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.
The process looks relatively straightforward. Clean the car, clean your hands, use lots of a soap-and-water solution to keep everything wet while positioning the film (without ever touching the adhesive side of the material), squeegee from the center out and don't use too much alcohol-and-water solution (it helps activate the adhesive). Easier said than done, even if you have covered a hundred model airplanes.
There are several companies selling pre-cut kits and downloadable patterns for both pros and the DIY market, some with clear loyalties to particular products. Coverage varies between kits, often with the vehicle's price(and even between models), so do some research. Approved installers are listed on manufacturer and design-house websites. Be sure and ask to see samples of an installer's work, as well as their references, and agree ahead of time on what you expect.
Professionals generally use larger, one-piece patterns that are more difficult to install, while DIY kits often have smaller pieces that are easier to install but have more seams. Knowing how far the film will stretch, where to lock it down first and just how much alcohol you can use is knowledge that only comes from experience. And when I say clean, I really mean CLEAN! Even after I washed the car, Keszthelyi washed the car and DeLeon went over it one more time inside, and we still had to stop several times to remove small bits of dirt. And never, ever wear fuzzy red fleece while installing PPF on a white car-just ask Keszthelyi.
At points during the installation, I wondered if the small piece on the leading edge of the fender had slipped off; you had to look closely to see it was still in place. You will notice the film-remember it is there to protect- not necessarily make the car look better-and most obvious is the line running across the hood. But for practical purposes, the film is invisible from a few feet away. The Vector's chin spoiler wasn't part of the kit, so DeLeon and Keszthelyi just shrugged and showed me how a custom install works. They also insisted on a few other custom touches, running a small strip of film down the door edges and even putting a piece on the rear bumper at the trunk opening. This area had already scuffed by my son's hockey bag, but the small mark disappeared under the film. Covering the entire rear bumper with PPF is popular, especially in NYC's "park by Braille" environment.
The pattern DeLeon downloaded to his computer controlled plotter/cutter fit very well, though as with anything in life, there are compromises. The film stops at the very edge of the hood, leaving a tiny strip exposed. Keszthelyi explained the difficulties in wrapping very small radii without having an appropriate surface under the hood for the film to adhere to, something not there on my Saab. Some owners insist that lights, grills, badges etc., be removed in order to provide maximum protection, but a totally custom job like that wasn't in the budget. And given the cost of the material, coverage areas will vary in order to keep kit costs in line with that of the vehicle. Though the Saab flares all the way to the center of the front wheel arch, coverage stops a few inches short, dictated by cost and difficulty of installation. The difference in frontal area is small and covering it would have required another two or three feet of 24-inch material and made for an even more challenging installation. Like I said, compromise.
Once the PPF is installed, treat it just like you treat your paint-you do wash your car often and use a high quality wax on a regular basis don't you? Give new PPF a few days before any pressure washing and always wash from the center of the PPF to the edge. Wax up to the edge of the PPF and gently remove any buildup there with a cotton swab or baby toothbrush. Use Plexus, an aviation-grade plastic cleaner, protectant and polish recommended by all the top PPF installers, to keep the PPF in top shape.
Only time will tell how well the PPF will hold up on my car, but 3M's testing has shown 97% of the original finish can survive ten years. Knowing it is there brings a certain peace of mind when I find myself stuck behind a salt truck spreading an icy road, or hearing the splat of one of the South's highly acidic love bugs, or the rattle of wind-blown sand on the way to Vegas. You get the idea.