How to clean a classic car

On the Road 6 min read

It took some luck, years of hard work and few dollars but you’ve finally purchased the classic car you’ve always wanted. It’s probably just like the ride you wanted in high school. The one you used to dream about in class. You told yourself, “I’m going to own one just like that some day,” and now it’s finally in your garage.

With a little elbow grease, it’s time to make it look even better. Washing your classic car is one of life’s great pleasures. You’re not just removing dirt and grime from its finish, you’re pampering a friend and bonding with the machine. You’re also protecting your investment. Some people swear clean cars run better. We’re not saying that’s true, but washing your classic car the right way is just as important as changing its oil and keeping it running properly.

To help you, we’ll not only teach you how to wash a classic car the right way, but we’ll discuss the very best way to wash a classic car, from using the right classic car cleaning products to drying a classic car without scratching its paint.

Can your classic vehicle handle an automatic wash?

Most classic cars, especially vintage cars, pickup trucks and SUVs from the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s can handle an automatic car wash without damage. However, there are some exceptions. If the vehicle’s ride height has been modified, it may be too low or too high to fit through the car wash’s complex mechanisms. Also, any vehicle that wears excessively wide tires may have a similar problem.

An automatic car wash may also prove to be too much for old weather seals around a classic cars windshield, windows and doors. These rubber seals harden and crack over time and the high-pressure spray of water used by automated car washes may cause them to leak, allowing some water to enter the cars interior. This is especially true for old convertibles. Old convertible tops probably don’t seal as well as they used to. A few drips won’t hurt anything, but excessive water leaking on a vehicle’s dashboard, door panels and carpet can damage wiring and possibly cause mildew.

Automated car washes also aren’t kind to the metal radio antennas found on most classic cars. They bend easily or worse, they can easily be torn right off the vehicle. Chances are also high that the automated car wash uses harsh detergents and coarse brushes, neither of which are very good for a paint job. They can scratch, leave unattractive swirl marks and strip wax.

Do you need to hand wash your classic car?

For those reasons, it’s best to hand wash a classic vehicle yourself. Plus, you’re sure to take more care during the process and clean all the nooks and crannies an automated car wash is sure to miss. Yes, it takes more time, but your classic will be its cleanest when the job is done and there’s no risk of damage to its paint or body.

Of course, the third option is to hire a professional car detailer to hand wash your classic for you. Such services are popular with classic car owners, but they can be expensive. A quality job can cost hundreds of dollars if you spring for extras like wax or additional washing and detailing under the hood. However, it may be money well spent if you plan to show off your engine at the next cars and coffee car show this weekend.

Anything to keep in mind when washing a classic?

If you are going to wash your classic yourself, always do it in the shade. Direct sunlight and hot metal body panels like fenders and hoods will dry soapy water quickly on the paint surface and cause spotting. Removing these spots later adds more time to the process and may invite paint damage. Always work in the shade on a paint finish that’s cool to the touch.

Wash the vehicle’s wheels first. They’re probably the dirtiest part of the car and may be covered in brake dust, which can be gritty and harm a paint job. Use a cleaning product specifically designed for wheels, but make sure it’s safe for the wheels of your car. Some cleaners may be harmful to chrome or polished finishes. Read the bottle and if there’s any doubt that it may harm the finish on your wheels, don’t take the chance. Most top quality modern wheel cleaners are “safe for all wheel finishes”.

And don’t use old t-shirts, rags or bathroom towels on any part of the car. They can scratch. Invest in a batch of quality microfiber towels, which are available at any auto parts store. They aren’t expensive and they’re designed specifically for these jobs. It’s also important that you do not use the same microfiber towels on the wheels as you use on the other parts of the vehicle. Once a cloth has been soiled with wheel grim and brake dust it’s no longer safe to use on delicate paint or trim. Keep a separate batch of the towels for wheels and another for paint and trim. They are machine washable, so they can all be reused.

Cleaning products

In addition to the quality wheel cleaner, it’s important to purchase other products designed to keep your classic looking its best. There are many well-known brands out there to choose from. Buy a high-quality soap specifically designed for vehicle use. As tempting as it may be, don’t go into the kitchen and grab the dish detergent. You’re washing a car, not doing the dishes. Dish soap strips wax from paint and is too harsh for automotive use. It’ll dull your paint job over time.

Use plenty of soapy water and rinse the car often and thoroughly during the process. Don’t let the soapy water dry on the paint. It’s also important to agitate the soapy water on the paint, but gently. Let the soap do the work. And rinse your microfiber towel or wash mitt often so the dirt and grit trapped in the towel isn’t scratching your paint. If the water in the bucket looks dirty, don’t keep spreading it on the car, dump it out and fill it again with fresh soap.

If your car has black plastic trim, which was popular on many models in the 1980s and 1990s, over time it may dull and won’t match the shine of your paint. This is easy to fix with a product specifically designed to bring back its luster. There are several on the market and they are quick and easy to apply. But be careful, it’s best not to get these trim cleaners on painted surfaces.

Drying a classic car

Don’t dry your classic with an old beach towel. It’ll scratch. Better to invest in an oversized microfiber towel designed for the job. Not only will it absorb more water and dry your car much faster, but it won’t scratch your paint or leave swirl marks behind. A natural or artificial chamois or shammy cloth will also work well, but the microfiber products are the latest technology and work best. Plus, like the smaller versions, they are machine washable and last basically forever.

After you wash the car’s exterior, dry it thoroughly before moving on to cleaning and vacuuming its interior. This will give the water hidden behind window trim, door handles and other cavities 10 or 15 minutes to drip out. You can then go back and re-dry those areas before the water dries on the paint leaving unsightly watermarks.

Buffing and waxing the paint

If your classic cars old paint looks dry and faded, chances are it still has plenty of shine left in it. Revitalizing on old weathered paint job does require special tools and products, but the results will be worth it. You’ll be amazed at how much better that paint job will look after an afternoon spent buffing it out.

Buffing a paint job is a multistage process, so expect it to take some time. You’ll have to invest in a dedicated electric buffer. Do not use a drill or grinder, they spin too fast and create heat. You can burn through your paint and destroy the car’s finish. This process requires patients and some special techniques so watch some videos online that demonstrate how to do it properly.

In addition to the dedicated electric buffer, you’ll also have to buy buffer pads and special products like cutting and rubbing compounds as well as a high quality wax. Don’t worry, it’ll all be worth the time and money invested once you see the results. In just a few hours you’ll remove years of oxidation and scratches from the weathered surface, bringing out the paint’s color and gloss.

And the cleanest classic car still needs the best coverage. Check out more here.

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