How Do Car Dealers Make Cars So Shiny? Secret tricks revealed


Love that new car smell, but I really love that showroom shine too, which makes a ton of people ask the same question. I’ve been in the auto industry for over twenty five years and you are about to learn all the inside detailing secrets.

Car dealers’ cars are so shiny because they employ specialist staff known as detailers who use special auto detailing products and equipment to produce that shiny showroom finish. Products like:

  • Auto detergent
  • Carnauba wax
  • Glass polish and moisture repellent
  • Wheel wax
  • Tire shine

In this post you’ll learn how dealers make their cars so shiny, what products and equipment they use and of course the insider tricks.

Auto Detergent

Car washing

Washing is the first step towards a showroom shine, fine particles of grit, silica, tree sap, road salts are all resting on the surface of the paint and glass. So although the car may look clean, fine particles like silica dust are ever present in the air. 

Going straight to the wax stage without first washing serves to drag the fine particles across the paintwork. This type cleaning technique will result in swirl marks.

Begin by power washing the paintwork to remove loose grit. A good auto detergent is important, household detergent is too aggressive and removes protective wax layers. A bucket with grit trap is super important too, otherwise grit is dragged across the paint.

Using a quality hand towel, wash the body and rinse with cold water.

Use a squeegee to remove the heavy standing water from the roof glass and body panels. Now finish drying the body using a quality genuine chamois leather.

Now you are set for the next stage.

Bodywork Shine

Jaguar

There are tricks to every trade, getting that showroom shine for some vehicles will require some work. As a car ages the paintwork obviously sufferers, road grit, bird poop, rain, snow, wind, direct sunshine, tree sap and contact brush car washes all kick the shine off the paintwork.

But the shine is still there. Car dealers employ a whole team of specialist cleaners known as detailers. The really skilled detailers can remove deep paintwork scratches and dents without breaking paint or using body fillers. Their skills are really impressive.

Dents, scratches and stone chips generally require skill and experience to repair successfully. Pro detailers will repair them first before bringing the shine.

Your car’s paintwork condition will dictate the level of repair work required. Paint restoration ranges from light, medium to heavy.

Light restoration – waxing

Medium restoration – clay bar, polish and waxing

Heavy restoration – wet rub using grit paper and several graduating grades of abrasive polish’s applied by DA buffing machine. See the whole process covered in this post “Restore faded red car paint”.

Here’s some insider tips to nail that wet look showroom shine.

Clay bar the paintwork

Clay bar car paintwork

A clay bar is a block of rubbing clay, now also offered in a handy cloth form. It’s used by pro detailers to remove fine particles of grit, silica and other contaminants from the paints surface. Contaminates stick to the clay bar or cloth as it rubbed across the paint work. 

Removing the grit before waxing prevents paintwork swirl marks which develop and are very noticeable in black and other dark colored cars. 

Using a clay bar takes only minutes and is the pro way to prepare your car for waxing. 

Use a top quality car Wax

Audi A4

Waxing is a finishing top protective coat applied as a paste and buffed by hand to a high shine. A quality wax will protect from the sun’s UV rays, harmful road salts, acidic bird poop etc.

When a car’s paintwork is fresh, a brush wash and wax is a great way to get a fast shine, but not all wax is the same. Spray wax distributed by car washes doesn’t offer much protection and doesn’t last.

Walking through the wax aisle of the auto parts store can be paralyzing, so many wax products. 

In my experience the harder the wax the better it is, while the spray bottle wax offers a fast shine for your labor, it really doesn’t offer much in protection and doesn’t last.

If you want a deep shine that lasts, (and who doesn’t) your car will need a hand waxing using a top quality wax. Carnauba wax is the best there is. It’s a natural product made from Brazilian Carnauba palm trees. It’s prized for its ability to protect from the sun’s killer UV rays and its ability to repel water.

Waxing car paintwork

When you use Carnauba wax, you’ll notice the difference, the shine is deep and it lasts much longer than other waxes. Washing the car becomes a ton easier too, the dirt and grit doesn’t stick to the paint.

Avoid waxing outdoors in direct sunshine, this causes the wax to dry too quickly and removal is difficult. Wax indoors or in the shade. Carnauba is a hard wax and so to make it workable it is mixed with other waxes. I like to use a padded applicator that spreads the wax evenly. 

I like to apply wax to only a couple of panels at a time. I allow the wax time to dry which will vary depending on how warm it is. I use two microfiber towels, one to remove and the other to buff the panels.

