A visiting relative, who has been using the spare family car, decided last weekend to do the decent thing and give it a spring wash. It gets washed at least once a season.

She grabbed a bucket, filled it with water, squirted in some dishwashing detergent from under the kitchen sink and got stuck in.

Can you spot the mistake, other than volunteering to clean it in the first place?

Dishwashing detergent may make plates and bowls sparkle, but it's murder on a car's finish. The very properties that allow it to cut through dirt and grime, as demonstrated nightly on TV, do a good job of stripping away a vehicle's protective wax ... the opposite of what you're trying to achieve.


But it's easy to keep a car in sparkling condition the proper way, without cheating and going to a car wash. No disrespect to most car washes, you'll probably be able to do a better job.

Shelves of car accessories shops are kaleidoscopes of exterior car care products. You'll also see them in supermarkets, service stations, department stores ... all over.

You'll find sponges, brushes, gloves, hose nozzles, pre-washes, washes, scratch removers, bug and tar removers, glass cleaners, waxes, polishes, tyre blackeners, wheel cleaners, chrome polish, alloy wheel polish, rain repellent and more.

Car care is a big business
All those carwash products have a place in the quest for the sparkling vehicle and it's worth getting to know them. Nasties such as tar, UV rays, salt, grit, rain, snow and mud, soot, bird droppings, cold, heat, industrial fallout, tree sap and pollen attack the minute a new vehicle's driven from the showroom.

It pays to read the product labels. Incorrect washing and polishing will cause swirls and scratches and dull the gloss. You may as well use the dishwashing soap and a scouring pad.

Waxing's important to help keep the finish clean, shining and protected. Experts recommend a wax coat when the finish no longer "beads" water. Most polishes will last from six to 12 months and it's not always the expensive ones that bead the longest.

It sometimes helps to use a rubbing or polishing compound on a dull surface. These provide oxidation to remove minor scratches and scrapes. Rubbing compounds revitalise dull finishes, while polishing compounds are for faded surfaces.

However, they need to be used with care: read the instructions carefully or you may mar, not restore, the surface. Nobody says this is easy, but do it properly and the results will be well worth it.

Separate products are made for wheel cleaning. Their job is to polish and protect without scratching, while restoring shine, removing surface muck and some scratches. Sorry if that sounds like an ad, but that's what they do.

Still other cleaners look after tyres. Silicone-based cleaners penetrate the rubber to provide long-term protection, compared to water-based cleaners that dissipate in the rain. However, some silicone products leave an "oily" appearance you may not like.

Try to wash the vehicle once a week.

Don't wash it in the hot sun.

Rinse away loose dirt first with a strong spray of water. It's best not to use a water blaster unless you really know what you're doing. Its high pressure could cause damage. If you own a 4WD that's been in the dirt, never blast the mud from its radiator with a pressure washer.

Mix car wash concentrate in a large bucket of clean water. Dirt and grime sinks to the bottom, so don't use the last bit of the solution on paintwork.

Apply the wash solution with a clean, soft sponge starting from the top surfaces and working down the sides.

Don't allow the wash to dry on the surface. Rinse it off with a gentle flow of water.

Regularly squeeze the sponge while it's submerged to flush dirt particles. Use a different sponge to wash the wheels and really dirty bits.

Wipe dry with a good quality, clean chamois. Don't use one that feels like it wants to "stick" to the finish. Use an old chamois to wipe off wheels, sills and similar areas so the good chamois isn't contaminated.

Paint care
After a wash and dry, lightly run a palm and fingers over the bonnet and roof. If the paint doesn't feel as smooth as glass, it needs waxing.

Do the job when it's cool and shady, not in the heat of the sun.

Apply polishes and waxes with a foam applicator and wipe off with terry towelling cloth. Most other types of applicators, including cheesecloth, may leave fine scratches.

Always quickly remove airborne contaminants like dust and grime, tree sap mist, bird droppings and salt air; they may bond or etch into the finish. Yuck.

A newly painted car should be given time to cure properly. Experts suggest waiting one or two months before using wax or polymer sealant.