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Your Car is a Disgusting Mess (What You Can Do to Easily Fix It)

Updated on April 24, 2013
My Miata after a quick wash and spray wax. Because I keep it maintained, each time I clean it is quick and easy!
My Miata after a quick wash and spray wax. Because I keep it maintained, each time I clean it is quick and easy!

Admit it.

Your car is a mess. If cleanliness is next to holiness, you need to confess and pray.

The EPA is considering an investigation on the smell coming from the back seat. And the exterior? Those gas station car washes aren't cutting it anymore.

Even as a detailer and car enthusiast, I've been horrified by the state of my own car. However, over the seven years I've been a professional detailer, I've learned a few tricks that absolutely anyone can employ to bring their car back into cleanliness. It's easy, inexpensive and worthwhile.

Step 1: Prepare to Clean

Before you roll out the hose, give me a half an hour in an Auto Zone or Walmart, one online order and perhaps $100. Get the right stuff this one time and you should be set for the next 6 months to a year. This small investment could mean maintaining thousands of dollars worth of value in your vehicle.

In Stores:
•A quality car wash: Car wash soap does a few things. First, it helps to provide lubrication between your wash mitt and the scum that is coating your vehicle. The suds float the dirt away. I highly recommend Meguiar's more expensive NXT or Gold Class car washes as they provide the richest (and best smelling) lather.

•Two large buckets: One to fill with water and soap, the second to fill with clean water.

•Wash mitt: There are many thoughts on the best mitts, but I prefer a lambswool mitt. They hold water and soap well and last much longer than synthetics. Pitch the old T-shirt, the sponge and the brush. .

•Spray Wax: Meguiar's NXT Spray Wax is excellent. I used it consistently for an entire winter on my Audi and it maintained a great shine.

•Cleaner Wax: Meguiar's Cleaner Wax is, by far, the best. This wax only cleans the paint, it does not protect the paint.

•Clay bar: No, really. It's clay. It picks up the tar, bugs, road gunk and dirt that regular washing and waxing just won't touch. Follow the instructions and watch some YouTube videos on how to use it and you'll unlock a secret that detailers have known about for ages.

•Wheel Cleaner: Again, Meguiar's has an excellent wheel cleaner, specifically All Wheel cleaner.

•Soft-bristled brush: I emphasize "soft" here. This is only for cleaning your wheels and tires.

•Cheap wash mitt: Use this one at the end of the wash to clean wheels and door jambs.

•Water blade: Those silicon squeegees? They work. Pick one up and save yourself a lot of extra towels and time.

•Wax pads: Sponge wax pads are great for applying wax evenly. PIck up a few.

•Microfibers: Perfect for cleaning windows, removing wax and soaking up water.

•Interior cleaner: Tuff Stuff is my preferred cleaner. Agitate it with a stiff brush (shorten a paint brush!) and you'll be amazed how nice your seats, carpets and dashboard look.

•Glass cleaner: Just buy Invisible Glass and ditch the Windex forever, even for around the house. Don't bother with anything else.

There are two products that I highly recommend buying online as they're a bit difficult to find in stores. In general, don't bother with the waxes or protectants you find in stores.

Wax: Wax is easy to find. But good wax? Wax that's worth putting the time and effort into? Buy Collinte #845 from They have great prices and this wax lasts forever. You'll be amazed at how nice of a shine you get from this wax. Perhaps best of all is that it won't turn your plastic trim white or give you tennis elbow from being difficult to remove.

Protectant: 303 Aerospace Protectant is easy to use and produces an even matte finish. Best of all? It actually has an SPF property that works to combat the cracking and drying out of your interior! You can use it on the exterior trim, leather seats, vinyl and plastics.

Step 2: Start cleaning!

Your package from just arrived and you've navigated Wal Mart or Autozone admirably. It's time to start the dirty work.


Tackle the interior first. Get a garbage bag and throw out everything that's not obviously necessary. Empty the car. Take out every map, coin, umbrella and floor mat. You wouldn't start a great work of art on a cluttered canvas, would you?

Assuming you have a Shop Vac, a vacuum or a nearby car wash with a vacuum, start sweeping. Seats, dashboard, vents, carpets, floor mats, headliner. All of it. Move the seats forward. Move the seats backward. Sweep underneath of them. Get every last Cheerio and french fry.

Start the Tuff Stuff working. Spray down a door panel, being careful of electronic switches, painted parts (some GM vehicles' white painted buttons come off when hit with cleaner) and suede. Agitate the dirt with brushes and wipe clean with a towel, repeating as necessary. You'll be blown away by the progress you make on this step alone!

Let the vehicle dry a bit. Spray down panels with the 303 Aerospace Protectant. Wipe it down and buff it to a matte finish. Easy!

Whip out a couple microfibers and tackle the windows. Spray a conservative amount of Invisible Glass on the windows and make sure you get every square inch. Buff the window with the dry side of the towel.

At this point you'll have burned through an hour (or more, if your car was especially awful or large). Reward yourself. Grab a beer. Get a sandwich. Bask in the results of a hard morning's work. Already your co-workers and friends will be less horrified when they ride with you!

Get back to work. It's time for the exterior.


