KJ Jones Senior Technical Editor
August 1, 2008
Photos By: KJ Jones

Horse Sense: While it's probably hard to imagine us admitting this, we do realize that there are some members of the 'Stang Nation who aren't as obsessed as we are with Ponies that make gobs of horsepower and cover the distance of a dragstrip in record time. Thankfully, the NMRA quenches our thirst for hard-core 'Stang racing. For those of you on the other side, we hope you find some solace in this report.

Time and time again, we're either showing how to improve performance and handling for your street Mustang or providing information and tips that will help you stay on top of your 'Stang's basic mechanical upkeep. This time, however, we're going to take a break from the norm and talk about another aspect of taking care of your Mustang: cleaning it.

Detailing has long been a misused buzz term for cleaning a car's exterior and interior to a high degree. You're probably wondering why we feel that way. Unfortunately, in today's world of wanting something now-and especially wanting it for the lowest price-many enthusiasts have become OK with feeling that a simple wash and vacuum at the corner car wash actually is a detail, simply because they paid an extra two bucks to have their Mustang's tires and dashboard juiced with something to make them shiny.

While detailing any vehicle includes washing the body and vacuuming the interior, several additional cleaning procedures (removing paint contaminants with a clay bar, waxing and polishing with a dual-action polisher) and coverage areas (seats and interior, glass, engine compartment, trunk) all play a role in giving the car the type of sanitary look that is considered a thorough detail.

The neighborhood car wash: friend or foe? We say foe. Although today's drive-through autobaths are far more technologically advanced than they were years ago (most of them are 100 percent brushless now), a good hand wash and all the trimmings is a better bet. Taking your Pony to a quick-service car wash increases the potential of a machine or poorly trained personnel damaging the 'Stang's paint, body, wheels, radio antenna, and more, and owners of these types of establishments will be quick to hide behind their "not responsible for..." disclaimers if such an incident occurs.

No matter how much power a Mustang has, its appearance (the look and stance) is usually the first attention getter. Once our eyes catch the 'Stang's killer paint, wheels, or overall appearance, we then inquire about how well it runs and its mechanical makeup.

Details are performed simply for the satisfaction of knowing your 'Stang looks its best when you hit the street for cruising, or to prepare it for a major car show or even a possible sale. (We don't really like that reason, but appearance is important when it comes to selling any vehicle.)

With nice weather and the car-show season now upon us, we think you will appreciate this break from the norm to receive tips and insights from an automotive surface-care expert on how to make your Mustang gleam.

Mike "The Wizard of Wax" Pennington is the director of training and consumer relations at Meguiar's, a leading manufacturer of automotive surface-care products. He was kind enough to spend a day with us to demonstrate the proper way to clean and maintain a Mustang's appearance. Meguiar's holds similar tutorials for car clubs and enthusiasts interested in learning how to take care of their machines. We admit that we learned a lot about the dos and don'ts and rights and wrongs of detailing during the training session.

A few important things to keep in mind is that a good detail is really all about you-the 'Stang owner-your expectations, the level at which you want to present your ride, and the overall condition of your car. Evaluate the Mustang's surface, then use the proper cleaning agents and application/removal techniques, as well as the correct tools and paraphernalia for the job.

What it boils down to is that there's a right way and a wrong way to take care of your ride. There aren't any miracle products, nor are there any miracle techniques to make a 'Stang look stunning. It's really just you and your goals that will make or break your detail.

We're just scratching the surface (no pun intended) with this report. We hope the information is helpful and you'll apply what you've learned to your Mustang when it's ready for a detail.

Brake dust is a wheel's arch enemy. The chrome hammers on our test subject are plenty dusty, but we're confident their original shine and luster can be restored.

Believe it or not, cleaning your Mustang's wheels and tires should be the first task of your detail job. Why, you ask? By doing so, you're clearing away all of the brake dust and road grime, and greatly reducing the chance of getting your freshly cleaned ride dirty again (if you washed it first), from flying gray water. Cleaning the tires promotes a more effective adhesion of tire dressing. "The dressing will look better and last longer if the tires are thoroughly cleaned first," says Mike.

Using liberal doses of spray-on cleaner and good brushes make this job fairly easy. However, going at it with a bucket of car-wash solution and a clean mitt is the best method.

Selecting the right cleaner for a particular wheel material or finish is critical. Products for chrome wheels are the most aggressive, so you don't want to apply one to a highly polished or anodized wheel, as it certainly will cause severe damage. Although our test subject has chrome 20s, the coatings on its aftermarket brake components are a concern. As such, we're using Meguiar's Hot Rims aluminum-wheel cleaner, which is more of an all-purpose solution that can be sprayed liberally without causing harm to the powdercoated brake calipers or anodized hats. Mike applies the cleaner by working upward from the bottom of the dry wheel; watering the wheel first will dilute the cleaning agent.

