Clean Room

We’ve all been there: Walked up to an innocuous-looking vehicle needing some attention and popped the hood, only to be greeted with a filthy mess that would make even a trench-war veteran flinch. When the time comes to do any engine work, it’s a shame to be faced with a ratty engine compartment—especially when it’s your own car.

We recently faced this situation with our Datsun 240Z. Fortunately, the Z-car was due to get its engine rebuilt, so we’d have nearly unequaled access to its compartment. We didn’t have the time or desire to completely strip and repaint the engine bay, but we still managed to do a simple makeover without spending much time or money. Here’s what we did.


Clean, Clean. There are several ways to clean an engine compartment. In the old days, we would use an engine degreaser. As these products have gotten more environmentally friendly, however, they have also gotten weaker. At the same time, excellent alternatives like Simple Green and similar “purple” cleaners have evolved and work very well.

How you use these cleaners is up to you.

One option is to wet down the engine compartment, spray on the cleaner, let it soak, and then blast away the dirt with a pressure washer. This has a couple of drawbacks, though. First, you need to be careful with the pressure washer, as it can remove paint, obliterate old decals and even damage your skin or eyes. You also need to collect and dispose of the runoff, as it will contain petroleum products.

Here’s a better way: Spray the cleaner onto the buildup, then brush off the dirt and grime with some rags and long-bristled brushes. This makes it easy to collect the nasty residue, and it’s much gentler on you and your car.


Remove Components. You will need to move some things out of the way to effectively scrub the engine bay. For example, we unclipped our Z-car’s wiring harness so we could clean around and behind it.

Items like the battery, radiator, voltage regulator and such can all be removed to make the rest of this job easier. Make sure you carefully label all wires and mark where things go to make reassembly a snap.


Polishing. Once you’re finished with the cleaner, take some light polishing compound and go over the complete engine compartment. We used this trick on our Datsun, and the compound did an amazing job of shining and removing stains from the paint. (If your car’s engine bay is flat black, you can obviously skip this step.)


Touch-Up. Now take a brush and some touch-up paint—get paint that matches properly, not the generic stuff sold at the local auto parts store—and go over any nicks you might find under the hood. If you have larger areas to fix, you can get touchup paint custom-filled in a spray can, but you’d be surprised how much you can do with a brush, especially when it’s under the hood where most of us are less fussy.


Detail the Accessories. Remember all of those accessories you unbolted? Now it’s time to spiff them up. Carefully clean and paint items like the starter, voltage regulator and battery tie-down hardware.

Take care not to paint areas that get hot or need to stay clean. A small brass brush, some masking tape, cleaning solvent and a lot of patience will make this step go better. Once it’s all clean, apply a clear finish in either gloss or satin.

Here’s another tip: Most parts were not originally black or bright silver. A lot of the pieces under your car’s hood were probably dull aluminum or clear anodized from the factory. While we’re not suggesting that you go get everything replated, specialists like Eastwood and even your local home improvement center do offer spray-on finishes that look natural and very period-correct. In the past, we have worked wonders with a $3 can of stainless steel paint from Lowe’s.

Another trick: Talk to the experts. After we spent some time trying to match the original orange paint on our Datsun 240Z’s air cleaner, a quick call to Classic Datsun Motorsports revealed they had done the research and had the exact paint on hand for just a few dollars.


Clean the Harness. Wires get dirty over time, fading from bright primary colors to something closer to dirt. Start by wiping down the entire engine wiring harness with a rag and some cleaning solvent—we’re partial to DuPont’s Prep-Sol.

Assuming the harness passes a visual inspection, we’ll then clear coat it. Some will say that the clear paint can make a harness brittle, but we have never had a problem and find the look and protection to be quite beneficial.


Put It Back Together. At this stage, your paint should be dry and you can start putting everything back together. New nuts, bolts and screws go a long way to improving the look. If you want to retain the original hardware, often it can be cleaned up with a wire brush before being dabbed with a little stainless steel or clear paint.


Details Make the Difference. There are places to spend money, and places not to bother. One good place to invest a few bucks is on hoses. A rotted hose can not only ruin your weekend, but it’s ugly, too. We were able to source new, period-correct coolant hoses for our Z through Classic Datsun Motorsports.

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Aktifspeed None
6/5/09 6:33 p.m.

Did you guys run a short story not long ago about refinishing/painting a white TR6's engine compartment WITHOUT removing the engine? I recall having to remove the ancilliary items, but not the block. I have a 74' TR6 which just received a great new paint job, and I'd like to treat the engine bay to a re-spray without pulling the motor...

Erik S.

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