Summer has arrived, and with it, show season. If you've decided to enter your car into a show, it doesn't matter if you're going to a national-level concours or the neighborhood cruise; you want your ride to look its best. In judged shows, the difference between a prize and walking away empty handed can be in the details, especially when your car is up against so many other well-prepared entries.
Lenny Shiller, president of the Antique Automobile Association of Brooklyn, has judged many shows, and remembers having to decide between two nearly identical cars entered by a husband and wife.
"Both cars were perfect, but I saw an insect crawling down the seat on one and said, 'This isn't a period correct insect,'" he said. "So I gave first prize to the other car just for a laugh."
So what does it take to make a car perfect? It all depends on the show. Leo Levine, who has been an honorary judge at the Pebble Beach Concours d'Élégance for 25 years, and has also judged at the Amelia Island concours and a handful of other shows, says every show has its own standards.
"You have to know before you go what they're going to be looking for," he said. "It ranges from Pebble Beach on the one end to everything else on the other."
At Pebble Beach, he said, the event's organizers require documentation for everything – ownership, repairs, restorations and anything else related to the car's history. About 700 cars enter in a typical year, but only a couple hundred make it into the show.
That may be more high end than most people will aim for, but, aside from the documentation requirement, cleanliness is as important there as it is in most shows.
Michael Graff, president of the Brooklyn region of the Antique Automobile Club of America, also judges shows on a regular basis, and said that in local shows, he often sees cars with dirty engine compartments, a faux pas in any event.
"Don't tell the judge, 'Oh, I drive this every day so the engine's dirty,'" he said. "That doesn't work."
Some people trailer their cars to shows to keep road dirt from getting on already detailed undercarriages, Shiller said.
"To me, prepping is just common sense," Graff said. "It's cleaning the car and making it look good."
He also pointed out that if you plan on showing a car, it's a good idea to keep it as original as possible. Replacing the original radio with a modern, digital-readout CD player with a USB port and bluetooth connectivity, for example, may be great for the daily commute. But it does little to enhance the originality of a car's interior if chrome knobs and backlit dials were the norm when it rolled off the assembly line. Shiller said that many contestants even go as far as installing factory original air and oil filters in their show cars.
Just keep in mind that when there are a lot of gleaming, all-original cars on display at a show, the differences that determine the winners from everyone else can be minute. The judges are looking for things that are wrong with a car so they can deduct points from its score, Graff said. They're looking at everything – engine, bodywork, chassis and interior.
"If a car is all original, I'll be a little more lenient than if a car has been restored," he said. "If the paint has a few scratches in it, and if the car's all original, the fact that it's survived this long is worth something."
But again, how a judge looks at your car depends on the show and its judges. Graff said preparation is mostly common sense.
"You do the same thing you would do if you were selling the car," he said.
There are so many different car care products available, it would be impossible to recommend the best ones. Most people find what works best for them. But here's a basic rundown of how to prepare your car for the next show:
Clean the engine compartment and undercarriage: It's a good idea to do this first, to avoid splattering grease on an already cleaned car. You might also put towels on the windshield and fenders to keep from getting degreaser on them.
Wash the car: Rinse the car, then use an automotive-specific cleaner and a sponge or mitt that's designed for use with automotive finishes. Don't even think about using dish soap; it's too strong. Start by cleaning the wheels, to avoid getting brake dust-infused water all over an already-washed car. Then work your way from the roof down. It's also a good idea to wash in the shade, as soap will evaporate quickly from a hot surface and leave spots and streaks on the paint.
Dry the car with a chamois or high-quality microfiber towel. Apply tire dressing only after the tires are completely dry.
Clean surface impurities: Some people like to use an abrasive polish to clean stains and sap from the paint and restore lost shine. Others prefer a clay bar. In either case, follow the directions on the packaging to ensure a good finish and to avoid damaging the paint.
Wax the car: Work in the shade. Wax will dry too quickly on hot paint, and will cause hazing and other ugly imperfections. Apply the wax in thin coats to small sections of the car, buffing the area with a clean towel.
Clean the interior: Clean the door jambs, hinges and the backs of the doors. Vacuum the carpets. Clean the carpets with an automotive carpet cleaner (follow the instructions on the can), then vacuum again to get any residue left over by the cleaner. Use a rag soaked in warm water and a small amount of very mild soap to wipe down vinyl and plastic surfaces (again, don't use harsh detergents and cleaners). For leather, use a leather cleaner and conditioner. Don't forget to detail the trunk.
Clean the glass: Don't use Windex and other household glass cleaners, as they weren't designed for your car's interior and won't work well. Use an automotive glass cleaner or newspapers and hot water. Either way, you're looking for a streak-free finish.
Look over the car's details: Are the wheels and tires original (and does it matter for the show you've entered)? Check underhood components for neatness and originality. Parts to watch out for are spark plugs and wires, distributor caps, radiator caps and other replaceable filters. You don't want to lose points because you showed up in a '59 Oldsmobile outfitted with Japanese double platinum spark plugs and a generic radiator cap.
Most of all, don't forget to have fun!