“Hi, I’m Rusty Jones.” For about a decade, he and his homely salutation seemed to be everywhere, greeting people in print ads, commercials and at car dealerships throughout North America. Then, just as suddenly as he appeared, he was gone. Rusty Jones became a household name when the aftermarket rustproofing industry suddenly expanded in the late 1970s, and his ascendancy had as much to do with a stroke of marketing genius as it did with the popularity of rustproofing. After all, even now, many people can instantly recall Rusty Jones… but how many folks can pull up similar memories of Rusty’s competitors such as Polyglycoat, Waxoyl or TekTor? A memorable name and image carry advantages, as Rusty Jones and his creators demonstrated four decades ago.
Rust, of course, has stalked cars ever since cars were invented. And wherever rust went, remedies followed. From early in the automobile era, repair shops and car dealerships occasionally offered “rustproofing” services, typically an oil-based spray to a car’s underside.
Manufacturers were not blind to this issue, and over time, many – with varied success – developed assembly-line processes to abate rust, and made other improvements like fabricating sheet metal for better drainage. But it never seemed to be enough. A Chrysler Corporation Corrosion and Plating Supervisor said in 1986, “We started improving our cars’ rust protection in the 1970s, but we were always behind the salt.”
Yes, the salt. During the two decades after WWII, salt took over from abrasive materials like sand as the treatment of choice for snowy or icy roads. Road salt use increased tenfold between 1950 and 1970. Heavy salt use enabled motorists to see bare pavement shortly after snowfalls; this quickly became an expected standard for highway departments.
Road salt became a billion-dollar industry by 1970, and in many respects, drivers didn’t miss the old ways of handling winter weather. However, progress came with a cost. In both storage and use, salt caused havoc – from ecological effects of salty runoff to quicker deterioration of infrastructure… to vehicle rust. In many cold-climate regions (the US Midwest and Northeast eventually became known as the Salt Belt), cars would develop visible rust after just two or three years. Along the way, this enemy of car bodies became a chief ingredient for the rising popularity of aftermarket chemical protectants… commonly known as rustproofing.
Salt alone, however, didn’t create the boom times for aftermarket rustproofing. A concurrent trend helped as well – that of prolonged vehicle ownership. Prior to 1960, consumers often viewed automobiles as little more than large disposable goods, keeping cars for just a couple of years before buying new ones. During the recessionary 1970s, though, that began to change. In 1976, the average new car buyer could be expected to own that car for 3.5 years; by 1981, that figure stood at 5.1 years. As a result, drivers became increasingly concerned with their cars’ durability, both from the perspective of their own use, and also how a car would hold its value for a trade-in that may be half a decade in the future. Rust was an enemy of these goals.
Typically, aftermarket rustproofing solutions were applied at service stations or body shops, and the industry had developed a somewhat unsavory reputation… not surprising given that the products were marketed by small companies, applied where customers couldn’t see it, and were rarely offered or endorsed by manufacturers or their dealers. But even given those headwinds, the industry’s North American sales increased every year.
Among those paying attention to this trend was a young Chicago entrepreneur named Michael Mater. In 1965, at age 26, Mater founded a small company that produced industrial cleaning compounds. His firm, eponymously named Matex Corporation, had numerous business and janitorial companies as clients – among them a car dealer who asked Mater for advice on how to best clean a service bay where rustproofing was performed. The oily rustproofing solution sprayed and splashed when applied, creating a mess considered bad even by auto shop standards. After examining the mess, and seeing how the product was applied to cars, Mater thought there must be a better way to apply auto rustproofing.
Mater’s solution was to create a rustproofing compound with greater thixotropic properties (meaning a substance whose viscosity changes), thereby making a solution that could be sprayed on, but would then quickly turn into a gel-like coating. Such a product would better adhere to the car, would be easier to apply, and would create less mess. After several years of experimenting, Mater and his team achieved success. To memorialize this triumph of thixotropy, Mater called his new product Thixo-Tex – and it debuted in 1972.
For the next four years, Thixo-Tex was marketed to service stations and other repair facilities mostly in Salt Belt states, and sales grew slowly. Too slowly for Mater, who recognized that rustproofing was becoming a bigger business throughout North America. In 1975, Mater hired the advertising firm of Dawson, Johns & Black to devise a promotion strategy for Thixo-Tex. It didn’t take long for the ad team to realize that Thixo-Tex’s primary problem was its hard-to-remember, tongue-twisting name. Mater agreed; years later he admitted that “With Thixo-Tex, we had a memory problem.”
The ad agency and Mater himself considered about 180 potential new names, including Rust Patrol, Final Coat, and Nevermore. Ultimately, the folks at Dawson, Johns & Black concluded that a person’s name would be more memorable. T.T. Newbody and Rusty Jones were the finalists. Rusty Jones was suggested lightheartedly at first, but its catchiness meant the ad folks kept coming back to it. Marketing research showed that consumers reacted positively to the name, though Mater found that his own distributors were skeptical – saying that it seemed too homely and whimsical for a serious chemical compound.
Mater tested the new name in 1976. Several New York regions served as test markets for Rusty Jones, while the same product was marketed in other New York areas as Thixo-Tex. The test period (with heavy newspaper and radio advertising like the example above) was supposed to last for 90 days, but after just one month, the results were conclusive. For example, sales in Buffalo (a test market for the Rusty Jones name) increased 300%… compared to a 25% increase in the Albany area (which ran Thixo-Tex ads). Rusty Jones had won; the nationwide rollout of this new name started before test period was over.
With his ad company suggesting a persona to accompany the new name, Mater had a decision to make. Should he invest in an animated character or an actor? Even though it carried a heftier initial investment – for the artwork – Mater figured that an animated Rusty would have more long-term staying power, and Matex wouldn’t have to renegotiate an actor’s contract.
