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.
- 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
- 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
- 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.
- 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
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."
- 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."
- 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
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?