Washing a car. How hard can it be, eh? Well, the whole industry that's developed around auto detailing should be a clue that it isn't quite as simple as it seems.
That's no excuse to cut corners, though. Taking your car through an automated car wash every few months might be enough to keep it vaguely presentable, but if you really want it to look its best, you're going to have to get hands-on. And you bought a BMW, so unless you're using it for rallycross you should definitely be putting the work in to keep everything pretty.
Besides the pride of having a car that looks like it's just rolled out of the showroom, a good car-washing routine will help prevent damage to your paint and bodywork — which is going to be good for your resale value — and give you something relaxing to do once in a while. Who knows, it might even turn into a real owner/car bonding experience (if that's actually a thing).
It's also a scientifically unproven fact that people whose cars look like crap are considerably less likely to feel any motivation whatsoever to do any other routine maintenance tasks. That really sucks.
1. Find a place to get all this done
Before you can start cleaning your car, you're going to have to put it somewhere. It sounds pretty obvious, but you want to make sure that somewhere is a good somewhere.
Let's get one thing clear: the stuff you're going to be cleaning off your car is dirt, and a lot of it got there because it came out of somebody's exhaust. And if it didn't come out of somebody's exhaust, maybe it got there from the oily road surface. Or from the digestive system of a passing animal. Or from your brake pads, which can contain copper, sulfides or asbestos (yes, asbestos).
If you do a good job, all that dirt is going to end up in your wash water. Professional car washes in many jurisdictions are bound by waste laws that keep them from dumping all that water out wherever they want and contaminating local groundwater supplies. Though private individuals in most areas don't face similar restrictions, washing your car at a commercial self-service car wash instead of in your own yard is often encouraged. In any case, you'll want to pay attention to where your potentially slightly toxic waste water is going, so you don't end up with a pristine car and a patchy lawn. No good.
A good self-service car wash is going to provide a lot of the equipment you need, which can take some of the hassle out of detailing your car. They're all going to have a pressure washer, which is an absolute must. Most are also covered, so you won't have to hunt out a spot in the shade to get the best finish. You might even have access to extra equipment, like a vacuum cleaner for your interior. If you do decide to do the job at home, you're going to have to be able to provide all that yourself.
Of course it all depends on what you're doing, though. A quick hose down once a week is a little different to a full clean, polish and wax a couple times a year. You might not want to hog a busy car wash all day when you're doing a bigger job. Or maybe that's exactly the kind of thing you do want to do, you sociopath. Only you really know.
2. Give your paintwork some anti-aging treatment
Keeping your exterior paintwork in good condition is pretty simple, step-by-step process:
But you won't have to go through every step every time. No wait, that wasn't strong enough. You absolutely must not go through every step every time. If you do, you'll either be polishing your car way too much, or washing it not nearly enough.
The evaluation is when you get an idea of how big a job you have ahead of you and just what needs to be done.
Have a good look over your vehicle, keeping an eye out for any scuffs or scratches. Figure out how dirty your car actually is, both the old-fashioned way using your eyes, and the more intimate way using your hands. No matter how it looks, bodywork that's rough to the touch is a sign of surface contaminants that have to be removed before they have a chance to eat away at the paint.
Keeping track of your washing history is going to make the evaluating stage much easier. Assuming you're using your car as a daily driver, you know that you're going to need to give it a quick wash every week or two and a wax roughly every three months. A full polish can be pretty tough on your paint and shouldn't be necessary more than twice a year, so only do it when it's clear your car's seen better days.
If you find that your car is in great condition already, pat yourself on the back. If you find you haven't actually cleaned your car in years, brace yourself for a long, hard slog.
Once you've established what condition your car's in, the next step is always the wash, which is going to give you a good foundation for any extra work you need to do on your car. The pressure washer is going to come in handy here, loosening any dirt on the surface of your paint. Just don't set the washer on full pressure and don't hold the nozzle too close to your car. We aren't scrubbing pavers here, and too much force could end up doing more harm than good. (Oh, that's also why you shouldn't bother with a gas-powered washer. Maintenence is a bitch and you don't need the extra power, so just go electric.)
