Corvette Fever's cleaning tips, techniques and tricks of the trade
Detail Like A Pro

Spring has sprung, and the time has come to take the winter wraps off your Corvette for another long and glorious season of cruising, shows and good times.

First, though, there's the spring cleanup to consider. If you're like most owners of America's favorite two-seater, you want your ride to be spotless before it leaves the driveway. After all, you do have an image to uphold. And, while you could just grab a bucket of suds and a beach towel and commence cleaning your Corvette (or, heaven forbid, run it through an automatic car wash and risk dings, scratches and possible breakage), there is a better way - a professional detailing job. The pros know how to treat your pride and joy with TLC and in a matter of hours can deliver your Corvette back to you in a sparkling show-ready state.

If you are like many Corvette owners, however, you take pleasure in spending time with your car even when it comes to cleaning it up. There's something about washing, waxing and pampering your plastic fantastic yourself that fosters an added pride in Corvette ownership. With that in mind, we contacted professional detailer Clay Rohde and spent a morning watching as he gave the full treatment to a 1989 Bright Red coupe. While some of the procedures Clay performed may seem elementary, they are steps often overlooked by the average owner - and Clay also offered some gems to assist every Corvette owner in undertaking their own professional detail job right in the driveway.

Follow along as we walk you through the procedures and then you, too, can detail your Corvette like a pro.

The Wash Job

When washing your Corvette, first wet down the entire car to rinse away loose dirt and prepare the paint surface for washing. For washing, use only a soap specifically designed for washing cars. The use of other detergents, such as dishwashing liquid (don't laugh, I know people who do use dish soap on their cars), can cause streaks in the paint surface that will require buffing to get rid of.

While washing, keep the surface wet and work from the top down. Clay prefers to work sections at a time, starting with the roof, then working down the hood, rear deck, quarter panels, doors and finally wheels. Do not allow the soap to dry on any painted surface since it will streak and make the car more difficult to polish and wax. Also, work from the outside in. "It's easier to pull toward you than work away," Clay says, and working outside-in will also keep you from bringing grit from unwashed areas into the clean area, which can cause tiny scratches.

And speaking of scratches, watch that belt buckle. A protruding metal buckle can put some serious gouges in your gorgeous paint if you're not careful.

On Corvettes with retractable headlights, leave the lights until last. You'll be working on the engine, and there's no sense cleaning the backs of the lamps when they'll just get dirty again.

One last exterior washing tip: Try to do your washing early in the morning or late afternoon when the sun is not at its highest point to avoid water spotting caused by a fast drying time.

For drying the exterior, synthetic chamois have more or less made the old leather chamois obsolete. Not only are the synthetic pads more absorbent, they also leave no residue. "The leather chamois tend to leave a film on the paint," Clay says. "That film can be removed, but it just takes more work." The synthetic chamois also work better than towels to wipe the surface since they leave no lint behind.

Wheels And Tires

Logically, the last things to wash on your Corvette are the wheels since they accumulate the most grime - both from the road and from brake dust buildup. That grime, if transferred to the body panels through a dirty wash rag, can cause paint streaking and scratches. When cleaning the wheels, also remember to thoroughly rinse the wheelwells.

On aluminum and other cast wheels, a degreaser can be used to loosen tough stains (especially brake dust), which can then be whisked away with soap and water and a thorough rinse. For tough-to-reach spots, there are special wheel brushes available anywhere automotive care products can be found. There are several stiffness grades to choose from as well, so you can find the perfect match for your wheels. For wire wheels or others with lots of tight clearance, use a toothbrush-type brush to reach the dirty areas.

On painted wheels, beware of degreasers which can damage the clear coat and paint. Instead, use soap and water and a little elbow grease. You also may want to consider waxing painted wheels for easier cleanup.

On your Corvette's tires, degreaser, soap and water and brushes will make them look new again. Once clean, any of a variety of tire dressings can be applied to make them shine. When spraying the dressing on the tires, also remember to spray down the wheel wells to give them a new appearance, too.

Polishes And Waxes

Following the wash job, pros use a light polishing compound to impart the surface with a glossy shine as well as ridding the exterior of most vestiges of acid rain and other environmental etching. The key here is to use a compound with a low grit content. "If you use a light compound, you won't damage the clear or the paint," says Clay. "And if one application didn't work, you can go back and hit an area again. With a harsher compound, you risk damage - and that could mean a new paint job."

The light compound also works well to remove light oxidation and lighter buildups of road grime, tar and bugs. For heavier buildups of tar and/or grime and bugs, use a bug and tar remover specifically designed for automotive finishes. "If you use anything with harsh chemicals, such as turpentine, it can actually strip the paint," Clay warns.

For applying and buffing off the compound, and later the wax, a very handy tool is an orbital buffer with a relatively low rpm range (generally less than 1500). Readily available and relatively inexpensive (under $40), the electric buffers can greatly speed the process and the low rpm range will prevent you from burning the paint. When using a buffer, always remember to rest the buffer pad-side up when not in use and use separate pads for each polishing and waxing step.

