Sunday, April 7, 2013

Looking sweet for spring

The golden hour enhances any finish
When the lovely snowstorms of spring make us think of open-top sports cars, picturesque winding roads, and sliding on black ice over the cliffs, it is nearly time to begin the lengthy job of bringing a dusty hulk out of storage and turning it into a sweet ride for the sunny season. I've found that the usual car-care products and practices don't make my car look its best. After a certain age, the Blakely's colored finish needs special care to shine.

The Blakely's natural gel-coat finish is a colored resin sprayed into the parts mold before the fiberglass and structural resin were added. In effect, it's a single coat of resin acting like paint. It's often thicker than a standard coat of auto paint but is really a different sort of material. It ages differently and needs different techniques to keep it looking good.

Factory Blakely bodies are fiberglass finished in gel-coat. Corvettes, also made of fiberglass, are always painted, while fiberglass boat hulls may go either way. A Corvette's (and, in general, any painted car's) paint looks best with regular waxing. You should make little or no use of polishing or rubbing compounds, which erode the thin paint coat rapidly and can expose primer or even underlying fiberglass if applied too harshly. Gel-coat, on the other hand, seems to need the harshness of a polishing compound once it starts to fade with age and sun damage.

My Blakely Bernardi is red in body and fenders, but the finish has historically been far from rich and shiny. For the first few years I owned it, I followed the care routine that worked for the Corvette: a couple of hand-polishes with expensive car wax each summer, and regular brushless car washes with the full set of finishing products (e.g., spray-on 'wax') in between.

In recent years I noticed that the Blakely's finish was much cloudier than when I had first seen it, even though the car is garaged and sees sunlight perhaps 50 days a summer. I tried adding a polishing step before the waxing, using the mild polishes recommended for painted cars at the auto supplies store. Little or no difference could be seen.

Then a friend suggested the 'marine finishes' section of the store, based on the wide use of fiberglass in boating. I went to my local big-box automotive supply store and was able to find several products claiming to be the cat's whiskers for gel-coat finishes.

I bought Meguiar’s 49 Marine / RV Oxidation Remover as a polish, and Meguiar’s Premium Marine Wax for finishing. The neighbor's huge 8" rotary polisher applied and removed the Oxidation Remover, and some rags did the job for the wax. The results I experienced were striking: some milky areas returned to full red for the first time since I had begun working on the finish years back.

I know it's not wishful thinking or an optical illusion, since my sloppy work left a few areas unpolished and they are definitely poorer in quality than the places I did a good job. And it's not just me, as passengers, family members, and other harsh critics notice the missed spots no matter how fast I drive. I will get new supplies and do another round this spring, but I will use a smaller buffing wheel to make it easier to follow the curves and get into the crannies of the Blakely's exterior.

I have also stopped using post-wash chemicals like the spray-on wax in the manual carwashes. I just use a round of soap to start, then clean water to rinse before leaving. I don't know if that makes a big difference, but the gel-coat is certainly not becoming milky as quickly as it did in previous years. I haven't started trying standard automotive waxes again, just the liquid finish recommended by the marine gel-coat suppliers.

These ideas may or may not apply to your car - certainly test any new treatment on an inconspicuous area before tackling the sides and hood. I was surprised to see marine finishes at an automotive store, but less so when it became clear that many towed campers and recreational vehicles use the same gel-coat finish. So supply should be easy to find if you already know your community's auto stores, which you should be very familiar with as a classic car owner!

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