Here at TCC's Western Outpost in Portland, winter means gray skies and lots of mud. Come the rainy season, you can't let a little mist in the air keep you from going out and getting your exercise, and you have to accept the idea that your baby will get dirty — no, filthy — inside and out. Unless you have a pro to keep up with it, maintaining gleaming-clean sheetmetal, sparkling wheels, and non-gritty floomats can be downright dispiriting.
To keep a tidy appearance the rest of the time, we have a “dog car” — a ragged but rugged 1991 Volvo 240 wagon that already sports a bubbly “Don't Mess with Texas Sun” paint job — to take the brunt of the muckiest forest forays, and it hasn't seen the suds all winter. At mid February, we're through the worst of the rainy season, and within a few more weeks I'll be seriously thinking about some spring cleaning for the canine hauler, with its hair-and-mud-encrusted interior, grimy lower body, and a mysterious bright green charismatic macroflora that seems to love its badges and trim.
Dirty-car season is nothing new to this Michigan native. The Snow (Rust) Belt definitely has it the worst. Corrosive road salt, loose stones, and road debris from snow plows, traction sand, and repeated freezing and thawing can wreak havoc on your car's body. And the freezing temps probably kept you from washing your car as often as you should have.
First, give your car a thorough hand-washing, inside and out, and do it the right way:
- Clean and vacuum inside first. Get out the Dustbuster, the cotton swabs, and the old toothbrushes. Shampoo might be in order for those salty-slush places.
- Make sure you have soap that's specifically for cars.
- Never wash your car in direct sunlight.
- Use a hose with a mist-spray nozzle to wet down the car and wash away debris (this might take a while if it's really caked on).
- Using a bucket with tepid water and soap, gently sponge down all areas of the car, rinsing the sponge frequently. Do the fender and bumper areas last.
- Blast the undercarriage and wheel wells with the hose to remove as much salt buildup as you can.
- Rinse the whole car, from top to bottom (don't allow soapy areas to dry).
- Dry the vehicle lightly with a chamois or natural-fiber drying cloth.
- Remember to clean the windows and mirrors!
- Stay away from automated, commercial car washes on busy, winter-thaw days. Many of them recycle a certain portion of their water, to the point that they're washing with salty water at those times. Otherwise, they're alternatives for keeping your underbody clean and for when it's too cold to hand-wash.
Next, look for stone chips, sand abrasions, and rust. Look over the body completely for stone chips, including smaller surface nicks and scratches from traction sand thrown up by trucks. Repair them immediately with a touch-up kit (a small bottle of touch-up paint plus a special brush for application, usually inexpensive and available at the dealership). Make sure the spot is clean and dry, without any loose or sharp edges, and apply primer if bare metal is exposed. Have a body shop repair larger patches of rust.
And this would be a good time to lubricate your locks and hinges. Consult with your owner's manual and use a graphite lubricant on your locks if recommended. Applying a small amount of petroleum-based lubricant to door and trunk hinges might also silence any creaking that started during winter.
Finally, be safe and proactive; inspect your car's underbody for rust and winter damage. If there are any suspicious areas, have a mechanic look at them, and fix them immediately if needed. Pay special attention to brake components (sticky calipers, corroded brake lines), and exhaust components (rusted clamps, crumbling tailpipes, holes forming in muffler) that might have salt or slush damage. Suspension and steering pieces such as bushings, strut mounts, springs, and tie rods are also susceptible to winter damage.
These tips should help you get your car recovered from winter and ready for summer play. And in time, the gray skies, snows, and cold rains will be a distant memory.
I wish I could say the same for that wet-dog smell.