Yes, there is a right and wrong way to wash a car.

By Author: Harvey Briggs, Date: May 12, 2017

I have an admission to make.

I love my cars, but I don’t always take care of them as well as I should. Sure, I change the oil regularly in accordance with the manufacturer’s recommended intervals, I check the air in my tires, and I do the other routine stuff to make sure my cars are running well and safely. I don’t, however, clean them as often as I should and when I do, it’s usually just a quick trip through the automatic car wash at the gas station. Not your highest quality wash.

If you only wash your car a couple of times a year, you’re going to spend a lot of time each time to remove built up dirt, grime, dust, spills and other messes. You’re also making your car more vulnerable to things like corrosion, paint fading, leather cracking, carpet wear, and vinyl surfaces losing their luster. Last week, when I pulled the Mustang out of storage, I vowed to do a better job of keeping it clean this year. So I got in touch with Mike Pennington from Meguiar’s to get a lesson in how to take better care of my car.

His first words of advice? “Frequent car care is easy car care.” Ouch. Well, if he had to say it, at least I know I’m not alone in my lackadaisical attitude toward keeping my car looking its best.

We talked specifically about cars that are stored over winters and what, if anything you have to do differently in the spring. His answer in short is “nothing.” Not surprisingly, a car stored in a clean, dry garage is easier to care for in the spring. Assuming you’ve washed it before putting it away, which I did, there’s no magic to it. But there are a few tricks.

Start with a good rinse, using a pressure washer if you have one, to remove any loose grime or dust from the surface of the car. Next, and this is really important, use two buckets; one for soaping up your washing mitt and one for rinsing. When you run your mitt over the surface of the car, you’re picking up small bits of dirt and if you rinse your mitt in the same soapy water, you’re putting that debris into the water where it will be picked up and rubbed over the surface of the car causing small scratches. By using a second bucket without soap to rinse your mitt, you’ll get rid of the debris and protect the surface of your car.

Why spend the extra money for a microfiber mitt instead of a sponge? Again it goes back to debris. A sponge will pick up debris and it doesn’t rinse as thoroughly as microfiber does. So if keeping your finish scratch free and glossy is important – and it should be – spend a few bucks at the auto parts store and get a good washing mitt.

Start your wash at the top of the car and work your way down, completing the wash in sections, rinsing as you go. After you’ve washed the entire surface, use a chamois or microfiber cloth to dry the car. Don’t forget to spray in the wheel wells to remove dirt and grime where you can see it, and it’s also a good idea to rinse the undercarriage to get rid of any road debris that may have collected over time. Just be careful around connectors and wiring, especially if you’re using a high pressure washer.

After you complete the wash, use a window cleaner on the glass and headlights. Then it’s time to turn your attention to the wheels. The key here is to know what type of wheels you have so you use the right product. Alloy wheels, aluminum, painted, steel, or chrome all require slightly different compounds to remove road grime and brake dust without degrading the finish. Read the label on any wheel cleaner to make sure it’s formulated for your wheels, otherwise you could do serious and irreparable damage to the finish. Most wheel cleaners are designed to be sprayed on dry wheels, left to penetrate for a few minutes, the you just wipe it off with your microfiber cloth or use a soft bristle brush if necessary to get into all the tight spots of an intricate wheel design. You can also use a rubber and vinyl cleaner to give your tires a nice shine.

Inside the car, you’ll want to use a high quality vinyl cleaner on all the plastic surfaces to remove dust and leave a glossy surface behind. For the seats, cloth surfaces will require a fabric cleaner, while leather, of course, needs a leather cleaner and conditioner. Most are a simple to use, just spray the cleaner on your microfiber cloth, wipe it onto the leather surfaces, and let it penetrate the leather. They do a great job of keeping the leather from drying out and cracking.

Carpets need to be thoroughly vacuumed. If you have floor mats that have been collecting dirt all winter you’ll want to take them out and shampoo them. Make sure to clean the glass on the inside, removing dust and fingerprints that can reduce visibility especially when the sun is low on the horizon.

It took me about an hour and a half to do a thorough cleaning of my Mustang, and in addition to making it look great, it made me feel better knowing I was taking care of a valuable and prized possession the way I should. And I’m hoping that Mike’s advice rings true as the summer goes on, and the cleaning becomes easier and less time consuming as the days grow warmer.

Meguiar’s provided the products used in this story

Harvey Briggs

Harvey Briggs is the Founder, Editor, and Publisher of Rides & Drives. He has also written for Car and Driver, Winding Road, and the luxury lifestyle blog, His passions run from fast cars, small planes, boats and motorcycles to music, travel, and sports. When he's not on the road testing the latest cars, he been known to turn up on stage playing rock and blues guitar at clubs around his hometown of Madison, Wisconsin. Follow Harvey's adventures on Instagram and Twitter @harvey_drives and find him on Facebook. Though keeping up could be a problem. As Harvey says, "If I don't slow down, time can't catch me."

Is It Finally Time To Consider An eBike?

Is It Finally Time To Consider An eBike?

Rides & Drives | Simon Van Booy | Jul 29, 2022
The Great Eight: Museums and Attractions Your Friends Have Never Been To

The Great Eight: Museums and Attractions Your Friends Have Never Been To

Rides & Drives | Carolyn Briggs | Aug 31, 2017
Created in 1971, but never seen until now: The Land Rover Art Car.

Created in 1971, but never seen until now: The Land Rover Art Car.

Rides & Drives | Vicki Arkoff | Aug 22, 2016