Coming from a family of fixed-wing pilots, I always knew helicopters were never meant to fly. After all, during the Vietnam War, 3M had to develop tape to keep them in the air. Bailing wire and string is one thing, but tape?
The leading edges of the chopper's rotor blades were being damaged by debris, especially rocks and gravel, blown up during field landings, and the urethane tape 3M manufactured prevented much of this damage without overly disrupting the airflow over the rotors. (The current product is now standard throughout the aviation industry for protecting leading edges of rotors, wings, propellers and avionics pods.) In the mid-'80s, the factory race team I worked for used this helicopter tape to protect our car's strong, yet in some ways delicate, carbon-fiber body work. The tape yellowed after a few races but took a lot of abuse and did a remarkable job of protecting high-impact areas. About the same time, the first "dually" pickups appeared and manufacturers soon realized the paint on the flared rear fenders tended to chip badly. 3M responded with a reworked product that OEMs used to protect these troublesome areas.
I've felt those truck owners' pain, their new rigs soon chipped and looking poorly. When I converted my Jetta with Euro-Golf headlights, the hood and grille had to be swapped and I put a great deal of effort into the paint. The first rock chips appeared within weeks and only got worse through the winter. So, the thought of my shiny new Saab 9-3 Vector getting all dinged up prompted me to start looking for something to keep the paint chips at bay weeks before I picked up the car.
A quick web search showed a lot has changed since my days with the race team. Gone are ungainly car-bras and plastic bug deflectors replaced by nearly invisible paint protection films (PPFs) descended from that original helicopter tape. With environmental regulations prompting a switch to softer water-based paints, many folks think will PPF be the next big thing in the automotive aftermarket.
Some 40 years after his father helped develop that original helicopter tape, Steve Stark works as marketing manager for the recently renamed Scotchgard Paint Protection Film. "To the uneducated eye, the film looks like a piece of tape," he said. "When you really break into it, you find three layers of high technology at work.
"The [pressure sensitive] adhesive is state-of-the-art in its ability to stretch, lock the film down and stay on the car long-term. Married to that is the urethane. The real changes in technology have come here, it's better today than even just two years ago. You now have a product that is not going to yellow (thanks to UV inhibitors in the resin) lay flatter and look clearer. Unique to 3M, we marry a clearcoat, able to stretch up to 20%, to the urethane, giving it a long lasting, high gloss look. This is what really separates 3M, the look you get today will be there in 18 months and in five years," Stark continued. Scotchgard PPF is backed with a five-year warranty.
I should point out there are several PPFs available, among them products from 3M, Venture Tape, Llumar, Beckart Specialty Films and Avery-Dennison (whose own coated product is just coming to market). Each of the films has its proponents, detractors, disadvantages and advantages. Most of the films are 8 mils thick, 6 mil urethane and 2 mil adhesive (a mil is 1/1000 of an inch). While that doesn't sound like much, 3M tests its product with gravel shot at 85 mph (yes, ASTM has a standard test involving a half-pint of gravel shot at varying speeds in just 10 seconds). Twenty-mil is tested with 3/4-inch gravel shot at 120 mph, and 40 and 80 mil film is available for headlights. After lurking on installer forums (see www.tintdude.com, and as with any online forum be sure to set your BS filter on high) and reading whatever reviews and technical information I could find, I decided 3M's Scotchgard PPF was the way to go and started making phone calls.
Being a hands-on kind of guy, my initial inquiries were about applying the PPF myself. "We gently and respectfully tell people, by all means give it a shot, but this really is a professional installation," Stark cautioned. Rather than chance my disappointment, 3M instead arranged for veteran New York City area installers Laszlo Keszthelyi and Joe DeLeon to show me how the job is done. True car guys, the pair got their start installing PPF on their own vehicles, eventually starting X-treme Vehicle Coatings after attending several training classes. Now much of their business involves custom protection for Ferraris, Lamborghinis and other exotics, as well as boats and motorcycles. Watching them work was worth the four-hour drive.