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Nashville Scene Fight to the finish

Restoring a faded finish requires a proper start

By Marc Stengel

MARCH 22, 1999:  Reader Arthur Curkovic is to thank this week for asking some questions that have led to a few eye-opening answers. Via e-mail, he wrote to find out "What would be the best wax product to use on my car? What is the best method of applying it? Also, is it better if you use two or three coats of wax instead of one?"

This query prompted a look into the overall topic of restoring badly faded automotive finishes, chiefly those of used vehicles. The issue, of course, is more than aesthetic. The answers to Arthur's questions can make a material difference in what to ask for a car you're trying to sell or what to pay for one you want to buy--not to mention the pleasure you feel about beautifying the car you presently own.

For a guided tour through this topic, I put in a call to Pierre Perrot, who is nationally recognized for his ability to breathe new life into cars of former glory. Perrot's shop, Pierre'Z Service Center in Hawthorne, Calif., was the exclusive source for fully restored 1970 to 1972 Datsun Z-cars that Nissan briefly offered for "retro-sale" in '97 and '98 at 10 innovative "Z Stores" throughout the U.S. When asked about how to put the shine back into a badly sunburned paint job, Perrot was ready and waiting with a six-point checklist that anyone can follow. But first of all, he says, with an engaging trace of his native French accent, "You've got to be not in a hurry. You cannot do the whole car at once."

The key principle in restoring a car's appearance, Perrot emphasizes, is getting down to a fresh layer of paint before doing anything else. In other words, you've got cut through years of grime, oxidation, dead pigment, and accumulated wax in a literal fight to the finish.

  1. The first important step is to wash the car--obviously. "Now what I'm going to tell you is going to make you laugh," says Perrot, "but I use Ajax." Actually he admits that any of the several mildly abrasive bathroom cleaners will do, since they cut through the buildup that obscures the car's paint. You're just washing the car, remember, not grinding away. But you won't hurt the paint, he says; "you're just getting rid of that burned surface." In very rare cases where the finish is especially damaged, you may also want to use extremely fine #600 emery cloth to do some "color sanding" while cold water is running over the area. But unless you know exactly what you're doing, Perrot recommends leaving this task to a paint expert.

  2. The second step is probably the most critical and time-consuming. From this point, you're beginning to build back the finish of the car, and that process starts with very, very fine rubbing compound. Perrot recommends the basic white pastes from DuPont or 3M (not the coarser red pastes that leave noticeable, deep swirls). But patience is actually the most vital active ingredient. Moreover, it's important to keep the car's surface as cool as possible to prevent compound residue from baking into the finish. "Do it piece by piece," Perrot says, "working with sections of only about 2 feet by 2 feet." When you achieve the finish that you want, wash it down and dry it before you move on to the next small section. "If you're doing it right, this is going to take you all the way from Saturday to Sunday."

  3. Now it's time to wash the car again--even though you've already washed each section one step at a time. "There's always going to be some remaining compound residue on the car," Perrot points out. His favorite cleaner? Simple liquid dish soap from the kitchen.

  4. If you're concerned about some faint swirl marks resulting from the application of rubbing compound, there are "swirl removing" pastes on the market that are easy to apply at this stage. "Then when you come to finishing the car," says Perrot, "use a good polish or hand glaze, but don't use anything that has wax in it." Surprised? Perrot dislikes the hazy film that wax leaves on a car. "It doesn't show the real color of the paint."

    There are several wax-free polishes and glazes on the market that meet Perrot's criteria, but his favorite without question is the Teflon and fluid-resin formulation called "Wet" Car Polish from Eagle One Industries. Despite the extra work, Perrot recommends hand polishing with a very soft cheesecloth unless you're especially experienced with a machine buffer. "Most people who have never machine-buffed a car before do a lousy job," he says, "because they let it go too long in one area and burn the paint."

  5. Another surprise Perrot has up his sleeve is his choice of dressing for tires, rubber trim, interior surfaces, and vinyl or leather upholstery: "Baby oil is far superior," he says. "It leaves a very nice feel and penetrates the material; if you use too much, you can always wipe it off with a wet rag."

  6. Perrot recommends saving all the chrome and aluminum surfaces for last. A number of preparations are available, including Simichrome, Flitz, and Mothers. But Perrot's personal favorite is the polish called X-Treem by Hulcher Enterprises.

For anyone accustomed to browsing the car-care shelves at the auto parts store, Perrot's recommendations probably break a few stereotypes and shatter a few misperceptions. But in the current climate of mumbo jumbo that complicates the whole issue of caring for your car's cosmetics, his refinishing formula incorporates one very special and often overlooked ingredient: common sense. That's not to say all of the proprietary, top-secret, one-of-a-kind cleaners, polishes, and accessories on the market are without merit. But when you can keep it simple in your "fight to the finish" without sacrificing superior results--well, that's more than half the battle, isn't it?

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