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How To Keep Your Beemer Clean

a step-by-step guide for the anal retentive
by Bill Shaw,

Before you begin reading the following FAQ, I would like to present my credentials. [For those that believe that a clean bike is a sign of one not ridden, Bill Shaw has ridden an immaculate bike through more states in the last few years than I have visited in my entire life … Ed.]

I have dedicated the majority of my adult life and all my waking hours for the past 22 years in pursuit of keeping motorcycles looking new. And during these past 22 years, I have read everything EVER written on cleaning things. What you are about to read is a compilation of the techniques that I use to clean my motorcycles. I have a doctorate in Automotive Detailing, and I am the founder and President/CEO of a nodenominational group of BMW motorcycle cleaning enthusiasts. We do not discriminate based on make, model or displacement, and are incorporated as the Anal Retentive Internet BMW Riders (ARIBMWR). It is our goal to proselytize the fundamental principals by which we live our life: Keep It Clean, or Park It!

If you have any additional input, comments, suggestions or recommendations (you’ll be wrong…but let me know anyway, I’m always up for a good laugh), please let me know. Toodles.

Tools for the Trade

Ted and Tom suggested some time ago that I put some information together on detailing motorcycles for a FAQ. So I thought I’d break the information down into several cleaning tip posts. If you have any additional input, comments, suggestions or recommendations, please let me know.

Without further eloquence, here’s the first installment: Tools of the Trade.

There are many people in Beemerdom who proscribe to the maxim that if it is nice enough to wash their bike, they would rather be riding. There is an unsaid implication in this statement that anyone with a clean motorcycle must not ride much, or would rather clean their bike than ride. Well, I’m here to tell you the two do not have to be mutually exclusive.

Cleaning your bike should be viewed as part of routine maintenance. I do it with the same commitment and regularity as a 3,000-mile oil change. The advantages to periodically cleaning your bike have been stated many times before, by people much more articulate than I. Suffice it to say that for many BMW owners who tend to be ultra-long distance tourers, identifying problems before they occur should be reason enough.

To begin with, you will need the correct tools to do the job. Purchase, borrow, steal, or otherwise procure a bucket that will be used EXCLUSIVELY for your bike(s). There will be times when harsh chemicals might accidentally be transfered into the bucket, and some of these solvents might inadvertently be transferred into the bucket. If the same bucket is used to clean the beautiful hardwood floors in your estate, and it accidentally strips the finish or stains the floor, you might have to sell your bike to help pay for the divorce. Conversely, you don’t want to use a bucket to wash your bike where Top Job ™ ammonia cleaner or Clorox ™ was recently used.

Next, buy the softest car-wash mit available. I like the ones with a thick, plush mat/pile. These are the best since they easily lift and carry dirt and other debris away from the paint surface without scratching it. And for drying, a chamois is very effective (either synthetic or natural…both are good), and if available, buy cloth diapers, these are the best. 100% cotton cloth diapers are literally worth their weight in gold for someone who routinely cares for their vehicles. They are expensive, but are invaluable when it comes to applying wax/polish, removing wax/polish, cleaning glass/plastics, drying your bike, or simply wiping it down.

Also buy several heavy duty cleaning rags and/or sponges for use on those areas of the motorcycle where you don’t want to use a mit. And for Airheads, a stiff toothbrush/toiletbowl brush are also valuable tools. Avoid the ones sold in hardware stores with brass/metal bristles as these might scratch or gouge the cases. I try to find the heaviest, stiffest commercial toothbrush available, but a stiff Oral B ™ will also work very well. Scotch-Brite Pads ™ are also helpful on older bikes. In my opinion, these are superior to S.O.S. ™ pads since they don’t tend to fall apart and disintegrate leaving miniscule pieces of metal slivers behind.

I usually buy the least expensive car soap when it comes time to wash any vehicle. I recommend against using whatever dishwashing liquid is in the house…unless you plan on waxing your bike after each washing. Dishwashing soaps are not “engineered” for use on a painted surface. Some of these liquid dishwashing soaps have strong detergents that can easily strip the protective finish (wax) on your bike. All wax manufacturers (Meguiars, RainDance, Turtle Wax, Zymol, etc.) sell their own brand of car wash soap, and these can be found at places like Pep Boys, Trak Auto, Wal Mart, and other auto parts outlets.

Now, go out and get your bike dirty and I’ll explain how to properly wash the beast.

