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Basic Maintenance + Repair
To properly maintain a car involves washing, waxing, and scrubbing the interior and exterior, as well as repairing and maintaining all the numerous mechanical parts. There is a trade-off: You can wash the car once or twice a year and accept the rusty consequences. You can allow the sand, dirt and dust to pile up inside the car to the point where going to church on Sunday requires wearing an old fashioned duster like your great-grandfather used. Or you can invest in a handful of cleaners and waxes and, with a little elbow grease, keep your car looking showroom new.
Interior upholstery in modern cars is available in cloth and vinyl materials, and sometimes in leather. Each of these requires different kinds of care and cleaning methods. Upholstery includes the seat and door coverings, the floor mat or carpet, and the headliner.
Cloth and Velour Interiors
Cloth upholstery requires the most care of the three types commercially available. Most people select cloth interiors for its warmth, comfort, and pleasing appearance. This benefit must be traded off against the increased care required compared to vinyl upholstery.
Modern cloth upholstery is tough and stain resistant. It still collects dust, dirt, and grease, however, and will show wear much earlier than vinyl upholstery. A good tip on caring for cloth interiors is to treat them just like the furniture in the house. You wouldn’t sit on your living room couch with dirty trousers or walk across your $25-per- square-yard rug with muddy shoes, would you?
Clean cloth upholstery at least once every month or sooner, depending on frequency and type of use. Brush the upholstery with a medium stiff bristle brush to loosen stubborn, abrasive dirt. After brushing, vacuum the entire interior. When you’re sure the car interior is clean, consider applying one of the commercially available stain guards to protect the upholstery.
Stain guard penetrates the cloth fibers, creating a coating that keeps stain out of contact with the cloth. Remember that the upholstery must still be cleaned periodically, even though stain guard has been applied. Stain guard doesn’t repel dirt, just stains.
Once or twice a year wash the upholstery with a non-alkaline soap and water solution. Apply sparingly. Don’t get carried away using a lot of suds and water. Don’t use laundry soap or bleach; they may discolor the cloth fabric. Auto stores sell upholstery soaps in liquid, powder, and spray forms that are correctly formulated for cloth upholstery use. Check them out.
Cloth fabrics in modern cars are made of synthetic yarns, typically rayon and nylon. Some of these materials are also foam-backed. The foam can be dissolved by some of the volatile cleaners on the market that are used for spot or stain removal. If removing a spot or stain, stick with the type recommended by the dealer or factory and follow directions. Never use gasoline or powerful solvents like paint thinner, acetone, or nail polish remover. Gasoline is dangerous stuff and can also stain the cloth—especially leaded gasoline. The other solvents are not so dangerous, but might still weaken or dissolve the synthetic fabric. Use volatile cleaners of the approved type outdoors, with the car door open for proper ventilation. Don’t breathe any of the fumes, they are poisonous. Refer to Table 11-1 for some stain removal tips.
Velour interiors are perhaps the touchiest. Velour is a delicate fabric that requires professional cleaning only. Other than vacuuming, don’t attempt to clean velour yourself. Keep a covering over the velour seats for added protection.
Vinyl interiors are much more rugged and are easier to maintain than cloth interiors. Granted, vinyl seats are not as comfortable in the winter cold or summer heat as cloth seats. However, ease of maintenance of vinyl is a great benefit.
Vinyl is actually a thermoplastic. Thermoplastic polymers can be re-melted at between 212 to 570 degrees Fahrenheit, so in most cases the vinyl in your car can be repaired via a heat process. Tears can also be repaired by gluing.
Vinyl is very susceptible to fading from sunshine. The ultraviolet rays bleach the surface of the vinyl and, over time, cause it to harden and crack. A garage-kept car or one with seat covers is shielded against these harmful rays. There are a few conditioners available on the market for sun protection. They keep the vinyl soft and provide some protection against dirt penetration and ultraviolet rays. Investigate their use.
As stated above, vinyl upholstery is easier to clean than cloth upholstery. It does get dirty, however, because its surface is covered with tiny pores that trap dirt and grease. Clean monthly with mild soap or a commercial vinyl cleaner. Vacuum first to remove loose dirt.
