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"If you really want to get to know a car, you have to take the time to run a sponge over it"

Richard Meaden
25 Jul 2017
Opinion: Richard Dickie Meaden

It's easy to get sentimental about cars, but to romanticise washing them? No problem for Meaden (who hasn't held a sponge in years)

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Car cleaning: Chore or delight? It might seem odd to find a eulogy to washing cars in a magazine dedicated to driving them, but I’ve long believed that if you really want to get to know a car, you have to take the time to run a sponge over it. I’m not talking about the half-baked magazine-photo-shoot job using ice-cold river water in some remote Welsh lay-by. I’ve spent enough of my life doing just that to know there are few things more unpleasant and less satisfactory. No, I’m talking about a proper, lose-yourself-on-a-Sunday-morning wash and wax.

There was a time when this blokey ritual was as much a part of my motoring life as charging along a favourite road or making an extra lap of an empty roundabout. But in recent years this simplest and most readily accessible of car-based pleasures has become a distant memory, almost without me realising it.

As you get older, life and work have a habit of getting in the way, as indeed does where you live. Urbanites’ cars can stay clean for weeks, but if, like me, you live at the end of a lane that in winter could double up as one of the muddier stages of the East African Safari Rally, or a dust-choked stage of the Acropolis Rally during the summer, maintaining a spotless car is heartbreaking. Consequently I don’t bother.

That’s my excuse, but what’s yours? Apart from my dad, who is a chamois-wielding anal retentive of epic proportions, and Richard Tipper – great friend of evo and the elbow grease behind world-renowned Perfection Valet – I don’t know anyone who still washes their own car. I’m sure the diehard car cleaners amongst you have just thrown your magazine down in disgust at that statement, but I’d bet my boots that the rest of you are struggling to recall where your bucket and sponge are.

R8 car wash

The reason is simple. Car washing has been hijacked by apathy or a sense of inferiority. Apathy in the face of the ultra-convenient ‘£5 Hand Car Wash’ that has sprung up like weeds throughout the UK in the last few years; inferiority fuelled by the rise of professional detailing and its myriad potions, cloths, coatings and web forums dedicated to this high-end science.

The obvious upside to this is we’re all driving cleaner cars, but the sad fact is that whether you’re motivated to lavish £500 on a forensic and totally dazzling ‘paint correction’ or more inclined to spend a fiver on a quick dousing of truck degreaser and a rub with a gritty microfibre cloth in your local DIY-store car park, cleaning the car has become a chore to outsource rather than a treat to relish.

In the days before I was old enough to drive, the weekend wash ‘n’ wax was my first proper contact with cars. I can’t remember my dad giving me a fatherly chat about the birds and the bees, but I can distinctly recall him sitting me down for a serious schooling on how to clean a car. Start with the roof and work down. Dropped the sponge? Throw it away. Avoid sunshine as it’ll leave water marks before you get a chance to chamois it. T-Cut and a torn-up bed sheet for tar spots. Simoniz and another piece of tired bed linen with which to apply the hard wax and then, if you were lucky, just enough time for a drink and a sandwich before you spent the next two hours buffing it off with a freshly cut piece of cheesecloth. And before you detailing zealots scoff, this was from a time long before clay bars, Crystal Serum, microfibre cloths and the ‘two-bucket method’ were invented.

> Top ten car waxes

These days I can’t imagine having the spare time to lavish a whole afternoon cleaning a car, but I do know I used to love it. As much for the excuse to sit in the car (I always volunteered to do the interior, mainly so I could sit in the driver’s seat) as for the spotless end results. Three decades on, the (very) rare occasions I roll up my sleeves are a reminder that cleaning the car remains almost as revealing as driving it.

Streaks of dirt running from nose to tail show airflow as clearly as any wind-tunnel test. Better, they evoke memories of a long, fast drive in challenging conditions. Caked layers of brake dust, thoroughly scrubbed tyres and a fleck or two of oil on the rear bumper are badges of trackday honour. A textured coating of bugs spattering the nose always equals summer fun, while a crystalline carapace of crud indicates some heroic wintry mission on slippery, salted roads.

Washing away the evidence is as much a chance to relive those moments as it is to relish the feel of a soapy sponge cutting through the grime, or watching raindrops gather like mercury on polished bodywork. The Thrill of Cleaning? You heard it here first.

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