Cabin fever: Banishing the dirt and microbes hiding in your car's interior

20 July 2020 - 09:53 By Thomas Falkiner
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Calvin Mathenda and Brad Homan of Rocket Auto Care with a client's vehicle after hours of cleaning work.
Calvin Mathenda and Brad Homan of Rocket Auto Care with a client's vehicle after hours of cleaning work.
Image: Thomas Falkiner

When it comes to cleaning our cars, we all tend to focus on the exterior rather than the interior. After all, the exterior is the part of the vehicle people see the most so it makes sense to keep it looking its best.

Cars are essentially an extension of ourselves — a kind of avatar — so a well-presented vehicle tells other members of the human race that we take pride in who we are and the way we project ourselves.

Consequently, it's no surprise that interior cleanliness often takes a back seat. At most we might stab at our carpets with a dust buster and spray the dashboard with a bottle of old vinyl and rubber spray.

We should really do more though because, let's face it, the inside of our vehicles are incredibly adept dirt traps for all manner of filth. Dust. Grime. Fur. Hair. Dead skin cells. Viruses. Bacteria. The list is endless. Hiding in grooves and vents and under seats, there is a whole microcosm of grossness that warrants your attention.

How exactly to go about it? You basically have two choices. Either you can spend most of your weekend following conflicting YouTube tutorials, or you could send your pride and joy to an automotive detailing company that will, in exchange for some cash, set to work with an experienced cleaning crew armed with all the requisite equipment. One such company is Rocket Auto Care in Kramerville, Johannesburg.

Owned by Brad Homan, this operation specialises in keeping some the province's most exotic cars in showroom condition, thanks to its extensive range of detailing packages.

Though familiar with working on near-priceless exotics like the Ferrari F40, Rocket Auto Care is equally at ease giving your more common garden vehicles a good going over.

Well-known for their advanced water-repelling ceramic coatings and paint protection film, today I'm witnessing how they get the gunge out of well-used vehicle cabins.

It all begins with Calvin Mathenda, a tall, lithe man who considers himself something of an interior specialist when it comes to the dark art of automotive detailing.

“How can you have a nice outside if the inside is still dirty?” he asks me.

“This is why I make sure everything is perfect. I don't want any customers complaining about my work.”

Perched inside a client's vehicle, Mathenda starts proceedings by attacking the interior with a hogs hair brush and bottle of gentle interior cleanser that is applied liberally to all the cabin's surfaces. This agitates ingrained surface dirt, making it considerably easier to remove. Once all the trim has been brushed, Mathenda moves on to the steam gun and blasts everything with a fine cloud of microbe-killing water vapour.

“It is important to spray the air vents too because a lot of germs can live inside there,” he explains.

He now turns his attention to the seats, spraying  all with a mild upholstery detergent and again using the hogs hair brush to bring trapped dirt to the surface. Once done to his satisfaction, Mathenda uses a special wet vacuum cleaner to gently extract years of muck now suspended in the cleaning solution.

Afterwards he shows me a canister of brown liquid: “You see, this is what came out of the seats.”

It is, quite frankly, nauseating to behold: a muddy brine of human-derived gunk built up over years of road trips and shopping runs and displaced beverages. Revolting.

While I go in search of a Valoid, Mathenda repeats the same process on the carpets, floor mats and door cards. He also cleans and disinfects all glass surfaces. The car is then driven into the sun. where any excess moisture  quickly evaporates.

Once dry, a trick nano coating is sprayed onto the seat upholstery, which helps protect it against UV rays and unwanted stains.

Finally, the cabin is fumigated with a sanitising fog that is, according to Homan, one of the few on the market that actually kills Covid-19.

“Interior detailing is a must-have if you've bought a second-hand car,” says Homan.

“The amount of unseen dirt previous owners have left behind is horrendous, as you've seen for yourself today. It's even more obvious in vehicles fitted with leather seats. Leather is a naturally matte material, so that glossy sheen you see on used leather car seats is essentially the long-term build up of human grease and oil.”

It really is the stuff of nightmares. Especially if you are, as I am, a bit of a germophobe. It also serves as a salient reminder why vehicle interiors deserve the same, if not even more, attention as their exteriors.

“It takes about five hours to do properly but the results are always worth it,” says Homan.

Not one for driving around in a Petri dish, I have to agree.

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