SEMA News—July 2011

Car Care Tech

Today’s Complex Mix of Surfaces, Finishes and Consumer Expectations Beget Innovative Solutions

   Product Developer Kenneth King demonstrates the manufacturer’s Barrier Reef carnauba wax compound
Product Developer Kenneth King demonstrates the manufacturer’s Barrier Reef carnauba wax compound on one of owner Tim Miller’s many private-collection cars found at Surf City Garage in Huntington Beach, California.
  Consumers equate water beading with wax protection, but unfortunately there’s not a huge correlation between the two
Often overlooked, advances in chamois and microfiber technologies are as important to surface protection as detailing compounds. Pictured here is one of Shurhold’s extra-soft and absorbent microfiber towels.   

To paraphrase a well-worn Oldsmobile ad, today’s vehicles are not your father’s paint and trim. If you think modern consumers are left scratching their heads over how to maintain the appearance of their vehicles, imagine what the companies that formulate car care products go through.

“From the last century, all the way up through the last five to 10 years, finishes have changed dramatically,” said Mike Pennington, product expert for Meguiar’s, the century-old car care product company acquired by the 3M Corp. in 2008. “With all of today’s newer vibrant colors, pearls and metallics, the paints have actually gotten a lot more resilient from a longevity standpoint, so you really don’t see the paint oxidizing like you used to. The challenge now is the way a lot of clear coats really magnify defects.”

Pennington added that the swirls that often plague today’s exterior finishes remain a top consumer concern, whether caused by dirty towels, a bad automated car wash or road grime.

“The old-school abrasives—let’s call them rocks in a bottle—are pretty much obsolete nowadays,” he said. “There are newer technologies and a totally different style of abrasive that essentially removes swirl marks and oxidation yet [remains] gentle enough that it doesn’t actually mar the finish.”

A second challenge is that no one product fits all circumstances, said Jim Dvorak, public relations and technical support spokesperson for SEMA-member Mothers, which has manufactured polishes, waxes and cleaners for more than three decades.

“Quality and hardness of today’s paints vary greatly from entry-level vehicles to mid-range and on up to high end,” he said. “Waxing a finish in good shape is easy, but if such a correction as removing scratches, spider-webbing or swirls needs to be done, a particular polish or process can respond much differently from one vehicle to another. And it’s not just paint that varies. All aspects of car care from wheels to interiors are affected. Wheels are most often clear-coated, chrome-plated or chrome-clad, and each finish has its own challenges and care precautions. The aftermarket complicates things even more with non-standard finishes or a mixture of finishes. Interiors often have mixes of leathers, vinyls and synthetic suede-like materials, and it’s important to use the appropriate product for the material.”

Technological issues aside, car care product makers must also contend with an array of diverse marketing concerns, from diehard consumer habits and suppositions to cost and pricing realities in an increasingly competitive sector.

If It Beads, It Leads

“Consumers equate water beading with wax protection, but unfortunately there’s not a huge correlation between the two,” Pennington said. “There are plenty of ways to add protection to a vehicle that is actually hydrophilic, meaning the water is going to want to lay down on [the surface] as one big sheet.”

Pennington further explained that modern, less-bubbly wash formulations are also superior to detergents of past generations, but consumers similarly equate suds with clean. Consequently, many manufacturers add extra beading and sudsing agents to their already advanced products even though the compounds are chemically just as effective with or without them.

As for cost, “in cleaning and detailing, you generally have two approaches: You can do it high-tech chemically, which equals expensive, or you can do it low-tech abrasive, aggressive and cheaper,” said Tim Miller, owner of car care newcomer Surf City Garage.

According to Miller, continued pressure from big retail chains to cut costs has prompted many manufacturers to expand their lower-tech product lines. Unfortunately, the trade-off frequently means hazing, dulling and wear on chrome and other sensitive surfaces over time.

Mothers California Gold line is designed exclusively for high-end paint care. The line’s new Carnauba Wash & Wax promises to remove stubborn grime while boosting shine between waxes.
  Meguiar’s consumer Heavy Duty Series Headlight Restoration Kit.
Meguiar’s consumer Heavy Duty Series Headlight Restoration Kit.
A construction company owner, Miller said that he was “pulled into” the car care sector four years ago after noticing the long-term damage done to his own musclecar collection by supposedly safe products. Miller asked some chemical-blending associates to develop formulations for his personal use.

“They came up with some incredible products,” he said. “We decided to bring that quality to the national shelf so everyone could buy it and manufacture it in such a way that anyone could afford it,” said Miller, explaining that high-end car care typically occupies a boutique market online and at shows.

Miller and his team didn’t change a single formula, but they did have to go big-time, he said, establishing a large factory, buying in mass and cutting out every possible middleman they could to lower costs. Such large-scale production allowed Surf City Garage to distribute nationally to virtually every major auto chain plus Wal-Mart and 30 countries worldwide.

Ever-Newer Solutions

According to leading SEMA-member car care manufacturers, the segment is also experiencing pressure from other quarters. Increased municipal regulations on water usage along with growing environmental concerns have many vehicle owners turning to professional car washes, detailers and waterless cleaning methods. The result is a shrinking retail marketplace crowded with an often-confusing collection of non-toxic, green-friendly, nano, hydrophobic and polymer technologies.

