Best Practices for Limo Detailing

Jim Ross and R.L. “Bud” Abraham
Posted on June 1, 2004

Exterior care of a vehicle is more complicated than an occasional wash. Like the mechanical aspects of the vehicle, if exterior parts are not cared for properly they will deteriorate to a point that they must be replaced. If they are not replaced, the vehicle’s value lowers.



The best way to maintain today’s clear coat-paint finishes is to keep them clean and free of dirt, bird droppings, insect residue and leaves. Regular washing is critical to paint finish maintenance. You can’t keep a paint finish too clean.


To wash your vehicle, use either the low automatic conveyerized “soft-cloth” carwash or do it by hand. The safest automatic carwash is a professional conveyerized “soft-cloth” wash. Washes that use sufficient car wash shampoo and water on the cloth are actually safer for the finish than hand washing, because the constant flow of water and the professional shampoos provide a barrier between the washing cloth and the paint. Don’t use automatic carwashes in self-service carwash locations or the small automatic ones in gas stations. These are usually not well maintained and often only use a little shampoo or none at all.


Also don’t use “touchless carwashes.” The perception is that these washes would be much safer; however, that is not the case. If the vehicle is dirty it will have to be hand prepped, usually with a brush, to get it clean. And, these carwashes use a combination of hydrofluoric acid and high alkaline chemical to clean the vehicle. Over time, these chemicals will harm the entire exterior of the vehicle and will dull the paint. These chemicals will immediately strip off any wax protection on the vehicle.


Keep glass clean as part of the washing process. It is even recommended to apply some of the windshield treatments on a regular basis. Either Rain-X or a similar product or even a new product introduced by PP&G called Aquapel can be used. These products help maintain exterior glass condition.



If properly applied, waxing can provide protection for paint, even clear-coat paint. However, it is often applied incorrectly.


Applications that are too heavy end up causing buildup on the clear-coat surface. Unknowingly, others have applied wax in the sun, which should never be done. Using a good polish that is specifically designed for the correct paint surface will always give the best results. Most scratches can be removed with a polishing compound and a soft cloth. Short-term protection and a great shine are very easy to attain for the average user. If you wish to use an electric buffing wheel, make sure to use an orbital wheel. A non-orbital wheel is very difficult to use properly without damaging the clear-coat and should be left to professionals.



Tar & bug remover is sometimes the only cleaner that will remove road grime or tar. Try to test this chemical on a small surface before using it to clean a large area. Use these products only when necessary.



When cleaning and treating glass, it is important to leave the glass smudge free. Paper towels tend to streak and leave residue after cleaning glass. A little trick that really works is to use old newspaper. It leaves no streaky residue and cleans really well. It works great at keeping the interior windshield clean and improves visibility. Exterior glass can be treated with Rain-X and other comparable products to help improve visibility in rainy weather. Remember that it inhibits any type of chip repair process if you have used this type of product on the glass.



Know the difference between “maintenance” appearance service and “restoration” appearance service. As the word conveys, maintenance is just that – doing those things to the vehicle that will keep all elements of the exterior in top condition. On the other hand, restoration is what is needed when something on the exterior of the vehicle deteriorates to a point that you must implement some form of restoration in order to bring it back to a “like new” condition.



Engine cleaning is really not necessary. If you must clean your engine compartment, don’t use the local, quarter carwash hose. It can cause damage to electrical connections and components. If it is absolutely necessary to use water, cover all electrical devices with a plastic bag and put aluminum foil over the top to prevent water from getting in.



If you have several vehicles, a good steam-cleaning machine will save you a lot of grief when cleaning carpet. For $200, you can get a decent system that will work well. Also, the product Febreze helps cover up smells in the carpet once they have been cleaned well. A good leather cleaner will do wonders keeping the interior in perfect shape. Crevices can be cleaned well with cleaner and a rag. Even a Q-Tip can be used to clean seat cracks.



Plastic trim on vehicles can fade in color and oxidize. This fading does not affect all companies or cars; it really tends to happen in those regions that have a great deal of hot sun or where the vehicle is left outside in the sun most of the time. It can be reduced by regularly using either a silicone or acrylic resin protectant.


However, if you have a vehicle where the plastic trim has faded, there are ways to restore this trim. A company called SEM Products makes an entire line of coatings that you can use to literally recolor the trim back to its natural color, whether it be black or gray, the two most common colors that seem to fade and oxidize. There are other products that claim to offer some restorative properties as well, such as acrylic-resin ones.


A final note on keeping plastic trim in top shape is to have your detailer “tape” the trim with masking tape before buffing/polishing or waxing the vehicle. This will prevent the unsightly chemical stains that are often impossible to get out.


Few vehicles today have chrome on them, but there are a few that still use some chrome appointments on the exterior. Actually, chrome is easy to maintain because it is so hard. The worst that can happen to chrome is that it might rust and the least, it can be water-spotted. In either case you can use something like a glass cleaner and “00” steel wool to remove the rust and/or the water spots.


For maintenance, you can apply the wax or paint sealant on the chrome for the same type of protection as with paint.



