Success requires time, patience, and a refusal to recognize the law of diminishing returns.
Detailing is the thorough cleaning your car gets after you wash it. The process may take most of a day, but when you're finished you'll be driving a car that looks a lot better than it has in a long time and may even be worth more.
Once you've washed the car and dried it (lint-free towel, please), park it in the shade and gather your tools: more lint-free towels, Q-tips, spray cleaner, rubber preservative, chrome polish, upholstery cleaner, window cleaner, scouring pads, a toothbrush, and a vacuum cleaner (a real one, not a handheld wimp) with attachments.
You can detail the exterior, trunk, and passenger compartment. It's also possible to spend a lot of time on the engine compartment, but the payoff is smaller and the possibility of damaging something expensive is greater. Vacuum gingerly beneath the hood and remove the leaves, insects, and whatever else has been sucked in there. Let it go at that.
Take everything out of the trunk, including the spare, tools, and carpet. Remove everything from the passenger compartment, including mats and the contents of the glove box, map pockets, and ashtray. Monomaniacs remove the seats, too, but you can just clean beneath them thoroughly. Vacuum; use that crevice tool to reach nooks and crannies. Probe. Don't forget the glove box, the map pockets, and the spare-tire well.
You'll need to clean a wide variety of interior surfaces, including plastic, metal, cloth, glass, paint—maybe even leather and wood. Fortunately, household spray cleaners (such as Formula 409 or Fantastik) work on most of these. For sticker residue and spots made tacky by long-forgotten mishaps, try rubbing alcohol or Goo Gone. It's always best to try a test-wipe on a relatively inconspicuous spot first (especially with alcohol as it may react with plastic). Clean the insides of the windows. Use a cleaner appropriate for whatever upholstery your car has. You'll probably find just what you need at a car parts store. Clean the roof liner and dome light, too. Use Q-tips or a small brush on the vents.
Once you've finished with the passenger compartment, detailing the trunk seems a breeze. Use the same techniques and materials there. While you're at it, make sure the spare has adequate air pressure and there's a jack and lug wrench. Apply rubber preservative to the trunk lid gasket and to the passenger compartment door gaskets.
As cruddy as some car interiors get, theirs is a life of ease compared with what the exterior endures. Assaulted by air pollution and acid rain, sandblasted by wind, and bombed by birds, the outside of your car leads a truly challenging life. Wax can make things much easier for it.
Use a nonabrasive wax on paint that's in good condition. There are many brands, both paste and liquid, and difficulty of application is no guide to quality. Try a conditioning wax on dull paint. And on very dull, oxidized paint, use a rubbing compound followed by wax. Many cars have a clear coat over paint, so choose a wax that's safe for clear coat; the label will say.
Apply wax to a cool, shaded car, and try to keep it off plastic and matte-finish trim as the wax haze may become a lifelong feature on them. Use chrome polish only on chrome, not on plastic (you can wax both with ordinary car wax). Open the doors to wax jambs and sills. Once the haze has developed, use soft cloths, Q-tips, and whatever else it takes to rub it all off. Zeal may flag before the job is done, but remember that you're nearing the end of your chores. Only wheels and tires remain.
There are many types of wheels and various cleaners designed for each. An all-purpose wheel cleaner may do the job, especially if you use scouring pads and tar remover where appropriate. Tires are your final task: A good wash and a coat of gloss make the sidewalls look better than new.
There's no shortage of detailing advice on the Internet; try www.auto motivedetailing.com. If you want a really sharp-looking car but don't want to blow a Saturday, AAA's Car Care Plus facilities can do the job for you. Telephone for an appointment. In Sacramento: 49 Bicentennial Circle, (916) 386-8561. In Santa Clara: 2615 Keystone Avenue, (408) 247-5405.
This article was first published in January 2002. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.