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YOUR WHEELS

With Cars Getting Older, It May Be Time to Pony Up for a New Paint Job

July 09, 1998|RALPH VARTABEDIAN

It became a symbol of cheesy 1960s-era culture, even though it remains one of the greatest-sounding deals in the history of television advertising: "I'll paint any car, any color, for $29.95."

Of course, the statement came from Earl Scheib, the Beverly Hills regular of late-night TV who built a national empire painting old cars.

Scheib died in 1992, but the business of painting cars that he pioneered is booming once again, as the fleet of American cars keeps getting older every year.

The average car is now about 8.6 years old, meaning there are millions of cars older than 12 years, the age at which the typical factory paint job begins to falter.

Although new paint processes used by manufacturers are better than ever, it is not unusual for serious paint calamities to begin after a car is just 4 years old. I get more reader mail on paint problems with late-model cars than on any other subject.

Paint failure is among the most expensive automotive problems to deal with, excluding engine or transmission meltdowns. Auto makers generally refuse to fix flawed paint after a car is more than 4 years old--a full decade before the car reaches its normal service lifetime.

Motorists have two options: a custom paint job for a minimum of $2,000 or a low-priced job at a production paint shop, such as Earl Scheib Paint & Body, Maaco Auto Painting & Body Works or any number of smaller operations.

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Does it make sense to paint your car? No paint job, custom or otherwise, equals the original baked-on factory finish. A second paint job (just like a second layer of shingles on your roof) will never look the same or last as long. It will be more subject to pitting, chipping and fading than the original.

Americans are becoming less class-conscious about driving an old car, but they still don't want to be seen in a beater. A good-quality paint job can extend the appearance of a car for three or more years.

The best case for repainting would be a newer car that has had a paint breakdown before six years. Most customers of Scheib and Maaco own cars about 8 to 10 years old. Past 12 years old, a paint job may cost half as much as a car is worth.

The paint jobs offered by Scheib and Maaco differ substantially. Scheib makes its own paint, an acrylic polyurethane that chemically cures with the use of infrared spotlights. The company uses water-based primers but solvent-based color paints.

Jeff Pearl, general manager of Scheib's paint manufacturing center, says the paint is equivalent to any top automotive paint. The company has made public a set of blind tests conduced by an independent paint lab in Ypsilanti, Mich., claiming to show that its new paint system is superior to that of its competitors.

The $29.95 paint job is long gone at Scheib, though its prices nowadays are still always 5 cents short of the next dollar. The company offers three different paint jobs, starting at $159.95 for two coats of paint and a one-year warranty. The next step up is Scheib's Pro2 job at $399.95, which includes a primer and two coats of color, along with a three-year warranty.

By comparison, Maaco offers its entry-level ambassador paint job at $189, which includes one to three coats of paint and a six-month warranty. Maaco uses a standard enamel paint, produced by either Sherwin-Williams or DuPont, says Paul Iverson, national director of operations. But its paint centers are franchised, meaning that some local owners buy their own paints.

Both companies do a light hand sanding; use masking tape to protect unpainted surfaces; and charge extra for repairing dings, painting doorjambs and putting on an extra layer of clear coat over the paint.

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If your car has serious delamination of the original paint or clear coat and you opt for repainting, you should be sure the shop will adequately sand down the damaged paint to provide a solid foundation for the new finish. Otherwise, the new paint will never bond properly.

Whether your car has the original factory paint or an aftermarket paint job, a little care can extend the life of the finish. Keep the car out of the midday sun, wash off urban fallout at least every week and periodically wax the horizontal surfaces.

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Times staff writer Ralph Vartabedian cannot answer mail personally but will attempt to respond in this column to automotive questions of general interest. Do not telephone. Write to Your Wheels, 1875 I St. N.W., No. 1100, Washington, DC 20006.

Via e-mail: ralph.vartabedian@latimes.com.

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