And thus was born one of the most recognizable trade characters of its time. Dawson, Johns & Black partner Marion Dawson said the character was meant to personify a “grownup Eagle Scout who lived down the street from you and liked to work on cars for the fun of it.” That sums it up perfectly. Rusty was friendly-looking red-haired man with a cowlick, wearing jeans, suspenders and carrying a red shop rag in his back pocket. The Rusty character not only presented a friendly image for Matex Corporation’s signature product; it also helped to soothe the slightly shady image problem the aftermarket chemical industry had developed.
Mater’s success, however, didn’t rely on the homespun character’s image alone. Another marketing innovation carried equal importance. Instead of continuing to sell his product primarily through body shops and service stations, Mater began marketing to new car dealers. It was a shrewd move, since the most compelling argument for rustproofing services could be made on the sales floor. Plus, with per-vehicle profits tumbling during the 1970s, dealers were eager for additional profit-generators. Within a few years, this became the industry norm, and ushered in the brief golden age of aftermarket rustproofing.
Accompanying the name change and focus on dealer sales was a tenfold increase in the firm’s advertising budget, which reached $3 million by 1981. Rusty’s ruggedly lovable image was everywhere – on print ads, on TV, on every Rusty Jones product, and often as full-size cutouts on showroom floors and at car shows. These investments in marketing and advertising paid off. Within five years of the name change, Mater and his company generated a 16-fold increase in cars serviced. The new name and new manner of selling its product made Matex Corp. a textbook example of marketing marvels (literally… Rusty Jones case studies appeared in numerous business textbooks during the 1980s and ’90s).
New car dealers sold rustproofing services such as Rusty Jones for $100-$250 – often with half of the total cost being profit. The price could be folded into vehicle financing, making the outlay more palatable for many consumers, especially in moderate-climate areas that were not historically heavy sources of rustproofing sales.
Rusty Jones wasn’t alone in the rustproofing marketplace. More than a dozen other brands had a significant North American presence, along with countless smaller, local brands. The largest was Ziebart, which had 800 worldwide franchises in the early 1980s, and relied on independent franchises as opposed to dealerships. Other brands such as Tuff-Kote Dinol, Metal-Gard (made by Quaker State), TekTor, and the European import Waxoyl competed for dealership attention. However, Rusty Jones was far and away the most popular dealer-supplied rustproofing product. The products themselves were largely similar – differences were largely in marketing, ease of application, and customer/dealer support.
So, just what was this rustproofing substance made from? Oil, mostly… mixed with solvents containing rust dissolvers and other compounds. However, the oil was the most critical component, because once sprayed onto the underside of a car, the solution never completely hardened. Instead, sprayed-on rustproofing material remained malleable for years, and could even reseal itself if nicked or chipped.
It was important to achieve the right amount of viscosity (hence Mater’s experiments with thixotropy) because the product needed to be sticky enough to coat a car’s underbody, yet aqueous enough to seep into hard-to-see crevices where rust often starts. Rusty Jones and other rustproofing solutions were sprayed on with wand-like applicators, and in theory, the product became like a film protecting metal from the elements. Unfortunately, theory didn’t always match reality.
Although dealer-sold rustproofing may have been profitable for dealerships and convenient for customers, the process often resulted in shoddy workmanship. Companies like Rusty Jones provided training for dealerships’ employees, but there was often no accountability for a job well done. While it was relatively easy for customers to spot newly-applied rustproofing on a car, it was not easy to figure out the quality of that application.
Dealer-applicators often cut corners, insufficiently spraying areas that weren’t visible. This was particularly true when the applicator drilled holes to access the interior of panels – often a quick spray would substitute for a thorough coating in these unseen areas. Worse, existing weepholes were occasionally clogged by the oily rustproofing substance – and blocked drainage holes trap moisture inside body panels, which leads to… rust.
New car customers tended not to worry much about the thoroughness of the application, though… because the product was warranted. In fact, the ability to back up marketing claims with warranties was the key to rustproofing companies convincing dealers and customers that they were legitimate. Rusty Jones trumpeted its “full, unlimited, transferable rust and paint protection warranty,” which seemed mighty generous. But how many people actually read the fine print in a new-product warranty? Turns out there was plenty of fine print.
To keep the warranty valid, owners needed to take their cars to an authorized Rusty Jones dealer every year for a free inspection. Dealers liked this arrangement, because it brought customers back into the dealership, making for good future sales prospects. Actual inspections were often cursory. As for any warranty rust repairs, dealers often tried to put that off as much as possible. Matex offered dealerships “benefit sharing” arrangements whereby it reimbursed dealers a portion of their initial cost outlays (such as the cost of materials) based on the amount of warranty claims received from their work. So while Rusty Jones instructed dealers to address any early rust issues, these were often pronounced as not covered by the warranty. At other times, only a superficial repair (or recoating) was done… likely in hopes that the customer wouldn’t come back for subsequent checkups.
Rusty Jones wasn’t alone in practicing warranty shenanigans; it was the industry norm. Soon, the combination of a costly product, sloppy workmanship, and unaccommodating warranties meant that consumer complaints piled up. Several US states investigated rustproofing companies and their warranties, and the results were often critical to the industry. A 1980 New York Attorney General’s report titled A Tarnished Option concluded that most rustproofers’ warranties carried “limitations or conditions that render them essentially worthless.”
Also in 1980, Ohio’s Attorney General required dealers to stop using the term “rustproofing” in favor of vaguer terms like “rust inhibitors,” and tightened up allowable warranty terms. Other states investigated as well, often urging customers to exercise caution in purchasing rustproofing services.
These investigations and suspicions, however, didn’t corrode the rustproofing industry. In 1981, Rusty Jones serviced 800,000 cars at 2,700 US dealers, accounting for about 20% of the rustproofing market – nearly twice that of its nearest competitor. Throughout much of North America, customers could barely find new cars that had not been rustproofed, with many dealers treating their entire inventory immediately upon arrival.
To be fair, aftermarket rustproofing wasn’t always meritless. Many customers experienced positive results – this 1982 Suburban, which sports the sticker in this article’s lead picture, looks pretty good for a 40-year-old vehicle. Oil-based rustproofing solutions are still used as supplemental rustproofing in cold-climate areas today, and they do suppress rust if applied correctly. But insufficient squirts of the stuff, as often done at dealerships, tended to do very little other than expand dealers’ profit margins.
