By on August 5, 2013

TTAC Commentator Pietalian writes:

Hi Sajeev,

Longtime fan of the column, first time inquirer. You roll a “well-aged” fleet of cars yourself, so I’m sure you have dealt with this issue.

Here’s the deal: My wife and I recently purchased a burgundy 2003 Mazda Miata as a third car. Save the manuals, rah rah rah. It has 85k and has been well-maintained mechanically. We live in southern Indiana, but the car is intended to be a 3-season vehicle and will live in the garage.

Unfortunately,the driver-side fender has a patch of clearcoat about 2 inches by 4 inches that has delaminated and is chipping away. Every body shop I have gotten estimates from insists on removing and fully repainting the hood, fenders and driver door to ensure matching hues for about $1,000+. The passenger fender has some dull white patches that appear to be following the same trajectory. The car shows no evidence of a collision, and several forums indicate that this was an issue from the factory.

A picture is attached. The yellow object is a Post-It note included for scale.

Spending $1,000 on bodywork for a small patch is a tough pill to swallow. For about $50, I could buy some supplies and try to patch the clearcoat myself. This seems like a short-term fix, but maybe that is a smart move to avoid rust now while I wait for the other fender to similarly deteriorate before going to the pros. My shop experience is wrenches-only though, so my results are likely to vary…

My wife and I want to keep this car for several years. What do you and the B&B think:

  1. Spend $1,000 or more to get multiple panels repainted and avoid any chance of rust?
  2. Spend $50 and a weekend with rattle-can clearcoat as a stopgap measure
  3. Try to find a shop that will just resurface the driver fender?
  4. Leave everything alone and grunt that “It’s a 10 y/o car”?

Sajeev answers:

Excellent question, and yes I’ve been here before…along with everyone with a North American made whip in the early 1990s. That was supposedly when EPA regulations changed (citation needed) the way clear coat was applied to cars, much to everyone’s dismay 5-10 years down the line.  Chryslers, GM products, Fords, Hondas…they all had northern hemisphere clear coat “dandruff” because of it.

More to the point, let’s make this a cosmetic discussion, nothing to do with rusting: clear coat fail implies there’s still paint protection, it just ain’t pretty or especially durable.  There’s still a layer of colored paint and primer underneath, and that photo proves it.

There is no wrong answer, so let’s discuss the (valid) options you presented:

  1. Multiple panels repainted:  at that price, perhaps you should re-spray the entire car?  This is a slippery slope, but perhaps this gets you the result you truly want.
  2. If you try the DIY route odds are (months later) you’ll hate the outcome and curse yourself for thinking you’re smarter than the average body shop. (Sadly, there’s a good chance you are not.) Re-clearing a bad paint job rarely works well, lasts very long, and generally is a waste of everyone’s time and money. Consider the opportunity cost, as you have other things you’d prefer to do in your spare time.
  3. A decent idea.  Perhaps color matching is possible, but that 10-year-old burgundy/purple-y color must be a colossal PITA to match.  Not as horrifying as silver, and surely not as easy as fleet-sweet white. If you had a white Miata, this option is the obvious choice.
  4. Sure, why not? Rust isn’t a problem here.  A Miata isn’t desirable like a Porsche or Ferrari: whatever you spend here won’t make a big difference in resale value.

I’d stick with option 4 until the clear coat fail gets worse, leading to the ultimate need to get a complete body re-spray. Why?  Because that’s what I’m doing with my Mark VIII; while it has multiple, minor body problems, none of them horribly offend me.  At some point the house of cards will fall: one more scratch and I will actually care.  I have a feeling it’s almost there: there’s clear coat fail on the C-pillar, and it’s only gonna get worse. And the Cobra R wheels I recently added have the same issue: maybe they need a re-spray in body color too.  Perhaps.

So my time will come, and it will be worth it. Off to you Best and Brightest!

Send your queries to [email protected]com. Spare no details and ask for a speedy resolution if you’re in a hurry…but be realistic, and use your make/model specific forums instead of TTAC for more timely advice. 

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40 Comments on “Piston Slap: Clarity on Clearcoat FAIL?...”

  • avatar

    Yeah that’s how I heard it, the EPA was tightening the lid on VOCs and at the time the industry turned to different ways to apply the paint and sealer (waterborne comes to mind) with this unfortunate consequence in occurring.

    I say get creative with some plasticoat!

    • 0 avatar

      But that was in the early ’90s. The Miata in question is a 2003 – I thought they had figured things out by then. The previous owner probably never waxed it.

      • 0 avatar

        I have a Protege5 made in early 2001 whose clear coat flaked off in spots and suffered bad mismatched fading (notably plastic parts v. metal parts).

        The explanation I was given by the body shop folks was that the EPA induced paint problems began in the ’90s, but certain issues lasted all the way into the early-to-mid ’00s. They said that all paint compounds have changed since then, so if you do repaint, it cannot be the same as was on it before (but that doesn’t mean color would not match).

        Also, they said the clearcoat & fading issues have be significantly improved, but I don’t know if that was an honest answer or salesmanship.

