So, do you run around in a skip that has a wheel at each corner, or are you truly car-proud – the owner of a showroom-standard, concours-quality motor? Either way, spending some time, effort and a little money can make your motoring life more pleasant and help your car keep its value. Now is the time to turn your mind to a post-winter check for your car. Graeme Kidd offers advice on Spring Cleaning
You may think that cleaning your car is a real chore, or simply not worth doing (I ran an £800 Landrover for six years and I kept nothing other than the windows and the lights clean), but if you want your vehicle to hold its value and look good on your drive, it’s going to need a bit of serious attention every now and again.
To avoid breakdowns, the AA recommends you carry out basic checks on your car, and what better time to do that as part of a Spring Clean?
A Spring Cleaning session is a good time to do some basic safety checks. For starters, once you have cleaned your wheels and tyres, do a close visual inspection of their condition and make sure they still have more than the legal minimum of tread (1.6mm) and no cuts, splits or bulges in the sidewalls. Don’t forget your spare while you are at it, and check the pressures on all five tyres. Take a moment to make sure the kit you’ll need to change a wheel is all present and correct, too.
The Professional Touch
You can delegate this task to a valet service, and if you’re short on elbow grease or time, or have cash to splash, treating your motor to a full professional service should see it come back to something close to showroom condition. But who do you trust? Well, the major manufacturers of car cleaning products have trade versions of their retail products, and provide garage and showroom staff with training in their appropriate use. And there’s the fully-independent British Institute of Cleaning Science, which runs a Car Valeting Certificate Scheme. With course fees of £1,250 for beginners, and £875 for those that are experienced, you’d expect some serious skills to be passed on in such training. So for peace of mind, ask a potential valet about training that has been undertaken, and get to see any certificates.
The DIY Route
Or you can take on the full valet project yourself. This not only saves you money, but also has the added benefit that you get to examine every aspect of your vehicle very closely, as you clean and buff it. This puts you in close contact with your car, and means you can spot early signs of impending problems and nip them in the bud, saving yourself future expense. It can also be very satisfying to add lustre to the inside and outside of your car, whether you do it all at home with your own kit, or take something of a short-cut at a coinslot pressure washer/carwash facility. If you are looking to sell your car, a full valet can make a massive difference – not only to the price you’ll get, but to how quickly you make a sale. Makers of the “How clean is your car” DVD (see panel) reckon they added £2,000 to the value of a £375 BMW-badged skip that stars in their instructional vid!
Dealing with the Winter Blues
For the last few years, we haven’t had that much in the way of snow, but gritter lorries have been out and about spreading salt and abrasive grit on the road surface. As winter ends, it’s a good idea to make sure that you wash off all salt residues from the underside of your car, as well as from the bodywork and trim, otherwise you are tempting corrosion to set up shop in your car’s moist, secret little places. Mud hangs on to the salty stuff they put on roads, keeps it pressed close to metal and paintwork and does its best to attract and hold moisture – damp, salty mud is like compost for corrosion, so wash it off! It’s not good for rubber components such as drive shaft gaiters, silent block bushes and shock absorbers. Also inspect the paintwork closely when your car is good and clean, before you apply polish. Stone and grit chips may have damaged paintwork, and may need a bit of touch-up paint applied if they are deep, and primer before touch-up paint if they are very deep. Don’t use the brush that comes with your touch-up paint, or you’ll apply far more paint than is needed. Use a paperclip to take a drop of paint to the problem area, or a fine artist’s brush, and you may need to apply a spot of lacquer too, but don’t overstretch yourself – bigger repairs are best left to the experts. Leave touched-up areas a week or so to harden thoroughly before you polish them to make sure they blend in with their surroundings and get a protective layer of polish.
Keeping on top of paint damage, dealing with minor corrosion on a regular basis, and using a good protective wax will help your car keep its value as well as stay looking good.
Global warming may mean we don’t have to deal with snowdrifts and slush every year over the winter, but we still have plenty of rain, mist and mud. All of these can lead to the interior of your car becoming damp as a result of condensation, damp clothes, boots and brollies, or if you are unlucky, as the result of leaks. If you find soggy patches under carpets when you clean your upholstery, you probably have rainwater coming in to the car. Keep a close eye, and you may be able to spot where the water is getting in, if not – get a garage or bodyshop to sort it out for you. Take care to dry the interior of the car thoroughly after an internal valet. Ideally do the job on a warm day, and leave doors and windows open for a few hours in a place where you can keep an eye on your motor. Driving around with windows open and the heating turned up can also help.
Spick and Span and Safe
Once you have the underside of the car clean, check out the exhaust. You may find that your local tyre and exhaust company will pop it on a ramp and give you a quick verbal report for free, looking at tyres and shocks and tracking while they are at it.
Keeping an eye on levels of engine oil, windscreen washer, and radiator coolant should really be a weekly task. Checking the pressures of all five tyres should be part of every valet session. During the Spring Clean, you’d do well to check the battery terminals for any signs of corrosion and the battery area for any signs of acid spillage – this is a quick visual check of the area beneath the bonnet. Keeping on top of these basic maintenance chores massively reduces your chances of breaking down on a journey. As a final touch, check the condition of windscreen wiper blades and give them a quick clean and test. Also make sure all the lights are working, and lubricate door and boot hinges and catches. Just don’t use oil or WD40 in door locks, it’s graphite powder for them, or nothing!
