Does a car ever really need to be washed?

Dear Car Talk

Dear Car Talk | Nov 01, 2008

Dear Tom and Ray:

My husband is completely opposed to ever washing our car. I'm not sure why. It's a 1996 Camry, and it's been washed about three times in its life. I wouldn't care so much about the shame of riding around in the filthiest car on the planet, except that we have no garage and have to park outside, where the trees shed debris all over the car. At this point, we have about four years' worth of organic matter caught in the grooves around the doors, trunk and hood. One day, we opened the trunk and there were actually plants sprouting in the rubber piece that I guess seals the trunk and keeps water from getting in. So, now we're driving our own ecosystem. There's a ton of old, moldy tree debris in the space between the windshield and the hood. Can this stuff get into the engine and cause damage? Please say yes. I really, really want him to wash the car. I'd wash it myself, but I don't drive, so I can't take it to the carwash. -- Gretchen

TOM: Well, if you're not going to be able to persuade him to wash it, Gretchen, at least grow something useful. Plant some tomatoes. Or some Merlot grapes.

RAY: There actually are two potential problems with all of the organic matter. The first is that the area in front of the windshield (we call it the cowl) is where air is drawn in for your ventilation system. So, you could be at risk of breathing mold spores, mouse droppings or any other bacterial byproduct of the compost pile you've got fermenting there.

TOM: Second, the cowl has drain holes at the bottom of it so that when rain comes in, it can escape. If so much organic debris gets in there that it plugs up the drain holes, you could get water inside the passenger compartment. And if the car doesn't smell already, that would create a smell you'd be hard-pressed to ever get rid of.

RAY: But I don't think you're going to be able to persuade this guy, Gretchen. I think he's on a mission to see how dirty he can make the car. He wants to be on the TV show "America's Got Compost." Or maybe he was traumatized by a childhood water-rationing program. Either way, I think you're going to have to take this into your own hands.

TOM: Have a girlfriend drive you to an automotive detailer. It'll cost you $100, plus a generous tip, in your case. And bring smelling salts. But detailers do everything. They wash, wipe, wax, scrub, soak and polish. The good ones even get into small spaces with a toothbrush and make everything shine.

RAY: Then, when your husband gets home and asks what happened to his rolling dungheap, tell him that some neighborhood kids were trying to raise money for the high-school badminton team, and you gave 'em five bucks to wash the car. And give him advanced warning that they do a fund drive every six months, before each spring and fall badminton season.

TOM: Good luck, Gretchen. We can tell you're well on your way to sainthood!

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