We occasionally provide excerpts from The Great American Car Wash Story. Former ICA Executive Director Gus Trantham and veteran commercial writer John Beck wrote this book in 1994. It represents the most complete history we have found of the industry in North America. Enjoy.
When McCormick and Hinkle opened up their Auto Laundry in 1914, they referred to it as a “conveyor line,” but in truth it wouldn’t in any way resemble what we today call a tunnel wash.
As we discovered earlier, such an operation would have been impossible without drowning the interiors of open bodies and getting tangled up with long brake handles, gear shift levers, and such accessories as kerosene lanterns, gas lamps, convoluted horns, elaborate radiator caps, spare wheels, trunks, pistol grip spotlights and countless others.
You could even get what was called a “long distance warning siren” operated by a crank and an inflatable dummy driver as a defense against thieves which – according to the ad – was “so lifelike and terrifying that nobody a foot away can tell it isn’t a real, live man.”
Before World War I, there were fewer than one million cars on the roads in America. Shortly after the war, this had leaped to over 5 million, and by 1925 was approaching the 20 million mark.
Automobile designs and manufacturing volumes began to progress at fantastic rates. In the early twenties, more and more closed bodies were beginning to appear, such as the Jay-Eye-See sedan, the Ferris Sedan, the Seven Passenger Pierce-Arrow Coach, the Dodge 4-door Sedan, the Hudson Supersix, the Packard Twin Six and many others whose names might be unfamiliar to many of you. This included many custom vehicles, such as those made by Fleetwood and Brewster Body in Connecticut.
Finally, an automobile convention was staged that was heralded as the “Closed Car Show,” which included such names as the Kissel, the Maxwell, the Peerless, the Dort, the Chalmer and a dozen others. It was about this time that the Rex Manufacturing Company came out with a detachable sort of hard top that could be used to replace the folding tops on touring cars so as to convert them into enclosed sedans. Since they quickly became known as “California Tops” it is fairly certain that they had originated in that state. With a Rex top, in cold weather a car could be converted to a completely closed model, but in warm weather the sides could be removed to make it an open car.
An early Hupmobile, about 1924, came out with such a top and became known as the Rex-topped Hupmobile.
Several other companies came out with knock-down body kits that could be used to make custom bodies for use with Model T Fords, although these were not for enclosed bodies. One company, the Hine-Watt Manufacturing, used the headline in one ad: “Double the Value of Your Ford with this Body, FOB Chicago only $97.00. Without Top and Windshield only $60.00. Painted FREE Stutz Red, Brewster Green, Blue or Orange.” (What a stab at Henry’s Black!)
It was during this period, with closed bodies making the idea of washing cars more practical as a business, that several Californians in the Hollywood are came up with the idea of using turntables, similar to those used in railroad yards, for washing automobiles. They called this the “Gillespie System,” possibly the name of an investor in their enterprise. While this could be turned around carrying the cars being washed and hence earned the nickname “The Merry-Go-Round Car Wash,” it still was a long way from being a conveyor system. The turn-tables were massive and not only carried the cars being washed, but the workers with their buckets, hoses, sponges and even benches to stand on to be able to reach over the cars. The main washing power resources still consisted of human power and could involve up to 30 or 40 people per car wash.