Make Swap Meet Wheels Look New

We test a handful of products and show you how to make crusty old wheels shine like new

Stuart A. BourdonPhotographer, Writer

Keeping your wheels clean is probably not something a whole lot of off-roaders think about. Just keeping them from being bent or cracked is usually what’s going through our minds as we are tackling a trail or blowing down the highway. After all, it’s an off-road rig, right?

However, what if you came across a set of wheels at the swap meet that were perfect for your 4x4? Well, let’s say they were near perfect. They were period-perfect wheels for your rig. After all, nothing looks more out of place that an older Jeep with ’17-style wheels. But the wheels were crusty. We don’t mean dirty—we mean sat in the dude’s backyard for 10 years after being used hard and never cleaned crusty. When you ran your fingers over what used to be a polished aluminum surface on the face of the wheels, it felt like barnacles with a 40-grit sandpaper coating crusty. And you got all four for $50.

That’s the scenario we found ourselves in. We have been looking for wheels for a ’79 Jeep Cherokee, and these wheels are truly classic off-road rims–American Racing Outlaw II aluminum wheels that were first introduced in ’83. They were perfect. We coughed up the 50 clams and headed home. For a couple of weeks afterward, we gathered as many wheel cleaning and polishing products as we had first-hand knowledge of, or could get reliable intel on, and began an experiment.

On tap were wheel cleaning products such as 3D Deep Blue Polish, American Power Wash Acid Wheel Cleaner, CRC Brakleen, Flitz Metal Pre-Clean, Flitz Metal Polish, Meguiar’s All Metal Polish Liquid, Meguiar’s Metal Polish (Heavy-Cut, Medium-Cut, and Finishing) Paste, McKee’s 37 Foaming Wheel Cleaner Gel, Mothers Polish Aluminum Wheel Cleaner, Mothers Mag & Aluminum Polish, P21S High Performance Wheel Cleaner, P21S Special Performance Gel Concentrate Wheel Cleaner, Sonax Acid-Free Wheel Cleaner, and Zephyr Pro-40 Metal Polish.

We also had at the ready a batch of Meguiar’s microfiber towels and Meguiar’s tight-cell foam applicators, a Mequiar’s DynaCone polishing tool, and a Mothers PowerCone polishing tool and PowerBall Mini polishing tool. In addition, we had a couple of old terry cloth towels that had gravitated their way down the ladder from bathroom to car-wash status.

We were determined to find out what worked and what worked better to get these gems sparkling like diamonds again. First came a good wash, then application of cleaners, and lastly polishes. Products were first tried on small patches (1/4 of the back or front surface) of the wheels during the test. Here’s what we learned.

1. We snagged a set of four classic American Racing Outlaw II one-piece aluminum wheels at a swap meet for less than half of what one would cost new. Now we had to figure out how to make them look like new.

2. Although we’ve seen worse, these wheels were crusted with a decade or more of dirt and corrosion. The once-polished face of the aluminum wheels had oxidized so much that it felt as if the surface was covered by a combination of barnacles and 60-grit sandpaper.

3. The backsides of the wheels were in worse shape than the front. Years (and years) of dirt, corrosion, oil, and brake dust had congealed and hardened into a layer of slate-like crust covering the aluminum.

4. Out first step was to give the wheels a very thorough washing. We used, and recommend, a fireman’s style nozzle. It’s not only good for all general vehicle-washing purposes because of its ability to adjust from a soft rain-like spray pattern to a hard jet-like stream, but it’s also perfect for cleaning stubborn dirt or mud from a Jeep’s undercarriage or wheels.

5. We had a full arsenal of cleaning products and accessories lined up. A variety of wheel cleaners, polished, and cleaning tools were used during this wheel-cleaning experiment. Among the cleaners were American Power Wash Wheel Cleaning Acid, CRC Brakleen, Flitz Metal Pre-Clean, Meguiar’s All Metal Polish Liquid, McKee’s 37 Foaming Wheel Cleaner Gel, Mothers Polish Aluminum Wheel Cleaner, P21S High Performance Wheel Cleaner, P21S Special Performance Gel Concentrate Wheel Cleaner, and Sonax Acid-Free Wheel Cleaner. The polishes included 3D Deep Blue Polish, Flitz Metal Polish, Meguiar’s Metal Polish (Heavy-Cut, Medium-Cut, and Finishing) Paste, Mothers Mag & Aluminum Polish, and Zephyr Pro-40 Metal Polish.

