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by Mark Lamendola
Former racecar mechanic (2 years circle track, 2 years dragstrip), former street rodder (12-second Charger, 14-second Camaro), hung out with a group that called themselves Gearheads, etc., etc.

How can you keep your car looking like new? If it's a used car, it's probably already damaged and you can use the tips here to stop further damage. If it's a new car, you will be able to take it back to the car dealer and show them that it looks better than the cars on the showroom floor. I'm not exaggerating. I do mean better. And in my own case, it's the salesmen who have taken me aside and quietly asked me why my car looks better than the new ones they are selling. Did I have it repainted? Nope.

The main thing to understand is that it takes about six months for the finish on the car to truly dry. Many people make the mistake of waxing their car before the 6 months have passed, or they use one of those godawful carwash soaps that contain wax. The truly car damaging people use the "dry wash" sprays, a sure way to ruin the finish.

Here's what you do. When you get your car home from the dealer, park it in the sunlight. Be sure you put towels on the dash, to protect the dash. Otherwise, it may fade or crack. What you want to do is bake the exterior finish, not destroy the interior.

Before you bring the car in for the night (if it's a new car, you are garaging it, correct?), hose it down with cold water. No soap. Don't use a sprayer, either. In fact, don't wash your car until it's had several days of good sun-baking. After the car's had several good days of sun-baking, you can wash it with a wax-free car soap. Follow the directions on the container, and keep your car clean.

When washing the car, use very gentle pressure. The harder you scrub, the more you abrade the paint. The abrasions will show.

After six months (see the door sticker for the actual date the car was built), the car is ready for prep and exterior sealing. This is a grueling job, one that's best done with a friend to help you. It will take an entire afternoon, at the very least.

Here are the basic steps:

  1. Rinse the car. Use a sprayer set on "shower" or no sprayer at all. You do not want to use high water pressure. This just jets particles into the paint.
  2. Wash the car. Mix the soap per the directions on the container, don't guess. And use a good soap, not some cheap stuff and not something with wax in it. Wash from the top down.
  3. Rinse the car.
  4. Dry the car, using first a "California blade" (a sort of squeegee) and then a chamois.
  5. Apply a paint cleaner. This is a product that often comes in a multi-step detailing kit, like the high-quality one Maguire makes.
  6. Wipe the car down, using diapers or similar cotton cloths that have not been home-laundered. Do not use these again (you can wash them and use them for something else). Always work from the top down.
  7. Apply a paint polish.
  8. Wipe the car down, using diapers or similar cotton cloths that have not been home-laundered. Do not use these again (you can wash them and use them for something else). Always work from the top down.
  9. Inspect the car carefully. Use a very bright light to inspect every surface from multiple angles. Now that your hands have had the oils dried off them, you can touch the paint with your bare hands (you will just need to wipe the car again with a clean cloth as you go). Run your hand over every square inch of the car. When you come to a place that doesn't feel silky smooth, apply the paint polish to that area.
  10. When you are sure you have the car all polished, wipe it down again with clean cloths.
  11. Now, if you are still standing, you are ready to apply the sealer, wax, or polymer. Follow the directions on the container. Typically, you will do a panel or area at a time. Always work from the top down.
  12. Let the wax or polymer dry. Then buff it out with soft cloths. You might want to use a car polishing cloth made just for this work.
  13. The next day, inspect the car using a strong light. Buff out any remaining wax that you didn't get yesterday. Use an old soft-bristled toothbrush on the places where a cloth won't work.

This finish will be so deep that it should seem like your reflection is coming from under several layers of paint rather than from the surface of the car. In fact, it is. If you have a rear spoiler, you should easily be able to see the reflection of the attachment bolts on the trunk lid just by glancing in that direction.

Car dealers seldom see the cars they sell look this good. And when you bring your car in for service, you will get respect. Your car shows you care about your car, and the dealer mechanics will notice this right away.

Tips for avoiding car paint damage:

  • Never touch any painted surface with your bare hands.
  • If "friends" close your car door by putting their hands anywhere other than the door handle, ask them to use the handle next time. If they touch the paint, their finger oils will damage your paint. If they push by the window glass, they will distort the window glass rail.
  • Remove bird crap right away, but not by rubbing with a wet hankie or other abrasion-maker. Just gently use a sponge and soapy water, after first running water on the affected area. Run water while cleaning, too.
  • Never use bath towels to dry a car. Unless you are one of those very rare people who actually uses a good laundry soap in the right amount, your towel is loaded with abrasive particles from the laundry soap.
  • Never sit or lean on the car. Sitting on it deforms the panels, causing minor defects in the paint. Leaning on it pushes dirt particles into the paint surface.
  • Do not park under trees. It's not just sap that you have to worry about.
 

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