Most limo paint can be maintained by applying a regular coat of wax or paint sealant. Without trying to make you a chemist, a polymer-based paint sealant is a better product to use on the paint than a wax. Paint sealant goes on faster, comes off faster and leaves a more durable finish. Waxes are typically oily and difficult to deal with in cold or hot weather and they leave a finish that is susceptible to fingerprints.


The best wax on the market will last no more than 30 to 45 days, under the best conditions, and a limousine tends not to be. On the other hand, a paint sealant will last up to six months under the best conditions, which on a limo is about two to three months, depending on conditions and how often it is washed.


If you use paint sealant, don’t allow it to come in contact with any non-body (low-gloss black) colored trim, such as grained door handles, roof racks, bumpers, side moldings, mirror housings or the windshield cowl area. The paint sealant will “gray” or stain the parts over time.


You should not pay $45 a quart for paint sealant. You can purchase quality products for about $25 a gallon.


It is recommended that you wax a limousine at least once a week to maintain a near perfect finish that will not require major restoration buffing and polishing. Don’t use waxes that contain abrasives and make sure to wash the vehicle first.


Application can be done by hand using a damp sponge or by using an electric or air orbital waxer. Removal is best done by hand, using micro-fiber towels.



If you do wash your own vehicles you can really damage the paint if you or your personnel do not follow certain procedures:


1. Use a pressure washer to rinse off all dirt concentration that could scratch the car.


2. Pre-spray a dirty car with a low pH pre-soak chemical and allow it to dwell to break the dirt’s bond to the paint finish.


3. Only use a perfectly clean lambswool wash mitt; it does not have to be new, but it should have been washed in a washing machine since the last carwash. If this is not done, the mitt can be like sandpaper on the finish, carrying fine dirt particles. Do not use sponges or rags to wash the car; they hold far too much fine dirt.


4. Have a clean barrel of water with sufficient shampoo, a neutral PH one, in the barrel to create a great deal of foam which will help keep the surface lubricated. Never use household detergents or dish soap; these products can discolor and spot painted surfaces.


5. Never wash a vehicle that is “hot to the touch” or exposed to strong, direct sunlight.


6. Wash from the front to the back, top to bottom.


7. Make sure carwash personnel dip the mitt in the clean water EACH time they move to a different part of the vehicle to ensure there is sufficient water, which provides a barrier between the washing mitt and the paint surface. Shampoo alone does nothing to protect the paint or clean the vehicle. You need to have a great deal of water on the surface as you are washing. This will keep micro scratches and spider swirls out of the paint.


8. To ensure that all areas are washed properly the first time, square each area you are washing and then fill in the center. If you do this all over the vehicle you will not miss areas.


9. Instruct personnel not to allow the wash mitt to hit areas of the vehicle that will contaminate and stain the mitt, such as the bottom of doors or extremely dirty wheels.


10. When the entire vehicle has been hand washed, rinse it thoroughly from front to back, top to bottom and especially the hood, doors and trunk jambs.


11. When rinsed, you can use a micro-fiber towel to dry, squeegee and towel, or a new device on the market – a hand-held air dryer.


12. During winter months, wash your vehicle regularly, as dirt and road salt are difficult to remove and can cause damage to the vehicle.  Note: Suntan lotions and insect repellants can damage any painted surface. If these substances come in contact with your vehicle, wash off as soon as possible.



Tires are an area of major focus for limousine owners, as poor appearance destroys a nice car. Clean first with soap and water and then apply your favorite tire dressing with a lint-free cloth. One-step products work well, but mask dirt and don’t last long.


Most rubber tires today are black, but a few have whitewalls and many have raised white letters.


Whether they have whitewalls or raised white letters, they should be sprayed with appropriate chemical and hand scrubbed at each wash. If they have whitewalls or raised white letters, you will need a strong whitewall cleaner. The No.1 product on the market for years has been Westley’s Bleche Wite, which offers the whitest whitewalls and raised white letters that you will get from any product.


Depending on the rubber in the tire, this water-based product may not work. If you find that your whitewalls or raised white letters are still yellow after cleaning, then you need to use a solvent, such as mineral spirits to remove yellowing.


Tires should be regularly treated with a water-based, silicone dressing like Armor All, or for longer life, trim and tire glaze that is an acrylic-resin.


Most stock alloy wheels on vehicles from the factory are clear-coated in that they are “painted” with the same polyurethane clear coat that goes on the body of the car. However, this clear coat is put on much thicker, as the wheels are susceptible to more damage. It is recommended that you keep a regular coat of protection on the wheels to prevent brake dust.


Polished wheels can be a little more delicate to work. If you are working with a polished alloy wheel, wash it down and cool it off. Then apply non-acid wheel cleaner, scrub with the appropriate brushes and rinse.


Related Topics: car care, carpet and upholstery, detailing your limo, exterior vehicle care, interior vehicle care, waxing

Comments ( 1 )
  • Kenneth Gorin

     | about 25 days ago

    Keeping your limo spotless sure does keep customers coming back, thanks for sharing!

More Stories