Bath Time

Regardless if you spent upwards of $17,000 for a new BMW motorcycle, or one costing a mere $1000, protecting your investment by giving it a bath with some degree of regularity is important.

Having the right tools helps (discussed in the previous post), but knowing how to use them is equally important…and it all begins with the soap and water. Remember that dishwashing liquid and laundry detergents are designed to remove the dried-on, and encrusted Lobster Florentine that you had for brunch 3 months ago, and they will attack the wax on your bike with the same gusto. Simply stated, wax companies love people who use Palmolive or Ivory Liquid on their vehicles.

After purchasing the proper liquid car-washing soap (I also don’t like powder soaps since any un-dissolved particles can act as abrasives), read the directions carefully, and then use half of the recommended amount. I usually use about a cap full in 4-5 gallons of water. The stronger the concentration of soap:water, the more wax you are likely to remove. Also, avoid using hot water since this tends to soften and remove the wax.

Ideally the bike should be parked in the shade and cool to the touch before washing. Next, wet the bike down with nothing more than an ordinary garden hose, and avoid spraying water directly at any seals, gaskets or electrical connections. Even Holy Water will eventually find its way into wheel bearings if a 10,000 psi deck washer or a fire hydrant is used. I actually prefer not to use a nozzle at all since you don’t need pressure to wash the dirt away.

Begin by washing all the painted and plastic surfaces first with one mitt, and then using a second mitt/rag, clean the engine and wheels last. Start at the top and work your way down. In this way, you are not transferring the heavy dirt, grease, etc., into bucket before you’ve washed the paint. I’ll cover how best to clean the engine and wheels in a later article.

The bike should be dried as soon as possible, unless you enjoy being teased about those unsightly water spots by your motorcycle brethren while downing an A&W Root Beer at the Boot Hill Saloon. The best method to accomplish this is to use 100 % cotton baby diapers. If diapers are not available, the next best solution is to use a synthetic chamois, followed by a natural chamois, followed by any soft, clean cotton cloth you can find.

Polish and Wax

Now that I thoroughly insulted everyone by explaining how to properly wash a bike, the next step is about caring for and protecting your paint. Due to some confusing terms associated with this process, I thought I would continue my condescending diatribe by providing several definitions first.

POLISHES. Polishes (often referred to as cleaners) are designed to clean the paint by removing contaminants and oxidation, restoring the paint to a rich, light-reflecting luster, covering swirl marks, and preparing the paint for wax. While polishes can be in the form of a chemical, the most common types are friction cleaners that contain abrasives. It’s almost always best to begin by using a fine abrasive (a glaze), vice starting off by using a coarse abrasive (a rubbing compound or clay).

WAXES. I only know of two types of waxes: organic and polymer-based. Most polymer waxes are chemically manufactured from petroleum distillates and contain silicone or Teflon. I am a traditionalist at heart, and am not convinced polymers are the best wax; i.e., provide the longest- lasting protective finish, so I tend to go “au natural.” The most common organic waxes are from tropical plants (Carnauba) or from bee’s wax. The proverbial jury is out as to which is best or whether a paste or liquid wax provides the best protection. My personal experience has been that a liquid wax containing Carnauba not only offers a long-lasting protective finish, but is easily applied and removed.

CLEANER WAXES. I suspect these one-step products are being marketed for today’s busy executive. However, I think it’s counterintuitive to expect one product to perform two diverse functions as cleaning/polishing, while SIMULTANEOUSLY applying a protective coat of wax. These products, IMO, are best suited for a Ural…not a concours R51/3.

Now for a reminder about paint preparation. Always wash the bike thoroughly before starting (this can not be overemphasized), unless you don’t mind seeing the image of New York City’s transit system permanently etched in your paint. The bike should be cool to the touch, and the wax/polish should be applied and removed in the shade with the softest applicators you can find.

I generally polish my bikes about once a year, and I ALWAYS apply a coat of wax immediately after polishing them. Most, if not all, major wax manufacturers also make polishes. Just remember to buy the least aggressive polish available.

The frequency with which you wax your bike will depend on its use. If the bike is garaged and covered, and only ridden 3,000 miles a year on nice days, then you might only wax it once a year. If it’s a daily commuter, then 3-4 times a year might not be unreasonable. Remember, wax was designed to protect your paint against prehistoric flying insects, acid rain, suicidal swans, road kill, and tree secretions.

