Today’s cars come with tough exterior finishes. In addition to multiple layers of high quality paint, most include layers of protective clear coat that protect the surface from dust, rain and other elements cars are exposed to. Any physical contact with the surface causes scratches and its important to check out any car wash to see what type of equipment will be touching your car before you use it.
Fortunately, my cars have not been damaged by automatic car washes on their finish, but I have had some scratches on my performance wheels from the tracks used to guide the car through the car wash. I currently have two cars, a 1968 Firebird muscle car and a new Mercedes sedan. They have very different finishes. The Firebird was restored and has a modern finish, but as done professionally in a local body shop.
The Mercedes sedan comes with multiple paint layers and clear coats applied by robots at the Mercedes factory in Germany. As with other parts of their vehicles, the paint finish represents the latest in technology and is better at standing up to automatic car washes and other wear and tear.
There are many types of automatic car washes, some actually use rotating brushes. These are the most damaging and can scratch the surface after just one use. I recommend avoiding them. The damage caused by them must be professionally buffed out, it can’t be washed away.
The other type is advertised as “brushless” and usually uses a series of soft foam fingers to gently rub away any surface dirt. These are considered safe for modern car finishes and clear coats. I use these, especially at Shell gas stations and have not have any damage done to the finish of my car. I have had some scratches at one car wash location where the tracks that guide your wheels onto the automatic system that pulls the car through the car wash. These are factory wheels, not huge Dubs and should not be scratched by these systems if they are set up properly.
After this problem, I stopped using the automatic car washes and I suggest using the do-it-yourself car washes, they allow a good combination of cleaning power and convenience. Most have a drying area where you can carefully dry you car and even apply finishing products. Here in Los Angeles the car washes charge between $1.25 and $2.50 for about four minutes. Even with this, you must make sure you use a soft cotton towel or baby diaper or chamois to dry the car or you risk scratching the surface as you would had you gone to the fully automatic car wash in the first place. Use the chance to also inspect every inch of the outside of your car for any damage or problems.
Another great tip to have your car clay-ed with detailing clay. Its a clay-like material that is applied to the car like a big old fashioned eraser. It literally picks up and removes surface contaminants, leaving only the paint and clear coat finish. You can then apply a fresh coat of wax. If you run your fingers over the finish of a new high end car in a showroom, it feels like glass. Smooth. If you run you hand over your car’s finish and it feels rough, even if it looks nice, its covered with dirt and should be treated with the magic clay! You can do the clay yourself or have it done by a detailer.