6. A number of the products we tested during the wheel-cleaning process were skin and eye irritants. Because we like our eyes and skin just the way they are and wanted to avoid a trip to the ER, we used heavy-duty rubber gloves and eye protection while using them.

7. Following the product label instructions, we tried the wheel cleaning products on the backside of the wheels. The Flitz, SONAX, and P21S Gel had the greatest effect (in that order) of the cleaners on the backside of the wheels. However, none worked anywhere as well as the American Power Wash Wheel Cleaning Acid on the baked-on crust covering the backside of the wheels.

8. We borrowed an empty household cleaner spray bottle (thoroughly washed out prior to use, of course) and used it to apply the recommended 1:10 diluted solution of American Power Wash Wheel Cleaning Acid. While all the other wheel-cleaning products we tested can be used on coated wheels, this product is for use only on uncoated wheels, as it will strip off the coating. If you’re checking the American Wheels website for info on the Outlaw II wheels, you’ll notice they are called out as coated. Our wheels were not coated, and our source at American Wheels told us that although its product information from 1983 when the wheels were first introduced has no information about coating, that if they were coated, it very well could have worn off over the years, especially with extreme off-road use.

9. As with all the cleaning products we tried on our set of test wheels, a medium-stiff bristles brush was used to agitate the American Power Wash Wheel Cleaning Acid. The agitation from brushing not only helps get the cleaner working to its full potential, but it also helps break up ground-in dirt and corrosion (in our case, with aluminum wheels, oxidation).

10. The American Power Wash Wheel Cleaning Acid did the best job on the backside of the wheels. While we could not get all the crust off the aluminum (the backsides of the wheels were severely pitted from the years of corrosive action), it would have taken hours with a grinding wheel to remove it all, and that would have also removed more aluminum than we cared to lose.

11. When it came time to attack the front side of the wheels, again, all the same cleaning products were given their chance to shine. All were agitated with the medium-stiff bristled brush too. The American Power Wash Wheel Cleaning Acid was the only thing we found that could take the surface crust off. However, when we went “off-book” during our experiment (despite the product-use instructions) and allowed the cleaning products to sit on the wheel surface for 10 minutes before washing off with water, the Flitz Pre-Clean did nearly as well. To be fair, if this had been a normal level of dirt and grime, any of the cleaners we tested would have done a fine job. However, these wheels had been sitting outside and uncleaned for 10 years or more.

12. If the oxidation is heavy, as with our wheels, it’s a good idea to begin with a heavy- or medium-cut polish and a foam-come polisher. We checked out the Meguiar’s DynaCone, Mothers PowerCone, and the Mother’s PowerBall Mini. We found that the Mequiar’s DynaCone’s and Mother’s PowerCone’s tips worked very well to get into the corners and crevices of the wheels, and their flat sides did a great job on the flat inner walls of the Outlaw II wheels. The Mothers PowerBall mini did just as well as job on the flat surfaces but could not get into the corners and other tight spots. The instructions for all three of these polishing tools suggest the use of a variable-speed cordless drill motor, but we used a corded electric drill motor and were careful to “feather” the trigger to vary pressure and avoid excessive wear on the polishers.

13. A quick and easy way to know if your wheels are coated or uncoated is to apply a little polish to a small area of the wheel surface and begin to rub it in with a microfiber towel. If you see “black” appearing on the towel, that is the aluminum oxide coming off the wheel, and it lets you know there is no coating. This was our first step before beginning this entire process. It was also our last step. Of the five polishes we tested, the Flitz, Meguiar’s, and Zephyr Pro-40 worked best (in that order). Again, we have to admit that if these wheels had carried a “normal” level of dirt and corrosion, all of these products would likely have performed up to snuff. That was not the case with these swap meet wheels, though.

14. The before (left) and after (right) show a striking difference. These wheels will be the perfect match for our ’79 Jeep Cherokee, and would be right at home on any late-’70s or ’80s-era Jeep. Best of all, for a small price in elbow grease, we turned $50 worth of crusty old wheels into sparkling gems.