The real die-hard detailers apply paste wax with their fingertips. This method minimizes the potential for accidentally rubbing in a piece of sand, grit or asteroid that imbedded itself onto your applicator. Another tip is to apply and remove polishes/waxes in the same direction as the wind flows over the bodywork. This prevents you from creating swirl marks in the paint which are more readily seen than perpendicular scratches (scratches are apparent when viewed at a 90 degree angle, that’s why swirl marks are so easily spotted from all directions).

I do not encourage the use of Pledge or any other household products to shine motorcycles. The chemicals in some household products might not be compatible with the chemicals in the paint. The reason that you don’t apply wax to a painted surface immediately after it’s been painted, for instance, is to allow the chemicals within the paint to “outgas”…or, breathe. Therefore, my personal view is not to risk it. Also, household products do not provide a lasting protective finish to the painted surface against UV, acids, salts, etc.

Face Shields and Windshields

Most of us have gotten lazy after a long ride or trip, and neglected to clean our windshields or face-shields right away…sometimes forgetting about them for a couple of days, or for several years. Inevitably, 10 minutes before a scheduled Sunday morning ride with friends, you are frantically trying to clean the effected surface without any success.

What’s happened is all those bugs have essentially engraved themselves into the plastic. For safety reasons, virtually all windshields and face-shields are made from polycarbonate, Plexiglas, or another type of plastic. These materials react adversely to bodily fluids from bugs, whose smattered remains act like acid on the windshield. If left unchecked and not removed in a timely fashion – usually within 2-3 days – these bugs will eventually “etch” themselves onto your face-shield or windshield (or paint)…sometimes permanently.

The best way I found to remove hardened bugs is to place a wet towel over the surface and let it remain there for at least 15 minutes. The water will loosen the bug remains, thus making their removal easier. Using either warm soapy water (preferable) or a watered-down/mild solution of an over-the- counter glass cleaner, clean the surface and wipe away the remains with a cloth. DO NOT use paper towels that are made from paper products since these are more likely to scratch plastic surfaces.

If using a glass cleaner doesn’t work, the next step is to try a polish made exclusively for plastics. Meguire’s makes a number of polishes for clear plastic products which are available at most motorcycle shops or automotive discount stores like Trak Auto. I have used Meguire’s number 10 plastic polish for years with very good results. Also, I would suggest applying and removing the polish in the direction your eye sees through the plastic (horizontal for a face-shield, and vertical for a windshield).

A word about bird poop is also in order (the following also pertains to painted surfaces as well). Not only is bird poop highly acidic, but a close inspection of this offering will probably disclose small pebbles which are used by some flying reptiles to assist in the digestion of their food. To spare the water, in this case, is to ruin the finish. So be especially careful when removing bird poop and do it as soon as possible after the deposit…this stuff will scratch your windshield, faceshield, and bodywork quickly and permanently if not removed properly.

Lastly, and after getting the windshield/face-shield as clean as possible, apply a coat of wax. Like painted surfaces, the wax will provide a protective layer against the elements, as well as hide minute imperfections in the plastic.

Other Tips:

  • Avoid using petroleum-based products; i.e., WD-40.
  • Avoid using paint polishes that are considerably harsher than plastic polishes
  • (these will scratch clear plastic surfaces).
  • Don’t cover the bike if heavy dew is expected overnight…let Mother Nature work for you.
  • Take a small hand towel with you on trips for use to remove bugs.

Cleaning Airhead

In the first articles, I wrote about how best to wash, polish, wax and generally just clean motorcycles while not specifically referring to any particular BMW model. However, each of three different BMW engine designs, the traditional boxer or Airhead (R 247 series), the new boxer or Oilhead (R 249 series), and the K bikes/F560s, requires a different approach to keep it looking its best. This week I will discuss how I detail Airheads.

The cast, rough finish of the Airhead engine is one of the most recognized, and arguably, beautiful engines in all of motorcycledom. However, of all the motorcycles I have owned the past 22 years, I found the traditional boxer engine the most difficult to keep looking new. In order to dissipate heat effectively, these engines are not painted or clear coated, so they are not as easy to clean as newer BMW models. These engines are also the most susceptible to salt which will permanently pit the exposed aluminum, leaving white “dots” on the cases. This should not be confused with a kind of natural patina that develops over the years…which is just the sign of a well-used, happy engine.

The engine casting and cylinder jugs just seem to be a $#@!% magnet for every bit of road debris that can be thrown at them, and, therefore, need to be regularly cleaned. I have had good results using a 3-step cleaning process. First, and only when the engine is cold, wash it with soap and warm water, rinse, and let the engine dry. I do not advocate using compressed air to facilitate the drying process since this can easily force water into unwanted areas of your engine.

