February 17, 2014 at 10:22 am

Car wash industry began in Detroit

Manager Bill Clingan soaps up a Mercedes entering the Super Car Wash in Farmington Hills. The Motor City leads the way in the industry, which started a century ago and remains popular. (Brandy Baker / The Detroit News)

The city that put the world on wheels also created the automated car wash industry 100 years ago.

In 1914, Frank McCormick and J.W. Hinkle opened Automobile Laundry in Detroit, at 1221 Woodward near Gratiot. The Laundry was the first to bring Henry Ford’s moving assembly line technique to the car wash business. Car cleaning had largely been done individually before then.

The modern-day automatic wash came in 1946, when Paul’s Auto Wash at 541 W. Fort St. opened, moving cars along a conveyor.

What started as a niche business a century ago in the Motor City has become a $33 billion global industry, with more than 150,000 retail car wash locations worldwide.

Detroit’s innovation spurred an industry — everything from car wash equipment manufacturers to detergent makers. And many car wash-related companies that dominate the field still call Michigan home, said Eric Wulf, chief executive officer of the International Carwash Association, based in Chicago.

“Detroit allowed the car wash industry to catch fire across the world,” Wulf said.

The association is marking the centennial throughout the year with parties, special sections in its magazine and a designated birthday Facebook page (www.facebook.com/100YearsofCarWash) to share the industry’s storied past.

Stone Soap Company Inc. was one of the first local companies to benefit from Detroit’s desire for a clean ride. Founded in Detroit by Ralph Stone and now located in Sylvan Lake, the 82-year-old company is considered America’s oldest maker of car wash chemicals.

Stone Soap is credited with making the world’s first detergent for a self-service pressure wash, said Steven Stone, executive vice president and son of the company’s founder. Rinse Aid, spray wax and multi-colored foam shampoos are among its current products.

Stone also hosted the first car wash training academy, teaching car wash owners and managers to maintain their facilities — manufacturing marvels with electrical, pneumatic, hydraulic systems and more — to consistently clean, dry and shine cars.

“Every innovation the industry has seen happened in Detroit first,” said Stone, who is often asked to speak about the history of the business.

He points to the invention of the soft cloth wash as proof. Belanger & Co. in Northville, which prepped metal for paint, was approached by multiple auto manufacturers in the 1970s to create an alternative to the harsh brush bristles in an automated wash that left swirls on the paint.

The company’s late founder, Richard Belanger, came up with a soft cloth to do the job. The cloth was designed to be retrofitted onto the old equipment, but it absorbed water and became too heavy for previous generations of machines.

Belanger used his knowledge of metal to start manufacturing machines capable of accommodating the soft cloths he had devised, explained his son Rich Belanger.

He changed the structural design, updating the materials from steel to aluminum and replacing grease bearings with plastic.

“The industry has come a long way because of entrepreneurs like my dad,” said Belanger, a co-owner of Motor City Wash Works in Wixom, a competitor of his father’s company, which is now operated by his cousins.

Pricing is the one area where the industry remains stuck in the past, Belanger said.

“We’ve had a 20-year price war in Michigan that never lets up,” he said.

ICA’s Wulf agrees. “Detroit is famous — or maybe I should say infamous — for its inexpensive wash,” Wulf said. “Some places say they’ll wash for 99 cents.”

Drivers like the discounted prices and are reluctant to give them up, said Jeff Stoltman, professor of marketing at Wayne State University and an expert on consumer behavior.

Consumers also crave simplicity, often choosing the cheapest option by default.

“That way you don’t have to make it more complicated by upgrading to platinum or silver and understand the differences of each one,” Stoltman said.

New vehicle owners typically are a car wash’s best customers, while those with leased vehicles aren’t nearly as devoted.

“It’s a luxury item service, but a valuable one, especially when you consider it’s taking care of what’s probably the second biggest asset a person owns, after a home,” Belanger said.

That’s how Shelby Township resident Darren McGeachy views it. He has a two-hour Sunday ritual of cleaning his 2008 Ram pickup inside and out. He vacuums it and then hits two car washes — consecutively. The first is a self-serve quarter wash. He likes to use the pressure wand on his tires to remove the salt and debris that an automated wash can miss. Then he hits nearby Bubbles Car Wash in Utica, using a prepaid coupon book that gets him a basic wash for under $4 and a free towel dry.

“I am protecting my investment. My truck looks like new and having it clean all the time helps me protect my business reputation, especially since my car is my office,” said McGeachy, a regional manager for Belle Tire Auto Glass. “I like to start a Monday with a clean office.”

Before the economy soured, many car owners shared McGeachy’s passion, said Todd Gesund, one of the owners of Super Car Wash System, which celebrates its 37th year in business this July. It has 10 locations throughout Metro Detroit and is known for its free towel dry.

To entice the McGeachys of the world to return, Super Car Wash System began the “Shine All the Time” club that allows unlimited washes for a nominal price, depending on the type of vehicle.

Perhaps its boldest move was making all of its vacuums free to help car owners with their stretched budgets.

It also continues to stay ahead of the trends by investing in new equipment. It recently installed a bank of 18 free vacuums at its Farmington Hills location that has a carnival-like look to it.

“I notice drivers pull in just to check it out and see what the metal sculpture is because it’s so unique looking,” Gesund said. “That’s what this business is about — getting attention for giving extra personal service that sets us apart” in Metro Detroit’s car-wash rich landscape.

Rene Wisely is a Metro Detroit freelance writer.

Paul's Auto Wash on West Fort Street was the first to automate the car- ... (Detroit News archives)
A GMC Sierra pulls out sparkling clean into freezing temperatures at Super ... (Brandy Baker / The Detroit News)