Whether it's a restored vintage muscle car or your late-model daily driver, no car should be parked and left to sit while you're deployed.
You may run your car hard when you're back home, but letting it sit unused can be just as rough on a vehicle.
That's why it's important to prep your four-wheeled friend for long-term storage. It takes some time to do it right, but it's worth it. Here's a rundown of the steps involved.
Prep the shell
1. Bath time. Begin with a complete and thorough wash of the car's exterior, to remove surface dirt and debris such as bird droppings that can, over time, burn spots in your car's paint. Make sure the car is completely dry. A 15-minute drive should force out moisture that got into inaccessible areas, and the heat of the drivetrain will evaporate the rest. Be sure there's no water in the trunk or anywhere else — use shop towels or rags to hand-dry crevices such as door jambs.
2. Declare war on rust. Examine the body — especially the lower doors, quarter panels and other areas that are prone to suffer road-debris chips. If you find areas where the underlying metal has been exposed, carefully scuff the area (use 400-grit sandpaper) so any scale or surface rust is removed and the metal appears shiny and clean.
Follow this with a treatment of touch-up paint (Dupli-Color makes an excellent product in small tubes with built-in applicator brushes). Doing this will help keep rust from gaining a foothold and potentially boring a hole into your car's flanks while you're away.
If you see pitting — an indicator that rust has already set in — you can use Naval Jelly rust dissolver to scour it out, then follow up with a coating of a chemical treatment/sealer such as POR-15, which locks out moisture and oxygen so the rust stops spreading. Naval Jelly is readily available at most auto supply stores; you can order POR-15 online at www.por15.com. It's good stuff.
3. Wax on, wax off. Treat all painted and hard-chromed surfaces to a wax job. Be sure to use the right product for your finish. Most modern cars use base/clear paint, which requires a wax specifically designed for these finishes.
A good wax job takes time — don't rush. Ideally, you should do the car in thirds, taking breaks of at least an hour or so between sections. This will help keep you from getting tired and doing a sloppy job because you want to get it over with.
4. Protect your rubber. Go over all rubber parts — especially door seals, trunk seals and exposed weather stripping — with a quality protectant. Honda makes an excellent product called Pro Honda Spray Cleaner & Polish. This aerosol product protects vinyl, rubber and plastic against dry rot and ultraviolet damage. It's great stuff and works as well on cars as it does on bikes. (Most bike shops carry it, but you can find it online, as well.) It's also effective on interior parts such as the dashboard.
Prep the guts
Once you're finished with the exterior, it's time to tackle the vehicle's mechanical systems, principally the drivetrain and its related components.
5. Oil and water don't mix. Begin by changing your oil and oil filter, which not only provides a fresh coating of clean oil to protect internal surfaces, but also removes such contaminants as raw gas and water that may be in the crankcase.
6. Give it some gas. Next, add fuel stabilizer, such as Sta-Bil or an equivalent product, to your gas tank, then fill the tank with gas. Do this at a gas station, and don't put in the stabilizer until you're ready to add fresh gas.
Stabilizer keeps the fuel from deteriorating, and the gas top-off helps prevent water from condensing inside the tank. Never leave a vehicle with a partially full fuel tank or leave a full tank untreated for an extended period of time — unless you like hard-starting, gummed-up or rusted fuel lines.
After adding the stabilizer, it's a good idea to drive the car for 10 minutes or so — just long enough to let the treated fuel work its way through the fuel system. This will also circulate the fresh oil you just added.
7. Treat belts and hoses. After shutting off the engine and letting it cool for a couple of hours, pop the hood and treat all the rubber hoses with Pro Honda Spray Cleaner & Polish or an equivalent product. Use WD-40 to coat the drive belts.
8. Top off the fluids. The fluids to check include power steering, transmission and brake fluids. Make sure they're full and that caps and seals are tight. Remove the radiator cap to check the coolant level and condition. If it's low, top off with a 50-50 mix of distilled water and the appropriate coolant (do not use tap water; it has contaminants that can accelerate internal corrosion and other problems). If the coolant in the radiator or recovery tank looks brown and gunky, consider doing a flush and fill.
Coolant condition can be tested with a simple device called a hydrometer, which you can buy at most auto parts stores for a couple of bucks. But in general, if your vehicle is less than three years old or if you've had the system flushed and filled within the past three years, you should be good to go, provided the system is topped off and sealed tight.
9. Check spark plugs. If your car will be left untouched for more than a few months, it's a good idea to remove each spark plug — if you can reach them — and shoot some WD-40 into each cylinder, then reinstall the spark plug. The WD-40 forms a protective barrier on the exposed metal of the cylinder walls. It's not absolutely necessary, but it's worth doing for long-term storage if you can get to the plugs.
10. Remove the battery. Take it out and put it someplace dry and secure (not inside the vehicle). If you leave it connected, it will slowly drain and may leak acid or fumes that can corrode the battery tray and surrounding parts. For shorter-term storage — less than two months — it's OK to leave it in the car. If you leave it connected, you should hook it up to a trickle charger to maintain its charge.
The final steps
You're almost finished now. Assuming you've found a secure, dry and — ideally — indoor location to store the vehicle, the last few steps are:
11. Give it a lift. Using a floor jack, raise the vehicle slightly at all four corners so the car's weight is at least partially off the suspension and tires. Place jack stands under each corner to support the vehicle. Check the inflation of the tires and add air as necessary.
12. Keep it dry. Place moisture-absorbing desiccant packets in the interior and trunk, along with some mothballs to ward off mice. Homeless rodents love parked cars and will spend months happily chewing through wiring harnesses, upholstery and carpets while you're gone. Desiccant packets are available for less than $10 at www.autosport.com or at marine supply shops.
13. Close it up — almost. If security isn't a concern, partially close all doors — just enough to get them to "catch." This will prevent the door from compressing the weather stripping and door seals, which can help prevent leaks when you start driving the car again.
14. Wrap it up. Cover your vehicle with a high-quality cover, ideally one with reinforced eyelets that can be used to lock the cover in place with a cable. Be sure to use a clean cover, or you risk scratching the car's finish.
Congratulations! Your vehicle is ready for an extended nap and should be ready to roll when you get back.
Eric Peters is a columnist who has covered the auto industry since 1992. His work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Detroit Free Press and Detroit News, among other publications. E-mail him at email@example.com.