5 Techniques To Make Your Antique Hubcaps Shine

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You have a classic car with antique hubcaps, and you want them to shine. What are five techniques to make your antique hubcaps shine?

Owning a classic car requires a lot of attention. Regular washing and waxing are just a given. Without careful attention to every detail, the car just doesn’t “pop” as it should, and there is a nagging feeling in your brain that something just isn’t complete. Any detailer will tell you that complete car washing and waxing includes caring for the hubcaps. What kinds of techniques are there for making your antique hubcaps shine. Should you use just any detergent, or do they make something special? What about just putting them in the dishwasher? Is that even acceptable? Is there a home remedy you can whip up quickly to save yourself a trip to the store? What if the hubcaps are plastic and scraped? Can they be salvaged?

Here are some basic techniques to keep your antique hubcaps shiny and bright.

  • Buy a cleaner at the auto parts store
  • Make a home remedy
  • Use white vinegar for chrome
  • Sand the hubcaps and paint
  • Use the dishwasher

Since the wheels of your car tend to accumulate dirt from the road and baked on brake dust from the pads, they get particularly filthy. The last thing that you want to do is to end up scuffing or scratching the hubcaps and having to send them out to be refinished. Or worse yet, have trouble finding a matching piece to go with the other hubcaps on the car. And while you could always send them out to a professional, if there is a way to clean them, you’d prefer to do the work on your antique yourself. (We know, we feel the same way).

So let’s explore the world of hubcap maintenance and see if we can get some answers.

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What are Five Techniques To Make Hubcaps Shine?

In the earliest days of the automobile, caps were attached directly to the wheel's center hub and made of wood or steel. (Before 1915, some vehicles had brass fittings plated with a nickel coating). By the late 20s, most manufacturers were using aluminum hubcaps due to the aesthetic and ease of maintenance. Aluminum didn’t oxidize like other materials, was lighter, and allowed an easy center cap to be placed on the wheel. (Chances are your antique has an aluminum wheel or center cap, which means it can be shined up relatively quickly). Wire rims are more intricate but can still be cleaned with some elbow grease.

If you scour the Internet, you will get as many different suggestions on improving your hubcaps' look. Here are some basic techniques.

Buy A Cleaner at the Auto Parts Store

There are various cleansers specially formulated for use on wheels and hubcaps if you want to buy one. Since wheels are probably one of the most common areas to attract dirt, grime, and brake dust, you want to use a cleaner that will eat through the gunk without damaging the metal or plastic center cap. A good citrus wheel cleaner can be purchased, sprayed on the hubcap, and then wiped with a clean microfiber cloth.

Various cleaners can be used, but we’d recommend a couple, depending on what your hubcaps are made of.  For aluminum rims, Meguiars Hot Rod Aluminum Cleaner is a quality product, and for factory wheels, Sonax makes an acid-free cleaner. Mothers Foaming Wheel and Tire Cleaner is a great option if you want an excellent all-in-one. All of these applications are spray-on - rinse, or wipe-off.

The use is simple, spray on the solution and wait about ten minutes. You will notice a change as the chemicals interact with the iron molecules from the brake dust and grime. Then you can rinse, wipe dry, and set the cap in a dry spot. Once cleaned, you must maintain them regularly.

Most parts stores make waxes and polish to seal the hubcap from additional grime or grit. We recommend Turtle Wax T-18, a cleaner, and wax in one. Some pastes and creams are harder to apply and wipe off. This method of application can make the job more tedious than it needs to be.

Make a Home Remedy

The Internet is filled with homespun concoctions for cleaning wheels and hubcaps. Chances are good that you have them sitting around in your home's cabinets.

One of the most common recipes is as follows.

  • Mix one- half cup of baking soda
  • Two cups of warm water
  • Use a clean sponge or plastic brush to scrub the tires
  • Spray any excess off and wipe clean

The dish detergent acts as a cleansing and degreasing agent, and the baking soda provides a caustic scrubbing element to help break apart the grime and dust. I prefer to use a softer dish detergent (I do not trust the bargain brands), which I am confident will break up grease and dirt but protect my precious wheels.

If you don’t have suitable dish soap or don’t trust it, you can include a few squirts of lemon juice along with the baking soda and water. The acid in the lemon juice will help activate the chemicals in the baking soda solution and work as a cleaning solution. I like the smell of the lemon, but it is just as easy to buy a citrus cleanser at the store.