Vinyl is extremely susceptible to strong detergents or cleaning fluids. And remember it scratches and tears easily, so don’t use abrasives to clean it. Use only approved cleaners for removing stains. Any other cleaning fluid may discolor, wrinkle, or dissolve the vinyl and ruin it. Before using any cleaners, try picking off the dirt or a stain with masking tape. Sometimes the adhesive on the tape will lift the spot, saving a lot of aggravation.
Table 11-1. Stain Removal.
Not many cars are available—or, we should say, affordable—with leather interiors. For those of you who can afford it, leather is a superb material. It’s soft, supple, and it breathes—no sticky or wet seats in the summer. Leather doesn’t need much more attention than cloth or vinyl, although preventive maintenance is well worth the investment and effort.
Leather should be vacuumed monthly. Clean it with saddle soap or a good-quality leather crème. Keep in mind that leather is an animal skin and will dry out and crack with age. Once cracking starts, it is just about impossible to stop it. To keep the leather soft and supple, apply one of the commercially available leather conditioners to prolong its life. Follow the manufacturer’s directions and recommended frequency of application.
Loose seams or/tears in any upholstery material should be repaired as soon as possible. Small repairs left undone have a way of becoming major repairs in no time at all.
Cloth upholstery can be sewn quite successfully, as long as tears or rips aren’t too large. Use a tight X-pattern cross-stitch for repairs. Cotton or nylon thread can be used. Don’t pull the nylon thread too tight; it might cut the cloth fabric. Pulled-apart seams are the easiest repair to make. Tie off the ends that are torn or loose and stitch the open seam back about an inch beyond the tied-off ends. This adds strength to the stitch. It shouldn’t come apart again. For more involved repairs, visit an upholstery shop or consult an upholstery repair book or web site.
Vinyl repairs are much more complicated than cloth fabric repairs, but can be done by the novice. Small tears and rips can be repaired by gluing and patching. Place a patch of the same vinyl material underneath the tear and on top of the padding, if on a seat. Cut the patch so that it is about ¼ inch larger in perimeter than the tear. Apply vinyl cement to the patch and the tear and press together. Use a vinyl repair kit to finish the edges.
Seam openings in vinyl can be repaired using a soldering iron equipped with a curved tip. Insert the tip in the seam, heating both sides of the split. Press the joint together to bond it. Be careful not to overheat the vinyl when doing this repair.
Repairs in leather and velour are for professionals to handle. You’ll only make the problem worse if you attempt any repairs. Have velour and leather repaired as soon as possible.
Furthermore teach your children not to abuse your car’s interior. Tell them the car furniture is just like the house furniture; no jumping, kicking, or fooling around on it. If you allow your children to have food in the car and they spill it, it’s your fault—don’t punish them. Just clean the mess as soon as possible.
Pets probably won’t spill ice cream or pizza unless you can teach them to hold it in their paws. Pets have claws, however, that will quickly ruin any type of upholstery and they do get car sick. Also, pet hair is a chore to clean up. Leave the pet at home or, if possible, transport it in a pet carrying cage.
Then there’s the guy who washes his car once a year whether it needs it or not. He uses abrasive cleanser to make sure all the dirt is gone. He says you don’t need to do anything else to keep the exterior looking good. And, oh yes, he says a $150 paint job is a must every couple of years to “tone it up!”
Maintaining the exterior of your car should be nothing like the story above. It takes a lot of scheduled work and some elbow grease now and then. With the proper care your car can be free of rust and shine, and showroom-new for years and years. Just knowing the proper cleaners (nothing abrasive) and waxes and when to use them is most of the battle.
Cars manufactured today use two basic types of paint: enamel and lacquer. Enamel takes about six months to fully cure to form the characteristically tough, hard finish, while lacquer takes almost no time at all to cure.
Enamel will dry harder and smoother than lacquer and will look glossier. The liquid portion of enamel paint, called the vehicle, is a varnish instead of an oil. Varnish gives the enamel its hardness and smoothness. The varnish can be a spar varnish, a shellac varnish, or a catalytic varnish used to produce a solid, film coating.
