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How to give your old car new life

Originally published on www.consumerreports.org

Last updated: February 2014

The old adage “a clean car runs better” may hide a profound truth. It may be that people who take the trouble to keep their car clean also take the trouble to maintain it. Or it could be that it’s easier to spot car problems if you’re looking at a clean and orderly area. In either case, making an older car look like new can pay dividends by maintaining the car’s value and increasing personal satisfaction.

It needn’t cost a lot to transform shabby into chic. As with most other do-it-yourself projects, the more elbow grease you are willing to invest, the less you’ll need to pay someone else. Here are some tips to help you go about it.

Outside appearances

The first step to getting the body looking good is to give it a thorough cleaning with car-wash soap and water. Once it’s completely dry, look over the paint surface and assess any damage you see. Note any scratches, stone chips, dings, and dents in the sheet metal.

You can touch up small scratches and chips with touch-up paint, available for a few dollars at your car dealership and at some auto-parts stores. Make sure you get an exact color match. Touch-up paint usually comes in a small bottle with an applicator brush in the lid. Otherwise, use a small, pointed artist’s brush and cover the scratch by going over it in tiny dabs. Let this paint dry for at least a day or two before polishing the car.

To remove or minimize the many fine surface scratches most cars accumulate, you can have the car professionally buffed at a body shop or car wash. This buffing will take out minor scratches and greatly improve the car’s overall appearance. But for a buff and touch-up, you can expect to spend about $200.

If you want to do the job yourself, consider polishing the car by hand if you don’t have experience using an electric buffer. Old T-shirts make good polishing cloths. If you still want to use an electric buffer, you can borrow, rent, or even buy one. Good ones start at about $40. If you don’t know what you’re doing, though, it’s easy to mark or even burn through the paint with a buffer.

Most cars made in the past 8 to 10 years have a “clearcoat” paint finish. That means a thin color layer is coated with a thicker layer of a clear, lacquerlike coating. Whether you are polishing with a buffer or by hand, make sure the polish you use is safe for clearcoat finishes if that’s what’s on the car. You shouldn’t use the old-fashioned, abrasive polishing compounds on them.

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