Next, I spray the engine with an over-the-counter engine cleaner such as Foamy Engine Bright, a do-everything cleanser like Simple Green (100% solution), or a specialty product like S-100, and follow the manufacturers recommended instructions. If there are particularly oily/dirty parts of the engine, I use a Scotch Brite pad and scrub the affected area in conjunction with the chosen cleaner (SOS Pads should probably NOT be used since these tend to disintegrate and leave behind small metal filings). There are also a number of commercially available products to assist in cleaning between the cylinder fins such as toilet bowl brushes, scrub pads; i.e., Scotch Brite, and nylon (not brass) toothbrushes. It’s important to remember to cover painted surfaces before spraying the engine with a strong cleanser, that’s why I usually treat the engine BEFORE I begin washing the bodywork. Rinse with water, and let dry.

The final step is only used when the first two have been unsuccessful. For the really, really stubborn areas, I use the miracle elixir commonly known as WD-40. Since WD-40 was designed as a water dispersant, it is very effective in penetrating dirt and oil, and lifting it away from the engine cases. Using a heavy-duty shop rag, vice a soft diaper, also helps in the event you have to scrub. Continuing on this theme, I also use WD-40 on all the black plastic parts, the front fork legs, gators, frame, switches, and the Para-lever.

Cleaning Oilheads

This installment will discuss cleaning the type R-259 (Oilhead/Chromehead) engine: the R850 and R1100 series, as well as the new R12C.

Oilheads are one of the easiest engines to keep detailed. Although the cylinders are just as exposed as those on the Airhead engines, a clear coat has been applied to the Oilhead engine at the factory thus making dirt/grime removal easier. The front “forks” of the Telelever and the rear Paralever have also been treated. A routine cleaning regiment usually requires little more than washing the bike as described in the first articles with warm soap and water. But here are some additional tips I used when I cleaned my RSL:

1. Avoid spraying too much water directly at the spark plug covers. When water is forced in and around the spark plugs and under the plastic spark plug cover, many bikes have experienced rough running engines until all the water has been dispersed/evaporated. A simple garden hose is enough to make a finally tuned engine appear very “sick.”

2. If using soap and water does not remove the road grime, here is a trick that I KNOW you never heard before…try WD-40. I have used it to remove paint, tar, encrusted bugs, and a myriad of other organic and inorganic substances from my engine without any adverse affects. I don’t advocate spraying down the entire engine with WD-40, but rather, use it as a spot remover. BTW, one item that cannot be removed via conventional methods is gasoline that has stained the engine/jug/transmission housing. If the engine is continuously exposed to gas, from a leaking fuel line for example, the gasoline will stain the clear coat on the engine/paralever to a dull yellowish color, and it cannot be removed without harming the clear coat finish. The gas is essentially “burned” into the clear coat when the engine/drivetrain is repeatedly heated. If you have a yellow discoloration, find the source since you may have a potential problem.

3. Avoid using aluminum or metal polishes…even on the Chromeheads. Once the clear coat has been removed from the engine/telelever/paralever, your time spent on preventative measures to offset aluminum oxidation has just quadrupled. To keep chrome looking new is as easy as washing your bike (being especially careful that your wash mitt is free of moon dust, plum pits and gravel). On the rare occasion when a chrome polish has to be used; i.e., to remove black heel marks from the exhaust, use it very sparingly on a cold engine, and always follow up by applying wax over the affected area.

While these engines do not require the same level of effort to keep looking new as the Airheads, the condition of the clear coat can deteriorate over time if not washed regularly.

Cleaning K-Whiners & F-650’s

Metaphorically speaking, if detailing an Airhead is akin to climbing Mt Everest, and cleaning an Oilhead equates to finishing the Ironman Triathlon, then caring for a K bike or F650 is analogous to just getting out of bed in the morning. They are that easy to keep clean.

For all K/F650 bikes, routine cleaning involves little more than using soap and water to keep them looking new. But like competing in the triathlon, it really depends on how well you want to finish. If you have a fully faired motorcycle and your goal is to simply have it look clean, then by periodically spending 10-15 minutes washing and drying the bodywork you will achieve the desired affect. For cosmetic purposes, this is the most important part anyway and goes a long way in keeping the bike looking new. For unfaired K75s, K100s, and F650s, or for those of you who really want to detail a fully faired K bike, it takes a little more work.