Even when aftermarket rustproofing services were at their peak in the late 1970s and early ’80s, many analysts thought the industry had a limited lifespan. Initially, the looming trouble seemed to be cars made increasingly of plastic. Rustproofing companies tried to hedge their bets and offer other car-care products (Rusty Jones did this as well), but most of these companies still relied overwhelmingly on rust services. What ultimately skewered Rusty Jones and the whole industry wasn’t plastics… instead, the industry was done in by its very success.
With aftermarket firms cashing in on a service that consumers felt was important, automakers took notice. Factory rustproofing efforts gradually improved. In 1979, American Motors (which contracted with Ziebart to treat cars on the production line) offered a 3-year “No-Rust-Thru Full Warranty.” The Big Three quickly followed – prompting AMC to increase its own coverage to 5 years for 1980 – and the race was on. Still, the aftermarket industry was unfazed. Mater said at this time that “the impact of manufacturer warranties is positive on our sales; it has made the customer aware of the need for rust protection.” Mater and his counterparts noted that people who keep their cars for longer than three or five years still need additional protection. Plus, those early manufacturer warranties were rather stingy. Like one Tuff-Kote executive said: “Who expects their car to rust through in the first three years?”
The early 1980s represented Rusty Jones’s pinnacle. At exactly that point – in 1984 – Mater sold his company to Beatrice Foods, a conglomerate that spent much of the 1980s acquiring businesses outside of its traditional food processing sphere. Beatrice paid an undisclosed amount for the rustproofing company, and retained Mater with a five-year contract as president of their new Rusty Jones Division. In the heady world of 1980s corporate takeovers, what followed was somewhat predictable. Against Mater’s advice, Beatrice gutted most of his former company’s resources and slashed advertising budgets. Rusty Jones immediately began losing market share – a situation made doubly worse since aftermarket rustproofing in general was quickly losing its appeal. Only meager efforts were made to expand the division into more sustainable lines of business such as other car-care supplies.
The Decline and Fall of Aftermarket Rustproofing came quickly. Manufacturers realized both the profit potential and the customer appreciation payoff in applying enhanced rustproofing at the factory. By the late 1980s, manufacturers had increased their use of corrosion-resistant materials like galvanized steel, as well as processes like cathodic electrocoating or applying chemical protectants such as phosphate sprays at the factory. GM and Ford soon offered 6-year/100,000-mi. corrosion coverage; other manufacturers followed suit.
Comprehensive factory corrosion warranties meant that consumers found it tough to justify additional outlays for services such as Rusty Jones. In fact, by 1988, some GM owner’s manuals included a notice that “…the application of after-manufacture rustproofing is not necessary or required.” Although many dealers persisted in selling these services – marketing them as “You can never have too much protection” – the services soon reacquired much of the consumer distrust that they shed a decade earlier. Rusty Jones’s business plummeted accordingly. Between 1985 and 1988, the firm’s distribution network declined from nearly 3,000 new car dealerships to 1,800. As an example of the industry’s quick contraction, in 1989, the head of a Washington, DC auto dealers trade association said bluntly “The whole metropolitan area is dead” for dealer rustproofing sales.
Rusty Jones’s final years reads like a horror story from the world of leveraged buyouts. By the late 1980s, Beatrice acknowledged that Rusty Jones had “warranty problems” (though the Rusty Jones subsidiary was structured so that Beatrice itself incurred no liability). In November, 1988, Beatrice sold Rusty Jones, as well as a few other nonfood entities, for $26 million to a holding company that was (confusingly, corruptly, or both) controlled by a former Beatrice CEO. Just three weeks later, this group in turn sold Rusty Jones to another investment group headed by Chicago businessman Charles Wortman… for the measly sum of $50,000 (Mater relinquished his last stake in the company at this point). Wortman figured that the Rusty Jones name itself had investment potential, but Beatrice’s “warranty problems” was an understatement. $1 million of warranty claims were being applied for each month, and Rusty Jones’s total assets amounted to $6 million in physical resources and a signature product that was no longer marketable. On December 5, 1988, Wortman’s group put Rusty Jones into Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
Even after the bankruptcy, Wortman still had hopes for the Rusty Jones name, figuring that he could pivot the company heavily to services such as interior and paint protection. Although Ziebart successfully did just that (moving into window tint, sunroof installations and other services in the 1990s), the Rusty Jones name never came back.
Rusty Jones is remembered mostly for its animated character, robust advertising, and a product that often didn’t seem to work. More than that, though, Rusty Jones is the personified image of the brief glory years of aftermarket rustproofing. With deft marketing and a focus on selling directly to dealerships, Rusty Jones helped to spring the entire industry into those good times, and dissolved like rust itself once the party was over. Goodbye, Rusty Jones; it was good to know you.
Thanks for a very interesting morning read!
Great article Eric! An excellent deep dive on a topic that pervaded the car-buying experience of the 1980s and 90s.
A friend of mine who originates from Wisconsin brought up Rusty Jones in a recent conversation; he distinctly remembered the ads for it as a kid. I grew up in northwestern Montana, which had wet and snowy winters, but didn’t start using corrosive ice melters on roads until about 2002. I had no recollection of Rusty Jones or any other aftermarket rustproofing operations growing up, though I remember looking at an 1983 AMC Concord wagon that had a decal inside the driver’s door proclaiming factory Ziebart rustproofing. It spent its early life as an ambulance stationed at Malmstrom AFB, and was lacking a back seat. It was painted a slightly darker shade of blue than your featured 1982 Suburban.
