Car Interior Cleaning Care

Car collectors often find that their cars don’t need a full interior restoration but just a good cleaning. There are four general types of trim materials in cars: coated fabrics like vinyl or nylon, genuine leather, natural or synthetic fabric, and polyurethane foam materials. Cleaning each of these interiors takes special attention. Additionally, collectors take cloth in hand to clean convertible tops and carpets.

Genuine Leather and Vinyl Trim Care
The care of genuine leather and coated fabrics (including vinyl-coated, formed headlinings) is relatively simple. The surface should be wiped occasionally with a dry cloth. Use lukewarm water and neutral soap to clean the leather or vinyl. Apply thick suds, worked up on a piece of gauze or cheesecloth, to the surface of the seats, door panels and headliner. These steps should then be repeated using a damp cloth sans soap. Finally, the surface should be wiped dry with a soft cloth.

Fabric Care
Dirt and dust particles that accumulate on the upholstery of a car should be removed at least every few weeks with a whisk broom or a vacuum.

Before attempting to remove spots or stains from upholstery fabrics, try to assess the nature and age of the spot or stain, and the effect of stain-removing agents on the color structure and the appearance of the fabric. For best results, stains should be removed from the upholstery as soon as possible, but this is rarely an option with collector cars. Stains that have been sitting for awhile will be more difficult to remove.

There are three basic types of acceptable fabric cleaners: volatile cleaners (colorless liquids), synthetic detergents and neutral soaps (non-alkaline). Volatile cleaners are recommended because they have great solvent powers. Synthetic detergents generally loosen up stains pretty well, but improper use could damage your fabric’s color and finish. It’s recommended that approved car cleaners and spot removers be used.

Volatile cleaners: Care should be taken not to use too much solvent, and apply only with clean cloths. The solvent does the work, so minimum pressure should be applied. Start by brushing away loose dirt. Next, dampen a clean cloth with cleaner. Open the cloth and allow a portion of the cleaner to evaporate, making the cloth slightly damp. Use light pressure and a circular lifting motion to rub the stained area. Start at the outer edge and work towards the center, until the entire area has been covered. Wait several minutes to allow most of the volatile cleaner to evaporate to avoid cleaner penetrating to the padding. Certain cleaners will cause sponge rubber to deteriorate. It may be necessary to clean the area several times, using a clean cloth each time.

Some volatile cleaners are toxic. Always use these in a well-ventilated area. Avoid prolonged or repeated breathing of vapors from cleaner. Make sure to follow the directions on the manufacturer’s label.

Synthetic detergents: Make a solution of the detergent, in lukewarm water, working up thick, frothy suds. With a clean cloth or sponge, apply suds only to the surface of the upholstery, using light to medium pressure. Repeat several times, applying more suds with a clean portion of the cloth or sponge. With a second clean cloth, dampened with lukewarm water, rub over the area, with medium pressure. Rub the upholstery with a clean, dry cloth, and wipe off all excess moisture (a vacuum cleaner may also be used). Allow the upholstery to dry partially, and then repeat cleaning if necessary.

Certain precautions should be followed when cleaning automotive upholstery fabrics. The most important are:

  • Solutions containing water aren’t recommended for general cleaning of broadcloth fabrics, except when the disturbance to the finish is preferable to the stain.
  • Don’t use gasoline that has been colored or treated with tetraethyl lead as a cleaning solvent.
  • Don’t use acetones, lacquer thinners, enamel reducers or nail polish removers as cleaning solvents.
  • Don’t use laundry soaps, bleaches or reducing agents to clean automotive trim fabrics. The use of these agents tends to weaken fabric and change its color.
  • Don’t use too much cleaning fluid. Some interior trim assemblies are padded with rubber, and volatile cleaners are generally solvents for rubber. Too much of an application could destroy the rubber pads.

Specialty Top Care
Neutral soap suds, lukewarm water and a brush with soft bristles are recommended for convertible tops and vinyl roofs. Don’t use volatile cleaners or household bleaching agents.

If the top requires additional cleaning, a mild foaming cleanser can be used. Keep the cleanser from running onto the body finish, as it could streak. After the top has been cleaned, rinse it generously with clear water.

After cleaning a convertible top, always be sure that it’s thoroughly dry, before lowering it into the car body. Lowering the top while it’s still wet or damp may cause mildew and unsightly wrinkles.

Carpet Care
The cleaning of auto carpets starts with a thorough brushing or vacuuming. Next, a foaming-type upholstery cleaner can be used to make carpets look even better. Clean approximately one square foot of carpet at a time. When the carpet is clean, you can use compressed air to “fluff” the carpet pile; then dry the carpet.

Polyurethane Foam Material Care
Normal soiling, like from fingerprints, can be removed from polyurethane trim with a cleaning solution of detergent powder mixed with water. Dirt from cements, sealers and grease can be removed by first cleaning the soiled area with a detergent solution, but leave the suds on the soiled area. Then clean the area with a clean cloth that has been dipped into a volatile upholstery cleaner and thoroughly wrung out. Next, clean the soiled area with detergent suds and rinse off with a sponge and clean water, being careful not to soak the cleaned area.

*Coming in April: A follow-up article on how to get rid of those pesky hard-to-remove stains.

John “Gunner” Gunnell is the automotive books editor at Krause Publications in Iola, Wis., and former editor of Old Cars Weekly and Old Cars Price Guide.

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