The All-American Joy of the Car Wash

Don't think of it as a chore. Think of it as a ritual.

Originally Published: 

What with the decline of religiosity in the United States, especially among Millennials, the opportunities for ritualized cleansing are few and far between. There’s baptism and there’s the Saturday afternoon shower with a beer, but that’s about the size of it. Fortunately, there’s still the automatic car wash.

Until about 1944, America cars were washed by hand. Though there is something charming about the endeavor — and sometimes titillating too — there’s nothing transcendent. It is a process that demanded automization, which came slowly at first and then, in 1955, very suddenly. That year, a man named Dan Hanna Sr. went on vacation to Mexico, stayed at a motel there and, inspired by a car wash he saw south of the border, built his own mechanized car wash tunnel back in Oregon. Hanna, sometimes called the “Henry Ford of Car Washes,” kept iterating on his original idea. His chain, Rub-a-Dub, spread rapidly. The tunnel car wash was suddenly a mainstay of suburban strip malls.

Today there are 28,500 tunnel carwashes in America.

A parking lot behind a service station might seem a strange place for salvation. But there it’s impossible to describe the car wash experience in non-ecstatic or religious terms. There is something holy about approaching the tunnel, liberating about surrendering control to the higher power of the conveyor belt and purifying about entering into the void.

Once inside, the car is pulled through a brightly colored and soap-soaked curtain, which engulfs the windshield in a tentacular embrace, running arms of foam down the sides and over the roof before grudgingly releasing the automobile into a small metal and cement clearing. The relative calm of that space is jarring then gone. It begins to pour with Deuteronomic fury. Water pelts the car and then, as it slides under the rinse arch, engulfs it like sea spray. Visibility drops to zero. There’s darkness.

Then come the scrubbers, which froth the foam to a point of high dander, churning up a storm of suds visible only through wholes in the mass of soap that quite suddenly subsides in the face of another torrent, which leads to an even more elaborate hosing, which, in turn, leads to a sliver of light and then the roar of the engine and the broad expanse of a parking lot.

In the typical wash tunnel, a car goes through twelve processes. It’s too many to fully grasp — they tend to run into each other in waves of water — but enough that the whole thing feels terribly thorough and borderline technical. From the perspective of the child in the back seat, the journey is numinous, comforting, yet thrillingly dynamic. Inside a car wash, it feels like anything can happen even though, thanks to Dan Hanna Sr., it doesn’t. The car wash is predictable, but it doesn’t feel predictable. The car wash is controlled, but it feels chaotic.

The car wash is an aural experience and a visual one. It’s like driving through a raging storm without an ounce of fear.

The car wash is also gratifying in the way that all acts of self-care are gratifying. The car, this external avatar of not just family but self, enters encrusted in mud and dirt and bug carcasses and exits with a remarkable shine. At the outset, the car is a means of transport and at the end, it’s recognizable as a beautiful machine. There is a sense of wonder that goes with that. There is a sense of privilege of ownership that is perhaps most keenly felt by children who don’t own anything at all.

Of course, cars don’t stay clean. The post-wash gleam fades at speed and gradually all the old gunk builds up. Pollen dusts the roof, mud clings to the wheel wells, and pollution clouds to windscreen. This is inevitable because we ask so much of cars, which spend the bulk of their lives outside of the relatively cozy confines of strip-mall parking lots along well-maintained throughways. That’s the tragedy of the car wash — that ecstatic cleanliness is unsustainable — but it’s also what makes the car wash so singular and so special. It is a place one goes periodically, often at the behest of a child, to perform a ritual.

There aren’t enough places like that. There should be many more. But, for now, the car wash will do nicely.

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