Speaking of, GM was gradually stepping up the corrosion protection on their long running Squarebody trucks; I believe the 1973-75 models had rust-through in certain areas before they reached the end of the production line. By the time the facelifted 1981 models came along, they had better drainage, a fair amount of galvanized steel, and electrophoretic coating on body panels (which paint famously didn’t stick to; some colors were much worse than others) I believe 1982 was the first year they started applying body cavity wax to certain areas, like the insides of doors… though they seemed a bit stingy with it. Whether it’s due to the factory rustproofing, the Rusty Jones treatment, or by dint of not having been driven a ton on salty roads (t’is 2wd, after all)… your pictured specimen looks quite nice! Oddly enough, my 1986 truck has shed the same piece of plasti-rubber-chrome trim from its doors, both sides.
The topic of manufacturers gradually stepping up corrosion protection is illustrated by this chart, which I found interesting, but didn’t include in the final draft here.
This shows the results of visual surveys conducted in the Detroit area by the National Association of Corrosion Engineers between 1976 and 1990. In 1976, 90% of 6-year-old vehicles on Detroit roads showed significant rust – that number plummeted to 26% just ten years later. By 1990, that number was at 6%.
Aftermarket rustproofing may have played a role here, but my guess is that manufacturing improvements were responsible for most of this. Regardless, it’s a rather dramatic change.
It would’ve been interesting to have comparable statistics from, say, Boston or the Hudson Valley since this was one area where Japanese and European makes lagged behind domestic ones which a Detroit-area sample would’ve been heavily skewed to.
Never heard of Rusty Jones until now. But rustproofing was never much of a business here in the Pacific NW. On a side note, the same thing happened to car audio. With the explosive sales of aftermarket stereos in the ’80s the automakers were forced to improve their dismal systems.
A great dive into something with relevance to my life. I remember Rusty being everywhere – until he wasn’t. I had never known the ending to the story, so thank you.
I was a Rusty Jones customer, although an involuntary one. The VW dealer where I bought my new 1985 GTI gave me the “we apply that to all our cars” line, and because it was a lot car and not an ordered car, I was stuck. The salesman tried to make me feel better about how I would never need to wax the car because of the Rusty Jones paint sealant. It was after about a year that I noticed the dull road film all over my black car that was starting to look a little gray. It was fixed by, er, waxing. Oh well.
The manufacturers always knew how to stop rust – most used galvanized steel for rocker panels by the early 60s and American cars would rust everywhere but there. By 1980 Chrysler was using galvanized in almost the entire lower bodies to great effect. Then sometime in the 90s everyone started cutting costs and rust came back.
This is true, the now rare ’79 to ’81 Mopar R-bodies, of which I have had 4, were incredibly rust resistant. Even the ’79 Newport I bought in Vermont in ’03 for my son to drive to high school was 99% rust-free, amazing where salt is on the road 1/2 of the year, though it was an “old lady special” that wasn’t a high mile car.. but still.
As soon as I saw Rusty Jones the first thing that I thought of was their jingle that I haven’t heard in probably 35-40 years, I guess that’s what you call successful advertising.
I know what you mean — every time I watch that 1982 commercial, I get the “Hello Rusty Jones, goodbye rusty cars” jingle stuck in my head for several hours.
This seems a little late timing, I thought that “Ziebart” started in the 1960s. Maybe not. Here in “Chicagoland” I think they were sort of black and tarish, while Rusty Jones was clearer. I think that Ziebart sound-deadened, too. I wonder how much they weighed.
I thought that Ziebart was primarially after-market while dealers did Rusty Jones. We thought of Rusty Jones as a poor substitute, but that may have been prejudice (tar looked good back then) and distrust of anything “dealer-installed”. Plus advertising.
We never had a car with either. Never had one that lasted, either.
Yes, Ziebart did start in the 1960s; its business grew with the rest of the rustproofing industry in the 1970s. I think Ziebart had about four times as many franchises in 1980 than in 1970.
Ziebart was the only major rustproofer in the late ’70s and ’80s not to work primarily through new car dealerships — most (or maybe all) of their work was done and sold by franchised shops. In reading critiques of the industry, it seems that Ziebart “worked” better than its competitors, but it appears that the difference was really in application rather than the product itself. Ziebart centers were just more thorough than dealerships that applied Rusty Jones or other products; they were simply more accountable for their own work.
please contact me about rusty jones thank you and have a wonderful day
The ad mentioning Texaco rustproofing reminded me of my attempt to rustproof my own car in the early 80s. Bought 5 gallons of Texaco L rustproofing, mixed it with mineral spirits, modified a steel garden sprayer along with a longer hose, attached a schrader valve to the tank, and I was in business. Spread a plastic sheet under the car, put the car on jack stands, and away I went. It worked quite well, but after cleaning up the mess, it would be the only car I would ever do. Still have the can of Texaco that I use from time to time on other projects.83
A great article on a product I had never heard about.
When I was in fourth or fifth grade, I remember my teacher (who is also my cousin-in-law, incidentally) telling the class about the improvements in automotive rust protection, telling us how the cars from the 1980s would not rust the way the 1970s models had. Nothing about anything aftermarket, but this has certainly stuck with me.
I don’t think I’ve ever owned any older car with any type of known rust inhibitor.
A fantastically researched and presented piece. I don’t really recall Rusty Jones, even though I grew up in Ohio, the heart of the rust belt. I do remember Ziebart.
Plenty of Ziebarts in Northern Ohio, lol. Seems like every town over 20,000 had one. I bought a new 1978 F150 and promptly had it Ziebarted. That stuff leaked out of it for months.
Great article until the last paragraph….shouldnt it be DEFT and not DAFT marketing???? LOL
Ha! Thanks for pointing that out. I’ll deftly change that now…
I would like to ask if you really mean “homely” and not “homey”.
Homely refers to a lack of physical attractiveness and is the opposite of “comely”.
Homey would be the right word, I think – if I am reading that correctly.
Now, that word choice I’ll defend.
Homely can mean unattractive, but can also mean unpretentious.
I just looked the word up in my unabridged dictionary to make sure about that — see Definition #3 below.
The explanation underneath the definition is interesting too (which is why I’m attaching the image here)… it suggests that Homely is more often meant as Unattractive in the United States, but is more often used to mean Unpretentious in England. I had no idea about that – I’ve always used Homely to mean Unpretentious. Maybe I’m secretly British.
