We’re going to take a break from the regularly scheduled performance modification programming to bring you all an important public service announcement. Regardless of what you drive, where you drive, or how frequently you drive, you can make your car’s paint, trim, and interior look great again by spending just a few hours detailing in your driveway or garage at home. To some of our readers, this sounds like the most obvious thing you’ve ever heard. For others, the idea of detailing a car may seem confusing or even daunting. After all, there are so many products on the market, and so many opinions (often conflicting one another) and it’s easy to understand where this stems from. But fear not! Let me shed some light on the subject for those of you who are timid about the subject of car care.
Not too long ago, I too was scared and confused by the dark art of automotive detailing. Before I go any further, I want to establish one very important point. Car care and detailing techniques vary widely depending on three basic factors: how much time you want to spend, what sort of budget you have in mind, and the end result you’re looking to achieve. Basically, pick two (you’ve heard this before) as we are not performing a concourse level detailing here. The equation I’m focusing on in this story is one I feel most of us will relate to best - moderate detailing for the “enthusiast.” After a year and change of nothing but regular bucket car washes, a couple track days, and living a couple hundred yards from the ocean, my E36 M3 had seen better days cosmetically and was in need of some TLC. Sure, I knew it needed something more but I didn’t really know what, so I grabbed my keys and headed out to visit my friends Mike Pennington and RJ De Vera at Meguiar’s Inc. to see how much a reasonably competent individual could accomplish in 4 to 6 hours without breaking the bank.
To start things off, Mike and RJ explained before you jump into detailing you need to first evaluate the condition of your car and establish goals. My M3 was pretty dirty, and had not seen a fresh coat of wax in over 12 months. The paint had swirls and the headlights were yellow. Luckily the interior was pretty clean, but I wanted to spend a few hours bringing the car back to looking as good as it did when I bought it, or better.
Once we figured out the goals for the day, we had to pick the correct products. Mike and RJ explained that paint care products can all be broken down into five basic categories — wash, clean, polish, protect, maintain. I’ll go through each category as we go through each of these processes.
First up, wash. This sounds simple but there are three basic ways you can do this. For a heavily soiled car (read: large chunks of mud or debris, heavy amounts of general funk) it’s advised to do your standard two-bucket wash. This means one bucket with clean shampoo and water, and one bucket to rinse your soiled mitt. By contrast, if you car is just a little messy (or as a way to spot clean an otherwise clean car) you can use a quick detailing spray and microfiber towels to get the job done. My M3 was somewhere in the middle. For any car that has less large pieces of dirt or debris, but is still legitimately gross, the hot ticket item is a waterless wash product like Meguiar’s Ultimate Waterless Wash & Wax. You can get 4 to 6 washes out of a single bottle and you’ll save some water for the whales. Waterless washing is a pretty simple process. Using high quality microfiber towels, spray and wipe the car in sections (top to bottom) and make sure to turn your towel to a clean section regularly. You can also wet your car down beforehand if you’d like to loosen up the dirt and get the top layer off.
After the initial wash, we began the cleaning step using Meguiar’s Smooth Surface Clay kit. Applying clay bar to a small car is also a pretty easy process, although it can take some time. The process goes like this: spray a section of your car (again, work top to bottom) with quick detailing spray, then just rub the clay bar on the surface using mild pressure. You will feel sort of a rough sensation, which is literally pieces of dirt and debris sticking to the clay. As you rub more and more, keep applying quick detailing spray. Eventually, after a few passes, the clay bar will slide smoothly across the paint, or glass, or plastic. Watch your clay and fold it onto itself to create clean areas as it begins to get brown and dirty, keeping in mind that eventually you'll have to toss the fully dirt saturated clay. Meguiar's Clay is safe for all of your vehicle's surfaces. Bearing in mind that the clay bar process literally removes everything from your car, it’s important to clean and clay thoroughly.
Alright – after the clay portion is finished, we move on to the compound phase. This is the part where some people become faint of heart. Lots of us have heard of people “destroying” their paint or “cutting an edge” by applying compound incorrectly or with too much force, etc. This is certainly possible if you aren’t careful, but if you use common sense and follow directions on your product’s packaging, you will be just fine. Compound can be applied by hand, but we decided to use Meguiar’s Professional DA (Dual Action) Polisher to speed things up. We used Meguiar’s Ultimate Compound to get things started (and to get my feet wet, having never used a polisher before) and Mike and RJ finished the job with Meguiar’s Professional Pro Speed Compound again to speed things up. Apply compound to one area of the car at a time, working from the top down, and wipe the surface clean with a microfiber towel as you go.
Some of the important things to remember about applying compound are the volume of compound, the amount of pressure you apply, the frequency with which you reapply compound to your pad, and the pad itself. Make sure to saturate or “prime” your polishing pad with compound before you begin, but don’t leave extra "gooped" on there. Apply the compound to your paint using a decent amount of pressure, it won’t work if you don’t press hard enough, but don’t go all crazy on us here. You should have a wet appearance and a layer of visible compound on the paint after each pass. Reapply compound to your pad regularly. Note that it’s a good idea to mask off painted badges like we’ve done with my Roundel, and you should also mask off rubber and plastics as well. Meguiar’s offers a number of different pads to choose from, make sure to pick the proper pad and compound for your vehicle’s condition and expected results.
