History of the Carwash: From Motown to All Towns

The carwash has long been a part of American car culture, practically as long as there has been a car culture. While the drive-in movie theater has succumbed to the suburban multiplex, and the drive-through has replaced the drive-in restaurant, the carwash has remained a vibrant business for more than 100 years.

According to the International Carwash Association, there are now approximately 79,500 carwash locations across North America, and the greatest growth continues to come from independent companies and entrepreneurs. More than two billion cars are washed annually in North America, and retail sales are approximately $15 billion. Given the time-crunched lives that people lead today, in many markets consumers are dropping the hose and prefer to utilize a professional carwash — noted by the fact that the industry saw 47 percent growth from 1994 to 2014.

The first carwash was opened in 1914 — fittingly enough in the soon-to-be Motor City — by two Detroit businessmen who called their shop the Automated Laundry. Despite the name, this original carwash was anything but automated. Instead, it was very much a pail-and-sponge operation, but clearly its founders took cues from Henry Ford’s assembly line concept. Cars were manually pushed through a tunnel, where one attendant soaped up a car, while another would rinse and, finally, a third would dry the car.

While labor intensive, this concept proved popular among wealthy residents who wouldn’t have dreamt of washing their own car! By the 1930s, there were some 32 similar drive-through facilities in the United States — a mere fraction of locations by today’s standards. The slow growth was due to the fact that manually washing each car was too slow and labor intensive.

A better, more efficient system was needed, and it would arrive in 1940, just before America’s entry into World War II. The first truly “automatic” conveyor system opened in Hollywood, California, while similar shops had already been operating in Europe. This system allowed for the cars to be pulled through the wash by a conveyor belt, but it was still elbow grease that did most of the washing.

When the soldiers returned from war, demand for automobiles peaked, and with it, so did the desire to keep the vehicles clean.

Back in Detroit in 1946, Paul’s Automatic Auto Wash became the first semi-automatic carwash that truly reduced the human element — although Thomas Simpson has also been credited with creating this system. Either way, the carwashes of the post-World War II era quickly adopted a conveyor belt that hooked to the bumper while an overhead sprinkler with three sets of manually operated brushes cleaned the vehicle as it passed through a short tunnel. Afterward, a 50-horsepower air blower helped dry the car, reducing the need to have an employee towel dry the vehicle.

In the 1950s, it was apparent the carwash wasn’t just for rich folks anymore. Franchises were growing fast, and with it, the Automatic Car Wash Association was born in 1955. That trade group would eventually evolve into the International Carwash Association with chapters in both North America and Europe.

Around the same time, Dan Hanna formed Hanna Enterprises, and his new system of fully mechanized carwashes improved the way shops could operate and effectively clean cars. Throughout the 1960s, the industry saw more improvements in conveyor carwash equipment, as well as recirculating water systems, soft cloth friction washing and a roller-on-demand conveyor. The concept of carwashing continued to spread throughout the world, including the Far East with the first shops opening in Japan.

While the industry saw a downturn in the 1970s with the rapid price increase in gasoline, new innovations including the automatic wheel cleaner and the polish’n’wax systems were introduced. Throughout the 1980s, as car ownership increased, the carwash industry saw rapid growth that has continued to this day.

The carwash industry has also kept pace with a changing world in other ways. Today, carwashes are even more environmentally friendly, ensuring water reclamation is part of the process, while the chemicals and cleaning agents used to clean the car aren’t harmful to people or the local community.

Today, drivers can now pay with not only cash, but via credit cards, PayPal and even web-friendly apps. Subscription services — so called wash clubs — are even designed to allow those drivers who really take pride in a clean car to be able to regularly head to the carwash. It certainly beats pulling out the garden hose on a chilly day!