When applying the compound, remember less is best. Putting too much on the car will do nothing more than make cleanup more difficult. Another tip is to make sure you don't put the drops too close to body panel edges and other cracks. "I put the drops no closer than about 1-1/2 inches from cracks," says Clay. "That keeps most of the compound from getting into the cracks."

As far as waxes go for clear coated cars like most Corvettes, the pros prefer using liquid waxes instead of paste types. "With many types of paste waxes, the paste can actually strip the clear coat after a number of applications," says Clay. "Liquid carnauba wax is probably the best you can use."

And, as with compound, a light application of wax is all that is needed. "You don't have to put a big puddle down," Clay says. "All you need is enough to cover the surface. Too much wax just makes more work when it comes to getting it off."

For getting wax out of cracks, a trick Clay uses that works like a charm is wrapping the towel around a key and using it to get into the tight areas. "It not only works, but it's really handy," Clay says. "You've already got the rag in your hand, and you've always got a set of keys in your pocket." Another advantage is that keys don't have sharp edges. "A lot of people wrap a towel around the end of a screwdriver," he said, "but the sharp edges of a screwdriver can poke through the towel and scratch the paint." Many owners use toothbrushes to get at the small nooks and crannies, but even the softest bristle toothbrush can leave tiny scratches in the paint.

All That Glass

Corvettes, and especially late-model coupes, have a good deal of glass area to clean. And while glass cleaning is pretty straightforward, there are a couple of tips to pass along. First, remember the light polishing compound you used on the exterior? It also works great for exterior glass surfaces. Clay uses a patch of very fine steel wool and drops of the compound to clean the outside glass. "The compound works great to clean bugs and other road grime off the windows (and the glass tops on coupes) and it leaves a protective coating that water will bead up on for a month afterward." Clay says. You may want to use regular glass cleaner on your side mirrors, however, since they have a special coating on them that is susceptible to scratching.

For the inside glass, any good quality glass cleaner will work; but if you have tinted windows, take note. "If your windows are tinted, do not use ammonia-type cleaners," Clay says. "The ammonia will turn the film purple."

Another tip: Clean the outside of the windows first. That makes it easier to tell if the inside of the windows are clean when you turn your attention to the interior.

Inside And Underhood

Here's a news flash. Corvette carpeting tends to get soiled. But that grungy carpet doesn't necessarily mean a full shampoo is in order. Many pros use a dry cleaning foam that they spray on and work in with a medium bristle brush. Then a vacuum is used to clean up the loosened soil and grime. "In heavily soiled areas," Clay says, "just spray the dry carpet foam on, brush it, spray again, brush and then vacuum. It really works, and it doesn't leave the carpeting wet for days."

The spray foam cleaner also works on seats, provided they aren't heavily soiled. If the leather seats in your Corvette are particularly dirty, the best bet is to use saddle soap or other leather cleaner, followed by an interior dressing to keep the leather supple. Interior dressing also works well on dashboards and other vinyl and plastic parts in the interior.

One thing the pros steer clear of is silicone-type protectants. Many of this type of protectant leave an oily base that attracts dirt and dust, and when applied to leather they can actually cause eventual cracking.

A small car vacuum is also a wise investment. Specifically designed for automotive cleaning, these small hand-held vacs (like a Black & Decker Car Vac Plus, for instance) have all the proper attachments to reach between seats and into air conditioning vents, plus they have enough vacuum power to whisk the debris away.

While the doors are open, don't forget to clean the jambs and sills. Nothing will ruin your day faster than rubbing up against a dirty sill or jamb in that new outfit while stepping into your otherwise spotless Corvette. At Corvette shows, it doesn't impress the judges much, either.

And, when you put your floor mats back in, don't forget to clean off the underside. "Most people don't think about that," says Clay, "but the underside of the mats will pick up all kinds of things that end up in the car."

While on the subject of easily overlooked items, don't forget the retractable antenna if your car is so-equipped. It sounds like a no-brainer, but lots of people forget it.

Under the hood, any good degreaser will take care of the majority of the mess. Just spray it on, let it soak in for about 5 minutes, and spray it off with a hose. For more heavily soiled areas, use a rag or soft bristle brush to lightly scour the area, then spray with water. Finish up by wiping the excess water off and spraying the engine compartment with tire dressing. The tire dressing enhances the shine of engine components and is engine-safe.

About Those Rags

A good rule of thumb is to use different rags for each step of a detail job. Use one set for exterior washing, another for wheels and yet another for waxing. Keeping them segregated mitigates the chances of transferring wheel grime onto the paint, wash soap into the wax, etc.

Terry cloth towels work the best for general cleanup since they are soft but still have a little stiffness, which assists the cleaning (and buffing) process. The color of the towels makes little difference, but the pros prefer using white cloth, which helps show areas that are still lightly soiled and will, upon waxing, show any paint oxidation traces.

For cleanup of washing and waxing towels, simply throw them in the washer and tumble them dry. Do not, however, use fabric softener. "Something in fabric softeners leaves the towels with an additive that films and streaks the paint when you use them again," Clay says.