The largest surface area of a vehicle is painted. Paint is used to cover metal body panels and make outer surfaces look good.

Black, silver, gray, and white are popular, but consumers also like rich, vibrant colors. Paint has to last long and withstand heat, rain, UV, freezing rain, snow, and below-zero conditions.

In the early 1970s, OEMs were applying acrylic enamel or lacquer on vehicles. Lacquer paint was inexpensive, easy to apply, and provided a nice high gloss on the finish.

Enamel lasted longer because it formed a hard shell when dry, especially when baked. One version of enamel requires a clear topcoat called two-stage system. Another that does not is known as single stage.

Lacquer and enamel scratch, stone chip, oxidize (color fade), and can assume the texture of an orange. Orange peel is the result of improper paint-application techniques, incorrect spray-gun settings, etc.

Back then, car washes were conveyor hand-wash, some had cloth but many rollovers at gas sites had “bristle” brushes. Customers would complain bristles “scratched” their paint.

These were not scratches but rather microscopic marring on the surface caused by insufficient lubricity of soap. With frequent washing, paint would become dull looking.

Modern acrylic urethane paint is easy to apply like lacquer, long lasting like enamel, and scratches are less visible. The two-stage system is most common.

A lot of chemistry goes into electro-coat, primer-surfacer, basecoat (or color coat), and clear coat that protect vehicles from the environment. Low-temperature cure, water-based, and powder coatings have also influenced vehicle painting.

Factory painting is now done almost exclusively by robotic arms to ensure quick, uniform application and eliminate bubbles or ripples that weaken paint.

Clear coat acts as protective barrier to absorb minor dings, light scratches, and other mishaps. These characteristics allow car washers the opportunity to provide a better-looking product.

Foam brushes spin at higher rpm, which conveys more horsepower to surfaces to accomplish more work and with virtually no vehicle damage. Foam material also shines paint.

Advances in paint finishing are driven by carmakers’ need to reduce the total cost to paint and to reduce hydrocarbon emissions when applying the basecoat. Reportedly, the bulk of the cost to build a car plant is the painting system.

Carmakers are also experimenting with Lotus-Effect® paint and self-healing clear coat. A super-hydrophobic surface, or “lotus effect,” requires a microstructure and hydrophobic (water-hating) material that creates a contact angle of 140° or greater. At this angle, water droplets cannot maintain contact with the surface and roll off rather than flow across the surface.

Self-healing clear coat is designed so small scratches are fixed in a matter of days. This is achieved by including a special elastic resin in the paint composition. When a space in the coating is created by a scratch and exposed to sunlight the coating slowly fills up the space.

Actual real world results for Lotus-Effect and self-healing paint has been mixed.

In the 1960s it was the Ford Motor Company that discovered a shiny car had the most powerful influence on consumer buying habits. People wanted a very high gloss from a durable and colorful surface.

The newest generation of automated car wash systems produces a very clean and shiny product, protection not so much.

The hottest trend in the car wash industry today is extra-pay lava foam that contains carnauba or synthetic wax that imparts shine and smoothness and increases contact angle of surface

There is no shortage of soaps, waxes, polishes, and sealants on retail store shelves competing for motorists’ attention and dollars. In fact, suppliers now sell “clear bra” paint protection (thermoplastic urethane film)and more long-lasting polymer paint sealants that mimic the Lotus Effect.

Compared to longevity of aftermarket products, the vehicle protection afforded motorists in commercial car wash bays is short-lived. Arguably, the next opportunity or frontier for suppliers and operators would be an online product that provides customers extended paint protection.

What comes after this is anyone’s guess.

Bob Roman is president of RJR Enterprises – Consulting Services ( You can reach Bob via e-mail at