Two types of enamel in common use are acrylic enamel and polyurethane enamel. Acrylic is a hardening agent. If it is mixed with enamel, the resultant mix dries to a harder consistency than plain enamel. Polyurethane is an artificial rubber-based polymer. When it is added to enamel it lends both hardness and toughness, or durability. It is a premium paint and, although costly, should be seriously considered when purchasing a new car or at repainting time.
Lacquer is made from a resinous secretion, called lac, of an insect living on the sap of certain trees. The lac is refined and combined with alcohol to make a spirit or shellac varnish. It is then further combined with cellulose nitrate or cellulose acetate butyrate to form lacquer. Because of the way lacquer is formulated, it can be dissolved by paint thinner even if it has been on the car for years. If your car has a lacquer paint job don’t go near it with paint thinner—ever!
Lacquer can also be combined with acrylic to form a finish harder than lacquer alone. In fact, acrylic lacquer is harder than acrylic enamel, although not as durable.
When repainting, you need to be cautious about what types of new paint you use over the old paint already on the car. If the car is sanded down to bare metal you can apply any type of paint your heart desires. However, new paint applied over old paint performs satisfactorily only in certain combinations: When using lacquer over factory enamel, the results will be poor to fair. Enamel over lacquer, however, usually gives good results. The worst combination is lacquer over paint shop baked enamel. The results are disastrous. Paint shop baked enamel is baked at 150 degrees Fahrenheit, whereas factory baked enamel is baked at 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Lacquer sprayed over a paint shop baked enamel will penetrate the enamel and eventually cause it to peel. Stay away from that combination. For excellent results, consider sanding the paint down to bare metal, doing any necessary repairs, and then painting with any type of good quality paint, lacquer or enamel.
The only way to prevent rust and corrosion is to keep your car clean and dry. Cleaning involves washing, waxing, and spot removal. Keeping your car dry involves wiping after washing and sealing the car against water intrusion.
Washing. Wash your car weekly. Stick to this schedule even when it hurts to do so. In warm weather, rise early on a Saturday morning before anyone else and get it done. In winter take it to a car wash, if you must. Remember, though, that the soap used at a carwash is extremely caustic; it needs to be in order to remove road grime by spraying only. It’s better to wash your car yourself.
Wash your car with mild soap and warm water. You can use a commercially prepared car wash soap (without wax) or dishwashing liquid. In any case, use something mild that rinses well and doesn’t leave a film. Find a shady spot under which to wash the car. You want to keep the sunlight from drying the soapy water too fast to avoid streaking.
Before you begin washing, spray the car down mildly to remove loose surface dirt. Use a soft, porous sponge that will soak up the dirt in its pores. A rag will only drag the dirt across the surface and scratch it. Use a light to mild pressure to do the actual washing. Buy a fender brush and be sure to wash the wheel wells with it. Road dirt and salt have a nasty habit of accumulating in the wheel wells. Also, remember to wash the door jambs and the splash pans under the bumpers.
Rinse your car with water, paying particular attention to the wheel wells, behind bumpers, and any other secret places where dirt and water can hide. Dry the car with a soft cloth or chamois.
Waxing. Car waxes come in two types: natural and synthetic. Natural car wax is a composition of oils, beeswax, and carnauba wax. Synthetic wax is a blend of synthetic polymers with silicone added. Synthetic wax is harder than camauba-based natural wax and will protect painted surfaces longer. Many car buffs, however, prefer to use the carnauba-based waxes. Some use 100% carnauba wax. Natural or synthetic, either choice will work. Just keep in mind that you might have to wax more often with the natural wax.
Waxes are also available as a paste or liquid. Car buffs prefer the paste wax, but the liquid does a fine job, too. You can buy waxes combined with cleaners, but we advise against them. The cleaners could contain abrasives that might scratch or dull the car finish with repeated use. Better stick with the plain paste or liquid wax.
Oxygen in the air acts, over time, to oxidize the surface layer of paint on the car. Waxing removes much of the oxidation layer that washing alone cannot. In addition, the wax leaves a coating that helps prevent future oxidation, and also keeps dust and dirt away from the paint. And if you cannot park your car indoors, the ultraviolet rays of the sunshine will, in time, fade the paint. Waxing screens out these rays to some extent.