Remember that gravity is a thing and it works downwards, so always start from the top. If you rinse the bottom first, it'll only end up covered in dirty water from whatever's just above it. So that's just making twice as much work for yourself.
You'll also want to rinse your rims and wheel wells, too, particularly in winter when salt and mud can gather around your wheels and ruin everything. Just don't do this straight after driving when your brakes are still hot. If high school chemistry and YouTube videos taught us anything, it's that pouring cold liquid over hot things can do a fair bit of damage. We'll take a look at wheels in a little more detail in a moment, so hold tight, sailor!
Once everything's rinsed clean to the eye, lightly wipe your car dry with a microfiber towel before you do anything else. You're going to be doing a lot of light wiping with a microfiber towel, by the way, so this is some good practice.
If it's been a while since you last detailed your car, you're going to need to give it a good clean, which removes any contaminants clinging to the surface of your paint that the wash didn't deal with. This is when the personal touch makes all the difference; if your paint doesn't feel smooth and glassy, it'll need cleaning.
The quickest and most effective way to clean your car is with a clay bar, which is designed to catch any dirt you may have on your paint. Obviously you don't want to rub dry clay on your car (unless you like the whole scratched paint look), so you'll also need to use a detailing lubricant, to help the clay slide over the surface of the paint. You'll have much better luck doing this in the shade, so the lubricant doesn't dry off too quickly.
Like anything you do when detailing your car, try to move in straight lines whenever possible, dealing with one section at a time. Wiping in circles might feel like the classic window cleaner technique, but it's a terrible idea on a car because that's how you end up with swirls. I know you'll be trying not to scratch your car anyway, but if you do, straight scratches are much easier to deal with than big round ones over half your hood.
The very very very important thing to remember with clay bars is that if you drop them on the floor (which is possible, because they're the size of a bar of soap and covered in lubricant) they're effed and you should get rid of them. Any grit that gets stuck in the clay is going to turn into scratches in your paint when you start rubbing it all over everything.
When you're done with the clay, check the paint for smoothness. If you're happy, take a microfiber towel (there's a surprise) and wipe off any of the lubricant that's left on your car.
Properly cleaning your car not only gets rid of all the dirt that can cause long-term damage to your paint, it also gives a better surface for waxing; laying wax on top of a load of dirt is never a good look.
Cleaning is getting rid of anything clinging to the surface of your paint without (in theory, at least) touching the paint at all. Polishing, on the other hand, involves removing any imperfections in the paint itself, smoothing out scratches and swirls in the top few coats. That obviously makes it far more aggressive, so it's not something you should be doing too often.
If you've got access to an electric rotary polisher, it can make the job quicker. If not (or if you really are trying to have an owner/car bonding experience), you can polish by hand without too much effort.
Because nothing about detailing can ever be simple, there are a few factors that are going to influence how hard you're going to have to polish your car. Generally speaking you'll have to go easier on darker paints that easily show any small scratches. You'll also need to take the hardness of your paint into consideration. BMWs generally use harder paint than many other manufacturers, letting you use a stiffer buffing pad and stronger polish, but it still depends on the color, with some being harder than others. If your car's ever been repainted, it's anybody's guess. As overly abrasive polishing can actually damage your paintwork and softer polishing really only makes more work for you, it's safer to start off soft and adjust as you get to know your paint better.
Some people recommend polishing in circles, but it's probably a better idea to move in straight lines, first left-to-right, then up-and-down. Straight lines give you far more control over what you're doing, and can make everything that little bit smoother.
Once the polish has been worked into the paint, give everything another rub down with... wait for it... a microfiber buffing towel.
Here it is. The proverbial moment of truth. Wax is what you've been building up to, and is what's going to give your BMW that factory-fresh shine while also protecting your paint for some 2-in-1 goodness.
