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The Details: How a Detailer Does a Road Trip

Updated: Nov 12, 2023

Written by our fellow member, Thomas Powers

White Ford Focus ST

There’s a common misconception in the car world – that is, cars can either look fantastic or be driven and enjoyed. I can’t count the number of times I’ve witnessed (or been subject to) ridicule for “babying” of a “garage queen” or “being too afraid to drive anywhere” or “wiping dust away as it appears.” Neither the criticizers nor the guys with the 1300-mile C6 Grandsports have it right. Seriously, GM made 18,883 of those things (not including a few thousand convertibles)! There’s no reason to be preserving them like the L-88’s of old, but I digress.

The fact of the matter is, road-tripping and detailing appear hopelessly at odds. Why should cars be perfected and protected – to be bubbled up, safe from harm, or so they can be enjoyed by onlookers and drivers on the open roads? Detailing’s fundamental purpose is questioned in this debate. I won’t make the argument that you should throw caution to the wind or that you should enjoy your car in a plastic bubble in a garage from a recliner. However, for the cars that aren’t extremely rare pieces of automotive history or classic Hollywood picture cars, I will argue that there exists a point of reasonable balance between tailgating gravel-filled dump trucks and “being too afraid to drive anywhere.”

With that in mind, let’s take a 550-mile detailer’s day-trip from Autobahn Alliance to Big Sur by way of California’s epic Highway 1. To do this successfully, we’ll follow three, simple steps:

1. Prep your sled

2. Bring a first aid kit

3. Relax and enjoy the drive

Regarding sled prep, everyone knows to check oil and tire pressure before a long drive. However, you can step your prep up to detailer level by applying a fresh layer of wax/sealant/coating topper to the “high impact” areas of your car; these include, specifically, the front bumper, windshield, and fronts of the wing mirrors. It may seem pointless to spot-treat your car right before your asphalt assault, but you’ll thank yourself ten times over when you return and bugs, tar spots, and other sticky contaminants wipe away with ease. The idea here is to save your paint from harsh chemicals (like bug & tar removers) and scrubbing. Rinse contaminants off instead of abrading them (and your clearcoat) to oblivion.

Paint Protection

Car Wax

My “garage queen” is a 2016 base Focus ST. I know, shame on me for complaining about the C6 guys when I drive a plastic, economy hatchback. Anyways, it (pictured above) received a fresh layer of P&S Beadmaker (an all-surface spray sealant) over existing layers of Collinite 845 (wax) and Jescar Powerlock+ (sealant) shortly before hitting the road.

For the trip itself, an actual first aid kit is probably a good idea, but the kit I’m talking about is not for you – it’s for your car and the emergencies (at least as far as detailers are concerned) it may encounter. To address these issues, stock your car with a waterless wash product, glass cleaner, and 3-6 microfiber towels. Keep in mind, these items are for first aid use only. You wouldn’t wrap yourself in a foil disaster blanket if you were dry and had a sweater. You wouldn’t cut your pants off with safety scissors and tape gauze to your appendages unless your leg was broken and mangled. Following this logic, you should not be scraping bugs off the bumper at every gas/food stop. Only touch the paint (the equivalent of cutting your pants off) if something obviously volatile/corrosive/damaging hits it (e.g. gasoline, bird poo, wet road paint, nuclear fallout, etc.). For this reason, the items in your first aid kit are primarily for glass cleaning. Glass is significantly harder than clearcoat and, therefore, does not scratch as easily. Ideally, you’ll have renewed the protection on your glass before your drive so bugs and dirt should be easy to remove.

Front of White Focus ST

Unlike paint, gas and food stops are a great opportunity to rid your vision of bug splats. Doing this while parked with a towel and spray bottle prevents windshield washer fluid from creating unsightly runs all over the car and windshield perimeter. The picture above was taken after about 270 miles of coastal cruising without cleaning (or magic spot-removal editing) of any kind.

Finally, enjoy the drive. It’s tempting to assume that detailers hate driving, but I find the exact opposite to be true. Most detailers detail because they love cars. Driving (the main thing a car is built to do) is evidently an important component of this passion and enthusiasm. Freaking out about the little things is easy to do, but it detracts from the amazing sights, sounds, and swooping curves you could be taking in. Of course, the ultimate solution for damage mitigation is paint protection film (PPF). However, the price of this product and its installation relative to vehicle value will only make sense on certain cars owned by certain people (an interesting topic for a future article). In summary, start clean, protect your car as well as you can, avoid touching the paint unless absolutely necessary, and enjoy the drive.

Whether you're an everyday car enthusiast going on a weekend road trip or a professional car detailer entrusted with maintaining the exterior of movie car rentals for production companies, striking the balance between preservation and driving remains paramount.


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