Theme : Materials – Keeping It Clean

We reach for the Carnauba Wax and Ostrich Feather duster, then have second thoughts.

Dirty car art
Site specific car art by Scott Wade – image :

There’s something both satisfying and unnatural about a clean car. Cars aren’t like people on any level but, specifically, because they are never going to improve with age. Cars don’t have a difficult teenage period then bloom into mid-life vigour. Apart from a running-in period which might ease up a few parts, and running-in isn’t a big deal anyway these days, cars are on the downhill path from Day One…

For me, a shiny car is like a comb-over, or tinting your greying sideburns. It’s going against nature. There are practical reasons for removing road muck from time to time. It gets on your clothes and ends up eating into the fabric of the vehicle. So occasional cleaning is OK, but simple stuff. Ideally I’d have a hose down car, say a Citroen Mehari with waterproof electrics and vinyl seats.

You’ll gather from this that I’m not a great car cleaner. That is true. I’ve written a piece relating to that in part previously. But it’s not that I am a shirker, or that I don’t derive satisfaction from looking at a clean, shiny, waxed car. I can’t even point out that I live on a London street – I do, but I have access to a yard and a pressure washer, so I have no excuse at all. Car cleaning is a fulfilling activity in itself, and I’ll even admit that a pristine car can look good, but I’m already seeing the mud splash around the wheelarches from the first puddle, and the flies spattered on the bonnet.

I can’t deny the appeal, but now it looks too good to drive – image :

I might be extreme in this because I have long suppressed most of my childhood OCD, which was quite extreme for several years. Yes, you’re correct, I don’t want to do it because I’m afraid, actually I know, that I’ll like it so much that I won’t be able to stop. And the people who haven’t conquered their obsessive cleanliness are well catered for by the valeting industry, or ‘detailing’ to use the American term.

Actually, valeting has become rather too general a term. It’s now used by many car washing establishments to cover anything more than a simple spray over with a hose. Proper valeting is an exacting art, creating the illusion of newness just as the skilled embalmer creates the illusion of life in a corpse. And in both cases the effect is transient.

A well valeted car in a used car showroom will have had hundreds, maybe thousands added to its value. Tired tyres will have just the right rubbery sheen, perishing window seals will look smooth again, paint will shine and, inside, flabby upholstery will look fresh and springy. Aside from skill, the good car valeter has a significant arsenal of products and tools and, over the years, many have become available to the Sunday driveway car cleaner.

Professional car valeting is a serious business – image :

Walk into Halfords to buy something ‘for the upholstery’ and expect to be faced with a bewildering number of mysterious creams and sprays. Plus others for the wheels, the tyres, the chrome, the acrylic, the black plastic, etc, etc. And this is before we even start on vastly expensive ‘professional’ products made from waxes extracted from rare orchids and the like, which remain an arcane mystery to me – and I’m a professional painter.

The arcania of the shiny arts – image :

Reverting to my previous piece, I understand that, if you are fortunate to possess something nice, something other people aren’t fortunate to possess, you can argue that it shows respect both for the object and, in a way, for the ambitions of those not so fortunate, if you take good care of it and are seen to cherish it. Alternatively, you can argue that the ambition to own frivolous objects – and any car beyond a good secondhand Golf is frivolous – is a silly one, and that showing a casual attitude towards such ownership demonstrates its meaninglessness to those who torture themselves with such unrealised desires.

Meanwhile, back at the Concours d’Elegance, they’ve got the toothbrushes and cotton buds out and are banishing every last bit of dust from the heads of the spokes, every speck of oil from the engine, every trace of grass from the tyre treads, everything that suggests that it is a real working car.

You can, of course, clean something too much. Rub it forever and, bit by bit, the molecules get dispersed until nothing remains at all. That would take a bit longer than the life of the oldest car but, still, you will have seen the paint job that has gone through the car wash so many times that it is so flat and dull that even the most skilled valeter could not revive it. Which shows that there is no short cut to a clean car. On the rare times that I do take my vehicles to the hand car wash, or the even rarer times that I do it myself, it’s not the shine that pleases me, it’s more those little bits undone that displease me – and then I wish I’d left it dirty.

7 thoughts on “Theme : Materials – Keeping It Clean”

  1. I get it man. I never understood why some people are so obsessive about keeping their cars clean. An occasional cleaning inside and outside is all I ever bother with.

  2. I recently became a bit obsessed with wax. I read all the reviews. I bought the best. I cleaned the car and dried it. I applied the wax carefully. Did the car look shiny? It did. Did all that effort stop a bird from shitting all over the roof the very next morning? No it did not.

  3. Richard, you have expressed feelings towards car cleaning close to my own. My car transports a springer spaniel every day, stuff for the allotment weekly, grandchildren monthly and fishing stuff plus outboard engine several times a year; cleaning it seems pointless. I clean it about twice a year and someone else a few more times. And yet, and yet, for my daughter’s wedding it got the full valet and wow, I really liked it. I could get in and out without grime, the upholstery wasn’t sticky and it did smell a little better. There was a definite “pride in ownership” and of course it drove much better! Two weeks later and life returned to normal.

    I would disagree with you about car aging; they do have difficult teen age years (who wants a 13year old car) but keep them a bit longer and at 25-30 they can seem quite interesting.

    1. Well, in a way Barry. But if we do take the analogy with people, isn’t the thing about a 30 year old car that you just don’t expect so much of it? I realise I’m being contradictory, since I’ve recently written about having a 43 year old car that I treat like a modern, but then it’s spent the last 3 weeks sitting on the street with an intake box blown off the manifold by a massive backfire, waiting for garage time. If that was my Nissan I’d sell it.

    2. Your front left tyre needs a bit of air too. Just saying.

    3. Thanks for noticing that Laurent. I’ll warn the garage so that they can order in some air and do the tyre at the same time as the manifold.

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