To protect car finishes -- start washing and waxing

You've just spent a peck of money on a new car -- more money than you thought you'd ever spend -- and now you're driving it home. Parked in the driveway, it sparkles, glinting in the sun, and a few neighbors walk over for a look. You can see your image in the chrome, and the glass is spotless. Indeed, your new car will never look better, you muse.

Well, you're absolutely right. After a while -- a year, two years, maybe three -- it'll begin to show its age, depending on how well you maintain it. Obviously, you'll keep the engine and other mechanical features in shape, simply because you want the car to run. You'll make sure the belts are tight and the fluids replaced in line with the maintenance schedule in the car manual. You'd also better make sure the tires are inflated to the right pressure.

But how about your car's finish, the first thing you see when you look at a car?

Remember, the paint job on a new car these days has never been better. It's tough, that's for sure. But even a tough paint job needs a good friend -- through summer, fall, winter, and spring.

If you live in the Northeast, around the Great Lakes, and in parts of the Southeast, you're very well acquainted with how destructive road salt can be.

Salt is bad news for any car. Just look at the rusted bodies of some cars that are only a few years old. It makes good sense to get rid of salt at every opportunity.

Thus, frequent washings are vital, not only on the outside of the body but on the underbody as well. Use cold or tepid water, advises the Motor Vehicle Manufacturers Association (MVMA). Avoid hot water and strong soaps or chemical detergents. Also, do not wash the car in the direct rays of the sun. Treat the underbody to a strong water spray, especially in the spring to flush away mud and debris.

There are plenty of car-wash operators around, but the self-serve, high-pressure hoses do a very good job, and the price is right.

Waxing the body at least once a year will get rid of grime or other substances that might discolor the finish. Be sure to clean off bird droppings as well as wet leaves.

Heavy doses of fresh water will clean up the chrome. Aluminum trim will take a coat of good wax, but do not use auto or chrome polish. Wax is also recommended for aluminum wheels.

Be sure to wash off any cleaning agents before they dry on the metal, especially in hot weather when soaps dry quicker.

Check the car often for chipped paint. Apply touch-up paint, available from your new-car dealership, as soon as you see the damage. Remember, bare metal corrodes quickly. Don't give rust a chance. Given a chance, it soon takes over.

Car bodies these days are far more resistant to penetration rust than they were just a few years ago. Carmakers now give a three-year warranty against rust-through rust damage, and some go as far as five years.

The car-painting process has come a long way since the early days of the automobile.

In the first quarter of the century, according to the MVMA, it was a hand-brush operation. The early finishers brushed on seven coats, each coat followed by hand rubbing. The process, including drying time, took 45 days. That luxury of time could be afforded when factory sales were running well below a million a year. All this changed after World War I.

During the 1920s, sprayers came into use, and 8 to 10 thin coats could be applied in a single day, although the finish didn't compare with what is common today. Development of the spray gun and discovery of a fast-drying lacquer dramatically improved the finishing process.

Between 1925 and 1935, drying time was cut to two hours, and new resins were developed which were harder, more durable, and needed only one base coat, plus a primer coat, because a thicker layer of film could be used.

Colors became deeper and brighter in the 10 years between 1945-55. The new finishes were also more resistant to water and harsh weather.

Most of the color spraying in the 1980s is done with a reciprocator, a machine that moves in a line, vertically or horizontally, across the car body.

Clear coats follow the color application in some facilities to give the finish both gloss and depth. Electrostatic bell-shaped applicators turn at 35,000 revolutions per minute and give each car two color coats and two clear coats in the process.

Robots now function from seven different positions, taking care of those surfaces that the applicator bells cannot reach. Mechanical arms provide greater quality and uniformity.

How important is the finish to carmakers? Domestic manufacturers are spending billions of dollars to roboticize and modernize their paint systems in their assembly plants.

Shouldn't you protect your own investment in one of those cars?

Charles E. Dole is the Monitor's automotive editor.

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