It’s amazing how fast your vehicle can get dirty.
But returning your pride and joy to showroom condition is easy—all it takes is some cleaning products, a nice day, and a little elbow grease.
And when you consider the cost of having it professionally detailed, cleaning your own vehicle can save you money, too.
Car care products
Locate or buy the following car care products before starting this project
- For cleaning the interior, you may need: a car vacuum cleaner with brush and crevice attachments, cotton swabs, plastic and vinyl cleaner, cloth cleaner, leather cleaner, spot and stain remover, and microfiber or paper towels.
- For cleaning the exterior, you may need: detailing spray, bug and tar remover, car wash, clay bar, wax, ammonia-free glass cleaner, wheel cleaner, lambswool wash mitt, microfiber drying towels and polishing cloths, microfiber or foam wax applicators, large nylon- or natural-bristle brush, small detail brush, wash bucket, water hose, and optional pre-wax cleaner, scratch remover, and sealer/glaze.
Cleaning the interior
Start by vacuuming the carpet, the seats, and the dash and package shelf. A vacuum attachment with a brush helps dislodge stubborn dirt; a narrow crevice attachment will clean hard-to-reach spots like under the seats.
Clean cloth seats
Clean cloth seats with a dedicated cloth cleaner: Spread it around with a sponge, and let it sit. Once dry, vacuum. Any leftover cleaner can be removed with a clean towel.
Clean and condition leather
Help remove stains and grime from leather surfaces with a quality leather cleaner, a clean towel, and light pressure. Be cautious not to rub too hard, as it may remove the dye.
Tips for trim pieces
Shine up your interior trim pieces with a plastic and vinyl cleaner. Use it with a clean towel and a little elbow grease to help remove set-in grime. Most cleaners also have the added benefit of long-term protection once they soak in. Clean hard-to-reach crevices with cotton swabs, which work well for the instrument cluster, emblems, switches, air vents, audio system, and dash.
Remove carpet stains
Treat carpet and upholstery stains with a stain lifter like Motorcraft® Professional Strength Carpet and Upholstery Cleaner, or Motorcraft Spot and Stain Remover. Let it soak for a few minutes, and scrub spots with a plastic-bristle brush. Wipe clean with a new cloth, then vacuum again. Repeat the process on stubborn stains.
Cleaning the exterior
Inspect your paint
First, go over your entire vehicle and find trouble spots: contaminants like bird droppings, tar, and tree sap, as well as scratches, swirls, and chips. Pretreat any soft contaminants with detailing spray; use Motorcraft Bug and Tar Remover on hardened tar or bugs.
Hand wash only
Park your vehicle in the shade, then wash it with a bucket of Motorcraft Detail Wash and a lambswool wash mitt. Always wash from the top of the vehicle down. A nylon- or natural-bristle brush will help get dirt out of the tire sidewalls.
Rinse and dry
Next, rinse the vehicle by flooding it with a garden hose from the top down—this “pulls” the water off in large sheets. Dry the vehicle from the top down with microfiber drying towels. Dry the windows first, then move on to the paint. Always dry the vehicle in the shade, and be sure to get it dry before water spots form.
Remove contaminants with clay
Place your hand on the vehicle’s hood, and gently slide your fingers up and down the hood. You’ll be able to “feel” the contaminants on your fingertips—they feel like little bumps on the surface. If your paint is new and the surface feels completely smooth, you can skip to the next part.
If you feel contaminants, remove them by using a clay bar: Flatten the clay bar so it fits in your hand, and grab your detailing spray in the other hand. Then spray detailer on one panel to lubricate the clay, and gently rub the flattened clay back and forth over the entire paint surface. Do one panel at a time. When dry, repeat the fingertip test—the paint should now be clean.
You should always wax the vehicle after using a clay bar. There are two ways to wax: If your paint has lots of swirls and scratches, it will need a multistage system that uses separate applications of scratch remover, cleaners, and a glaze, in addition to wax. If your paint is new and/or in good shape, you’ll need only wax.
Put a small amount of wax onto a microfiber or foam applicator pad. Put the applicator on a top panel like the roof or hood, and, using a circular motion, apply the wax to a couple of panels at a time. Dried wax should show only a light haze—bright white means you’re using too much.
Remove the dried wax using microfiber or all-cotton cloths. Be sure to turn the cloths over often, so the wax doesn’t load up on them. When you are done, use a clean cloth to do a final pass over the paint, and remove any wax lodged in tight areas like emblems and spaces between body panels.
Clear up windows and mirrors
Clean your exterior and interior windows and mirrors by spraying an ammonia-free cleaner onto a lint-free or microfiber towel. Ammonia-free cleaners smell better, won’t streak, won’t damage window tint, and won’t damage your interior if you overspray. If you see any hard water spots on your windows or windshield, a good chrome polish can remove them.
Cleaning convertible tops
- For cloth tops, wash with a high-quality, convertible top cleaner and protectant.
- Do not use stiff bristle brushes, abrasive materials, or cleaners.
- For top material that shows lint (e.g., Cottonwood tree seeds), use a lint roller vacuum attachment with a soft bristle brush.
- Hot waxes applied by commercial car washes can make cloth material cleaning-resistant.
- Sending convertible top and windows through high water pressure or wand-type car washes may cause water leaks and weather strip damage.
- Do not fold convertible top when wet, as it may cause mold and mildew, as well as wear and discoloration of cloth material.
Choosing the right wheel cleaner
Before buying a wheel cleaner, check your owner’s manual to find out which kind of wheels you have.
Wheels can be:
- Painted, anodized, and clear-coated aluminum (many factory wheels)
- Polished aluminum
- Polished magnesium
When you know your wheel type, you can choose an appropriate cleaner: Motorcraft Wheel and Tire Cleaner is great for factory clear-coated wheels, a chrome wheel cleaner works for chrome wheels, and there are polishes for uncoated aluminum and magnesium wheels.
To clean your wheels, wash them with soapy water, then rinse. Attack brake dust and grime with your spray-on or paste wheel cleaner, and always remove it quickly by either hosing off the spray cleaner with water, or wiping the paste residue off with a clean cotton towel. Repeat when necessary, and then do a final wipe with a clean towel to ensure that the cleaner has been completely removed.