        • 0 avatar

          I’m not so sure it is all VOC related. My 21 year old Sable (Caribbean Green) has spent its entire life outside. I have NO failing clear coat. A few areas are wearing thin, but there are no signs of peeling. Maybe it is color dependent?

          • 0 avatar

            I had a car from 1987 in 2003, no clear coat issues.

            Had a 1997 in 2007, no clear coat issues.

            Have had a 2001 since 2010, no issues.

            It’s a Mazda problem, and their shoddy paint/rustproofing activities.

    • 0 avatar

      Option 5 track down a same color miata fender and swap. Sell your old fender to minimize cost

  • avatar

    Ever heard of automotive waxes?

  • avatar

    Design some fender stripes!

  • avatar
    Land Ark

    I say #4. There’s nothing to say that in a year or two the same won’t start happening to the quarter panels as well. Don’t start chasing a failing clearcoat until you are ready to repaint the whole car.

    • 0 avatar

      I agree, just ignore it until you’ve saved up some spare cash, it could very possibly happen in more spots.

      Doing an entire repaint will make you much happier with the end result.

  • avatar

    Option 5… wet sand the body and take it to Maaco

    Naw but seriously… paint that bad on a 10 year old car? My 350Z is a 2004 model in that soapy pearl white… paint’s not perfect but it’s not peeling. That’s a real bummer

  • avatar

    I never thought Mazdas were known for great, long lasting paint or rust prevention. A lot of the problems with this happening to the paint come from the painting process itself. The temperature, humidity, paint pH, etc… all has to be just right during the application process. Fortunately, most automakers these days will actually stop the assembly if the painting factors aren’t just right, so the buyer does not end up with a problem like this years later.

  • avatar

    This is evidence of prior paint work. Factory paint with adhesion issues peels with the base and clear together. At the factory the clear is applied while the base on the entire vehicle is wet to ensure a solid bond. This appears to be because of a previous repair where there was a repair and the fender was likely blended and cleared, but not prepped sufficiently.

    No matter, the proper way to fix it will be to sand it until the affected clearcoat is sanded off. The shop is quoting you paint because it is unlikely they will be able to sand off the affected clearcoat without affecting the base coat. In order for metallic base coat repairs to look good, the adjacent panels will need a blend.

    If you want the car to look good, spend the $$ with the shop. If you try and re-clear it at home, you won’t be happy with it, and you’ll end up getting it repaired professionally anyway. Save yourself the few hours of frustration and your $50 and get it done right.

    • 0 avatar

      NO the clear coat failing does not take the base coat with it. Those GMs that you are thinking of that had their paint come off in sheets is an entirely different problem.

      • 0 avatar

        On factory paint jobs, the clear doesn’t fail and “take the base with it”. It’s usually both or nothing at all when it comes to adhesion. They are bonded during the paint process, so they typically fail together when there’s peeling due to poor base adhesion. GM was hardly the only company to have that problem, and it still regularly occurs from time to time on many different cars.

        Clear peeling all by it’s lonesome indicates that it was laid overtop paint that was already hardened and not prepped correctly for the clear to bond to it. At the factory, the paint process is carefully controlled and the clear is applied while the base is still wet, so it’s fairly rare to have clear peel by itself on a factory paint job.

        Regardless, for this repair to look good, it’ll need to be sanded, painted and blended. $1000 isn’t completely out of line for a pro.

        • 0 avatar

          I have a Mazda from a similar vintange, and I experienced clear coat peeling without any peeling of the underlying paint. I am the only owner, and the areas in question had never been repainted, touched up, or damaged in any way.

        • 0 avatar

          Sorry but that just isn’t true I’ve had cars that had their clear coat fail and know many others who have also had problems with theirs and they like me were the original owners and the car had never been repainted.

          My brother also did a lot of warranty work on cars with failed clear coat and GM vehicles who lost paint in sheets when he worked at Chevy, Toyota and Ford dealerships as a painter in the late 80’s through the early 00’s.

  • avatar

    I’ve gone the rattle can route with wifey’s 03 Pilot. All four corners of the bumpers had paint damage from parking lot issues. Careful prep, several coats and some wet sanding left us with a presentable job. I thought it looked bad enough to let the pros re-do it. She thought it looked great (“much better” was the statement). After a year it has held up ok. Of course this is on a tired 290K vehicle. And it is on bumpers-not the fender.

    So, my thought is it depends. Depends on what you are willing to view as acceptable. A few hours work and $100 in materials can give the old girl a freshening.

    • 0 avatar

      This is to be the route I would take. Get primer, base coat and clear coat in a rattle can from a place like
      Sand the area beyond the edge where the clear is peeling. Then clean the area as well as you can. Prime it first. Then spray some basecoat but go just a bit further. Then spray some clear further out still. Once you’re done wet sand it well. Then use a wheel to heat up the clear a bit and help blend the new clear with the old while buffing the area a bit.

      If you don’t feel confident with that approach, you can get one of the mobile paint guys to do basically the same process for you. These are the guys car dealers use when they get cars with similar imperfections.