The Tools for the Job
In terms of tools, you don’t need much in the way of specialist stuff, although there are lots of gadgets and gismos out there that take some of the strain out of cleaning and polishing. At the top end of the price bracket for car cleaning kit you’ll find two items: a pressure washer, and a wet-dry vacuum cleaner, such as the George, from Numatic. If you are thinking about buying a pressure washer, you might want to consider models that allow you to vary the pressure delivered from the lance, and can deliver shampoo along with water. A pressure washer takes a lot of the effort out of cleaning, but does have to be handled with a bit of care and attention. Not least, because used close up, it can deliver a serious punch, which can turn small problems like rumpled inner-bonnet insulation or slightly damaged paint into much bigger problem areas. Whether you are using your own washer or a ‘pay as you wash’ system on a garage forecourt, be careful to keep in control of the lance, particularly when you start the water flow – it’s very easy for the ‘kick’ to clonk the head into your bodywork, or splash water where you don’t want it. And if you are doing anything inside the engine bay, be sure to check that all filler caps are firmly on and that electrical components are not only covered in plastic or cling-film, but never get a full-on blast.
If a power washer is beyond your budget, an automatic dispense system that connects to a standard hose fitment, like the one supplied for under a tenner by Superspray, can make life easier at the soaping stage. Always soap from the bottom up to give the grubbier bits the longest lathering. You can get by with an ordinary vacuum cleaner for carpets and upholstery, but the carpetcleaning capabilities of a wet-dry machine like George can come in handy. Do resist the temptation to rub plastic tools over your interior trim, upholstery, headlining and soft-top if you have one – chances are you will scratch or mark things. It’s much better to use an appropriate brush (firm for carpets and seats, softer for other areas) and use it to dislodge the grot which you suck up with your vacuum cleaner in a co-ordinated, two-handed performance. Turn on the ventilation system to maximum blow when you hoover the louvres, and don’t forget your vacuum cleaner’s ‘blow’ setting – handy for drying gulleys and crevices before waxing. A couple of 3″ or 4″ paintbrushes come in handy for general dusting duties, and will help you get some cleaning materials into nooks, but if they have metal ferrules, make sure to wrap them in tape before you start so they don’t put scratches where they’re not wanted. And don’t throw your old toothbrushes away; recycle them through your car cleaning kit. Lots of useful, specialist brushes are on offer in accessory shops.
We quite liked the Sonic Scrubber, a bit like a giant electric toothbrush with interchangeable heads. It took a lot of the effort out of scrubbing fiddly areas. A special brush for cleaning wheels will make your life easier. Otherwise, your basic kit needs to involve a couple of sponges. Keep one ‘for best’ and use it on paintwork until you think it might be getting a bit gritty, then demote it to the dirty first jobs, like wheels. A chamois leather (a real one, such as those from Grove Mill will set you back about £15), is great for drying the car after its shampoo and rinse, and you might like to invest a couple of quid in a giant plastic squeegee device to wipe down the windows and bodywork before you chamois.
Lotions and Potions
Take a trip round a sizeable motor accessory shop, and you’ll find more unguent lotions and potions for your motor than populate an upmarket department store’s cosmetic counter. Not surprising perhaps, when you realise that the UK market for specialist car cleaning products is worth around £100million a year. Yes, you can get by if you raid the kitchen for appropriate household cleaners, but they are designed to do different jobs to the ones you’ll be looking to use on your car. Domestic window cleaning cream, for instance, isn’t designed to deal with road film, squashed bugs, salt and other nasties commonly found on windscreen glass. There may be false economies in not using specialist products. Apart from cunning chemical formulations for a variety of applications, technology’s firmly on your side – like nanotechnology that has synthetic polymers bonding at a molecular level in Turtlewax’s Nano range. While sponge, chamois and rag used to be the cleaning stalwarts, a range of hightech cleaning pads, microfibre cloths and specialist wipes, such as those in the Amor All range, can make the job much more effective and allows you to keep things spick and span in between your deep cleans.
Watch where you park. Lime trees drip sticky sap at certain times of the year, while other trees attract birds whose caustic droppings wreak havoc with paintwork if you don’t remove them promptly (not just your layer of polish). A few packs of appropriate wipes in the glovebox will allow you to repair minor damage to your car’s good looks on the spot, and make your life easier in the long term. And don’t forget, air fresheners are the car equivalent of a spot of Chanel No5 behind the ear, if used sparingly!
The fewer nasty chemicals you use in your car valeting exploits, the kinder you are being to the planet. Some problems, such as tar spots, simply can’t be solved without volatile solvents being involved, but most good manufacturers of car cleaning products pay more than mere lip service to being environmentally friendly. You can, of course, use car cleaning products made by ‘green’ suppliers such as Eco Touch, but we’re not sure how many car accessory retailers stock them as a matter of course. You may need to look online, or talk to the people in your local organic shop, but currently there’s not a massive range of ecologically-friendly car care products on sale. They may call it ‘mild green Fairy Liquid’, but it’s in colour only. These days, there are much greener approaches to detergentbased washing up liquids, that are much less powerful than highly-concentrated ones like Fairy (which is fine, providing you dilute it with regard to its strength, rather than add in big squirts as you have to for some of its competitors).
Paint technology, too, has moved on, and unless you have an old car with badly-cared for, oxidised paint, you’re unlikely to do any damage to the paint by using washing up liquid, rather than special car shampoos, so you will get good results with a ‘green’ washing up liquid. While a hose or power washer makes the shampoo and rinse process quicker and easier, try to keep the water consumption down, without skimping, If you use a bucket and sponge, make sure you don’t scratch your paintwork by using filthy water that has a suspension of fine grit.