The first car washes in the form that we recognize them opened in 1914 in the United States of America. Since then, car washes have appeared in many different incarnations, from completely manual to fully automatic, and although these have developed separately, all types continue to exist.
In the rest of the article, we are going to explore the history of the car wash by looking at the separate developments of the manual or hand car washes, the self-service car washes, and the automatic car washes.
What is the History of the Manual or Hand Car Wash?
On an individual level, people have had to wash their cars for as long as cars have existed. Like with many repetitive tasks, car washing began to get outsourced to third parties very quickly. First, individuals could be paid to wash a car as a one-off. Young people and adolescents looking for some extra income could wash a neighbor’s car on an ad hoc basis.
Car ownership rates grew quickly, and with that, the demand for car washing services. This increased demand, very naturally, turned car washing into a profession and a formal service, laying the foundation for the history of the car wash as we know it today.
Early 20th Century Car Washes
The first ever formal car wash business opened its doors in the city of Detroit, Michigan in 1941. This was referred to as the “Automated Laundry.” This very first car wash was completely manually operated, but interestingly enough, it contained many of the elements that modern car washes are famous for, including the tunnel that the cars pass through for each step of the washing process.
Because these first car washes were completely manual, the whole task was much more laborious. The assembly line method was inherited from the manufacturing part of the auto industry, but even so, it took multiple workers to wash a single car, which was inefficient in comparison to the various degrees of automation and improved equipment that came after it.
Revival of Hand Car Washes
Automation would not be the end of hand car washes, however. There were various revivals of the practice after the fact. Bikini car washes, for instance, have been used to raise money for charity or even just attract attention to businesses that may be struggling to bring in clientele. Although washing by hand in these instances is less efficient, the concept would not work with automation.
Another business model that arose in the revival of hand car washes is one that specifically labels this as a premium service. With automation becoming passé in some circles, the perception has come full circle with this subset of people viewing manual car washes as a step up.
A manual car wash also affords customers the opportunity to have the interior of their cars cleaned, which cannot be done with automation. From a business perspective, it can also lower up-front expenditures by removing the large initial investment in the equipment needed for automatic car washes.
What is the History of the Self-Service Car Wash?
Perhaps ironically, the self-service car wash is a later creation than the fully automatic variant. Acting as a sort of intermediate form between automatic and manual, the self-service car wash uses less advanced and voluminous equipment, reducing the business’ up-front and maintenance costs. It is also the customer that engages in the manual elements of the process, thus eliminating the need for non-maintenance staff.
Self-service car washes have had no reason to go away since, although they do not offer as high tech a solution as fully automatic car washes, the convenience that they offer to the business owners is significant, and this also gets passed onto the customer. Because the expenses for the businesses are much lower, self-service car washes tend to have lower prices, making them a huge draw.
What is the History of the Automatic Car Wash?
Automatic car washes are perhaps the ones that are most ingrained in public perception. If the first thing that comes to your mind when you think of a car wash is a car on a conveyor belt going through a tunnel with giant, unmanned brushes coming in from all sides, then you understand why this is the case.
First Steps at Automation
The first attempt at automating the car wash process happened in the 1940s in Hollywood, California. This design used a tunnel like many of its predecessors, but the cars were placed on conveyor belts that saved workers from having to push the car from station to station.
The decade saw further steps toward automation. In 1946, more of the manual labor was removed from the process with the introduction of sprinklers for water distribution. In the same year and unrelated to the former, Minit-Man was founded as a company that creates specifically car wash equipment, adding another layer to the car wash industry.
Fully Automated Car Washes
The first fully automatic car wash is often considered to have been opened in 1951 by the Anderson brothers in Seattle, Washington. Their system was completely hands-free, using a bevy of tools to achieve this, some new and others from their predecessors’ attempts at automation.
The 50s and 60s saw a number of other improvements to this system, typically around improving efficiency and reducing cost. All of these advances eventually culminated in the automatic car wash systems we know of today, where you simply drive your car onto the conveyor belt and let it go through without any staff members involved in the actual cleaning process.
As we have learned, the history of the car wash is not a linear thing. It can be easy to assume that it follows a teleological process where manual car washes gave way to self-service ones which were then themselves superseded by fully automatic variants, but we know that this is not the case.
Not only do automatic car washes predate self-service ones, as counter-intuitive as that sounds, but all three of the variants continue to coexist, using their different pros and cons to service different markets.