      • 0 avatar

        I tried that on a 97 Neon, but the success was limited. The paint continued to crack up elsewhere. I think it works much better when the rest of the paint is in good shape, such as on parking damage of relatively young cars. When I did that to a 2010 Lexus, it worked great, despite extreme difficutly of dealing with excessively thin layers on that car (seemed like Toyota saved weight).

  • avatar

    Color match the Cobra R wheels? You’ve spent way too much time at LVC.

    • 0 avatar


      • 0 avatar

        Not intended as a character slight. That site has the most engaging enthusiasts in Lincolndom. It’s just that sometimes, in their enthusiasm, some get over-zealous. I’d rather deal with honest zealotry than the uber-hip amateur comedians that populate that other automotive blog that generally adds nothing to the knowledge base while begging for confirmation that they really, really belong with the “cool kids”. Everyone with an VIII or an LS is better informed and drives an improved car thanks to their willingness to share experience, tips and techniques. My recent re-joining of the Mk.VIII owner’s group is made infinitely easier thanks to LVC members.

  • avatar

    I have a fifth option. Check craigslist and/or regularly to see if anyone is parting out that body panel in your color. That’s what I did for my 95m in merlot mica (very similar color) to repair clear coat peel on the bumper and trunk lid. Might take a while, but surprising I saw two sets of the parts I needed come up in a year (mine is a limited edition color too, one of 3,500). The color match is very close to perfect, absolutely no one would notice if I didn’t tell them. I suspect with a newer car it’d be even less of an issue.
    Also, I wouldn’t get discouraged about the spot-respray. I also had a couple guys come up to me in the hardware store parking lot and offer to fix all my clearcoat peel for $300 (far larger area than you have). They showed me pictures, looked pretty legit. Although personally I’d rather have them shoot a blank fender panel to see the results than risk messing up things worse.
    Or, you could always get one of those band aid stickers.

    • 0 avatar

      Stickers, spot-resprays and panel swaps – all possibilities at this point. For someone who knows what they have, panel swaps are definitely worth the time on a 95m

  • avatar

    I have a 1997 Honda Accord (199,000 miles) which has the flaky clear coat syndrome on the roof and trunk lid. Good car other than that.

    I was taught by my instructor in body shop class no matter how sharp the paint person is it’s really tough to match color on an individual panel, hence blending the paint into surrounding areas (especially if it’s an older car).

    Anyway, if it was me and the car is in great shape otherwise I’d go with a complete repaint.

    P.S. Nothing against the purple color but maybe something more traditional (British Racing Green is pretty spiffy)?

    P.P.S. The medium blue that was an option on the first gen Miata is nice too. :)

  • avatar

    I’m surprised there isn’t a body shop that would do it cheaper. If you were in Boston, I’d tell you to take it to B&R in Arlington and see what their body shop could do. They got rid of some rot on a rear quarter panel for me for $300, and the new paint on this 12 year old Accord matched the rest of the car.

  • avatar

    So long as sheet metal is not showing, rust should not be a problem. Color fading where the clear coat will be very fast though.
    There are companies that can apply vinyl “shrink wrap” to the car, I suggest give it the full cheetah or zebra look.
    Failing that cover the blemishes with a band aid sticker.

  • avatar

    How about going to a detail shop and having the fender buffed out as part of a detailing job. You can tell them you’ll give them a significant tip if they save you the cost of getting the fender repainted. Worst case scenario: you have a detailed car at the cost of a detailed car.

  • avatar

    Is it just me, or is this far more common on the maroon/burgundy colored cars?

    • 0 avatar

      I heard paint with blue pigments are the most affected but I have seen almost every color out there with this problem. The most notorious makes seem to be mid to late 90’s Chrysler and GM products. Not just the clear coat but the paint will peel off in big patches. I’ve seen too many Neons and Caravans with completely primer hoods and roof panels.

  • avatar

    I recently had the same issue with my older burgundy Eagle Summit. The clear coat had failed pretty badly on the roof and hood. It looked horrible with the clear coat layer raised up and white splotches all over the top of my car. I suspect that taking the car thru an automatic car wash contributed to this problem. I only started the auto car washes last year, and the paint was great before that. I’m not sure if that contributed to the failure since the sun is pretty hot here in Denver, but the car is always garaged.

    A few months ago I applied a product that I came across that did an amazing job to hide the ugly white splotches where the clear coat failed. It’s called L’Oxide made by Oxideoff. It worked great on my older burgundy car and I’ve also applied it to several black cars as a test. It’s been 2 months on my car and the damaged area still looks good. It’s certainly not a new paint job, but I can’t afford that right now so this process was very acceptable to me, inexpensive and quick. I’m amazed at the posts that say “just get a new paint job” to solve this problem, but I can barely pay my health insurance now after the newest hefty increases. Even if I have to apply this product a few times a year, I’m happy to do it to hide those horrible splotches. After applying this product to the hood and roof, the area was not as glossy as the rest of the car, so I applied two coats of Carnauba wax and that really brought out the shine. It looks pretty good now for a car from 1995.

    There are a few YouTube videos of this product being applied. Go to Youtube and search for oxideoff or loxide to find them. Hope this helps someone.

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