Wax will eventually wear off and will have to be replaced. Plan to wax your car every month or two. This might sound like a lot of time and work, but some of the newer liquid waxes on the market go on and come off easily. The time spent should only involve a few hours each month or two and is well worth it.
Here are some waxing hints: First, follow the directions that come with the wax. Some waxes are temperature sensitive, others need to be applied with a dry cloth or wet cloth. Don’t’ use a power buffer when waxing. Too much pressure will wear both wax and paint away. Elbow grease works best. Always wax in the shade and wax all the car surfaces except the tires and windows. You may consider using a special cleaner and polish for the chrome surfaces on the car. Never wax windows to clean them. Use a commercial spray window cleaner and wipe dry with newspaper or a soft, absorbent towel or rag.
Cars with vinyl or convertible tops are a special problem. The surface of vinyl and convertible tops are very porous and act as terrific dirt collectors. You need to wash and coat these tops three or four times per year. Buy the special cleaner available for these tops and brush it in with a semi-stiff brush, making sure to loosen all the dirt. This might take some effort on your part. After the top is clean and completely dry, coat it with a dressing or conditioner made for the material. Follow directions closely.
Sealing. Your car comes from the factory sealed against water intrusion from rain and road splashing. Over time the trim around doors, windows, hoods, and trunks vibrates loose or the trim cement holding weather-stripping dries out. Water can then find its way into the inside of doors, panels, and the interior of the car. To head off rust, you need to keep this water out of the car or make sure it drains out quickly through the factory designed drain holes in doors.
Seal loose trim and weather-stripping with fresh trim cement or, preferably, silicone sealant. Silicone sealant is especially useful around windshields. Make sure door drain holes are open. Check them monthly. Attend to all leaks as soon as possible.
You can test for leaks by spraying the car with water. Look for telltale water runs in the interior around doors and windows. Another way to test for leaks is to run the heater on high and feel around all the windows for escaping air. Mark every spot suspected of leaking and seal appropriately.
The basic types of body wear that car owners must concern themselves with are rust, tar, and abrasion.
Rust. The wear most prevalent on the car exterior is, of course, rust. Rust is the oxidation of iron-base materials on the body of your car. It is a type of corrosion that occurs when an iron-base material is immersed in water or water-containing salts and then exposed to the air. Most rust is actually a hydroxide of iron, called ferric hydroxide. The way to avoid rusting is to keep the car metal dry and out of contact with oxygen in the air. In all cars this is accomplished by coating all or certain highly susceptible body parts with either inorganic or organic coatings.
Inorganic coatings typically are zinc (galvanizing), chrome, copper, nickel, tin, and cadmium. Tin is most often used for body part coating. It can be applied by electro-deposition or hot dipping, and is usually applied to the underneath of body parts. Paint provides the exterior surface protection.
Organic coatings include paints, varnishes, lacquers, epoxy coatings, and epoxy-coal tar coatings. Most of these coatings are satisfactory for a number of years but will not outlast inorganic coatings. They require more care also. And don’t confuse undercoating with rust protection. Undercoating is used primarily for its sound-deadening qualities— to seal out road noise. In fact, as the undercoating cracks with age, it can form pockets and crevices that trap water against the metal, accelerating the rusting process.
Rust-proofing your car can help to prolong the life of the metal body parts significantly. In this procedure, all surfaces susceptible to rusting are sprayed with an oily, waxy substance that forms a protective barrier against water, salts, and oxygen. Holes are drilled for spraying in car doors and other limited-access areas, and then plugged when the job is done. Rust-proofing is valuable only when the car is new, otherwise it is a waste of money. It’s too late to apply rust-proofing after the car has been driven over wet, salt-laden roads. As soon as salt and water collect in even the smallest amounts, oxidation (rust) begins. And don’t rust-proof your car yourself. Take it to a professional who offers at least a three-year guarantee against rusting.
Washing and waxing according to the recommendations offered here will go a long way in the crusade against rust. Flush out all areas where salt can collect, such as fender wells and underneath the car. And fix rust as soon as you notice it.
