One of the saddest things I ever saw in my job was the father whose young son decided to wash Daddy's car as a surprise Father's Day present. He diligently went so far as to clean off the baked-on brake dust on the spokes of Daddy's expensive wheels. The problem was that he did it with steel wool, a mistake that I have seen quite a few adults make as well. Steel wool is pure evil. It scratches the clearcoat on rims that have it, and scratches the metal of rims that don't.
Watching the father visibly struggle to keep his son – who was ready to break into tears anyway - from seeing him get angry when he was told what it would cost to refinish his wheels is an experience I never want to repeat.
But there are many other hazards to your rims out there. Here are some ways to keep them looking - and running - like new.
Watch Those Curbs:
Probably 70-80% of the damage that happens to wheel finishes is caused by scraping a curb. Too many of today's wheels have edges that protrude beyond the edge of the tire, or spokes that curve outward past the rim edge. This makes it all too easy to pick up what we call “curb rash.” Sometimes this is unavoidable, whether you have a curb jump out at you when the car is in motion, or if another driver moves into your lane and you sideswipe a curb to avoid a worse collision. But most of the time, the culprit is simply parallel parking. The single most effective way to keep those nice rims in good shape is to ensure that you can parallel park smoothly and confidently.
I know from experience that this can be one of the most difficult and disorienting driving skills to learn.
It's not impossible, though. Get some cones or other items which will not damage your car, and practice in a parking lot. Check out this video or Google “learn to parallel park.” Most things that are worth learning take some effort, and if you have nice wheels, learning to park well can save you hundreds of dollars in keeping them nice.
How you clean your wheels, not to mention what you clean them with, makes a huge difference. I cannot tell you how many times I have seen someone come in with a beautiful set of wheels that they have tried to clean with something deeply inappropriate. Steel wool is one such offender, but the other really bad one is acid. Anything that purports to be a wheel cleaning fluid, but which instructs you to rinse it off within 5 minutes is probably an acid-based cleaner. Acid works great at burning tough brake dust off your wheels, but works just as well at eating away at your clearcoat. After a few applications, air and water will start getting under the edges of the clearcoat and corroding the metal, creating a white spiderwebby pattern in the finish that cannot be washed or polished away.
For most cleaning, a gentle soap and water and some elbow grease is just best. Simple Green is a great concentrated cleaner that works well on wheels. Give it or other non-acid cleaners some time to work into the brake dust before scrubbing with a sponge, and don't use any cleaners on wheels that are still hot from being driven.
Be Suspicious of Full-Service Carwashes:
Those full-service carwashes generally have an interest in getting your car done quickly. Far too many of them use acid-based cleaners on wheels. If you're going to use a carwash, make sure you know what they're using on your wheels. Keep in mind that they may not even know if their cleaner is acid-based or that such cleaners are bad for your wheels. The ones that do use good cleaners because they know what bad ones can do should be happy to tell you what they use and why.
Winter is hard on wheels. Slippery conditions can cause curb strikes or mask potholes. Road salt eats away at expensive chrome wheels, and salt water isn't all that good for any type of wheel. Having a second set of wheels for winter can be a good idea. If your wheels are chromeplated, and you drive in an area that uses road salt in the winter, having a second set is essential to keeping your rims for more than a few years. This can be a relatively expensive initial investment, but can save you quite a bit in the long term on tire swaps, tire wear, and winter damage.
Steel wheels are often ideal for this kind of application. Steels are cheaper than alloy wheels. Steels are also heavier than alloy wheels, and the extra unsprung weight can often lower the perceived center of gravity of the car and cut down on its performance and agility. In summer, this can make the car ride more like a tank. In winter, that's a good thing. Similarly, the ugly black painted finish of steel wheels can be an advantage in winter conditions. Brush a curb, scrape the paint and who cares? They were ugly anyway. Finally, steels are generally smaller than stock alloy wheels, usually 15” or 16” and smaller snow tires are both less expensive and more effective in snow – a double payoff.