No matter what terms manufacturers use to market their products, however, Pennington said that the best lines all follow the same basic approach: remove grit and imperfections first with surface-friendly cleaning and polishing compounds, then finish the job with an appropriate protective barrier that protects with a lasting, show-class shine.

  Meguiar’s Detailer DA lineup.
Meguiar’s Detailer DA lineup. A growing number of car care product lines include not only specialized pro-quality formulations, but also tools and applicators refined for modern automotive finishes.  
   A relative newcomer to the marketplace, Surf City Garage
A relative newcomer to the marketplace, Surf City Garage offers what normally would be considered high-end boutique products at price levels attractive to chain retailers.
   Forever Car Care Products offers a line of blackening polymers
Bumpers, trims, tires and vinyl tops require particular formulations to restore deep color and sheen. Forever Car Care Products offers a line of blackening polymers for all these items. Pictured here is the company’s Forever Black-Top gel.
Multiple surfaces call for specialty solutions, and spillover can ruin a job—or even damage neighboring surfaces. The hand-held Rim Shield by the company of the same name (p. 42) can protect wheels and rims from errant spray-on tire shine products.
For such state-of-the-art sealing against grit, water, UV rays and other environmental hazards, manufacturers now continually research and engineer high-grade carnauba waxes and polymer-based products employing synthetic chains of molecules linked together on a “nano level” for superior smoothness, sheen and longevity.

In addition to wash and wax formulations, car care manufacturers have also stepped up their development of specialty tools and products.

“Mothers branched out in a big way several years ago with our original PowerBall drill-mounted foam polishing tool to shine bare aluminum wheels and diamond plate with ease,” said Dvorak. Since then, Mothers has also debuted several other versions of the patented technology, including a foam tool for headlight restoration.

Not to be outdone, Meguiar’s and other leading car care companies have also introduced various consumer and professional detailing kits and tools for headlights, dashes, interior surfaces, rubber and plastic trim, chromes and alloys and bumpers. Improved microfiber cloths and chamois also help smooth the application and removal of wash, wax and ‘between-detailing’ care products.

In an era of retail price slashing, some of these new offerings may push the cost envelope, but as Miller noted, “Companies are now realizing that they have to make a better product and that it’s okay to charge a little bit more as long as the product does more.”

For the past 35 years, Michael Sallus, owner of Executive Class Automotive, the SEMA Show’s official vehicle detailer, has utilized a variety of the professional lines made by the higher-end commercial manufacturers. From his perspective, companies have made tremendous strides in creating solutions to expertly clean and shine the multiple finishes that detailers typically encounter—not only from one vehicle to the next, but even on a
single car.

“If we’re working with bodyshop work and repaints versus brand-new finishes, we’re having issues with two different types of paints that aren’t always matching perfectly,” he noted. Plus, he said, the ease of use of today’s products trumps anything made a decade or more ago.

Summing up professional and consumer attitudes, Sallus observed: “For us, time is money. If we’re taking five hours to do a professional job and a particular product will cut our time down to two and a half hours, that’s phenomenal.” 

Modern Techno-Jargon

  Wash, polish and protection products are now highly engineered, and manufacturers often coin “scientific” words or phrases to describe and market their latest technologies to consumers—sometimes with confusing results 
In today’s highly competitive world of car care, ongoing research and development are a given. Wash, polish and protection products are now highly engineered, and manufacturers often coin “scientific” words or phrases to describe and market their latest technologies to consumers—sometimes with confusing results. Here are some of the more popular terms:

Nanotechnology: No one major manufacturer has a corner on nanotechnology. Although they may call their processes by different names, virtually all of today’s leading car care companies engineer their compounds on a molecular level. Nano refers to particles one-billionth of a meter or less in size. Nanotechnology allows washes, waxes, polymers and other chemical agents to more effectively penetrate and/or treat minute surface imperfections. “Nanotech” can also strengthen the bonding of a surface protectant to create a tighter barrier against the elements.

Hydrophobic Technology: This term describes products that enhance water repellency and “hydro-protection.” Waxes and polymers can be designed to fend off liquids either through sheeting action (like dishwasher detergents often do to prevent water spotting on glassware) or through beading properties. Consumers, however, have come to associate beading with shine and product longevity, so many manufacturers opt for that more visual form of hydro-protection.

Waterless Car Care: This category can include everything from spray products designed to lift light dust and quick-shine a car between washings and waxings to steam-cleaning machines. In fact, in many municipalities, car owners are now limited to bucket washing their vehicles, while professional detailers are required to use portable basins to catch and reclaim water during washes. Some non-traditional companies are beginning to tout steam machines as an ideal way to comply with such ordinances—although the jury is still out among professionals as to how safe high-temperature steam blasts are for clear-coat surfaces.

Green-Friendly Solutions: Again, this is a catchall phrase with a variety of meanings. Examples include low-sudsing or biodegradable formulations, non-toxic solutions, all-organic or natural compounds and, of course, waterless technologies.

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