History Tuesday: The Car Wash

Since April is National Car Care Month, we would be completely remiss if we didn’t honor an American institution: the car wash. As the weather gets nicer every day, and we Spring clean our house and care for our lawns; it’s only natural that we want to give our ride a spiffy wash and wax, too. Just drive past any car wash on a weekend and you’ll see cars lined up waiting for their turn in the wash tunnel. So, let’s find out a little more about the history of the car wash.

People have found ways to wash their cars ever since cars were invented. They either washed it themselves at home, or paid someone else to wash it by hand. Then, in 1914, two Detroit men opened the first car wash business, which they called the “Automated Laundry”, but it wasn’t really automated. It was basically a pail and sponge type of operation where the cars were pushed manually through an assembly-line-like tunnel, where one attendant would soap the car as it went past, another would rinse, and a third would dry. Of course, after pushing a few cars through, the attendants got pretty tired.

The first “automatic” conveyor car wash was opened in Hollywood, California—of course, where else—in 1940. Instead of manually pushing the cars through, this car wash had a winch system that hooked to the bumper and pulled the car through as men splashed away in the tunnel, soaping, scrubbing, wiping, and drying cars as they came through. By 1946, a man named Thomas Simpson is credited with inventing the first semiautomatic car wash system that took most of the manual labor out of the tunnel. It had a conveyor belt that hooked to the bumper of automobiles, an overhead water sprinkler with three sets of manually operated brushes, and a 50 HP air blower to help dry the car.

Then, in 1951, Archie, Dean and Eldon Anderson got the great idea to fully automate their car wash. As the story goes, the Anderson clan invented the completely hands-free automatic car wash in Seattle. Cars would be pulled through the tunnel and machines sprayed soap on them, big brushes scrubbed them, nozzles rinsed them, and giant blowers dried them. Needless to say, this was a big hit! Soon, many other car wash owners were installing automatic equipment in their car wash business.

Through the 1960’s, fully mechanized car washing systems were being installed across America. With conveyor car wash equipment advancing, the 60’s saw inventions such as recirculating water systems, soft cloth friction washing, roller on demand conveyor, and wraparound brush. By the late 60’s car washes were becoming a prominent industry worldwide with car washes being installed in many countries, including Japan.

Today’s car washes are literally cleaning machines. They not only wash all five sides of the car at once, but scrub tires and wash the undercarriage as well. They are more Eco-friendly, with milder soaps and lower water and electric requirements. Many of the newer car washes even have express tunnels that get your car through quickly, all of which leads to more clean cars and happier car owners.