If you're smart, the car should've been parked in a nicely shaded area for when you did the interior. Otherwise at this point you're probably sweating like a pig. I probably should have mentioned this, but look-- you've learned something for next time. Garages are best. Shady trees work, too. Anyway, make sure the spot is cool and shaded so the water and suds don't dry the instant they hit the paint.

Washing a car should be straightforward, but there are ways to do it well. I recommend spraying the car down with water. Blast the dirt off the car, concentrating on bird droppings, mud and road tar. Make sure to pay special attention to the wheel wells.

That wheel cleaner you bought? It's time for action. Wet the wheels, spray the wheel cleaner liberally onto the wheels and tires and then start on the wheel you sprayed first. Use the soft bristled brush to agitate the dirt and grime. You can use a very soft toothbrush if your wheels have spokes that are close together. Repeat with cleaner until the wheels are whatever color they were when you bought the car and the tires are black again.

Wet the car down again, fill the bucket with soap and water and also fill the rinse bucket with clean water. You'll want to be constantly filling the buckets with water so that the water hitting the car is A) in large volumes to flush away grime and B) as clean as possible. Start with the top part of the car. Do the roof, the hood and windshield, then move on from there. I typically leave the rear of the vehicle for last since it tends to be the dirtiest. Keep the vehicle wet so the soap doesn't dry or produce water marks. Don't hesitate to wash the car twice if the first round didn't get it clean enough. Seriously.

At this point, you have a clean but wet car. Use the silicon squeegee to remove as much water as possible. Follow it up with a clean microfiber towel and remove the rest of the water.

It's time for your new best friend, the clay bar. Follow the directions on the box, but the key here? Keep the paint wet with the provided instant detailer. Friction is not your friend on this step. Spray the instant detailer onto the car, run the flattened clay over a 2'x2' section of vehicle (starting with the cleanest parts of the car and moving down) and then dry it with a clean microfiber. A great tip? Have a sandwich bag handy. Put your hand in the sandwich bag and run it over the paint. It should feel completely smooth. If you hear anything or feel a texture, clay bar that section again. This step, I've found, can produce the most dramatic results.

Cleaner Wax:
The cleaner wax you purchased (or it might've come with the clay bar kit!) is the next step. Apply it with a wax pad in small circular motions all over the car. The cleaner wax uses chemical cleaners to remove contaminants in the paint that the clay bar didn't get. Remove the wax with a microfiber after it has dried.

Take another break, step back and look at your results so far. Rewarding, isn't it?

It's time for the real wax! Shake the wax well before applying and only use a little bit. Collinite goes a long way. Again, start at the top of the car and work down, ensuring that the wax goes on evenly and in very, very thin coats. More is not always better and mostly means more work when removing the wax. After applying wax to the paint, I like to apply it to the windows (works better than Rain X) and the wheels. Your wheels will stay cleaner and be easier to clean in the future with wax on them.

Let the wax sit for fifteen to thirty minutes. It should be dry and wipe off easily with a microfiber when it's properly set up. I like to use a towel to remove the bulk of the wax and then another towel to go over the panel to catch any remaining wax. By doing this, one towel becomes "clogged" with wax while the other can do a better job of collecting any wax you've missed.

Finishing touches:

At this point, it's up to you what happens next. You could spend the next hour with a Q-Tip and your exhaust tip, or you could call it good enough. Personally, I'd recommend cleaning the exterior windows, applying protectant to the tires and exterior plastics as well as going over the interior one more time with the vacuum to pull up any crumbs or dirt you disturbed.

Step 3: Maintain It!

You've come so far. Your car was a place of dirt and biohazards and now it's an automotive sanctuary of cleanliness. After your monetary and time investments, this is a critical step: keep it clean.

•Avoid car washes. I know it sounds counterintuitive, but that wax you just applied? It'll be stripped off within the first or second trip to a car wash due to the harsh chemicals they use. This is ignoring, too, the damage the dirty brushes do to your paint.

•Keep it picked up. Don't let things pile up. Throw trash out immediately. Carry in everything from the car at the end of the day so your car doesn't end up looking like your closet.

•Once or twice a month, take a damp paper towel and wipe down the interior. At the very least, dust the dashboard. Take it and have it vacuumed at a car wash if you don't have the time. Reapply protectant as often as you can.

•At least twice a month, give your car a good wash. The more you do it, the quicker you'll become. Even if you don't dry the car off, at least remove the dirt from the car. It will look nicer, your wax will last longer and it will be easier to return to its current state if it's kept clean. Remember: something is almost always better than nothing.

•The spray wax you bought isn't going to waste. After each wash, spray down the vehicle and buff it with the spray wax. You'll feel as if you're driving a freshly waxed car every time you wash your car!

Now that you're inspired...

These tips aren't meant for the obsessive car nut, but the common car owner. I won't discuss polishing paint, ordering $400 German waxes or the technical side of what is really nearly a science. With a small investment of time and money, what is perhaps your largest or second largest investment will hold its value better and, best of all, be a place that you want to be.

The next time you have a free Saturday morning, follow these tips and you'll be amazed at what you can accomplish. Happy detailing!


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