fix scratches car paint

How to Fix Scratches on a Rental Car (In Rural Wyoming!?)

Our kids have been to 30-some odd states, and each time we enter a new one, we try to get a photo with that state’s, “Welcome to…” sign. Well, as we drove through Northern Utah, I guess our minds wandered, and we forgot to look for the Welcome to Wyoming sign at the border.

As our car sped over the border at nearly 80 mph, I heard urgent shouting from the kids, alerting me that I was passing the Welcome to Wyoming sign. Being that the next exit was miles away, and we might never again enter Wyoming, I hit the brakes and pulled over to the shoulder of the road.

The sign was now a good 100 yards behind us, so I put our rented minivan in reverse, and drove back towards the sign through a cloud of dust.

It wasn’t long until I felt a jolt and heard a loud clang, followed by a slow, sickening scraping sound. Slamming on the brakes, I realized I had obviously hit something. I got out of the car, and saw that I had plowed into a tall, rusty metal post with a reflector on top.

Damn it, look at those scratches! We had to return the rental car in 4 hours, and I had refused all insurance on the rental car. What could I do?

rental car scratches
Lots of scratches down the side of the car!

While Missy and I were a little distraught, the kids were largely unfazed. After exiting the minivan, they made a quick inspection of the damage before beginning the long walk over to the Welcome to Wyoming sign for a photo.

After they left, I stared horror-stricken at the foot-long scrapes on the side of the car.

*Can you see me inspecting the damage to the minivan in this photo!?

Damn, Damn, Damn!

After getting “Welcome to Wyoming” photo, Missy and I loaded the kids back into the car and entered problem-solving mode. While I sped down the highway, she frantically googled, “how to cover paint scratches on car.”

A hah! Toothpaste!?

At this point we were still in denial that there were deep scratches on our rental car that completely took off the paint in some areas. So, I pulled over and tried applying some water and toothpaste to the scratches to no avail. The scratches didn’t disappear, but my optimism quickly did.

Tip: Toothpaste apparently covers up hairline scratches in a car’s finish, but we needed something serious for these deep scratches. See how the paint has been scraped off completely in some areas?

So, a number of miles down the road we saw an exit that looked pretty lively. Maybe there would be a store nearby with some kind of helpful supplies?

As a green auto parts sign with a shamrock on it appeared in the distance, I knew we just might just be in luck.

I entered the O’Reilly Auto Parts and explained my predicament to the store manager. Except, I omitted the detail about it being a RENTAL car, of course. I didn’t want ethics to cloud this man’s mind as he listened to my story and envisioned a solution.

He furrowed his brow and thought for a moment. Then he said, “Well, if it’s not bad, you could try a bottle of scratch-remover. Otherwise, you’ll probably have to repaint it.”


Option #1 – Scratch Removers:

That didn’t sound good, but I tried to be an optimist. Although toothpaste had failed me, I was still hoping there would be an under-$10 miracle-fix to my dilemma. He then walked me over to an aisle containing a shelf with an assortment of waxes, creams, and kits for removing scratches.

However, after reading the labels, I knew they were probably inadequate: “Removes fine scratches and swirl marks.” Hmmm… Still being semi-delusional, I tried to convince myself that the long gashes in our rental car’s paint were merely, “swirl marks.”

These scratch removers weren’t cheap, either. At over $12 a bottle, I didn’t want to end up wasting money on a product that wouldn’t even work. So, I needed to choose one, and then figure out how to try a sample of it before buying.

So, how could I get a trial amount of it out the door without being noticed?

Ah hah! At the entrance to the store there was a small complimentary coffee station. I grabbed one of the small Styrofoam cups and poured in some of the stagnant, God-forsaken coffee from the urn.

I then sprinkled in powdered creamer, and dumped in a packet of sugar. I stood grimacing for a moment as I watched the mixture coagulate briefly before dissolving into a brownish sludge.

disgusting cup of coffee

Next, I walked back to the aisle with the bottles of scratch-removers, and examined each one in detail. When there was no one else in sight, I threw my head back and choked down the tepid, bitter coffee to empty my cup. Blech!

Then, I selected one of the bottles from the shelf and surreptitiously squirted a big, luscious blob of the white stuff into my cup, and headed out to the parking lot to test it out. I noticed the store manager was watching, so I feigned taking a sip from the coffee cup as I casually waved to him and exited.

I returned to the car and applied the goop to the scratches as directed. Unfortunately, my suspicions were correct as it was hopelessly insufficient for the extensive damage on our car.

Failure was not an option, so it was time to consider option #2: repainting it. Gulp!


Option #2 – Spray Painting!?

I walked back into the store and told the now-suspicious store manager that upon closer inspection the liquid scratch-remover probably wasn’t a good idea. So, I’d have to consider the more drastic alternative of painting over the scratches.

He nodded and informed me that their store sold cans of spray paint that match a number of popular factory colors. So, if I was interested, he would just need my car’s year, make, and model.

Really? Ok, that sounds promising… I’ll try that!