I will quickly touch on the polishing option, but it should be noted that the results from polishing aren’t typically drastic on non-metallic paint. Dark colors like black metallic, forest green and cherry red will benefit much more from polishing, as the process is designed to bring out the deep true colors associated with dark paint and metallic paint. Since my Hellrot paint is a two-stage paint (no metallic flake) the results are there, but less drastic. The process is very much similar to that of applying compound, and can be done either by hand or using the DA Polisher.
Once the compound (and polishing) portion of the job is complete, we move on to the ever-important step of protection. This is exactly what it sounds like, protecting your paint and other surfaces from debris and the elements, especially since the clay bar treatment stripped away any previous protectant. We used Meguiar’s Ultimate Liquid Wax and again turned to the DA Polisher to speed up the process. Wax can of course be applied by hand, but the DA Polisher makes the job so much quicker and less painful; I highly recommend looking into getting one if you like things like saving time. Once the wax is applied, wipe clean with fresh clean microfiber. The wax should come off easily and leave an amazing mirror-like shine. If it takes more than one pass to wipe off the wax, you’re using too much.
For black body plastic like the door and bumper moldings on my M3, Meguiar’s Ultimate Black is perfect; just give the plastic a cleaning pass using an all purpose cleaner, then apply Ultimate Black to bring back the deep saturated black look these pieces had when they were new. My M3 has chrome surrounds on the front kidney grilles, for these we used Meguiar’s Hot Rims Metal Polish for the outers and Ultimate Black for the inner plastics. I used a microfiber and a pencil to get into the small gaps. I know it sounds kind of silly but it worked really well. Meguiar’s also has a very good glass cleaner; wipe the outside of your windows using a horizontal motion and the inside with vertical motion to help locate and destroy smudges quicker. Again this might sound kind of ridiculous but it will save you time in the long run!
Interior and engine bay detailing are giant cans of worms according to Mike and RJ. Since my car is in decent condition in both areas, we decided to go the simple route and quickly attack dirt in the engine bay with Meguiar’s Quick Detailer, a product which can be used for the exterior and quick glass clean up as well. We gave the interior (including leather and plastic) a once over with Meguiar’s Ultimate Interior Detailer, which is safe for use on all interior surfaces and is good for light to moderate clean up. If you have torn leather or upholstery, cracked dashboards, or any of those other all too common interior woes, there are myriad options out there for any situation. Without diving head first into interior “restoration,” the Ultimate Interior Detailer was the perfect solution for my scenario. For the tires, we decided to use Meguiar’s Endurance Tire Gel for a slightly wet look. Honestly, I’m not a fan of super glossy tires, but I did want some improvement, so this is a good middle ground. We didn’t touch the curbed up stock wheels because I have a replacement in store.
The last thing we addressed was the ugly elephant in the room, my disgusting, old, worn out, and extremely tired headlights. Meguiar’s Heavy Duty Headlight Restoration Kit is exactly what I needed. This process is pretty simple and you don’t need to remove the headlights from your car but we popped them out since it’s pretty easy to do so on the E36. The first step is to wet sand the lens; spray some water and start with the coarser of the two sanders included in the kit, then repeat the process with the fine sander, keeping the surface wet all the while. Next, apply Meguiar’s Plastix compound to the prepped lens and get your drill-mounted polisher ready. The polishing phase is similar to polishing painted surfaces, reapply compound regularly and use enough force to be effective but don’t crush the lens. After a few passes, you’ll have a nice clean surface, just like new. The last step is to protect the lens with a UV coating; if you skip this step you’ll be right back to that gross yellow crusty look again within a few weeks. Apply the resin using a top to bottom motion and let cure for an hour before moving on. Most DIY solutions to yellow headlights do not include UV protection, another benefit of using a proper kit like the one offered by Meguiar’s.
Side note, I’ll be honest here and say my original plan was to swap the headlights out with new Bosch/AL European units, but I forgot that the Dinan intake doesn’t fit directly with these new lights (more on that later). For now, my restored US market headlights are a HUGE improvement, I can see better at night, and I’m not embarrassed any time someone looks at the front end of my car.
After about five or six hours, I must say the M3 looks better than it ever has since I’ve owned it. This brings us to the final step of the process, maintenance. Depending on where you live how and often you drive, you don’t need to do a full detailing like this very often. Mike and RJ say that as a rule of thumb, if you clay bar your car twice a year, polish once or twice depending on if the paint begins to show swirls, and wax about once every 3 months, the average enthusiast (read: not a detailing maniac) can maintain a good looking car with quick detailer (between washes), waterless wash (once a week if you feel up to it) and a traditional bucket wash (when the dirt gets seriously funky.) I’m realistic about the fact that my car will get dirty again quickly since it’s exposed to the elements when parked, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want to keep it looking good, and keep it protected. The big takeaway underneath all of this is that if you want your car to look good as it begins (or in my case, continues) to age, you HAVE to do this stuff. Even if you don’t really care that much about how dirty the car is on any given day, it’s about the big picture.