Believe it or not, brushes can be wheel- and tire-specific, too. Try to use a good, high-quality wheel brush for cleaning the wheels on your 'Stang.

Some have soft, flexible nylon bristles that can be shaped for easy access to areas between and behind a wheel's spokes and various openings and contours.

Thoroughly rinse each wheel with a hose or high-pressure water sprayer to remove all of the cleaning solution from the rim. Don't get your face too close to the action, as chemical-laced sprayback will probably find a home in your eyes if the water stream hits a sweet spot in a wheel-stud socket.

Pace yourself and only work on one wheel-and-tire combo at a time.

The two-bucket method is the best move for washing your 'Stang. Using dual containers ensures only fresh water and car-wash solution are being applied to the body, and the dirty stuff is discarded, not recycled back onto the car, which inevitably causes swirl marks.

With the wheels and tires clean, washing the body panels is next. First and foremost, never wash your Mustang using household cleaning detergents, as chemicals in these products will no doubt strip away wax protection and promote premature oxidation of your clearcoat and paint.

Always try to wash the car in the shade, a garage, or in the cool of early morning or evening if a shady outdoor location isn't available. By doing so, you're minimizing the chance of having water spots ruin your work.

Mike recommends using two buckets and washing your 'Stang in sections, as opposed to lathering the entire body at once. We filled one bucket with a water/Meguiar's Deep Crystal Car Wash mixture, and the other with water only for rinsing the mitt. You'll find it's a lot easier to rinse, wash, and rinse one area at a time than it is trying to chase suds from front to back, before the car wash dries before you can get to it.

Be sure to dry inside the door jambs, trunk, and hood on your Mustang, as water tends to accumulate in small pockets in these areas.

There's a multitude of cloths and sponges that can be used for washing your Mustang, but Mike suggests using a microfiber mitt for the job.

A good water-only rinse is the first order of business when washing the body. The rinse cools the surface and loosens dirt and debris.

After rinsing, work downward from the top of the car to apply the car-wash solution on the body.

The lowest sections, below the body's beltline, should be washed last, as they're the dirtiest sections of the car.

What's the best method for predrying your ride after washing it? Unscrew the spray nozzle and flood the car with a trickle from the hose instead of spraying water on the body surface. You'll be amazed by how well this works, and it really does save a lot of drying time.

Old-school chamois or today's microfiber towels are recommended for drying your Mustang. The microfiber stuff is absorbent and doesn't drag, which makes it a lot easier to maneuver across the sheetmetal. Dry the car with even, thorough passes across the body.

If you have a compressor at your disposal, a great way to achieve maximum dryness is by blasting air into corners and components such as louvers, grilles, and other areas where water can be trapped.

Step 3: Interior DetailNext up is the interior. Take care of this now so that wet-vac'd or shampooed seats or carpet have an ample amount of time to dry before you set out for a cruise.

Having a plan of action and an awareness of the various surfaces inside your Mustang is just as important as it is for the outside. Are you going to clean and condition, or clean and protect? Materials such as suede, leather, vinyl, carbon fiber, and plastic may require specific products for achieving either of these goals, so make sure you pay attention to the labels and instructions to lessen the chances of damaging your seats, dash, carpet, or other materials.

As a customized 'Stang (that was displayed in a booth at the SEMA show in 2006), our test ride has several different material surfaces inside its cabin. We selected Meguiar's Quik Interior Detailer to clean everything on the inside. It's safe for all the materials (except the suede seat inserts) inside the cockpit-including the screens for audio or navigation systems and DVD players.

The front and rear floor mats are removed first.

A firm-bristled interior brush is used to lift the fibers in carpet and floor mats, and loosen dirt and debris to be pulled out by the vacuum.

The Mustang's front seats should be slid all the way forward before brushing and vacuuming carpet in the rear-passenger area. While the back seat of most street 'Stangs isn't used all that much, it's still good practice to make cleaning the area a part of your detailing procedure.

There's no special way to vacuum the mats or carpet, but Mike suggests you use a vacuum that is equipped with several different attachments that allow you to reach tight areas between the seats and clean various hard surfaces without damaging them.

The Meguiar's Interior Quick Detailer isn't a dressing per se, so it won't put a super shine on your door panels or dash. It's more of an all-purpose maintenance product that will remove oil residue left by arms and fingers, and it protects interiors against ultraviolet rays. Mike uses a Supreme Shine microfiber cloth for this part of the job.

Using the wrong cleaner on lettered components such as this wiper control will remove the white lettering and icons, so we can't stress enough to use the right solution for a particular surface.

