Manufacturers of car care products often liken vinyl or leather automotive interiors to human skin. That's a valid comparison, especially when it comes to protecting those surfaces. Regular cleaning and application of dressing (akin to a cosmetic moisturizer) is the key to preventing damage. Careful maintenance will keep your dashboard's skin looking years younger than its actual age.
This comparison falls a little short, though, when it comes to repairing sun damage. There's no quick and easy Botox or dermabrasion for dashboards or other vinyl surfaces. Like human skin, the dash and deck under the rear window suffer from sun damage, exacerbated by the expanse of windshield. The best maintenance routine is to wipe these areas with a damp cloth regularly and use a protectant monthly.
For that monthly treatment, use a protective conditioning product especially formulated for your car dashboard, whether it’s vinyl or leather. Spray or dab the protectant on a foam applicator pad and rub it thoroughly on all the appropriate surfaces. Using an applicator pad keeps the liquid protectant/conditioner away from windshield, gauge glass and upholstery. Let the protectant soak into the surfaces for five minutes or so, and then wipe clean with a buffing towel.
There are a few ways to remove the dirt and dust that accumulates in vents, stereo speakers and around knobs on the console. The best way is with a car vent brush and compressed air. If you don't have a handy air compressor, use the blow mode on your household or hand-held vacuum. The technique is to brush the dirt loose while blowing air over the surfaces.
If these hard-to-clean surfaces are really grimy, use a foam swab. Foam swabs can be found in most electronic parts stores. You can apply protectant to these handy swabs, or use a simple cotton swab. An old toothbrush may not be too high-tech, but it's still the best tool to get around console knobs and
If your dashboard has gone beyond the point of no return, you're in trouble because dashboard repair can be tricky. One of the most common dashboard flaws is a tear or gouge in the surface. Unfortunately, there's really no perfect fix. Some may simply cover it with a fitted cloth pad, which are available at auto parts stores. Or you may be able to find a replacement part at a salvage yard.
Another imperfect solution involves cutting away the surface material from the crack, and then filling the indent with automotive body-filler putty. The area is sanded, and then a vinyl sheet that matches the dashboard surface is glued over the putty.
The long-term problem with this method is that with exposure to heat and cold, the body filler moves under the dashboard skin. Lumps form and eventually rear their ugly little heads through the surface material. If you're not a perfectionist, this fix may fit the bill. But if your vehicle is a classic, or well on its way to becoming a classic, professional restoration is the only long-term, permanent cure for an unsightly dashboard.
Restoring to a like-new dashboard
The technology for serious dashboard repair has been developed for classic car restorations. Understanding how it works requires a bit of background information. Dashboards are filled with a low-density foam. Over time, especially if the vinyl surfaces haven't been well-maintained, this foam basically disintegrates and crumbles. Dashes also warp and shrink over time.
Professional restorers must remove the aged foam and replace it with a more sophisticated, lightweight product. This material is then handcrafted to the contours of the original dashboard. To counter the warping and shrinkage, and to avoid gaps between the dash and vehicle body once the dash has been re-installed, restorers have the equipment and vehicle specifications to re-align the dash back to its intended shape and size.
The final product, a like-new dashboard, is the result of vacuum forming. This process requires special preparation of both the restored dashboard skeleton and the new dashboard skin. The vacuum-forming process requires extreme heat and pressure, so the skeleton and skin need pre-treatments to allow for heat relief. The special adhesives used in the process will not adequately bond unless this pretreatment is done, leaving air bubbles at the corners and instrument apertures.
This process, developed for classic car restorations, is obviously not a do-it-yourself procedure – nor is it inexpensive. So, if you tend toward the fastidious, the solution is prevention. Stock up on the appropriate car care products and schedule regular maintenance, and you can have a healthy, attractive dashboard and console for the life of your vehicle.