If you’ve just bought a new project car, knowing where to start can sometimes be a little daunting. Do I change the fluids, get it in the air and inspect the brakes, bail out immediately and transport it to a garage, or panic and push it into the sea?
All legitimate options, true, but in my experience I’ve always found that the best place to start is with a decent clean. Not just a wash with a bucket and sponge, but a thorough going over. Being up close and personal with the car, as you trawl over every panel and crevice, usually turns up all kinds of interesting things. Be it damage you didn’t notice originally, or neat original features, a comprehensive valet will leave you feeling much better informed about what you’ve bought. It’s more enjoyable to work on a clean car, too, so it’s a job worth doing before you get into the mechanical side of things.
That was why, with the arrival of my ’68 Charger at home, the first thing I did was go and spend £80 on cleaning gear from Halfords. Polishes, vinyl treatment, spray lubricant, contact cleaner, the works. I figured that, having been in storage for ten years, the paint, rubber, vinyl and interior would benefit from a deep cleanse and refresh. I wanted it to last, after all, so any protection I could get on it – such as a decent coat of polish – would probably be well worth the effort. The vinyl top and seats, in particular, felt taught and dry. I didn’t want them shrinking or cracking, now that they were suddenly exposed to the elements again.
What followed was a long, but gratifying, few hours of deep cleaning. Panels were lathered up, washed down, wiped and polished. The vinyl and rubber trim was liberally saturated with cleaning, softening and protecting fluid. Chrome was polished, the wheels were buffed and the glass wiped down. Lastly, every hinge and pivot was lubricated, and every contact sprayed with electrical cleaner and comprehensively wiggled. It was during this that I noticed that the Charger’s side windows featured original “Airtemp” air conditioning decals, correlating with my car's factory-fitted air-con. It appears, judging by the tint and fit elsewhere, that its glass is all original.
In the engine bay, I decided that I would try using Gunk’s foaming cleaner to lift some of the heavy oil deposits and to generally freshen things up. I removed the air cleaner, roughly covered the carburettor and distributor, and liberally sprayed Gunk around the bay. It really did foam and expand, to an almost comical extent, and you could see grease and oil simply sliding off the surfaces. With a quick spray of water it transpired the treatment had removed the vast majority of grime, making it much easier to see what was going on and thoroughly more pleasant to work on.
When I had originally decoded the car’s body and chassis tags it had confirmed – as Steve, the previous owner had said – that my Charger was originally a dark metallic green car with a vinyl roof and a 383 cubic inch V8. At some point, I believe before coming to the UK in 1979, it had benefitted from an upgrade to a larger 440. This engine, as far as I could tell from the stamps on the block, was a later ’72 example in standard tune - an engine that would have been painted turquoise originally. Having Gunked it, beneath the grease and flaking orange paint - a colour reserved for high-performance versions - the 440 still bore its correct turquoise finish. Under the bonnet and the carpets, the Dodge’s rather appealing original green colour was evident, too, further confirming everything I'd been told.
With a quick spin of a polishing cloth over the dulled chrome rocker covers and air filter, and some gloss black rubber treatment on the hoses, the engine bay suddenly looked a whole lot more presentable. A ‘Street Machine – Lazy Sundays’ sticker from ’97 on the washer bottle added another notch to the Charger’s history; fortunately it stayed in place while I washed and rinsed the washer bottle to get a decade’s worth of stale fluid out of it. I also happened to have a new, suitable radiator cap on the shelf, so it bore the honour of being the first new part on the car.