Once again, there are specific brushes for specific tasks. Cleaning sensitive areas such as A/C vents should be done with a soft-bristled, automotive-specific brush. Don't use a toothbrush or a brush left over from the last time you painted the kitchen.

Here's an interesting factoid on vinyl and leather-Mike says products that are specific for vinyl should never be used on leather interior surfaces. However, leather cleaners can be used on vinyl pieces in the cabin. If your 'Stang's interior has perforated leather, one thin application of leather cleaner will be more effective than applying several thick layers.

"The hands and fingers can tell it all," Mike says. Although our 'Stang is technically clean since it has already been washed, we are able to feel all kinds of above-the-surface contaminants when we pass our hand along the roof and hood.

Removing above-the-surface contaminants (tree sap, paint overspray, and so on) and below-the-surface defects (swirl marks, oxidation, and scratches) is probably the most labor-intensive aspect of a good detail, involving a lot of back-and-forth arm movements using clay bars, a dual-action polishing machine, and microfiber shining cloths to ultimately achieve a smooth, glossy finish.

Mike's demonstration of how a painted surface is evaluated by sight-and more importantly by feel-was intriguing. Hands and fingers can identify a lot of surface problems that the eye doesn't see, so it's important to run a hand over every section of your Mustang's paint (especially the hood, roof, and trunk), before you wax and cause further damage.

Even the roughest surfaces can be smoothed over and cleaned up, provided you use the right materials and equipment for the task.

Here are a few examples of paint-cleaning products and their use:

Polish: removes light oxidation, swirl marks, and fine scratches.

Pre-Wax Cleaner: a polish such as Meguiar's ScratchX that removes light contamination and dirt.

Glaze: a fine polish that doesn't remove imperfections but enhances surface gloss.

Clay and paint cleaners are only used when above-the-body contaminants or below-the-surface defects are present. If your ride doesn't have either problem, moving straight to wax is fine.

Clay bars are used for restoring smoothness in a Mustang's paint. They're a mixture of clay base and various abrasives that range from mild to aggressive. When used with a lubricant such as Meguiar's Quik Detailer, it will easily remove most above-the-surface contaminants without hurting your car's clearcoat or paint job.

It's important to occasionally fold a clay pad as you work, and if you accidentally drop it on the ground, throw it away and get a fresh piece.

This is Meguiar's all-new Dual-Action Polisher (left) and a Soft Buff pad. Mike suggests using a dual-action device as opposed to a single-direction machine. A D.A. buffer is much safer, as it orbits in multiple directions and therefore can be directed around the car, eliminating the possibility of burning through paint by trying to work against the rotation of a one-way buffing machine.

With Meguiar's ScratchX paint cleaner applied to the buffing pad, Mike uses moderate pressure and works the pad in shoulder-width spans to remove swirls.

After cleaning the paint, a good detail should include applying a coat or two of wax, which will provide maximum gloss and protection. The dual-action polisher (with a fresh pad) is again put to work for this segment of our detail.

Using light-to-moderate pressure and overlapping strokes is the best technique for wax removal.

How can you tell when wax is ready to be wiped off? Many of today's products dry without the white haze that for a long time has been indicative of wax that's ready for removal. For clear-drying waxes, the finger test is the best way to check for dryness. When you can run your finger through the wax and don't see a streak mark like this, it's ready.

We taped off two sections of the driver door on our test subject to show you the difference between nondetailed and detailed paint. Notice the swirls and scratches in the clearcoat on the right and the smooth, glossy finish on the left? By properly evaluating and treating the defects in your 'Stang's paint and using good waxing technique, it's not difficult to make the entire car look as good as the left half of the door in this image.

Putting a high beam on the wheels and tires and making the glass sparkle are the final procedures of a quality detail.

Wheel polish follows the same rules as cleaners. If you're working on a chrome wheel, use polish that is specific to chrome. The polish should normally be worked using a cotton or microfiber cloth, but 0.0000 gauge (the finest) steel wool works well at restoring bling to stubborn chrome.

The amount and type of tire dressing used in a good detail is a matter of personal taste. The high-gloss look seems to be the favorite for 'Stangbangers. Dressing is applied by rubbing gel into the tires or by using aerosol or trigger-type sprays. The sprays are definitely the fastest road to juiced tires, but they also tend to be the messiest.

Many household window cleaners are not recommended for today's tinted glass. We used Meguiar's NXT Generation glass cleaner and our good ol' microfiber cloth to clean the glass on our '06.

Give your 'Stang a final once-over with a microfiber cloth and Ultimate Quik Detailer to complete your detail project.

It's a done deal. After roughly four hours of work, our '06 Mustang shines like new money, and it's ready for cruising and receiving accolades for its appeal.