Wheel and Tire Care by Christopher Sass

The wheels and tires on you Fiero can make a huge difference in the appearance of your car.  We’ve seen how dramatically a set of aftermarket wheels and low profile tires can alter the appearance of a car.  We’ve also seen how a dirty set of wheels and tires can drag down the appearance of a clean car.  You only need to look at the cars coming out of the car washes.  Wheels and tires are something that a machine just can’t adequately clean.  And no matter how clean the rest of the car is, if the wheels and tires are still dirty, the car just looks bad.  Therefore, the only way to clean these components is by hand and with some time consuming work.  You didn’t really think this was going to be easy…did you?

When you stop to consider the harsh environment the wheels and tires are subjected to, it becomes clear that they will require some extra care.  Wheels and tires not only come in contact with water, acid rain, snow, ice, salt, oil and grease, unknown chemicals, tar, dirt, sand, and stones, but they are also subjected to heated brake dust.  Tiny particles of the brake pads come off during braking and they come off hot!  These hot little particles bombard your wheels and bake themselves onto the finish.  Left in place, these little particles deteriorate the surface of the wheels through a process called galvanic corrosion.  Galvanic corrosion is caused by an electro-chemical reaction between dissimilar metals, and it will destroy the appearance of the wheels.  Unfortunately, regular car wash soaps are not well suited for removing this brake dust and may have difficulty removing other contaminants as well.  Therefore the car care product industry has developed specific chemicals for cleaning wheels.  These products fall into two types; acid based and acid free cleaners.

Acid based cleaners are the most widely used by individual car owners, detailers, dealers and car washes because they work fast and easily.  Acid based cleaners are typically 2% solutions of oxalic, phosphoric, and hydrochloric acid.  Hydrochloric acid is a strong and highly corrosive acid.   While these cleaners work great and work quickly, the acid may also etch the surface of the wheel, thereby opening up the surface making it susceptible to trapping more contaminants.  Failure to thoroughly rinse or dilute, or neutralize the acid, allows it to remain in contact with the metal and continue the corrosion process.  This process is exacerbated if the wheels already have defects such as pitting or cracked and chipped coatings.

Acid free cleaners are mild solutions of alkaline solvents, usually ethylene glycol, with a carrier.  These solutions move around the particles and contaminants loosening the bond between the grime and the wheel surface.  Non-acidic cleaners usually require some surface agitation with a sponge or brush, but they are safer to use and will not etch the wheel’s finish.  These types of cleaners come in various strengths.

The tires are also subjected to the same exposure to chemicals as the wheels but tires are also susceptible to degradation from ultra-violet light.  In addition to water washing away the natural oils present in the rubber, ozone and ultraviolet light react with the polymers in rubber.   The polymers are the links connecting the molecules, which make the rubber elastic.  Keeping in mind what we expect our tires to do, inelastic rubber does not figure well into that type of performance.  To protect against this damage, a stabilizer molecule called a competitive absorber is blended into the tire rubber polymer.  Competitive absorbers capture and absorb the ultraviolet radiation and convert it into heat that is harmlessly dissipated.  All tires contain this competitive absorber, which is called carbon black.  These absorbers are sacrificial in that they are expended in converting the UV light to heat.  As carbon black reacts with the UV light, it turns gray, which is why tires become dull as they age.

To protect against ozone degradation, tire manufacturers add a wax compound to the rubber compound.  As the tires flex under load, these waxes migrate to the tire’s surface forming a protective barrier between the air, water and the tire polymer.  This migration is called blooming and when a car is parked for extended periods of time, like when your Fiero is in storage for the winter, the bloom does not occur allowing ozone to attack the tire polymers.  With ozone and UV light working on an unprotected tire, degradation in the form of drying, discoloration and cracking are accelerated.

To combat the effects of water, chemicals, ozone and ultraviolet radiation on tires, you can apply a dressing that will restore essential moisture and provide protection.  The two types of tire dressings are liquid silicone and water based.  Liquid silicone dressings contain, as the name implies, silicone.  Silicone is an inert substance that is highly resistant to temperature change and water.  It will fill in pours and openings in the rubber creating a protective film over the tire surface.  The silicone will penetrate and will not evaporate.  Therefore these products usually leave the rubber surface with a wet appearance.  Silicone dressings do not, as popularly believed, have a long-term negative affect on rubber and plastic.  Some silicone dressings contain petroleum distillates as cleaning agents, which are harmful to rubber and plastics, resulting in cracking.  The one drawback to silicone dressings is the difficulty in adding UV protection and therefore most silicone dressing do not provide any.

