Concourse-winning show cars are clean enough to pass a white glovetest. This includes the tires and wheels (front and back) and the wheel wells. Removing your wheels to detail them might seem a little fanatical, but it has several benefits, including:
- Inspecting your tires for proper wear and for damage.
- Inspecting your brakes.
- Inspecting your suspension.
In the process of 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.
This isn't a show car, it's my family SUV, but I still enjoy keeping it looking sharp. Twice a year I rotate the tires and give the wheel wells and wheels a good scrubbing followed by dressing. The fresh, crisp look really stands out. My secret to super dark tires is a liberal coating of Sonus Total Eclipse followed by Sonus Tire & Bumper Dressing Gel.
For a rich, natural look, you want to use a non-shiny tire dressing, like Optimum Opti-Bond Tire Gel. Shiny dressings attract dust and turn brown over time.
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 might seem to be going 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 some pretty 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). The Speed Master Wheel Brush will give you easy access to all wheels because it has a flexible stem. 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.
To gain ready access to the underside of your car, you will need a lift, ramps, or a jack and stands. Ramps work fine for detailing under the front, rear and sides of the car, but they do not 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 is 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.
||Use the proper tools to jack up your car and remove the wheels. Use a floor jack, jack stands and a good lug nut wrench. I use a torque wrench to retighten my lug nuts to factory specifications.
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. Make sure you 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. The gloves will keep your hands from drying out and chapping from the strong cleaners, and the eye protection will prevent splash-back from getting in your eyes. You will find both of these safety items at your local auto parts store.
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, soapy 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 will see areas that require more degreasing and brushwork. Spot-spray these areas one by one, and use your brushes and soapy water to finish removing the dirt. When you're finished, be sure to flush thoroughly with water.
After cleaning your undercarriage, you must also protect it. It's common knowledge that all car manufacturers spray the underside of their cars with a heavy protective wax coating. The coating, usually a product like Cosmoline, helps to prevent 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. (If you want to remove Cosmoline, use Prima Cosmonot.)
Traditional detailing dressings made for rubber, vinyl and plastic are not 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 nowhere near as durable as Cosmoline, it improves the appearance found under most cars and restores protection.
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.