Car Washing Lessons From Dad

by Don Elliott on November 23, 2011

As a young teenager, I remember the day that my father taught me the fine art of washing the car. Doing a proper job of cleaning the family vehicle is a tradition that can be passed down from generation to generation. For me, it was a rite of passage the first time that Dad and I acknowledged that the family car was now “our” responsibility, not just “his” responsibility. Today, as a father with my own sons, I realize that this was more of trick to get me to wash the car so he could go play golf. However, back then it was a defining moment in our relationship.

My father has never been obsessed with keeping our car clean. He ran his own construction and hardware business and realized the importance of vehicle maintenance. Any day the trucks didn’t run meant lost wages and work that didn’t get invoiced. However, he was a chemistry guy in college, giving him insight as to how cleaning products were intended to be used and why they worked.

In the driveway on that early spring day, Dad took a clinical approach to my car wash lesson. It was logical to him that squashed bugs, tree sap, road salt, and acid rain can create a chemical reaction that would harm our car’s finish if not removed on a regular basis. He knew that dirt and grime under the windshield wiper blades would not only shorten the life of the blades, but could also scratch the windshield. Brake dust on the wheels was not only unattractive, but highly corrosive to the wheel and paint surfaces. And he knew that a good coat of wax would buy us a little more time between washings.

The car wash lessons he taught to me many years ago still apply today.

  • Wash the car in a shaded area if possible. A hot car in direct sunlight causes the surface to dry too fast, before residue has a chance to drain off. Plus, as he pointed out, it is “just too darned hot” in the sun to work very hard on cleaning the car!
  • Rinse the outside of the car with enough fresh water to push off the majority of the surface dirt. Start at the top and work your way to the bottom of the car.
  • Make up a bucket of soapy water. Use a clean bucket (this is where my sons taunt me with “Duh, Dad!”). The car wash soap available from auto parts stores and big box retailers is specifically made to be safe for your car’s finish and to provide lots of suds making it easy to track where you’ve washed. My father mixed up his own car wash soap, actually a detergent, by combining liquid dishwashing detergent, powdered laundry detergent, and borax (to prevent streaking.) Unfortunately, this concoction not only removed the dirt and road grime, but also some of the wax finish we meticulously applied every couple of months.
  • Wash the car using a clean soft towel rag or car wash mitt (a great stocking stuffer for the kid’s at Christmas.) Start on the roof and working your way down. Rinse the towel or mitt frequently to keep from dragging grit across the paint surface. Wash under and around the wiper blades, down the moldings, and around the license plate. Save the tires and wheels for last, after the painted surfaces have all been wiped down.
  • Rinse the car thoroughly before the soap has a chance to dry.
  • Using a clean bath towel, a microfiber drying cloth, or a chamois leather, dry the car from top to bottom. Avoid the glass surfaces. They should be cleaned with a separate towel. Wheels should be dried using paper towels or a separate cloth towel. The tires and wheels have the most aggressive road grit and grime that needs to be handled separately from the more sensitive paint and glass surfaces.
  • Dad used Coca-Cola on the windshield to remove road grime and haze from the windshield before we washed the rest of the car. He explained that Coke contains small concentrations of citric and phosphoric acid that are just enough to cut the film on the glass. Coke also contains lots of sugar that will become sticky and attract ants if not thoroughly washed off. Today’s glass cleaners and a lint free towel do just as good of a job in my opinion. Dad’s advice was to always do the inside and the outside of the glass surfaces when we washed the car. “Wash the outside of the glass and you are half done!” he would say.

In my neighborhood, it seems like there is a car wash on every corner. For $6, I can sit in the car’s air conditioning and let the automatic car wash machine do all the work. Auto repair shops also offer auto detailing and car cleaning services. However, my sons and I still enjoy dragging out the bucket and hose once in a while to wash the car by hand. Lessons learned from my Dad have been passed on, not so much to create the perfect car wash, but more to share the tradition. I know there will be a day when they pass on the tradition to their kids, just one more way we get to share our used car value.

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