Have you ever noticed how show cars look really fresh and clean? Beyond just shiny, they are bright. This effect comes from the smallest details. A great place to start is with your tires and wheels.
Concours-winning show cars are clean enough to pass a white glove test. This includes the tires and wheels (front and back) and the wheel wells. Removing wheels to detail them may seem fanatical, but it has several benefits, including:
- Inspecting your tires for proper wear as well as wheel damage
- Inspecting your brakes
- Inspecting your suspension
When preparing a car for show, most competitors detail every square inch of their car, including the undercarriage. I’m not talking about the multi-million-dollar concours cars, which are built from the ground up to be show cars. I’m talking about everyday-guy kind of cars, cars that regularly see the light of day.
I met a Porsche Boxster owner a few years ago who had just won best in class at a national show. I asked him how he managed to get the undercarriage of his car so clean, and he just smiled.
After a little more cajoling, he admitted that he’d put his Boxster on jack stands, taped a toothbrush to a stick, and scrubbed the underside with kerosene while lying on his back. Now that’s dedication to detail!
While it may seem a bit overboard, undercarriage detailing has its purpose. You don’t have to enter your car in a show to find benefit in putting your car on jack stands, pulling off the wheels and detailing the easily accessible, exposed areas.
I like to detail the undercarriage because it allows me to inspect critical components that I rely on for my safety.
Here are some of the undercarriage areas I recommend detailing and the inspections they allow. I make this routine an annual ritual on all of my cars.
- Detail the entire wheel (front and back). If you have expensive wheels with exposed inner rims, the wheels will look great after a full detail. Inspect for undetected tire wear problems.
- Detail the wheel wells, brake calipers and suspension components, and coat the plastic liner with a protectant. This will add a crisp, clean look to your car. Inspect for brake wear and suspension or drive train problems.
- Detail under the side, front and rear aerodynamic components. Inspect for broken parts or loose components.
Gaining Underside Access
To gain ready access to the underside of your car, you will need ramps, or a jack and stands. Ramps work fine for detailing under the front, rear and sides of the car, but they don’t provide access to the wheel wells, brakes and suspension components.
A lift or a good jack and jack stands are the best all-around solution. It’s not necessary to lift a car more than a foot to gain good access.
Jacking Safety: Never jack a car without the use of jack stands. The jack alone cannot be trusted. Always use prescribed jack points to lift your car. Read your car owner’s manual for instructions.
The following procedures assume the use of a hydraulic floor jack and jack stands to lift a car for wheel removal:
- Park your car on a flat surface.
- Place blocks behind the wheels not being lifted to prevent movement of the car.
- Use the proper size lug wrench to loosen wheel lug nuts on the wheels to be removed. Do not remove the lug nuts, just loosen them.
- Jack the car high enough to insert a jack stand under the end of the car holding the engine. The jack stand must contact a prescribed jack point or the suspension A-arm mount point.
Warning: Never place a jack stand under your engine, drive shaft or transmission, as serious damage could occur.
- Continue jacking the car until you have enough clearance to insert a second jack stand at the opposite end of the car. Again, align the jack stand under a prescribed jack point or suspension mount point.
- When two jack stands are properly placed, slowly release pressure on your hydraulic jack, allowing your car to rest on the jack stands. Failure to release pressure slowly may result in your car being dropped onto the stands, which will damage the underside of your car.
- Before lowering the jack to move it out from under the car, inspect the jack stands again for proper placement. If not properly aligned, jack the car just high enough to make a correction.
- Remove the loosened lug nuts and remove your wheels. Be sure to set the lug nuts aside where they will not be lost or damaged.
If you followed the procedure above, your car is now safely jacked for undercarriage detailing.
Unlike in the engine compartment, there are no sensitive components that require safeguarding under your car. However, just as in engine compartment detailing, use of petroleum-based cleaners will reduce the life of critical components like rubber bushings, hoses and seals. The best alternative to petroleum cleaners are detergents and citrus-based cleaners.
As most undercarriages are generally pretty filthy, complete detailing may require several applications of cleaner combined with a lot of brush agitation. I have several different brushes I use, including an old tire brush, a 1″ round brush, and a soft-bristle, fox-tail-style brush that easily reaches into odd places. Have an assortment of brushes before starting.
I recommend starting low and progressing upward. If you start at the top, you’ll have cleaner dripping all over you, which will irritate your skin. Speaking of skin irritation, I highly recommend wearing disposable rubber gloves and eye protection.