A bit off topic here, but interesting nonetheless.
As a lover of British Victorian literature, I accidently use British-isms as well. I have not heard of homely used in that manner – and now I know.
Thank you for this explanation, Eric. As frequent viewer of BBC’s Escape to the Country (reruns on CBS’s Dabl), many times I’ve heard beautiful homes described as homely and never understood why.
In college I had a 85 Plymouth Reliant that had Rusty Jones. I knew the cars history. It had sat in a new england driveway untouched for 8 years before I resurrected it. By then it was 15 years old. I had it for 3 relatively reliable years in college till the timing chain guides on the mitsubishi 2.6 started to go and so I junked it. No rust anywhere ever!
I never heard of Rusty Jones until I read this blog about sisters trying to clean out their father`s hoard of 50+ VWs and other European cars off his property:
Rusty Jones was the unofficial mascot (goodbye rusty cars!) It`s interesting reading, but hasn`t been updated since 2015, which I suppose means they got the property cleaned up enough to get on with their lives and stop blogging about hoarders.
DougD, I was enamoured by the name “Tetanus Burger”, and had to check it out. Awesome! My parents were minor-leaguers by comparison. It was still traumatic, though, being ashamed to have friends over. Thanks so much for finding and linking the site!
I don’t recall Rusty Jones up here in Canada, but I have been a pretty regular customer at Rust Check since it opened here in Winnipeg in 1984.
My parents-in-law bought a new ’85 Mazda 626 which the dealer Waxoyled; the car rusted badly, but did serve well until 2005.
The Ziebarted vehicles here seemed to rust just as badly as the untreated ones.
It seems that the annual oil sprays (Rust Check and Keown) are the most effective.
Yup, I do Krown every year here in Hamilton. Here’s a post I made while waiting for my van to get done:
It seems that the annual oil sprays (Rust Check and Keown) are the most effective.
Agreed, although I will add Corrosion Free to that list. My dad uses it on his Camry as well as my Cousin on his Acura. It seems to be as good as the other two. I have also bought Corrosion Free from TSC and used for touch-ups on my vehicles, and it seems to hold up better than Krown on the undercarriage.
And I will second (third?) the endorsement of Krown. My ’89 Ford F150 spent most if its life in the city Toronto, before I moved west—driven every winter, and Krowned every fall. It has a couple of small rust spots in areas where the paint has chipped, but that’s it—the frame and everything is extremely solid. Quite a feat as everyone knows Ford trucks from this era would start rusting just at the mention of the word “salt”.
That’s in my town I used to go by there on the bus. The whole yard was filled with rusty old cars.
Thanks for the interesting article, I first saw ads for Ziebart in the auto mags in the 1960’s(It’s Us or Rust!). Back in the 80’s when I was still a regular reader of the auto-rags, I saw a lot of ads for Rusty Jones, then I recall reading about 1984 or so the Company had gone bankrupt. In the 1980’s and 90’s I had every car I owned rustproofed; and it seemed to work, I never had any rust issues. Today the automobile manufacturers seem to be doing a much better of job of rustproofing their vehicles; I’ve had three Hondas that have never had rust issues.
Ziebart is also an interesting story. The company was founded by a man named Karl Ziebart, a native of Germany who immigrated to Detroit in the early 1950s. He got a job in an auto body shop (he may have done something similar in Germany) and was shocked at cars’ rust problems, so he started working on solutions almost immediately. He applied rustproofing to cars that he repaired, and also friends’ cars… and after a few years when it was clear that his methods worked, he founded his own company.
One of Ziebart’s big contributions to rustproofing was that he was the first to realize that rust often starts from the inside of body panels. Prior rustproofing (like the 1940s-era ads above) were only underbody sprays. Ziebart pioneered the process of drilling holes in panels to spray rustproofing in there, and also seeking out crevices where rust was likely to form, such as spraying inside headlight crevices, etc. Within a short time, this became the industry norm.
Incidentally, I believe Ziebart began using the “It’s Us or Rust” tagline in the mid 1970s. Below is an early (mid-60s) Ziebart ad:
Nice lines on the car in the Ziebart ad – I see elements of ’65/66 Chrysler up front, with lots of ’63/64 Chevy and/or Olds from there on back.
My brother had a late-70’s Camaro ziebarted when new. It never rusted; he did, however, have a water leak problem into the driver’s footwell because the Ziebart gunk blocked the drain in the area below the windshield wipers. It found its way into the interior. Recall that it took a lot of effort to fix.
Great article! That Ziebart ad appeared in Pittsburgh newspapers around 1964. The car depicted is a 1963 Olds F-85, and they continued to feature the same car for many years afterward.
I remember Rusty Jones in the 80s quite well because my employer subscribed to Automotive News. It was an eye-opener to see the ads in that publication which focused on dealer profit and not on the (dubious) merits of the product. I also recall Polyglycoat and Waxoyl, but not the others.
While researching for this article, I came across quite a few of those dealer-oriented ads that focused on dealer profit – it’s quite illuminating to see them. It’s sort of the “other perspective” – no pretense about the products’ usefulness… just focusing on the profit angle.
This is one of the most uninhibited of such ads – from Polyglycoat in 1982, illustrating how their products (rustproofing, sound deadening, accessories, etc.) can conquer the Auto Sales Industry’s profit problems:
Bought a new 1980 Datsun 510 wagon. Salesman talked me into the dealers rustproofing, which consisted of drilling several holes under the sill plates of each door, spraying something in the holes and putting a rubber plug in the hole. Only thing was….after about 2-3 years, rust started to form around the holes.
Well done! What a great read.
As a lifelong Californian I’ve heard of this stuff but I don’t think it was big here. What new car dealers – especially the popular Japanese brands like Honda – were really pushing here was the PolyGlyCote exterior paint treatment. In those days it was considered more ethical to convince customers they were getting something for $500 rather than just call it “Additional Dealer Markup” like they do now (with and additional zero or two). I think a CC on these treatments, as well as the similar upholstery products (a quick spritz of ScotchGard) could be written with one word: scam.