All the products I use are listed here “Car cleaning tools page”.

Use polish before waxing

Polish is a fine compound used to remove paintwork imperfections. It’s available in various abrasive grades, the more abrasive of which are known as compounds or pastes. 

Polishes and compounds alike are applied to paintwork using a foam pad buffing machine. Hybrid products – polish and wax in one bottle, often confuses customers. Polish and wax are specialist products that perform different functions.

  • Polish removes paint imperfections and is available in various abrasive grades
  • Wax shines and seals the paintwork

Polishes are used to cut a fine layer from paintwork revealing undamaged paint below. Heavily damaged paintwork like faded red paint will require a more abrasive polish which we call compound.

Wet rub badly damaged paintwork 

Wet rub damaged car paintwork

Wet rubbing is the labor intensive process of hand wet rubbing paintwork using water and a fine grit paper. This process is reserved for heavily damaged paintwork only. The wet rubbing removes the dead paint, revealing fresh paint below. 

After wet rubbing, compounds, polishes and a buffing machine are used to bring the paintwork back to life.

Cars manufactured in the last fifteen years or so have thinner paint coatings and so you must use caution when wet rubbing. It is possible to rub through the paint and down to the primer especially on body lines.

Use a DA buffing machine

Buffing machine

The dual action (DA) buffing machine is an electric power tool with a padded head used to save a ton of labor when rubbing paintwork. The buffer head orbits and the speed is variable, both important features when working on delicate paintwork.

While the buffer resembles a grinder tool with a soft padded head, it’s more sophisticated than that. The oscillating head prevents the operator from burning paint by spending less time on the same contact patch. Foam and wool pad heads are Velcro backed and easily changed.

Using a DA buffer will save you a ton of labor and offer a superior finish when compared to hand rubbing.

Windshield Glass Shine

Glass just like paintwork takes a beating from weather, sand, grit and windshield wipers scratch the surface. Glass can be polished however, you’ll need to use a specialist polish. Before polishing a windshield the pro detailer uses a sharp flat blade to remove grit from the glass surface.

This attention to detail makes the difference, after buffing the windshield using polish and a buffer your glass will shine like crystal. It is possible to remove deeper scratches, but just like paintwork polish, you’ll need a more abrasive glass polish.

A finishing coat on the windshield isn’t necessary, waxing a windshield would cause glare when night driving. I use a product called Rain-x, it repels water, dirt, protects your wiper blades and makes night driving in the rain less tiring.

Wheel Rim Shine

wire wheels

Wheel rims offer a unique challenge when cleaning. Many cars use alloy wheels which look great when clean but brake dust can cause heavy staining if not cleaned regularly. The second challenge is access, many alloy wheels have wide spokes meaning the inner rim is on show but not accessible.

Before cleaning rims, hose or pressure wash them to remove loose grit. A bucket of auto detergent and a tool known as a wheel cleaning brush makes accessing the rear of the rim easy. After a thorough cleaning and rinse, access the results, very often the front rims are stained from brake dust. 

Use a tough brake dust removing product to clean the staining. Some of these products can be pretty aggressive. They contain acids, so use them outdoors and wear safety glasses and gloves. 

I recommend an acid free strong wheel and tire cleaner by Car Guys on my Car cleaning tools page.

After the cleaning, go ahead and use car polish on the rims, a good polish will protect the rims from brake dust and road grime.

Tire Shine

Lexus

Tires are difficult to clean unless you know the little hacks, a stiff brush and auto detergent does a pretty good job but it’s labor intensive. I’ve been using tire foam for years and it’s great stuff, spray on allow it time to foam, rinse off, job done. 

The tire foam dissolves brake dust and grime and cuts back to a clean black rubber wall. The cleaner doesn’t shine the tires, if a high shine is your thing, then use a tire shine product for that showroom high gloss shine.

Interior Shine

Interior cleaning

Don’t forget the interior, there’s a ton of fantastic products for cleaning, repairing and protecting. Products like leather upholstery cleaners and conditioners specially formulated to moisturize leather.

Fabric seat and carpet cleaners, scotch guard protection, plastic care and repair products, the list goes on and on.

You’ll find all the products and tools the pros use listed here on the “Car cleaning tools page”.

John Cunningham

John Cunningham is an Automotive Technician and writer on Rustyautos.com. I've been a mechanic for over twenty years, I use my knowledge and experience to write articles that help fellow gear-heads with all aspects of classic car ownership, from tires to roof aerials and everything in between.

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