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Classic Car Detailing: What Is It?

The aim of detailing a car is to bring the condition and colour of the current paint back to its factory fresh former glory, instead of having a car resprayed. Resprays can be costly and time-consuming, whereas a detail is far more cost effective and takes a fraction of the time. Restoring the paint is achieved by removing the grit, grime and other contaminants that build up over time and stick in the paint, as well as removing scratches and swirl marks. Detailing work requires a keen eye and gentle, steady hand so as not to damage the paint, especially on older classics with no clear coat. Our detailer has been detailing cars for decades, and throughout that time he has honed his expertise and gained an understanding of what combination of product and technique gives the best outcome. Our detailer’s standard detail takes a full day, with a full Concours detail taking about a week. That said, he has done a standard detail on cars which have then immediately gone on to Concours competitions. As a result, he’s picked up a few tips and tricks which he shares with us in this breakdown.

A detail can be split into several phases – the decontamination phase, prep phase, polish phase, wax phase, interior clean, and finally engine bay and wheels. The car he is detailing today is 1972 Citroen DS 20. Prior to the detail, the car was very tidy, but the paint was looking flat and lifeless, with noticeable swirl marks and small scratches around the body caused by repeatedly washing and drying the top layer of grime build up, without actually removing it.


You can see the swirl marks clearly on the boot and left rear passenger door

With this in mind, the initial stage is to decontaminate the paint. Unsurprisingly, the first thing our detailer does is give the DS a good wash. No pro tips here, just two buckets, some good shampoo, a sponge and some pressurised water. After a light dry, he then sprays each panel with Autosmart Red 7, a pH neutral fallout remover. The Red 7 eats away at the iron particles stuck to the paint, changing colour from clear to a deep red/purple. You can see the colour of the water coming off the car in the pictures below.



After leaving the Red 7 to work for just under a minute, the car gets another wash to remove any residue left behind by the fallout remover. He repeats this process, before giving the car a final wash and rinse. Next, he runs a Bilt Hamber clay bar over the paint along with some water, to remove the remaining grit and grime. You can actually hear the clay bar working the grit out of the paint as he moves it, producing a barely audible yet satisfying sound like masking tape being slowly pulled off, or Velcro being pulled apart.


With the paint now decontaminated, our detailer can start preparing the car for polishing. He removes any badges that could get damaged, or cause a build-up of polish/wax around them – in this case, the rear ‘Citroen’ badge. The ‘DS 20’ badge is a simple square, so it can stay.

Next, he uses masking tape to mask off all lights, rubbers, chrome and other trim for the same reason – to avoid damaging them or loading them with polish/wax. He uses a paint thickness gauge on each panel to measure how thick the paint is, which dictates how hard he can work each panel with polish, and what kind of compound pad he will use. The depth of a standard, factory paint finish is roughly 90 – 120 microns. If the gauge reads higher than 150 microns, this indicates that the panel has been resprayed. When tested on the boot lid, the gauge displayed 531 microns, showing two things. First, the boot lid has been resprayed, and second, that our detailer must exercise extra caution as he does not know the depth of the top layer of paint.



Now the car is ready for its 3 stage polish. Based on the paint thickness gauge reading, and the level of correction needed, our detailer begins with a large size rotary tool fitted with a medium density pad. He initially uses CarPro Fixer medium cut polish, to cut the paint back smooth. The polish acts like very fine sandpaper, removing contours in the paint surface to leave a smoother finish. For the second stage of polish, he switches to a dual action Rupes Bigfoot 15, which spins as well as oscillates, again with a medium compound pad, to remove light scratches and swirl marks.

Usually, he would use a soft pad here, but due to the pimples on the roof, he has kept with the medium pad for more cutting effect. For the final stage of polishing, he swaps to a soft pad and applies CarPro Reflect super fine polish. He uses his trained eye to achieve an even paint thickness, giving the panels a uniform shine and smoothness. Our detailer tells me that he uses Carpro polish because it does not contain any fillers such as silicone (as cheaper polishes often do), and thus actually cuts the paint back rather than simply filling the contours. Once he feels he has achieved a consistent polish across all body panels, he uses a microfiber cloth to wipe away any excess paint and polish.



The first stage of polishing

The second stage of polishing, he has switched to the Rupes Bigfoot with the medium pad 


The final stage of polishing, our detailer is now using a soft pad, with CarPro Reflect finishing polish

With the paintwork smooth and clean, it’s time to seal the finish with some wax. Our detailer’s wax of choice is Autosmart wax, which is, in his words, “an underrated gem product [which] gives a fantastic finish; they just don’t market it very well, it looks cheap.”


He uses a soft waxing pad to apply a smooth, very thin coating of wax “about the same thickness as a gnat’s wing.” In other words, thinner than paper thin. The wax is removed with a soft microfiber towel. He must work quickly here, as the heat and direct sunlight can bake the wax onto the paint, making it hard and extremely difficult to remove. The paint on the car now looks dripping wet, compared to the flat, dull colour before the detail, and is smooth as glass to the touch. At this point, he removes all the masking tape on the body, and polishes any exterior chrome and trim with Mother’s California Gold Chrome Polish, which also contains no fillers. 




The chrome is gleaming and the paint looks factory fresh – now our detailer turns his attention to the interior. He begins with a full hoover of the interior including carpets, seats, parcel shelves and storage holes. He then cleans the mats using Autosmart G101 – he says it’s the best product he’s ever bought, it’s really effective. He uses it on the pedals as well, giving them a scrub to remove the build-up of grime. He employs a Concours trick of putting masking tape over the pedals to keep them looking good. Next, the seats are rubbed with a dog hair remover before he gives them a light spray with G101 and wipes down to remove any dust and grime in the velour.

For the vinyl parts, our detailer uses the leather cleaner as he finds the compound is more gentle and leaves a better sheen. Carpro Eraser is used to clean both the interior and exterior glass. He uses this product because it does not contain any chalk, and thus will not leave behind any streak marks. Any overspray on the glass is removed with quadruple fine steel wool. To finish the interior, he dresses all trim with Autosmart non-silicone Highstyle, including the rubber boot mats, to leave a fresh sheen throughout.

Finally, our detailer finishes the detail with the engine bay and wheels. Any exposed electrics that could be damaged by water/cleaning product are masked off. The surface of the engine bay is cleaned with Autosmart Preptone and leather cleaner, to leave an added shine on the vinyl. If the engine bay needed pressure washing, this would have been the first step.




With the engine bay clean, he moves on to the wheels. There is some rust around the chrome beauty rings and the chrome is looking a bit flat, so he sprays them with Sterling Ali Bright wheel cleaner, a pH neutral product so potent that they sell an antidote for it! The Ali eats through the brake dust, oil, grime, and rust incredibly quickly and effectively. After leaving it to work for about half a minute, he washes the excess Ali off and tackles any remaining surface rust around the beauty rings with the quadruple fine steel wool. Now that the wheels are free from contaminants, he can give them a good final wash followed by a coat of wax to protect them. He finishes by applying some tyre dressing to the tyre walls for that extra shine.



To top off the detail, he goes around the car inch by inch, removing any particularly stubborn marks that did not come off when initially cleaned. Below is a blemish on the rear chrome bumper, which he works out with some G101, quadruple fine steel wool, and a bit of elbow grease.

Our detailer has worked his magic on the body of the DS, and the difference is night and day. The paint looks vibrant and dripping wet, the chrome is sparkling, and the interior is spotless. You can see now that the passenger front quarter and door do not quite match, meaning a respray, whereas before this could not be seen with the untrained eye.










3rd July 2019 Restoration Projects Author: Adam Smith
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