The trouble with this kind of solution is that it does not attack what it does not come in contact with, so you may have to keep applying it multiple times to ensure that the wheel gets adequate coverage. It can be more labor intensive, but that is the point here.  Ensure to rinse the wheels adequately, so no soap residue remains on the cap. Some detergents can create issues or leave a filmy substance once they dry, so you want to be thorough. Careful attention to hubcaps and wire spokes means a perfect appearance.

For wire rims or specialized rims that require delicate attention, there are a couple of old-fashioned remedies that some people have used. A basic white toothpaste (no minty fresh varieties) can be brushed on with a soft toothbrush, applied to the surface, and then wiped off. If you don’t have toothpaste, check your spice cabinet for some cream of tartar, which, when mixed with water, produces similar effects.

For rims with nickel plating or made of brass, use some mild detergent and water, but nothing that includes bleach or abrasives like gritty polishes or waxes. Once nickel plating begins to flake or show signs of pockmarks, it is probably better to have the restoration done by a professional.

Use White Vinegar for Chrome Rims

If you have chrome rims, white vinegar mixed with water and put in a spray bottle can be just the trick. The vinegar compound is strong enough to cut through grime and dirt and doesn’t streak. Equal parts water and vinegar are fine. Simply spray the solution onto the hubcap and wipe clean.

The only negative I have with this method is that the cleaning has a distinct vinegar smell. I am not a fan of anything with a vinegar smell, but those car guys who use this method say this option works very well. (I have tried this method and smelled like a bad batch of pickles for several days).

Sand the Hubcaps and Spray Paint

You will likely need to do a complete workup for drastic scrapes and scuffs. Plastic hubcaps can be gently sanded down, and most auto parts stores sell gray paint that can seal and inhibit further damage. This method requires you to take the hubcap entirely off, set up a work area away from the vehicle, and spend some time doing your thing. Simply remove the plastic hubcap and wash any excess grime or dirt off. Then, dry the hubcap altogether to remove any moisture.

Sand, the hubcap with 600-grit sandpaper, taking off any chips, hanging bits of plastic, and finishing out any scrapes. You want to achieve as smooth a surface as possible. Once completed with the sanding, wash the wheel a second time as this will remove any tiny bits of plastic dust and debris from the surface. Place the hubcap on some newspapers in a well-ventilated area (without any wind) away from your car.

Begin with a primer coat. Spray the primer directly onto the hubcap from side to side. Allow the primer to completely dry. Then, follow up with a second coat of primer.

Once the primer is dry, apply the paint. Let the hubcap dry between coats. Allow the clear coat to dry before reattaching it to the wheel.

Many companies have mobile allow rim repair units that can come to you. If you decide to have a professional repair an aluminum alloy rim, the costs are pretty reasonable, and the repair is guaranteed to be correct.

Use The Dishwasher?

Several online forums advocate using a dishwasher to make quick work of the hubcaps, particularly if wheel spokes require intricate cleaning. While this method requires a lot of care, it can be effective. You want to be sure that you buy a pod-type detergent with a spot-free rinse (many people suggested Cascade). In addition, always set the washer to a non-heat setting, and allow the rims to air dry. A dishwasher's excessive heat cycle could melt any plastic on the wheel or even warp any plastic center cap.

The trouble with this method is that some brake pads are made partially of asbestos particles that have no business being anywhere close to the utensils we eat off of. While most dirt and dust are probably flushed down the drain, I prefer not to take a chance on putting anything even remotely poisonous into my body or my family's bodies.

That doesn’t mean that many car enthusiasts don’t use this method. If they spend many hours in the garage restoring collections, they may have a dedicated dishwasher that they use specifically for this purpose.

What Equipment is Needed to Clean My Hubcaps?

You will need a water source, clean microfiber cloths, a wire brush with soft bristles, and an air hose to facilitate the drying process if you have it.

Be careful to use a brush that is not too abrasive but has enough firmness to get the job done. We do not recommend steel wool, as it can sometimes do more damage to the hubcap than is desired. (You must keep steel wool wet to help minimize this, and most car guys find that a hassle).

If you have wire spoke caps, the work becomes much more tedious, as each spoke must be cleaned and polished for the best effect. There aren’t any shortcuts to doing a great job on the wheels and caps, but we guarantee the results will be worth it.