Says it all.
I bought my father’s 1987 Chevrolet Celebrity Eurosport in 1991 after graduating college. He had kept it washed and waxed meticulously. It had come from the dealer rustproofed. I noticed the holes made to apply the rustproofing in the doors and rockers, filled in my flexible rubber plugs. I also noticed the weep /drain holes actually had the black rustproofing material weeping out of the. It was not long before the plugs fell out after the holes rusted out. Not long after that it was a springtime tradition to sand, prime, paint, and clearcoat the rocker panels. Nothing else rusted on that car, however.
I can just imagine how shoddy the car dealer rustproofing jobs were done. Imagine it – car carrier full of cars come in, boss wants them all rustproof, dealership screaming desperate to get the new iron out on their lot. And this all done by service staff who are already maxed out with their day to day tasks. Formula for shoddy work….and big profits.
I lived through the era—and in prime salt country—but this sure fills out the whole story for me. Fine research and an engaging writeup! I do recall ads from Ford and the others about their advances in factory treatments as well. Plus, we’re more used to plastic cladding around “fringe area” where rust my first appear—wheel openings and rocker panels-which does help older cars look their best.
For my 1999 Taurus I did indeed pay the dealer for the treatment, with the rubber plugs visible on doors and rockers. I did a decent, but not obsessive job of keeping the car washed in winters, and darned if it didn’t look very good as it neared its 20th birthday (I really oughta do a COAL) compared to ’99s that hadn’t been looked after through the years.
I’ve toyed with getting a (yearly?) underbody oil spray on our recent purchase. Any advice from CC-ers?
It seems that Ford cars of that era tend to be fairly good as far as rust goes. Our ’95 Thunderbird developed some rust in the driver’s side rocker panels at about 20 years old – but that’s not too bad.
As far as an annual underbody spray, since I’m not in a cold climate area, I never realized that folks still did that before reading about it here on CC. Seems that it’s a common treatment in Canada – in a comment above, DougD mentions that he uses Krown. Out of curiosity, I looked it up, and it appears that Krown has a few US locations.
George, an oil based rust proofing is the only thing that I have seen work in my severe climate. There are some Rust Check and Krown franchises south of the border and both work well.
You are lucky that your 99 Taurus held up well as they have not in my climate (they are pretty well non-existent in my area). An elderly relative used to have a ’99 Taurus wagon. Even with Krown rust proofing it still had severe rocker panel corrosion when it was about 12 years old. The plastic covers seemed to hold moisture in there. I drove that car to the junkyard with only about 100K miles on the Vulcan V6, which ran perfectly, as the bodywork to repair the car was more than the car was worth (it would not longer pass a safety inspection).
Another excellent deep dive from Eric703 about something I hadn’t given much thought to but nevertheless found extremely interesting. I too had not heard to Rusty Jones prior to this, perhaps living in California inured me to the need. I’ll have to start keeping an eye out for the stickers…
When I lived in Kenosha, WI early 1990s I saw these on quite a few cars. I’ll never forget our neighbors who owned a rusted out Jeep Cherokee with this sticker in the window. As a kid I thought you got this sticker when your car rusted.
Having moved to CA in 1975, this is all an abstraction. I’ve heard of the name, probably here at CC or elsewhere, but now I’m schooled.
Rust was just one of the many things I gladly left behind when I moved out West. Never looked back.
Fascinating read! I’d wondered what happened to Rusty Jones…
I bought a new car in Dallas in 1973. Almost every dealer I visited was pushing Rusty Jones. This was nothing but a ripoff because rust issues in Dallas were somewhere between zero and extremely minimal. (Sort of like selling insurance covering elephant stampedes, lion attacks, etc. – I just was not a risk.)
I meant to say pushing Rusty Jones type rustproofing, Rusty Jones was not on the market yet.
Great read. I grew up in upstate NY and remember having to decline rustproofing on a couple of new cars bought in the 80s. I never bought into the idea that blindly spraying into closed spaces could cover 100% of those interior surfaces. And who thought that drilling holes in doors and such was a good thing?
I have a related question – why did it take so long for Detroit to deal with pickup truck beds, especially wheel wells? Clearly they knew how to address rust by the early 2000s yet I see lots of trucks of that vintage with serious rust issues.
Leasing, financed by the manufacturers’ finance subsidiaries, was on the rise in the late 80s. For individuals, I mean.
So the manufacturers had a vested interest in making sure the cars still looked good when they got them back for resale at the end of a lease. It behooved them to do better factory rustproofing.
That Suburban looks great. Our family 1988 Suburban had a repair file thicker than a Chicago phone book. Supposedly, it had a 5 year rust through warranty, so GM had to replace the door skins and tail gate on ours only three years after my dad bought it. He used to spend days forcing us to wax every inch of that Suburban, so we were pretty disappointed when rust still appeared.
That, and the Suburban was a humongous lemon all around. Worst workmanship ever. The week the odometer turned 60,000 miles – my dad got rid of it because all the warranties were up that week. What a horrible piece of trash.
My father bought a ’71 Chevelle wagon in St Joe Michigan and bought the full Ziebart treatment from a local provider.
While the car remained rust free until he sold it, a year after purchase we moved to Charlotte North Carolina and then on to Denver, Colorado. Both areas used little salt on the road, and all the other ’71 Chevelles remained rust free as well…
Fixed that for you. This stuff renders a car permanently and completely nasty to work on. It will get all over you and your tools. It won’t wash off.
Quite. The Ziebart decal was just about the only part of this Volvo that wasn’t rusted.
Yeah, eh? That was so strange. Like it was urgently important that everybody know the name of some conglomerate corporation that owned Jolly Ranchers, Tropicana, the Solid Gold dancers, etc. Why were we meant to care?
I’m not quite sure why Beatrice suddenly decided to advertise its presence so much in 1984. My guess is that company leaders thought that greater name recognition would translate to greater Wall Street favorability… but it didn’t quite work out that way. Many people were actually dismayed to see their favorite brand of orange juice or candy was really sold by a big conglomerate. So the ads stopped within a year.