I pointed out my minivan to him, which was still idling in the parking lot, and answered a few questions. He pecked briefly at his computer, and then disappeared into the back of the store. Moments later he reemerged with a can of “Dupli-Color Perfect Match” spray paint that he said should closely match my Chrysler minivan’s burgundy color.

He also informed me that I’d first need to do some prep work before painting, including lightly sanding, cleaning, and then taping off the area. His copious and complicated instructions were dampening my renewed optimism, so I nodded several times, and thanked him profusely as I moved towards the door.

OK, Sounds great!

The luck of the Irish was apparently still with us, as there was both a liquor store and dollar-store in this same shopping center! So, I’d have two quick pit stops to make after buying the paint.

Here’s what I bought:

  • 1 can of Dupli-Color Perfect Match spray paint
  • 1 roll of painters tape
  • 1 bottle of rubbing alcohol
  • 1 carton of wine (Cabernet Sauvignon)
  • 1 (duck) wash cloth

I immediately began drinking wine to clear my head, and Missy promptly distributed electronic devices to all of the kids. We knew our focus for the next hour was going to be on damage-control, and not parenting.

kevin drinking wine minivan

OK, time to fix the scratches.

First, I applied rubbing alcohol to the duck wash cloth and cleaned off the affected area:

Next, I collected some cardboard from the liquor store’s dumpster and used the painters tape to cover the tire, reflectors, and black trim:

Note: Drinking and dancing were not necessary at this point. However, on our road trip we had driven through Navajo land, so it’s possible that I was channeling one of their deities; perhaps, Coyote, the foolish and cunning trickster?

“In Navajo Mythology Coyote appears not only as a trickster but also as a beneficent figure… as he takes a helpful and directing hand in world events.” 

At this point I would have gladly accepted help from anyone or anything. We had a flight to catch, but first the rental car needed to be fixed and returned. It was time to start painting!

*Related: Who Was Bull Connor, and Why Did I Pee on His Grave?

Tip: If you ever spray paint a rental car (or anything else) you should first shake the can for at least 2 minutes. Then hold it about 10 inches from the car, spraying in steady, sweeping horizontal motions. Then, let the paint dry about 5 minutes between coats.

As you can see, I kept the carton of wine in my alternate hand. Occasional swigs offered solace, and helped me see this metaphorical glass as, “half-full,” as damaging a rental car can quickly darken your mood or even induce panic.


The Result?

The paint filled in the scratches nicely, and was a close match to the color of the rental car!

However, after applying a couple of coats and drinking a lot of wine, I saw that the painted area wasn’t quite as shiny as the original factory finish.

It also seemed the car had accumulated a layer of dust from hundreds of miles driving through the arid landscape, so the area that I had cleaned stuck out like a sore thumb. Doh!

I knew my job wasn’t finished, even though the carton of wine almost was. So, I handed the keys to Missy, and we drove to get some lunch and do a little creative thinking.

Hmmm… Help me, oh wise and clever, Coyote!

*Note: At this point it should be noted that the kids deserve a lot of credit for being so patient. They sat in our idling minivan for over an hour while all of this madness was happening!

Anyway, we drove away and eventually saw an exit off the interstate with a sign for a promising seafood restaurant. We took the exit and followed it onto a dusty dirt access road towards the restaurant.

That’s it. We needed dust and dirt!


Dust & Dirt:

We pulled into the parking lot, and I got out and carefully inspected the paint job. Then, I grabbed handfuls of dry, dusty dirt and flung clouds of it at the minivan to help conceal the scratches:

cover up paint scratches on car

In fact, my dirt-throwing technique looked a lot like Lebron’s famous pregame chalk ritual:

Voila! This gave the entire car a thin dirt-coating which helped to conceal the newly-painted area. It looked great. Well, good enough!

I washed my filthy hands in the seafood restaurant and ordered fish tacos and a cup for tap water, which I promptly filled with Sprite from the soda fountain. Wow, I could still feel Coyote’s wily spirit swaying my actions!

Time was ticking, so our lunch was short. Our flight was departing in about 3 hours, and we still had an hour-drive to return the car at the Salt Lake City airport.


Returning the Rental Car:

Thankfully, the rest of our trip was without further incident, and the layer of dirt held admirably to the car. We anxiously returned the minivan, hoping that our impromptu paint job and camouflage was adequate to conceal the scratches.

pretty sweet travel car rental

We pulled in to the rental car lot, and when the young attendant greeted us, we made some nervous, over-friendly small talk with him. He then scanned the car in, looked at the fuel level, and thanked us.

No, thank YOU, apathetic-Millenial!

In the ensuing days I nervously watched my phone for any calls from Salt Lake City, or any unexpected charges from the car rental company. After two weeks, still nothing.

Sweet. Mission accomplished!

So, if you do elect to forgo insurance and accidentally scratch-up your rental car, fear not. With a little creativity and the cunning spirit of the Navajo trickster, Coyote, you can make it all work out!


*Related: We Went “Glamping” in Utah in a Conestoga Wagon!

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