These engines are painted/clear coated and can easily be cleaned using the techniques and tools I discussed in the first post; i.e., warm soap and water, sponge, brush, etc. But the engines do tend to collect road debris, grease, tar and oil. I have found that for really caked on dirt and grease, commercially available cleaners work well; i.e., Simple Green or S-100. But be careful. These products contain strong detergents that can deplete the oils from painted engines, thus turning them from a shiny, to a dull black finish. So pay close attention to the manufacturers suggested directions when using these products…it is vital to use them on cold engines. Avoid over spraying the cleansers onto any exposed bodywork (that’s why I encourage cleaning the engine first, and washing the painted bodywork last).

On F650’s, it’s also best not to soak the chain with water. It’s inevitable that the chain will get wet during the course of washing the bike, but water is not the prefered method of lubricating chains. If it does get overly wet, I suggest spraying a light coating of WD-40 on both sides which not only disperses the water, but simultaneously lubricates the O rings and rollers.

WD-40 can also be used on exposed radiator hoses, thereby keeping them pliable, and on painted engines and drivetrains to keep them looking new too. This miracle elixir also works great when restoring the black areas on brake calipers (do NOT spray directly on calipers, use a rag or toothbrush), cleaning the colored turn signal/ horn/cancel switches, removing dirt or wax residue from the gas cap, and on any other black plastic parts.

All that’s left is to replace any bodywork that was removed, and slap a coat of wax on the fenders, tank and fairing. Next, how to keep wheels looking clean.

Cleaning Wheels

I love all motorcycles: Ducati’s, Honda’s, Yamaha’s, Moto Guzzi’s, Bimota’s, and yes, even Harley’s and Ural’s. My totally objective and unbiased personal belief, however, is that BMW makes some of the most aesthetically appealing bikes in the world…including the wheels. From the laced versions, to the aluminum three-spoked wheel, to the five-spoke rims which adorn the newest K bikes, they are some of the most beautiful found on any production motorcycle.

When viewing/appreciating any motorcycle, one of the first things I notice are the wheels, since they often reflect the owner’s attention to detail. It takes time and patience to really do it correctly and clean every spoke or get into every nook and cranny. Let’s face it, this is probably everyone’s least favorite part on the motorcycle to clean. But I have heard it said many, many times by master detailers like Diaz and Traversa (actually too many times to count) that the wheels reflect the sole of the bike. Fact of the matter is, they are right.

The approach to cleaning a laced wheel or an unpainted aluminum rim is almost the same (I will cover painted wheels separately), but some of the tools are different. For laced wheels, I use a soft-bristled, double-sided brush, rag and/or sponge to clean the spokes, hub and rim. If the grunge is too heavily caked on, a tooth brush used in conjunction with Simple Green (100% solution), S-100 Wheel Cleaner or one of the after market automotive cleaners such as Eagle One is very effective. A thorough washing with warm soap and water (using a separate bucket and sponge) should immediately follow the cleaner. Again, keep the water directed away from the wheel bearings.

Frankly, the best way to keep laced wheels looking good is to just keep on top of them — meaning every time you wash the bike, spend the extra 10 minutes on the wheels. And if you are very ambitious, Tim Bond [wire wheel expert…Ed] recommends a window cleaner like Windex that can be used to remove all the water spots and put a further shine on the chrome. I suggest avoid using a chrome polish unless it’s your intention to really make the bike shine prior to selling it, or you plan on entering it in a show, or it’s your last attempt to remove a really stubborn mark. Remember that polish is an abrasive, and the wheels have to be absolutely spotless before using it, or you will risk scratching the finish.

Aluminum rims are a little easier since they do not have as many “spokes.” Again, any of the wheel cleaners mentioned above will quickly remove the heavy grime, and I prefer a narrow paintbrush/toothbrush when cleaning the recesses and cavities on the wheel. I have also found, and I hope this doesn’t come as a shock to anyone, that WD-40 (or the CRC equivalent – thanks to Bud Proven at Bob’s BMW) works on removing whatever tar, grease or dirt is left over after the wheel cleaner. A word of caution – only used these products by spraying them on a rag first, and then rubbing them on with your hand. Any over-spray onto the tires could make them slippery, and therefore, potentially dangerous.

Painted wheels, like those found on the K1, require a little more care. Because of the harsh detergents, I NEVER use a wheel cleaner (even those designed to be safe with clear coats) since the color will fade over time. I have found the best way to clean painted wheels is to simply use soap and warm water, and WD-40.

Bill Shaw