By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist
In the past, it was usually the paint that was the problem.
New car finishes tended to fade fast unless fairly frequently waxed and polished. The clear-coat finishes in use today seem to be a lot more durable. Even if the car is left outside and waxed only occasionally (if at all) the paint usually still looks shiny for many years.
But the plastic headlight assemblies used in nearly all modern cars are a different story.
Unlike the glass headlamps used in the past, plastic headlight lenses yellow over and become rheumy-looking after as little as three or four years. Ultraviolet radiation from sunlight as well as exposure to ozone and acid rain gradually oxidizes the plastic’s outer layers, which turns them yellow-looking, or cloudy. This makes your car look old. It’s also a potential safety issue as the hazed-over plastic can reduce the light output of your car’s headlights by as much as 5-10 percent.
The good news is you can rejuvenate plastic headlights to near-new look and function in about 10-15 minutes with a little bit of elbow grease and the right cleaner/polisher — which you can either purchase at your local auto parts store or via an online retailer. (Numerous choices here; a Google search will turn up dozens but some of the better-known name brands and outlets include Meguiars and Mothers.)
The cost averages around $20 for most kits — which is a fantastic bargain compared with the cost of buying a new plastic headlight assembly for $150 or more each from your dealer.
It is not necessary to remove the headlights from the vehicle to clean them up — and you don’t need special tools or skills, either.
If you can wash/wax your car, you can bring back the clear-eyed look and function of your car’s plastic covered headlights.
The cleaner in the kit contains a fine abrasive; you’ll use it to gently rub away the UV-damaged upper layer of plastic, very much in the same way that you’d buff out a no longer shiny paint job.
The second step is a polish-wax (the better kits will include a UV sealer) that protects the surface from further deterioration.
You can also use a good-quality general automotive cleaner wax such as those sold by Meguiars or Mothers but for best — and quickest — results, I recommend buying a kit/product specifically designed to clean plastic headlight assemblies. It will have both the cleaner as well as the polish/UV protector, which should keep the cleaned-up lenses looking great for longer.
Some kits also include special pads to work the cleaner/polish onto the headlights — as well as detailed instructions on how to proceed.
I’ve personally used and had excellent results with the Meguiars kit but probably any of these products/kits will do a great job of bringing your currently cloudy headlights back to near-new look and function.
Other “little things” —
* Use Mothers Back to Black rubber trim restorer to get rid of the faded, chalky look of exterior weatherstripping and black plastic such as bumper trim. This product is literally wipe on, wipe off.
Cost: Less than $10 at any auto parts store.
* Clean and polish your car’s windshield (and other exterior glass) with plain water and old newspaper. Newspaper doesn’t have lint (unlike paper towels) and the ink in the paper works like a polish. It sounds fishy, but this trick has been used by professional detailers for decades. Try it yourself and see.