Gloves will keep your hands from drying out and chapping from the strong cleaners. Eye protection prevents splash-back from getting in the eyes. These safety items can be found at your local auto parts store. I use the Permatex brand latex gloves because they’re heavy duty, fit tight and have textured fingertips for better grip when wet or oily.
After applying your degreaser, give it enough time to soak in and work. In most cases, 3 to 5 minutes soak time will do the trick. Before spraying all of your degreaser away with water, turn it to your benefit by using your brushes and soapy water to loosen as much dirt and grime as possible.
Dish-washing liquid, such as Dawn, makes a good cleaning solution for scrubbing the undercarriage.
After scrubbing through the first layer of grime, hose off and allow the area to drip dry so you can inspect. With the heavy grunge gone, you’ll see areas requiring more degreasing and brushwork.
Spot-spray these areas and use your brushes and soapy water to finish removing the dirt. Flush thoroughly with water when finished.
After cleaning your undercarriage, you must also protect it. Manufacturers spray the underside of their cars with a heavy protective wax coating. The coating, usually a product like Cosmoline, prevents corrosion and premature deterioration of plastic and rubber components that are exposed to the elements.
The problem with Cosmoline, from a detailer’s point of view, is that it attracts dirt and makes an ugly mess. Traditional detailing dressings made for rubber, vinyl and plastic aren’t durable enough to provide lasting undercarriage protection.
The best solution is a coating product specifically made for engines and undercarriages, such as Sonus Trim & Motor Kote. It’s a spray-on, walk-away product that dries hard and leave a nice satin finish. While not as durable as Cosmoline, it solves the unsightly appearance found under most cars and restores protection.
Tire and Wheel Detailing
Here are step-by-step procedure to clean and dress your tires and wheels:
- Remove and clean one wheel at a time. Slightly loosen the lug nuts on one wheel, and jack one end of your car off the ground (preferably the end with the wheel you want to remove).
Before fully loosening the lug nuts and removing the wheel, place a jack stand under an appropriate point of the chassis or suspension.
- Mix a bucket of soapy water with your favorite car shampoo. Mix double the recommended strength.
- Clean the back side of the wheel first. Spray the back side of the wheel and tire with a generous coat of wheel cleaner. Allow it to soak for 3 to 5 minutes.
- Using your tire and wheel brush, scrub the back side of the tire and wheel with soapy water. The resulting grunge will be very gritty, so use plenty of soapy water and keep your brush rinsed.
- Rinse thoroughly and repeat. If your wheels have small crevices, you may need to use an old toothbrush. A soft parts cleaning brush also works well on the back side of the wheel.
- When the wheel’s back side is as clean as you can get it, repeat on the front. Make sure you rinse both sides really well when you’re done.
- While the wheel is dripping dry, spray the wheel well, brake caliper and suspension components with cleaner. Allow it to soak for 5 minutes. Take this time to dry your wheel with a cotton terry cloth towel.
- Use the remaining soapy water and your wheel brush to scrub the wheel well, brake caliper and suspension parts. You don’t need to make it perfect unless you really do plan to show your car. Make it clean enough to inspect. Let these parts air dry.
Once everything is clean, you can turn your attention to protection and beautification:
- Spray the underside of your wheel well and any plastic parts with a generous coating of vinyl tire and rubber dressing. Allow it to soak in. If you live in the North, this will prevent snow from accumulating in your wheel wells. It also makes future cleanings easier. Wipe off the excess dressing with a towel, and buff to a nice luster.
- Wipe your tire down with a generous coating of tire dressing and allow it to penetrate. While the dressing soaks in, inspect the wheel for tar spots. Large tar spots can accumulate on the back side of the wheel. Use tar remover and a rag to remove. If your wheel has a lot of spots, wipe down the whole wheel.
- Inspect your wheel for surface scratches. If you find any, now is the time to buff them out with a light polishing compound.
- Wax your wheel front and back. Klasse All-In-One works great on wheels.
- Finally, buff the tire and apply a second coat of tire dressing. When satisfied with the finish, put the wheel back on the car.
There is a significant amount of work involved in achieving concours tires and wheels. If you plan to show your car, removing the wheels to detail the wheel wells, tires and wheels is a must.
If you do not plan to show your car, creating concours tires and wheels is a great way to show off your car.
Tires and Wheels Summary
If your tires and wheels are perfectly detailed, the rest of your car will benefit. The technique discussed here is not the only method, but it allows for easy access to the backside of the wheel and into the wheel wells.
If pulling your wheels off the car to detail every nook and cranny makes you smile, then don’t stop there…
Pop the hood and let’s get started Detailing Your Engine!