Classic Car Care

This classic car car guide is intended to be an ever evolving piece, which grows and is refined along the way. We welcome thoughts and comments, based on your experience, so feel free to drop us a line. We also understand that there is often more than one way of doing anything – so whereever possible we present tried and tested alternatives.


The main difference between the classic cars is that, unlike modern vehicles, they don’t usually have a top clear coat.  Prior to the 1980’s (sometimes later in the case of non-metallic reds, whites and blacks) cars were prepared with a primer and a cellulose colour coat that can be polished to a high shine.  Vehicles made before the 1950s and 1960s were often painted with nitro-cellulose.

Modern cars, and nearly all metallics, have an additional clear coat applied – which can be polished. Since the 1980s, vehicles tend to be first painted with water-based paints.

Classic car paint is usually thicker than modern paint, so there is more to work with in terms of improving the finish, and, unlike modern cars, there is little fear of ‘burning through’ and damaging a clear coat layer.  It might, however, be worth getting a paint depth gauge so you know how many microns you have to play with.

If you have a classic car, it is important to establish whether it has authentic cellulose paint, or if it has had a respray using modern products.  The best way to find out is to ask the previous owner, or go through the paperwork. Another option is to carefully examine the car, looking for peeling lacquer – this is exactly as it sounds – you can visibly see areas of clear coat lifting.  This can happen with age, but usually where an inferior spray job has taken place with lack of attention to detail, particularly around light fittings and panel edges. Another way of finding out is to polish a discreet area to discover whether the colour of the paint comes away on your polishing pad or cloth.  If it does, this usually means you have the original cellulose paint – however be cautious as it can also mean you have burnt through your clear coat into your paint coat – if you have done this you will notice a distinct hole in the clear coat (which will need repairing). 

Although great to polish, the downside is that it may need doing often; one of the problems with cellulose paint is that it can be susceptible to UV light and fading.  You may have seen older red cars that have gone pink, this is the paint oxidising. It can be rectified with a good polish, but clearly the number of times you have this option is limited.  If left however, fissures can open up in the surface of the paint making it porous.


It is particularly important for classic cars, with a finish that requires preserving, to be cautious and non-aggressive in your washing style.  Making as little contact with the paint surface as possible and using PH neutral products is a good idea. Some advice suggests just using warm water, but we disagree – unless you have a lubricating shampoo or cleaner, you risk scratching the paintwork with the grit contained in the dirt. Never use a sponge – as it can retain grit and dirt – use instead a soft wash mitt.  Always use a grit guard in your bucket and avoid enthusiastic, heavy jet washing close to the vehicle, especially near any areas of rust, flakey paint or chips. Don’t over-wash the vehicle, especially if it is rarely used and kept in a clean environment. Bad cleaning can be just as bad as no-cleaning, as it can increase contamination, remove protective coating and cause swirl marks.  Remember if you use a clay bar or mitt, that as well as sucking out contaminants it also microscopically abrades the surface of the paint – so make sure you use a clay lubricant.

If you are really particular or if your car represents a big financial investment, you can even buy plastic bubbles to store your vehicle in, filled with gentle flowing, filtered air.  


Faded cellulose paintwork can be restored to remarkable effect, but it is important to know the thickness of your paint. A cutting compound is a mild abrasive that removes a fine layer of clear coat or paint, revealing a fresh, brighter layer underneath.  For obvious reasons, a car can only be ‘cut’ so many times.

Traditionally, polish is a liquid product that is very mildly abrasive and smooths and glosses the finish before applying a harder wax that protects and seals your paintwork and can fill or hide some finer scratches.  Modern polishes and waxes are sometimes combined with cutting compounds making them difficult to distinguish from one another.  Before knowing a history, or getting to know a car’s paintwork properly, we would not recommend going straight in with a machine polisher and a harsh cutting compound.  In fact, abrasives should only really be used on paintwork when absolutely necessary – not as routine. Always find a discreet spot to test out your method first. We would however, always recommend a layer of wax is kept on the car, especially if it is not garaged.  Remember to rewax if a cutting compound is used to remove scratches.


If your classic car has had a modern respray, we can help facilitate minor body work repairs, just as we would with a modern car.  However, if your car still has cellulose paint – even if it is recently applied – you will need to seek specialist expertise as the water-based and cellulose systems are not compatible and will eventually, if not immediately, cause cracking and other reactions in the paintwork.  Make sure you seek professional input from a qualified paint technician – we are happy to offer advice and recommendations.