Tar. Road tars are part of the asphalt used to pave roadways. Asphalts are bitumens obtained from petroleum residuals as a byproduct of refining petroleum. They are somewhat susceptible to warm temperatures. On a hot day, asphalt roadways tend to soften and release road tars that collect on your car, typically at the rear of the fender wells and along the rocker panels. They are very sticky, and once dried should be re moved only with special tar removers available in auto stores.
Tar tends to spot and dull the finish of your car, not to mention that it looks ugly. One way to prevent tar build-up is to install mud flaps on all four wheel wells. Years ago, cars were designed such that the areas where mud and tar were kicked up were straight up and down. Stones, mud, and tar simply dropped back to the ground. Nowadays, with the sweeping fender and wheel well designs, road debris can easily collect all along the bottom side of the car. Installing a set of small, stainless steel mud flaps will help prevent road mud and tar accumulation, and your car may last years longer. Considering the relatively small purchase price of mud flaps, they are well worth it.
Abrasion. Road dirt and dust also gradually abrade the exterior surfaces of your car. Just ask anyone who lives in the western states what a sandstorm can do to the finish on a car.
The best way to avoid abrasive wear on the car body is to change your driving habits. Don’t follow other vehicles too closely, especially trucks. For safety’s sake, too, this makes a lot of sense. Turning tires have a way of kicking up dirt and pebbles that can hit your car at terrific speeds—with disastrous results for your paint job or windshield. Stay at least one car length behind other vehicles for every 10 mph of car speed. If possible, avoid construction areas, dirt roads, pot-holed roads, and roads recently sanded or cindered for winter driving. You might think this advice somewhat radical. Consider that one bad scratch on an otherwise pristine finish will stick out like a sore thumb. Better be cautious than sorry.
Abrasion is usually the reason for failure of windshield wiper squeegees. Squeegees are made from different formulations of natural rubber. Natural rubber is rather soft compared to synthetic rubber blends. Therefore, it is more resilient yet more susceptible to abrasion wear. Weather, sunshine, pollution, and time all take their toll on squeegee life. Also, as the squeegee oscillates back and forth across the windshield, it drags small particles of abrasive road dirt and dust with it. These particles tend to scratch, cut, and tear the wiper surface over a length of time and gradually cause it to streak the windshield. At this point, replace the squeegee. Wash and inspect the squeegees every car wash, and replace them when necessary.
Repairs to the exterior of the car should be made as soon as possible and be done correctly to avoid future repairs in the same area. Auto body repair is covered in great detail in a myriad of publications. If you have a lot of auto body work to do, check out one of the auto body courses at your high school extension or community college. These auto body web sites, books and courses go into great detail and cover techniques for repair, auto body construction, estimating, paint formulation, and spraying techniques. Here, we will only offer a few pointers and tips, concentrating on minor dents and rust.
Working on dents requires infinite patience. You can’t proceed too hastily or you might make mistakes that are difficult or impossible to correct. Gently run your hand across suspected dents to help define the extent of the dent. Check the contours of the body part carefully to find high and low spots not easily seen.
A good auto body mechanic gradually taps and pulls the metal back to its original shape, being careful not to stretch the metal any more than it already is. Smaller dents (less than Vs inch deep) can be filled with plastic body filler. They don’t normally need to be pulled or hammered out.
After the dent is pulled or hammered out, it must be ground and sanded as smooth as possible down to bright metal. This will remove paint, rust, and sharp metal before priming or filling. The next step is to apply filler and sand smooth, using your hands to gauge correct contour. Then comes the primer paint, finish paint, and waxing.
When you get your car, new or used, buy a small bottle or spray can of touch-up paint formulated to match the color of your car. You’ll be using it often. If your car is more than six or seven years old, buy a supply of a few bottles or cans of paint, because most manufacturers only mix paint for the more recent cars.
Use touch-up paint only for the smallest nicks and scratches. The paint will not match exactly because the original paint on the car fades from the sun. However, these small repairs won’t be noticed unless you’re right on top of them. Small knicks and scratches will not rust if you touch them up as soon as you notice them.
