. In terms of historical timelines its most similar to the middle ages before the Enlightenment. And in case either reference fails to resonate with you this option in a word is bad. Bad.
Option 2: Soft brush cleaning (current generation of automatic car wash systems)
This option reflects the current generation of automatic car washing systems and operations in the country today. In terms of overall damage, it’s sort of subjective. Someone washing their car at home could do more irreparable damage to their vehicles’ finishes than the current generation of automatic washing systems, but they could in by contrast do a much better job than the current automatic systems. For the civilian, it’s a fair compromise and if you mind the swirls left in the finish after repeated visits, you can always move on to Option 4 and let them make the paint/finish correction for you. It will all be for naught if you continue to utilize Option 2 for your maintenance needs. This provides basic exterior and with most packages very limited interior services beyond glass cleaning and vacuuming.
Option 3 (Saturday in the driveway)
This is where I started, and the option most car owners and kids of car owner in both rural or suburban settings are probably most familiar or comfortable. At lot can right or wrong with this option. Some people are content to take the hose the rinse the car off, wash it with a sponge, dry it with a towel, and wax it. The other end of the spectrum involves treating their home water system to make the water more wash friendly, special wands and devices for foam/suds application and scrubbing, specialized micro fiber mits to gently remove dirt, multiple buckets with grit guards to ensure the majority of the debris removed from your vehicles’ surface is removed from your mitt or any other device that comes in contact with the surface of your vehicle, 10’s of bottles to cover every aspect of the process with a total of up to 9 possible steps just for the exterior maintenance not including tire/wheel dressing, glass work, and interior detailing and your 1-2 hour bucket and hose job just got biggie sized into 5+ hours. At least if you have a family you can give each member an assignment…many hands make for light work. This is the whole kit and caboodle. You can dial it up or down, use 2-3 products or potentially over 12-14 products and be very satisfied with the results.
Option 4 (The Pro)
This is one of the more divisive option as some enthusiasts implicitly trust their vehicles to the detailing vendor who’ve they’ve being going to for years with excellent results, and then there’s the other end of the spectrum in the person looking to get more involved in the maintenance but might balk at what is perceived to be the high cost for the detailer’s service. I look at it like this, if you don’t want to spend the time and go through what could possibly be an endless amount of information in print or online, want to commit to multiple hours every week, have a budget that you would not like to skyrocket then this option could be for you 2-4 times a year. And at the very least more than once during the winter months in areas where sand, salt, slurry, and deicing products are applied to the roadways. Keep in mind that not all detailers are equal so do some research first, or you may find your money didn’t bring the return you’d hoped it would. And you’re reliant on their system, methods, and products. Do it right or do it twice.
Option 5 (5A: Environmental Steward or 5B: Lazy)
I’m willing to say most people that subscribe to this school are more likely than not either apathetic or lazy while a small percentage really are doing it for water conversation. Still my gut says most are lazy hoping they will be perceived as the truly environmentally friendly water conservationists. My analogy for those who prefer this option is that their car is a horse, and in a few weeks these people would be walking to their destination or taking public transportation. In the short run this method has the benefit of doing the least amount of harm as opposed to the first two options, but over the long run can be more far more expensive unless Option 6 is your true endgame.
Option 6 (Apathy)
Don’t even try lying to yourself, that you just don’t have the time or don’t know where to begin. You my friend are not a caretaker in any sense of the word. You are perfectly willing to accept a vehicle disintegrating around you as you drive. If you can see outside the vehicle in locations or by means not originally designed or intended by the manufacturer then I can’t imagine you need to read any further. You are not my target audience. People that subscribe to this school like to use words like “patina” and “character” and “distressed”. I’m just spit balling here, but I’m willing to say that a majority of your neighbors probably would not use those words or more to the point would not care to be your neighbor if this is the option you prefer. Again, I could be wrong it’s just a feeling.
There is not a lot to say really about this option, it’s more of something to use in a pinch rather than the mainstay of your maintenance program. There are products now where you simply spray and wipe away. It’s almost that simple. As with anything, you get out of it what you put into it.
The brushless option method is one I’m becoming keen on. It basically removes the bucket and mitt or sponge from the equation for the bulk of the washing chores (minus tire/wheel cleaning). Most every “soft brush” automatic car wash often have several stalls dedicated to the DIY’er who pulls into the stall, deposits a few tokens, and uses a wand to spray their vehicle, apply a foamy soap mixture, finishing with a high pressure rinse. The advantage of this method is that you don’t have any brush coming in contact with your vehicle’s finish as you would with sponges or mitts that can pick up pebbles or other small items that can damage the finish as they are rubbed across the surface. The downside to this method is that the water in these places are often recycled (just like options 1 & 2) so you should let the water free for some time to dislodge any material that may have been resting in the line before you arrived. After this washing then I take the car to a place out of direct sun light to begin the next phase of the detailing process, whether it involves claying or pre wax cleansing polish. This is either the first or second step in the detailing process. Some vacuum before some after the exterior wash. Some believe or not will wash a car twice during the process, once again after claying.
So there you have a brief overview of detailing without getting too detailed. As I progress and learn more about the latest techniques and methods I imagine I will share them on here for those that care to read about it. The one thing I can say is just don’t be afraid to get out there and try something. If you try it and don’t like it, then you can change your process, or pay someone else to do it. For me it’s, I almost hate to use the phrase, therapeutic, but that’s kind of what it’s like for me. It also gives me a sense of pride to take a dirty car and make it look shiny and new. That is if you’re into that sort of thing, shiny and new. And if not that’s cool too.