Waxing really is a world of its own. One part art, one part science, and one part (if we're being honest) superstition. It's easy to get bogged down worrying about whether you need paste or liquid wax, carnauba or synthetic. To make it easier: if you prepared your car properly and thoroughly cleaned everything instead of trying to wax on top of a layer of crud, any modern quality wax is going to give results that are more than good enough for everyday use.
The biggest difference between wax types is the application method, and how much time you want to spend on the job. If you want to apply the wax by hand, a liquid wax isn't going to be much good, but is necessary if you're using a buffing machine. High-quality spray waxes give great results and take hardly any time at all, so if you don't feel you want to spend too much time laboring over your car, they could be the best option.
Whichever wax you go for, resist the urge to slather it on like frosting on a banana cake. A little wax is going to go a long way, and if you put on any more than that, you'll just end up rubbing it off again anyway. Pro tip: that's a waste of money. You should also wax small sections at a time and move on to the next when it's done, instead of trying to do the whole car at once. And once again, absolutely do not do this in circles. Apply wax in straight lines.
The exact wax you choose is going to tell you how you should be applying it. Literally, check the instructions written on the wax you have. Some are designed for specific types of applicators, and you should follow that advice. Some should (or shouldn't under any circumstances) be left to dry before buffing out. Many spray waxes don't really need any buffing at all when used properly, just a quick wipe down with a microfi-- you get the idea.
You'll probably have wax residue gathered in the cracks between panel pieces, so go over all of them with a detailing brush to get everything nice and clean.
3. Take care of your wheels
You'll be taking care of your wheels as part of the exterior. You'll rinse them along with the rest of your paintwork and clean a little bit deeper as you clean the rest of your car.
Wheels are the real filth buckets of a car, though. It's where the action happens. Not just mud and grime from the roads, but brake dust that ends up caked on your rims. And unlike the bodywork, most wheels aren't nice and flat, but full of corners and turns that you're going to need to get into.
This is another situation where just how aggressive you get about it is going to depend on a few things. If you've got steelies or tough, painted alloys, you can go in with a strong cleaning product and a toothbrush to work everything out. If you've got chrome-plated rims, that kind of treatment is probably going to strip them back. You'll need a less abrasive product and a softer-bristled brush.
You can even use a clay bar, and it's a perfect use for one that's maybe a little too old and dirty to use on your paint. You see, detailing isn't all about having a tool for each job, there are a few that can multitask (just like microfiber towels).
4. Treat yourself to a new interior
Getting the outside of your car is all well and good, and people will be grateful that you gave them the chance to see such a beautiful machine. But you can't see much of the outside of your car when you're sitting inside it driving, so you should take care of that, too. For your own pleasure.
A good quality vacuum cleaner is going to make everything a whole lot easier. Either a handheld vacuum cleaner (though they can sometimes lack a bit of sucking power) or a Shop-Vac with a hose long enough to reach everywhere. Beyond that, it really isn't that much different to keeping your house clean. The only difference is that most houses have plenty of room to move around in, and most cars force you into all sorts of positions to reach every crevice.
For your upholstery, standard household fabric shampoos or leather cleaners should be fine. But for some other applications, dedicated car cleaning products are going to give better results. Household window cleaner, for example, generally shouldn't be used, as it can damage the window tint, which is common in cars but very unusual in houses unless you have serious privacy issues.
You'll also want to consider the effects of UV light on your interior, particularly your dashboard. Plastics can fade and crack with excessive exposure to UV light, and although many car windows are supposed to filter most of that out, you still might have it sitting out in the sun all day. A good quality interior cleaner with UV protection is definitely worth the investment.
On the subject of being worth the investment: a good set of detailing brushes will let you clear any dust or crumbs out of the huge number of gaps and cracks on the average dashboard. It really makes a difference.
5. Enjoy your crazy clean car
By this point, your car should be as clean as the day it rolled off the production line. It's not going to stay that way for long, though — you'll be repeating the whole process before you know it. So make the most of these precious few days before the dirt starts building up again. Take some photos for Instagram or something, I dunno.