Gleaming paint, sparkling chrome: It’s enough to capture just about anyone’s eye, car buff or not. However, no matter what a car’s vintage, detailing it so that every visible surface shines like a diamond takes some serious work—or cash.
“Generally, the cost is based on an hourly schedule,” explains Tim McNair, owner of Grand Prix Concours Preparation. Typically, he continues, a professional detailing job runs from $1500 to $3500—figure 25 to 50 hours of labor. And that’s starting with a car that the average person would consider to be clean.
Welcome to the world of high-end detailing jobs, the likes of which are routinely shown off at places like Meadowbrook, Amelia Island, and Pebble Beach. Tim has been in the concours-level detailing business for more than 25 years, and he’s not one for keeping all of his secrets to himself. As he recently showed us, a nice detailing job doesn’t have to be expensive—providing you’re willing to do the work yourself.
According to Tim, making a car look its best is all about creating definition: pitch-black tires, bright amber lenses, and yards of gleaming chrome and paint. The result is a car that pops. Tim recently demonstrated some tricks of the trade.
Start by raising the car with a lift, and remove the tires and grille to provide access to the entire body. Now it’s time to fire up the power tools. While Tim uses a Metabo rotary buffer for next steps, a random orbital may be better for the novice.
No matter what the tool, he applies a few dabs of polish to the pad. Use a microfiber towel to apply compound to the hard-to-reach areas. Always work with the lines of the car, using a slow buffer speed and long strokes. You can use the edge of the pad to increase heat and bite—as Tim admits, developing the right feel is a big part of the process. He also recommends doing no more than a 2×2-foot section at a time.
Don’t leave the compound material sitting on the paint. When done with a section, clean up with a waffle-weave microfiber towel.
The edges of a car usually sport thinner paint, so they need to be protected. Tim favors 3M architectural tape. This thin, plastic tape is chemical-resistant and peels off cleanly. It also won’t tear when hit with the buffer.
Detailing polishes are available in different strengths: stronger ones for damaged paint and mild ones for relatively blemish-free finishes. While you want to work up from the stronger polishes to the weaker ones, don’t start with a product that is too coarse for your finish—you may introduce scratches and swirls. Your favorite detail product supplier should be able to match the right polish to your situation.
Finally, wax can be applied with the random-orbital rubber. For ideal results, let the applied wax set up overnight before wiping the car clean with a microfiber plush towel. Some squirts of quick-detailer can help remove the wax.
Tim’s secret weapon: the simple bamboo skewer. They’re available at almost any supermarket, and a pack of a hundred should only cost about $2. The bamboo is strong enough to dislodge dirt and grime, yet it won’t scratch paint, plastic, or chrome.
There’s no exact science to using the skewers, so feel free to improvise. For example, a stick and a microfiber cloth are great for removing built-up wax from body seams.
Wax and dirt often build up around the badges—especially individual letters—so ideally Tim removes them to gain access. If he can’t remove the badges, he uses a bamboo skewer to clean around each one.
Turn Signal Turn-On
Just about every car body features a fair share of lamps, each one a collection of chrome, rubber, glass, and plastic. Here’s a trusted approach for detailing these components.
Step 1: Remove the lamp.
Step 2: Before walking away from the car, check out the cavity behind the lamp. Road grime loves to get trapped here, making it a great place for rust to breed.
Step 3: Clean the lenses with a quality degreaser before finishing up with Plexus and a microfiber towel. (Backup lights and taillights located near the exhaust tips tend to get especially sooty, Tim notes.) The rubber seals can be rejuvenated with a shot of vinyl protectant.
Step 4: Use a bamboo stick for the detail work.
Step 5: Admire the now-clean lamp.
Under the Bonnet
Detailing the engine bay may seem like a daunting project, but Tim has some solutions. If it’s really dirty in there, warm up the engine and then spray it down with a degreaser. He favors Poorboy’s Bio-Degradable All Purpose Cleaner and Degreaser, although he also has good things to say about Simple Green. Agitate the nooks and crannies with a throwaway paintbrush before hosing off everything.
This method should remove the bulk of the grime, but Tim admits that the process makes a bit of a mess. There’s also more time involved, as you then have to wait for the water to dry.
If the engine bay is already in decent condition, Tim starts the detail work with a cleaning solvent like DuPont’s Prep-Sol and some rags. Lacquer thinner can be effective on stubborn crud, but Tim notes that this method can remove paint. In other words, it’s not for beginners.
Stiff bristle brushes are good for cleaning the bare metal parts found under the hood. Start with plastic bristles. If they aren’t aggressive enough, go to brass bristles. Once the engine room is clean, apply your favorite plastic and rubber dressing.
Assuming the interior isn’t too gross and just needs a cleanup, Tim has a simple recipe for making it shine.
Step 1: Take out the floor mats.
Step 2: Using your favorite plastic and rubber dressing, start with the driver’s-side door panel. Then wipe down the dash and rear vertical panels.
Step 3: Look up and clean the headliner.
Step 4: Now clean the back seat, passenger seat, and finally the driver’s seat. A soft paintbrush is great for cleaning out the pleats.
Step 5: Vacuum the floor; a flat wand paired with a brush attachment works well.
Step 6: Finally, clean the glass. Tim avoids household glass cleaners since they often feature abrasives and agents that can damage chrome and leather. Stick with an automotive glass cleaner, he says. Tim favors very low-nap microfiber towels, but those fluffy, shop-grade blue paper towels can also work. A lot of people use newspaper to clean glass, and Tim says it works because the ink acts as a polish.
All About Wheels
If you have mag wheels, shining them up should be a relatively easy venture. Use some quick-detailer and a microfiber cloth to remove the bulk of the dirt. Then, pick the crevices clean with a bamboo skewer.
Wire wheels are a different story. Tim uses a steam cleaner to apply a solution that’s 80 percent water and 20 percent degreaser. The steamer helps quicken the process from between 4 and 6 hours per wheel to between 2 and 3. Once clean, he then polishes everything.
Dirty tires? Tim likes Westley’s Bleche-Wite followed by a quality rubber and vinyl protectant applied with a sponge applicator.
Detail Supplies: Available at Moss
Moss Motors carries more than parts and pieces. They also carry a full line of topflight detail products from some of the most respected names in the business: Autoglym polish, leather care cream and plastic protector; Connolly Hide Food leather cream and leather cleaner; Nouvus plastic polish; Renovo soft top care products; RaggTopp convertible top cleaner and protectant; and Simichrome metal polish.
Story and photos by David S. Wallens
This story originally appeared in Classic Motorsports magazine. To request a free copy of the latest issue, visit classicmotorsports.net. To learn more about Tim McNair, our detailing expert, visit gpconcours.com or phone (215) 990-8161.