Detailing tips from a pro who cleans cars for the Pebble Beach Concours

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Long before you can see the reflection of your seersucker suit in a car’s fender on the lawn at Pebble Beach, expert hands spent hours prepping the car for the show. Judges sweat every last detail at a major concours, so unraveling a garden hose and that old bottle of car-wash soap the night before the show isn’t remotely going to cut it. Extreme focus and vigilance are necessary to make sure a car is ready for the concours lawn. More than that, however, is that time and effort applied in the right places to make a car pop out from the rest of the pack and catch the judges’ eyes.

“If the car wasn’t prepared and examined with a fine-tooth comb before ever arriving in Monterey, you might as well not show up,” says Tim McNair, owner and detailing expert of Grand Prix Concours Preparation. “All the work that happens the week of the Concours is fine tuning.”

McNair has been detailing cars for more than 35 years, and in addition to being a trained Lotus and Mercedes-Benz technician, he worked in a restoration shop in New Jersey specializing in the 300 SL. Most importantly, he is also a judge at the Amelia Island Concours, Concours d’Elegance of America at St. John’s, and senior judge for the Ferrari Club of America, to name a few.

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Detailing car pebble beach microfiber
Brandan Gillogly

“Being a judge other places gives me an advantage,” he tells Hagerty, as he makes final touches on CEO McKeel Hagerty’s 1931 Cadillac 452A V-16 All-Weather Phaeton for the Concours the following day. “And Pebble Beach is a marque-specific system, where Ferrari experts judge Ferraris, Cadillac experts judge Cadillacs, and so on. You have to make that first impression as bold and special and happy and shiny as possible. Judges, after all, are human.”

Right before our eyes, we watch McNair take a nasty scratch on the front fender caused from a dangling camera or maybe a purse and make it virtually disappear in a matter of 5 minutes. This guy is the real deal. And when you ask him how he learned it all, he chalks it up to two things: Trial and error, and keeping himself humble and open to the constant improvement that comes from learning.

Hagerty: What separates concours prep from cleaning up your car for your local show or meetup?
Tim McNair: For one, most people don’t crawl under the car and make sure the front suspension is spotless, or that the inside of the wheels are clean. What separates concours prep from general detailing is definition between the surfaces, colors, and materials. When it’s done right, the black is black, the chrome is chrome, and the aluminum is aluminum.

H: Do you have any specific equipment or products you recommend to people?
TM: I never wash a concours car with regular soap and water, so for me I always have lots of PFM microfiber towels and we wipe the cars down with Griot’s Best of Show detailer.  I then wash and reuse them, so what starts first as a body towel eventually becomes a wheel towel, and then it’ll be an engine grease or gunk rag before I chuck it. But you can definitely make microfibers last—I pre-treat them with a cleaner, and then just wash with other microfibers and regular Tide or OxiClean. As for something more off the wall, I often use Pro Honda Spray Cleaner and Polish, which was made for Honda motorcycles.

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Brandan Gillogly

H: Any horror stories to share or myths to dispel?
TM: I’ve seen all of the supposed “tricks.” One that sticks in my memory is a guy who used to use olive oil on wheel arches to make them shine. The problem with that is that on hot days it would go rancid and absolutely stink, and he’d have to do it every few days when the arches would dry out. So yea, he had shine, but it was a foul smell. As for myths, I’d say it’s that there’s a one-solution product or that it’ll be quick and easy. The process of getting the definition you need to win a concours takes time and practice.

H: What about something only a pro would know?
TM: Well, I’ve prepared 29 of the 64 McLaren F1 road cars. In doing that I learned that you should use glass cleaner to clean the gold in the V-12 engine bay. There was even a technical service bulletin about it from McLaren.

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Brandan Gillogly

H: What can amateurs do to up their detailing game at home?
TM: For one, make sure the car is totally clean before adding shine or wax. For whitewalls I personally use a towel with some lacquer thinner, but I wouldn’t necessarily suggest that for beginners, who are better off with Westley’s Bleche-White tire cleaner. For black tires, I use Griot’s rubber prep on a foam pad—you want the tire to look black, not shiny. Other than that, just read the instructions on the bottle and buy the best stuff you can afford. And don’t get any bright ideas about mixing different products together. Trust me, the chemists that made them know better than you do.

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Brandan Gillogly