Intimate Moments in Car Washing

By Kevin Miller

Long before I was old enough to drive, my relationship with cars began. One of the first ways I interacted with cars (other than as a passenger, of course) was by cleaning them- mostly just washing and vacuuming. My parents must have been thrilled that I was willing to wash their cars, even before I was able to reach the roof on the family’s ’82 Vanagon. Spending quiet time washing and cleaning the Vanagon gave me the opportunity to observe the how the car was put together, and to get to know the shapes of the metal and interior surfaces.

Around the time my twin brother and I got our driving licenses (on the same day, no less) my parents bought an eleven-year old Toyota pickup truck as the vehicle we would use for commuting to school. The Long Bed/Five Speed truck was easy to work on and relatively inexpensive to buy, but it was dirty, smelly, and nasty, both inside and out. Before we ever got it on the road, we attended to some mechanical issues, but my brother and I also disassembled the interior to clean it up- we found some incredibly nasty stuff under the Toyota’s bench seat. That was my first experience in not just washing a car that never really got very dirty, but in functionally restoring a vehicle that was abused. Over the course of five years or so, the Toyota eventually got new carpet and new seat upholstery to make it a more pleasant conveyance.

Since then, I’ve always enjoyed washing and detailing my own cars to keep them looking and working great. Besides normal cleaning, I’ve had a few to disassemble interiors for cleaning- like when a cat urinated in the drivers’ footwell of my then-two-year-old ’95 Saab 900 (and people wonder why I don’t like cats), and later when I bought my neglected ’92 Saab 900 for autocrossing. Typically, though, it’s just routine, maintenance-type washing.

Recently, however, I had the opportunity to put my old skills to the test. My in-laws live in a Washington State’s San Juan Islands. While they enjoy a beautiful, remote setting, their cars park in an unpaved driveway under heavy tree cover. Their mid-1990s Mazda B3000 (nee Ford Ranger) seldom leaves the island, but their 2000 Subaru Outback is the car that brings them back to the “mainland”, as it did recently when they flew out to visit family in the Midwest. During their trip, the Outback was parked in my driveway.

In its natural setting under the trees, the unwashed Outback blends in like a part of the scenery. In my suburban driveway, however, I was surprised to see just how bad the car looked. Because it is never washed, it was in sad shape. Not just dirty, the Subaru had black lichen and algae growing on the hood and roof, and moss growing on the roof rack, rear window, and rear wiper arm. Inside, the driver and front passenger footwells had enough pine needles and pebbles that they could have been scooped out with a gardening trowel. The tan armrest on the interior of the driver’s door was coffee-colored from dirty hands and elbows, and the center console was a sticky mess of spilled drinks and and other debris. I made it my week’s project to revive the Outback’s appearance while it was in my care.

As I’ve matured and owned successively nicer cars, I’ve been buying better products to care for them. Most of my car washing/cleaning supplies now come from Griot’s Garage. I pre-washed one panel at a time, with plenty of Griot’s car wash and a microfiber car wash cloth. It really took a lot of elbow grease to get the mossy deposits off of the paint. While I would normally worry about using that much muscle on the paint of my own pampered cars, the Outback’s less-than-sheltered life meant that swirl marks were the least of my concerns.

While each exterior panel had some moss or lichen, the most difficult area to wash proved to be the roof, as the Outback has accessory load strips attached directly to the roof between the roof rails. Too, the ridges in the lower body cladding (and the seams at the top edge of the cladding where it meets the doors) held a lot of debris and required a lot of scrubbing as well. After pre-washing each exterior panel and window once, I turned my attention to the door jams- the Subaru’s door and tailgate designs tend to trap a lot of gunk- especially in the openings of the rear doors and in the gap where the tailgate hinges are recessed at the trailing edge of the roof. After giving some individual attention to the brake-dust-colored wheels and mud-lined wheelarch liners, I gave the entire car a final wash and coat of Griot’s Spray Wax- with only a week to work on the Outback in my “spare time” during a bad-weather week, I didn’t have time to break out the orbital polisher.

With the exterior finally shining, I turned my attention to the interior. After an intensive session of vacuuming, I went to work with surface cleaner- wiping years of dusty patina from the Subaru’s dashboard and door panels. Glass cleaner made the opaque windows clear again. I removed my in-laws’ dirty, ill-fitting seat covers (exposing seat upholstery in shockingly nice condition) and threw them in the washing machine. I also disassembled the center console and washed it in my kitchen sink. Putting everything back together, I was amazed at the results. The Outback looked almost as good as new. Upon returning from her trip, my mother-in-law was thrilled with her clean-as-new car.

I, too, was pleased with the results. I wash and clean our family’s cars frequently enough that they never get very dirty. That means that the difference in appearance between when I start and when I finish isn’t so remarkable. Getting away from my desk and getting out my frustrations by scrubbing ten years of forest deposits from the Outback was incredibly satisfying; at the end of each short working session I could see a result, and at the end of the week the Subaru was gleaming in my driveway.

During the hours I spent with the Outback, I was able to reflect on the fact that I really enjoy washing cars, ane exactly why I do. In addition to having a clean car to drive around, cleaning the car allows me to become very familiar with less-obvious parts of the car. While most drivers are very familiar with their cars as seen from the driver’s seat, the more subtle details of vehicles’ design and construction tend to go unnoticed. Spending time deep-cleaning a car in every crack and crevice gives me the opportunity to see how the car was assembled, and to appreciate practical design details both inside and out that typically go unnoticed.

My family will soon travel up to the San Juans to visit my in-laws. While I know that the car won’t be as clean as when it left my driveway, I’ll be interested to see what condition the Outback is in after four weeks back in its natural environment- and I’ll be looking forward to its next extended visit, where I’ll have the opportunity to make it shine again.

Author: Kevin Miller

As Autosavant’s resident Swedophile, Kevin has an acute affinity for Saabs, with a mild case of Volvo-itis as well. Aside from covering most Saab-related news for Autosavant, Kevin also reviews cars and covers industry news. His “Great Drive” series, with maps and directions included, is a reader favorite.

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  1. This brings back memories of sitting in the driveway at 12, scrubbing the small spaces between the spokes on the aluminum wheels on my parents’ 1987 Taurus wagon with a toothbrush, cleaning out the dust in every little crevice on the dash, and wondering what exactly my mom spilled in the cargo area that created that strong of a smell … I loved that Taurus.

  2. In my teens my Family had a Datsun 1200 and Volvo 164 sedan. We also had a big backyard so plenty of room to clean.
    The weekend job was to vacumm, clean and polish the cars while dreaming of being a touring car driver (being a Kiwi, my hero was Peter Brock). Turtle was the wax we used to use.

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