I knew 2 out of 3 having seen Ziebart shops and Rusty Jones ads growing up in New York. I didn’t learn about Waxoyl until I started reading British classic car magazines.
It speaks to the cultural impact of advertising that “Adirondack Rusty Jones” became a slang term for spraying old motor oil on the underside of your car in Upstate New York.
We had personal experience of square body rust, friends had a 76 Blazer that left a shower of rust flakes every time you slammed the door and when I was in college in the Southern Tier lots of trucks had home made flatbeds to replace rotten pickup beds.
SJC….this made me laugh, we live with a lot of road damage where I am, due to bad winters, and the city comes by and pours tar into the cracks and slits…when we roll over that and it gets on the underside, we refer to that as “free city rust proofing”.
At one time a few years back, I had an old ’78 C20, that had been a construction truck in a previous life. What a beast, 1 ton axle, massive steel bumper, 3 spd with creeper gear, and a galvanized inner box and bed. By the time I got rid of it the entire body had pretty much rotted away, except for that inner box and bed. They had nothing but a little surface rust. Can’t say as I’ve ever seen that on any other truck. I called it the Whitemare, lol.
I read the Salt Institute was funded by the Detroit automakers – not for safety reasons – but to create demand by rusting the cars out
Another great history lesson .
This was terrific. At first, I was curious about what vehicle in the lead photo has that shape of rear quarter window, started reading, and learned a lot! Funny that AMC was starting with better rust protection around 1980, because my family’s ’85 Renault Encore (manufactured by AMC) had the Rusty Jones treatment. Come to think of it, that car did very well in Michigan’s salt. Our ’84 Ford Tempo GL had the Tuff-Kote Dinol.
I like how Mater actually sort of resembled Rusty just a little bit. Again, bravo for a great read.
My first car, a ’74 Datsun 710 had Tuff-Kote….this was on our 2nd time up in Vermont. It rusted anyhow, by the time I sold it in 1981, it was pretty rusty…the test drive was a joke, some trim actually fell off the car (though of course rustproofing doesn’t often get to the trim, if it does the body itself). Of course I didn’t have another similar car without the treatment, driving it in similar environment, so of course I don’t know for sure if it might have been even worse without the treatment.
We moved south not long afterward (have been in Central Texas going on 40 years now) so it became academic for us, cars rust here but for different reasons, not so much from the inside-out like they tend to do in snow country. My niece still lives up there, but otherwise no longer have much connection, but I always wondered why it took so long for manufacturers to apply some treatment while the car was being made (other than the obvious, they want you to buy a replacement car after your current car gets too rusty); it seemed problematic that you could get the rustproofing to all the areas inside the car with an aftermarket treatment even if it had effective ingredients…by drilling holes and putting in tubes hoping to get coverage, seemed like it would have been much better to put the material on before the sheet metal was shaped so you could have a chance at more even application. Maybe that’s what’s done now, I don’t know, since the problem no longer affects me, I’ve lost my interest in it, though it was a big deal back then.
It gets me thinking though, I’ve only owned 4 cars in 48 years of driving, but the majority of that now has been in the sunbelt…I wonder how many cars I would have owned if I’d stayed living up in rust country,,,though knowing rust treatment can’t be applied to every part (shock absorbers, etc) due to movement or other issue.
One thing that really opened my eyes was my stainless steel exhaust on my current (22 year old car) which is driven few miles…rarely warms up so exhaust probably sees lots of condensation that takes a long time to dissipate…but I’m still on my original exhaust. Prior cars had aluminized exhaust and even down south I’d have to replace them every 4 years or so (every 2 years when still in snow country), so it seems right material/treatment can have a dramatic improvement, though I realize this is nonstatisticly significant sample size of 1.
Did Mater of Cars fame get his name from the founder of Rusty Jones? Seems possible…
My Grandparents 88 Subaru hatchback had a Rusty Jones sticker, not sure how it held up. It was sold to my brother when he got his license and then he bought another car in 1994. I assume it rusted away long ago like pretty much all 80s era Subarus around here.
Posted on this elsewhere, but I worked at a Dodge dealer during a summer in 1983. Besides oil changes, recall rework & deliveries, I was the official Rusty Jones application professional. The material used came in 1 qt cans, the applicator siphoned out material and would spray or squirt depending on the end used. Inner door seams, qtrs, underbody pan areas, underhood areas were highlighted and overspray was encouraged to show the product was there. All with 1 qt of material. A dose of Scotchgard-like spray on the seats and a hi gloss waxing on the paint completed it in 2 hrs or less. Did about a dozen Chrysler car & truck products that summer.
Got further in depth with anti corrosion with an automotive paint supplier, E coat dip tanks were just coming on-line, electro galvanizing & hot dip zinc steel set up a long lived body in the rust belt.
Great times back then….
I remember your comment on an earlier article – your story closely parallels many of the findings from various investigations into dealership rustproofing practices at the time. Very interesting to read a first-hand account… thanks for sharing this!
A family friend purchased a new Vega GT station wagon in 1973. Upon the recommendation of mine she immediately had “Bumper to Bumper” Ziebart rustproofing done.
Seven years later it was perhaps the only rust free Vega wagon here in New Orleans. The only one that I knew of, anyway.
I lusted after it; wanting to do a #SBC V8 engine transplant into it. Unfortunately an intoxicated outta-towner Mardi Gras reveler t-boned it in 1980. State Farm paid her $200.00 for what was left of it.
Excellent article Eric. I thoroughly enjoy your well researched histories. It is really interesting to read the Rusty Jones background, as I had only heard the name in passing from Americans. It’s too bad that rust proofing got such a bad rap, because the good stuff does work. In Canada, Rust Check and Krown have been the long time standards, and both have work very well at preventing rust. Modern cars have drastically improved for rust resistance, but in harsh climates rust can still be an issue. Bodies hold up far better, but there are still lots of less than 10 year old vehicles around here with rusted out rockers or fenders, albeit far less than decades ago. Anyone who services cars for a living in harsh climate will tell you that rust is a major issue on chassis, brakes and undercarriage components. The old mighty orange wrench is a must.
