There Is No Victory in the War on Rust, but Here’s How I’m Fighting Anyway

Welcome to a weekly feature we call Autoweek Talks, where we bring you a smattering of stories tied to a theme—a theme explored often very, shall we say, interpretively. The aim is to deliver automotive content that entertains and enlightens but that doesn’t necessarily follow the news cycle. This week Autoweek Talks: Rust.

Of course the whole patina craze is big on the West Coast. It’s not that a Midwesterner can’t appreciate the look of a car burnished by time and use; there’s an honesty to it, a sense of historicity that stands in sharp contrast to the better-than-new showpieces that flood our summer show-and-shines.

The outright fetishization of decay, though it sometimes yields spectacular results, definitely feels like a California thing. What could be more perfectly Hollywood than taking a fleeting moment—in this case, that precarious point in the oxidation process where a car looks picturesquely rugged while still maintaining structural integrity—freezing it in time and marketing the hell out of it like some aging celebrity’s face? At least in this case, a clear coat is less intrusive than plastic surgery.

Here in the Salt Belt, though, we know that you can’t freeze time, or rust: Once it sets in, you can only excise it completely, like a tumor, or fight it. So when I look out and see my Grand Wagoneer sliding into dereliction, I don’t see a cool old Jeep with “a really killer patina.” I see a beloved truck that will soon approach the point of no return. It needs a paint job soon, and before that’s done, rust will have to be repaired around the windshield, around the rear windows—which will involve pulling the glass—and there’s a gnarly, but relatively small, hole in a quarter panel behind one of the rear wheels. I can’t afford to take that project on right now, so I’m trying to prevent things from getting any worse.

There are only two ways to prevent rust from eating your car. The first is to live in a perpetually dry climate (again, there’s a reason patina is big out West). The second is to only take your vehicle out on perfect days, and only after spring rains have washed all traces of corrosive salt off the roads. I happen to like Michigan, and a trailer-queen Jeep is a contradiction in terms, so those are unworkable, at least where my Wagoneer is concerned.

Everything else is rust mitigation. And here are there are many options: A professionally applied rust-preventative system from a company like Ziebart is one. You could buy a whole lot of cans of rubberized coatings to spray on the underbody, or daub on something like POR-15 and hope you don’t miss a spot. There’s also the world of waxy/oily treatments that need to be applied annually (or as needed). Some of these mitigation methods might even work! But there are a lot of factors at play here, and you’re still fighting rust here, not defeating it.

I happen to like the waxy/oily treatment method myself. One, I’ve always been shocked at how nicely preserved metal bits can be when they’re coated in decades of leaking lubricants and the dust and grime they attract; spraying on a lubricant stand-in yourself is a way to speed up that process.

Two, I actually like the fact that it’s removable. This means you have to apply it regularly, but it also means that—should I decide to do a frame-off resto at some point—cleaning off the coating will be trivial. Also I own a Barbour jacket (and a number other waxed cotton goods) and I’m comfortable with touching it up from time to time with relatively non-toxic wax. If you miss an area, or some wears off, you just add more—it’s a flexible, though admittedly never-ending, process.

Though I toyed with the idea of making my own Waxoyl, a very flammable-sounding process involving white spirits, paraffin oil and/or motor oil and candle wax, I ultimately settled on Fluid Film. Fluid Film comes in spray cans or larger containers; after estimating how much I needed, I opted to buy a couple gallons rather than individual cans. To apply it, I purchased a $25 (effectively disposable) paint sprayer from Harbor Freight.

Fluid Film offers a number of formulations, but the one I was able to get my hands on was the company’s “liquid AR.” It’s weird stuff: As a thixotropic fluid, it thickens if it’s been sitting for a while. So when you pop the top of the can, you’ll find a bunch of stuff that looks like caramel sauce but smells disquietingly of…sheep. Yes, sheep; one of the primary components of Fluid Film is lanolin, a wax produced as a byproduct of the wool industry. After I stirred the heck out of the can, and even added vegetable oil as suggested by the manufacturer, the weird sheep goop was still too viscous to pour into the sprayer (it might have been a little too cold outside). So, I decided to add heat:

That did the trick. The stuff poured beautifully and sprayed easily, seemingly no matter what pressure setting I set the spray gun to. I couldn’t have asked for an easier application process. (OK, I lied—it would have been easier if I had a real lift in my garage, but that’s true for just about any project.)

The sprayer came with a handy extension wand. After doing some initial wheel-well spraying without the wand installed, I attached it and used it for the rest of the Jeep. There was no reason not to; it allowed me to spray into the holes in the Jeep’s frame, up the drain holes in the doors, and so on.

Ultimately, I burned through a little over a gallon of Fluid Film in this process. I plan to make this a regular routine, applying at least once a year—or, more likely, ahead of and after the winter season. I figure I’ll go through about a gallon each time, though that may be overkill. Now that I have the sprayer, that works out to about $40 per treatment. As almost anything is cheaper than rust repair after it really sets in, it’s a price I’m willing to pay.

So will any of this actually make a difference? Encouraging tests on various pieces of scrap metal over the winter tells me that Fluid Film works, at least on a small scale. Hopefully, it’s equally good at keeping the rust at bay on my Jeep—we won’t know for a while yet.

If nothing else, I now feel like I’ve done something meaningful to help keep my truck going. And in the never-ending battle against rust, there are few things as dangerous as complacency; patina today is a tetanus risk tomorrow. We may never be able to fully defeat oxidation, not as long as we want to venture out of our hermetically sealed garages on less-than-ideal days. But as with so many human endeavors, we like to know that we’re at least fighting the good fight.

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