Here is the general procedure for touch-up work: Cut away loose or blistered paint around the rust spot. Bevel the edges of the paint around the spot for better blending of the touch-up paint with the original paint. Scrape off any loose rust, being careful not to scratch any good paint. For a really professional job, apply a metal conditioner over the bare metal. It will etch the metal and any rust left, and will aid in adhesion of the primer. Next, dab some primer on the spot. Let it dry and finish with the touch-up paint.
Take care of these little rust spots promptly. If you leave them go, they can develop rather quickly into rust-through—and repairing at this point is much more involved. Once metal rusts through, it is difficult or impossible to permanently fix and arrest.
To keep your car exterior looking great you need to shelter it from the sun, rain, and snow as much as possible. A car kept in a dry, dark place away from dirt and the elements would look showroom-new even after 50 years. Unless your car is in a museum, you can’t protect it totally 24 hours a day. There are a few things you can do, however.
If you have a garage or can rent one, by all means park your car in it whenever you’re not using it. If the garage is cluttered with lawn mowers, boxes, bicycles, and assorted odds and ends, you must decide its ultimate use. Is the garage a general storage depot, or is it for the car and its tools and supplies?
If you don’t have access to a garage, perhaps you can arrange temporary shelter for your car. Park it along the side of the house away from the prevailing wind, or under a temporary structure consisting of poles and a roof to keep some of the elements from the car. If possible, park along less busy streets to avoid careless bumps from other drivers and to minimize mud, snow, and ice from splashing on your car. And try not to park under trees where sap could dirty the car.
Another solution is to invest in a car cover. They are available from auto mail-order houses to fit your year and model car. They fit like a glove and provide the maximum in temporary protection.
What do you do if you are not planning to use your car for several months or longer? If you park it and don’t take any storage precautions, you could be doing irreparable damage to it. Rust will set in, especially in the engine and drive train as oil drains from upper engine parts to settle in the crankcase. If kept outdoors, the sun will bake the car day after day. And in cooler weather, moisture can settle out in the fuel tank and lines. Store the car in a garage and consider the following tips:
1. Drain and refill the crankcase with 10w oil. This will rid the engine of corrosive acids and sludge in the oil that can do a lot of damage over months of non-use. For the ultimate in protection, use an engine flush to clean all the internal parts before refilling with the 10w oil.
2. Don’t bother draining the fuel tank unless the car will not be used for up to a year. Gasoline begins to break down after one year and shouldn’t be left in the tank. Add a can of dry gas to absorb moisture.
3. Remove the battery and store it in a dry place.
4. Spray silicone lubricant in the engine compartment. This coats all the metal parts, helping to prohibit rust formation.
5. Cover all vinyl (inside and out) with drop cloths or towels.
6. Raise the car off the ground so that the weight is off the tires. Put the car on sturdy wood or concrete blocks.
7. Leave the parking brake off. Put the car in neutral or park.
8. Don’t use car covers for long term storage. They trap moisture between the cover material and the car and may actually initiate or hasten rusting.
SUMMARY OF RECOMMENDATIONS
• Clean interior surfaces at least once a month. Wash with approved cleaners once or twice a year, or as needed.
• Use only approved spot/stain removers. Never use gasoline, paint thinner, acetone, or nail polish remover on your car interior.
• Clean leather interiors with saddle soap or leather crème. Apply a conditioner periodically.
• Cover velour seats for added protection.
• Vacuum carpets every week. Shampoo them once a year.
• Educate children in proper upholstery behavior.
• Wash the car weekly.
• Wax the car every month or two. Follow wax manufacturer’s directions carefully. Wax in the shade. Wax everything except windows and tires. Never use a power buffer.
• Have new cars rust-proofed.
• Install mud flaps.
• When driving, don’t follow the vehicle in front of you too closely. This will re duce the road debris that hits your car.
• Repair even minor dents and rust spots as soon as possible.
• Provide appropriate shelter for your car. Store cars properly.
• When servicing your car, be sure to drape the seats with an old blanket or sheet to prevent the seat from being soiled by dirty or greasy trousers.
• Take advantage of summer rain storms. Wash your car during the storm to save on water.
• Use a hard-setting paste wax. It will last longer and shine deeper.
• Never use abrasive cleaners on the car exterior.