My family has long been an adopter of rust proofing. Mom and Dad’s old Pontiac Wagon had the annual rust check stickers all across the back side window. The body on it held up very well as have all of our vehicles. Case in point, my old ’76 Malibu, which normally should have rusted horrendously, has all original body panels on it despite use during salty Ontario winters. I know without a doubt that the Krown rust proofing was what saved that car.
I hadn’t realized that people in harsh climate areas still got cars rustproofed with oil sprays until I read in here on CC a few years ago. Your cars serve as a great testament to how this type of treatment really can work if done correctly.
Did the job myself with a kit I bought from J.C. Whitney. All the cars in my family were done by me throughout the 70’s. Never had a major rust issue except for those that were already rusted. For the wheel wells and everywhere else I could, I’d go in there with a brush and coat it good. Only bad thing was the smell. All the cars I did had a lingering smell. Something like creosote.
As the lowly first year apprentice at North Pine Motors I did plenty of rustproofing jobs. “Rust Rid” was the goo, black for the underbody and a lighter, tea coloured fluid for doors, rockers, box sections.
Since it was a dirty job, I got 10 bucks cash for each job. When you’re on $60 a week, one or two rust jobs was a huge bonus. 1978.
My first car, a ’74 Roadrunner, was Ziebarted at the dealer, and they didn’t skimp on the stuff. I got the car in November, just before Thanksgiving, and it stunk, to put it nicely. The stink came every time the car got really warmed up, mostly because the rustproofing had been sprayed so heavily, it was all over the dual exhausts. By the time it got warm out, the smell was gone. Then it suddenly returned, dripping out of numerous crevices, and along with it messing up my garage floor, the stink came back, less obnoxious, but still noticable. In June of ’75, I moved to Las Vegas, and the rustproofing compound dripped out for months, it was like, “How much of it did they put in there?”. I hit a pothole in Sept ’75 and we found out the hard way that they had sprayed the entire front suspension with it, and a simple alignment job turned into a many hour flog trying to set the alignment with the parts locked in place with the Ziebart compound. After a lot of effort in a 130 degree shop, my autoshop teacher and I got the alignment close enough and called it done. The car wouldn’t be actually dead on until the next year, when I took it to a local place who insisted they would have no problems and the price was set in stone. They kept their word, and a couple of hours later, it was ready and set perfectly. That car is alive and well in Las Vegas today, with both front quarters untouched with original paint. The rear quarters had dings in them but no rust and had been repainted, along with the hood and trunk lid. When the car was being rebuilt, the present owner (the third one, after me and his brother) told me that the rustproofing was still sticky where it wasn’t dust covered, and was very well applied.
Boy I remember Rusty Jones. My dad’s new ’86 Maxima SE had the stuff sprayed all over the engine bay. The Nissan dealer did all of the cars…..in FLORIDA!!!! I don’t think he actually paid for it, he just had to live with it.
Interesting comment at the beginning of the article attributed to someone from Chrysler…I know of someone from the steel industry, and about 20 years ago, he told me that Ford “spec’ed” the best steel, GM somewhere in the middle, and Chrysler didn’t care what crap steel it was getting, as long as it was cheap! I still consider Chrysler to be one of the worst built, worst designed, and nicest looking cars built in the U.S. Poor Chrysler, my Dad would be rolling in his grave, he was always a Mopar Man, back from when they knew what they were doing.
I haven’t owned an American car since 1975, but I suffered with a rust-bomb Toyota in 1977; the Japanese pretty much had their act cleaned up by my next 80’s Toyota.
As a “salt belt” liver for most of my life, I never bought rust-proofing, but was forced to negotiate for hours on a car I was buying that had it “pre-applied” by a dealer, until they got it down to an acceptable level, and even then, the doors filled with water because they had plugged the drain holes. And as you stated, the real problems were the hap-hazard dealer applications! Cars being delivered in the very late fall to early spring, could very well have rust proofing sealer applied OVER the corrosive stuff that had already gotten on to the bottom of the car from transportation, and ’caused even a faster rate of rust!
Mid to late 1980’s Plymouth police vehicles bought for the Eastern Suffolk County, NY PD where I worked got a “Rusty Jones” treatment (or at least the sticker) from the local dealer. At the time the cars were shot after about 60,000 miles and were swapped out every year. What a scam.
Funny that the Chief of Police drove a Chrysler from the same dealer!
This write-up is an excellent example of the power of advertising. What caught my attention was the first photo with the sticker, that both triggered a memory of this advertising campaign and a curiosity to identify the vehicle in the photo (I did not recognize it as a Suburban). But, the write-up so so well-researched and well-written that it held my interest. Nicely done!
The first big competition to “Ziebart”!
Bought a new 1980 Datsun 510 wagon and the dealer talked me into “rust proofing”. Apparently all they did was drill some holes in the bottom door sills and spray some stuff in the holes and plug them with rubber plugs. Couple years later, I noticed the only rust on the car was around the holes they drilled.
I thought Dean Johnson, the affable cohost of the 1990s PBS series Hometime, could have played the ‘real life’ Rusty Jones. If the company chose to pursue that direction, in their marketing.
Going on memory here, but I believe besides paint protection, my dad also paid for Ming rust protection on his 1978 Dodge Aspen wagon. Bought new in June 1978. It lasted, without serious rust until 1992, when he traded it in.
Anyone have experience with a good rustproofer no days? I had my new 2022 Ford Maverick truck done by Bullet Liner in Green Bay, WI. as soon as truck was delivered so nothing got to underbody.
I had a Dodge Dealer add Rusty Jones to my brand new 1978 Aspen before delivery. They plugged the drain holes in 3 of the doors and both sides of the trunk which I didn’t discover until it all rusted out the next year. RJ would not cover it under warranty claiming it was the dealer’s fault for not applying it correctly.