Water based dressings do provide UV protection.  These types of dressings do not contain silicone, petroleum distillates, waxes or other solvents that could be harmful and dull the surface of the rubber.  Most water-based dressings are combinations of natural oils such as shea butter or cocoa butter, providing a non-greasy, satin finish.  UV blocking agents are added to prevent cracking and fading.

There are two levels of cleaning and conditioning for your wheels and tires.  I recommend performing an annual thorough cleaning and conditioning with the wheels and tires removed from the car.  You have to take them off to rotate them anyway, right?  We are all rotating our tires…right?  Having the wheels off the car fulfills a couple of tasks.  First, your can perform a more thorough cleaning.  Secondly, you can do some inspecting.  You can inspect the tires and wheels for damage you might not observe if they were on the car.  You can inspect the brakes and suspension components.  And you can inspect the wheel wells.  Lastly, having the wheels removed allows you to clean all of the above-mentioned components.

Using an appropriate wheel cleaner or car wash soap mixed at double the normal strength, clean the backside of the wheel.  This is the area that collects a lot of grease, oil, and grime and doesn’t get washed during your normal car cleaning procedure.  This area will require scrubbing with a brush to loosen the contaminants.  Rinse the area often while cleaning to flush away abrasives that may be present.  Once the backside is cleaned, you can clean the front side.  You may want to have a separate bucket of soapy water for the front so as not to put any of the backside grime and grit onto the front of the wheels.  There are many small brushes on the market that will assist you in cleaning the small openings that many wheels have.  After rinsing, dry the wheels to prevent water spotting.

Before replacing the wheels onto the car, clean the wheel well liner, brake components, and exposed suspension pieces.  Many wheel well liners have undercoating that was applied when the car was new.  This undercoating can be removed with a bug and tar remover and a lot of work.  But it is worth the effort because the resulting smooth clean surface can now be conditioned with a dressing to give you a satin finish.  If you don’t think this is important, take a look at some wheel wells at the next Fiero car show you attend.  The wheel openings on Fieros are huge.  And unless you’ve stuffed them full of large after market wheels and tires, much of the wheel well is visible.  It will make a difference in the appearance of your Fiero.  Also, if you’ve chosen open after market wheels, clean the brakes and other visible components.  Keeping these areas clean makes keeping them clean much easier.

Depending on the type of wheels you have, now is the time to apply wax to the wheels if appropriate and dressing to the tires.  These tasks are much easier to perform with the tire off of the vehicle.  Provided you’ve gotten the backside sufficiently clean, wax those surfaces too.  Finally, apply tire dressing and allow it to penetrate.  The longer it penetrates, the longer it will protect the tires.  Dressing can be applied generously because the excess dressing can always be buffed off.

The other level of wheel and tire cleaning, and the one you’ll be performing more often, is when you are cleaning the entire car.  In this case the wheels remain on the car.  Obviously the drawback is that your can not clean the backside, brakes and suspension, however you will still be able to clean and condition the fronts of the wheels and tires and the wheel well liner.  First, let me list a few precautions.  Never clean the wheels when they are hot from recent driving.  If they are, you can run cold water over them to cool them off.  Secondly, wash the wheels and tires first, before cleaning the remainder of the car.  By following these steps, any dirt or cleaners that get on the car body will be washed off.  After cleaning the wheels and tires, and before cleaning the rest of the car, replace the water and soap so you have a clean solution for cleaning the body and glass.

You will use much the same procedure for cleaning as you would if the tires were removed, however there is always that little area of the tire where it meets the pavement and which is not accessible.  So make sure you move the car a few inches to gain access to this portion of the tire during cleaning and conditioning of the tires.  Towel drying the wheels and tires after cleaning the car will help prevent spots.  One other word about cleaning tires, use caution when choosing and using products for cleaning tires.  Some tire cleaning products contain bleach, which may stain the wheel finish.

Tire dressing should be applied using a foam applicator.  Don’t spray the dressing directly on the tire because you don’t have control over where it will end up.  You may inadvertently apply dressing to the car body or the wheels. 

I have the stock Turbo alloy spoked wheels on my 85 Fiero Sport Coupe.  These wheels are a pain to clean due to the fact that my fingers simply can not fit into the small areas.  I assume Fieros with lace wheels have the same problem.  I have tried all types of brushes and swabs with limited success.  If anyone has a suggestion for cleaning the small areas of the wheels, please share your knowledge with the other members. (Source:  Autopia)