Chrome and the automobile have a history that stretches back almost to the beginning of the motor cars creation. Perhaps the golden age for chrome grilles was from the 1930’s to the 1950’s and some of the best aesthetic examples came from that time. In 1955 which is a record year for American car production, practically everything that could be produced in chrome was being produced. Examples include chrome grilles, fenders, hubcaps, the windscreen lining, door handles, trunk handles and the list seems endless. During the 1960’s and 1970’s, the use of chrome diminished as cheaper synthetic alternatives were introduced, chrome was considered retro and old fashioned and its use reduced accordingly.
A new generation of teenagers in the early 1980’s grew up out of the post punk minimalist era and the music of the 1950’s became popular again, chrome and rock ‘n’ roll were good bed fellows and the huge success of the film ‘Grease’ with John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John was perhaps the epitome of those good times. One of the key scenes in the film is the road race between John Travolta’s T-Bird group and their arch rivals, the Scorpions. The T-Birds are racing in a 1948 Ford De Luxe Convertible. The chrome grille is beneath a curved hood and the first impression strikes with an image of gleaming sharks teeth, subdued but ominous. The Scorpions, on the other hand, are racing a 1949 Mercury Custom that seems more utilitarian. Naturally the T-Birds win, but a whole new generation of chrome worshippers came out of the cinema, out onto the streets looking for chrome.
Essentially, chrome is attractive while it gleams but a dead giveaway if it has not been maintained correctly. Overall if your vehicle could speak to a prospective buyer, chrome would be its loudest voice about how much tender loving care you gave your pride and joy. In the film ‘Grease’, the car that the T-Birds use arrives in a poor condition and highlights the problem many car enthusiasts have to face today, which is how to make the chrome gleam again. Chrome has no problem with dirt or grease (not the film) but the deadly combinations are chips and water, why?
The answer can be found in the manufacturing of chrome. The chrome finishing is applied over steel as a thin coat and attached by an electroplating technique. The good news is that chrome is water resistant and does not rust. However, should a crack or opening be forced into the chrome, water can seep in and then attack the steel. This oxidizing action starts to break the bond between the chrome and the steel, and causes disfigurement, loss of connectivity and discoloration. The problem is logically and particularly prevalent in the parts of the car that are facing forward, namely the fenders, chrome grilles and chrome headlight surrounds. In recent times, the manufacturers have combated this problem by covering the chrome with a light transparent plastic layer as it is less brittle than chrome; it provides an additional defensive layer to protect it.
In the film ‘Grease’, the T-Birds take a car in the worst possible stage and restore it to its former glory including the chrome work, the cherry on the cake if you will. There are a number of useful tips to make sure you do a good job rather than ruining the chrome in the long run in order to have a short term good effect. Chrome is sensitive and will suffer from cleaning with abrasive materials. While you could use T-Cut for your paintwork, the use of T-Cut on chrome will be disastrous. If you are cleaning or restoring look for a product specifically to be used with chrome, you will need a soft cloth and in the case of heavy restoration requirements, leave the chrome cleaner on the chrome for a while to allow it to perform its job totally.
Chrome is found on many makes and models of vehicles today with lessons on optimization and longevity have been learned. Some of the best examples of chrome grilles can be found on trucks including some perfect custom truck tractors where everything from the exhaust stacks to the menacing chrome grilles have been developed to convey a message of ‘power’. American manufacturers, particularly GMC and Cadillac, have used chrome to elevate their models from the common crowd. Chrome and chrome grilles are a life statement and certainly screech “look at me”!