When you get into a brand-new car or walk out of the opticians with a fresh set of spectacles, there’s one thing they have in common. That refreshed, bright feeling is thanks to unsullied glass, and the reason a used car might feel less transparent is largely down to how the windscreen wipers have been maintained.
Next time you’re browsing second hand cars for sale locally, take a look at the glass. Chances are if it’s over three years old, there are lots of fine scratches and marks, if it’s seven, maybe even an indelible arc of the wiper’s sweep.
Under streetlights it’ll cast curving glare and reflections, it’ll hold rain longer, and above all it just makes the car feel, well, used.
But you can take a few steps to make sure this tired view out stays brighter for longer, and it’s all about those simple, almost unchanged for a century, bits of flailing metal and rubber out there fighting the elements so you can see clearly at speed.
Windscreen wipers: why haven’t they changed?
Look at a car from the 1920s or ‘30s and a car from 2023 and they’ll have one thing immediately obvious in common. It starts with a ‘w’, and if you thought wheels, you caught us out – but actually, tyres and wheels have changed immensely during that century. The windscreen wiper, not so much.
A thin blade of rubber squeezes the water off the glass, usually moving in a simple arc and carried by a metal arm with a spring. Later designs become more aerodynamic, and for a while attempts to hide the wipers were attempted, but ultimately the ‘bent bit of metal with a rubber blade’ remains the best solution.
In recent years there has been one significant change, the aero blade. This replaces the old metal framework (designed to spread the force evenly across the windscreen for effective clearing) with a powerful curved spring encased in rubber. It is more aerodynamic, and it also protects your screen from abrasion if the blade is allowed to wear or gets damaged. A flatter, wider surface area makes it harder to damage if clearing frost, too.
How can wipers damage the windscreen?
Ever touched the dirt that builds up on your car in winter? All that grit, dust and sand is getting smeared across your windscreen, and while it may not be the widely-accepted ‘diamond to cut glass’ level of hardness, it’s enough to abrade the thin top layer of a laminated screen or damage the coating of a heat-reflective type. Using lots of screen wash can help, but wiper blades are treated to be non-stick when new, and that finish wears off, meaning airborne muck gets dragged about whenever it rains.
The first thing is to wash your wipers frequently, and if you’ve left the car standing in a dusty environment, don’t just squirt the washers and hope for the best – rinse it all off and lift the blades, cleaning them carefully before driving.
In winter, don’t operate the wipers on a frozen windscreen. The rubber can stick and tear, but even dragging over the flatter ice left still frozen wears them faster. Thinner, old-fashioned metal framed blades are particularly vulnerable to this.
Change your blades frequently! Every six months for older types are recommended, a year for the latest designs, but there’s a handy reminder on many branded models. Look for a yellow circle or spot; as UV light and environmental conditions wear that coating, it will tell you when the wipers are past their best.
Finally, consider a glass coating and polish. It’ll add a layer for dirt to attack before it reaches the glass, and will help rain roll away easily, making the wipers’ job easier too.
How do I replace my windscreen wipers?
Most wiper arms use a hook fitment that is quite easy to change, but can be fiddly in cold weather; many retailers will change the blades for you for a small charge, or even free. If in doubt, ask your MOT tester to change the wipers for you and that way you’ll know they’ve been done at least once a year.
Traditional designs of cars will allow you to move the wiper blade back from the windscreen on a pivot, but it may hit the bonnet; if so, switch the ignition off mid-wipe to stop the blades with clearance.
Some cars with unusual park positions for the wipers have tricks to provide access, such as tapping the wiper stalk within 30 seconds of switching off the ignition. If the blade seems hard to access, check the manual or look online.
Can I upgrade my wipers?
Most cars produced since 2010 already feature ‘aero’ wipers, and of course some, such as the Ford Focus Mk 3 or SEAT Altea, feature wipers that work to the outside of the screen and have special fitments. However, retrofit kits for many cars from the 1980s onwards are available from Halfords and online resellers; check out this guide to windscreen wipers for an idea of what products are available.
Some cars may only be able to use the thin metal type; in those cases, we recommend stocking up if it’s an obscure or classic fitment, but the worst case is resorting to a refillable rubber element. Those require special care to ensure they are secure, and definitely need more frequent replacement unless the car is stored in a controlled environment away from UV light.
You may not want aero blades on a modern classic car, but for a daily driver there’s really no reason to stick with the older design.
What’s the worst that can happen if wipers are neglected?
Windscreen wipers must be in good condition (where fitted) for a car to be roadworthy; they’re part of the MOT test and if you were involved in an accident and weather conditions were a factor, you could find yourself with a fine and points for an unroadworthy vehicle.
The most common side effect of neglected wipers, other than being really uncomfortable for wet and winter drives, is scratching and gouging on the windscreen. This is where the aero wiper design has a significant advantage; even if you’ve been to the Safari park and those delightful monkeys have tried to dismantle the blades, it’s still rubber in contact with the windscreen. The old metal blades could do serious damage, leaving long, rough arcs in the windscreen if left scraping for too long.
Not only is that almost impossible to repair and unpleasant to see through, but it’s also another MOT failure. Since windscreen replacement on an older car can often reveal or cause rust and leaks, why risk neglect – and your newer car will feel newer for longer if you take care of the glass.
Guest Blog by Holly Groom