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The History of the Car Wash

There is some debate about which professional car wash was the first, but it’s generally believed to have been Automobile Laundry, which was opened by Frank McCormick and J.W. Hinkle in Detroit, Michigan in 1914. At all early car washes, the cleaning process was rudimentary and arduous. Workers had to physically push vehicles through several stations dedicated to different cleaning tasks. In 1940, an automatic conveyor car wash opened in Hollywood, California, and while a winch system was used to pull the car through the stations, workers still had to do all the cleaning manually. The cleaning process finally became semi-automated in 1946 when Thomas Simpson designed and built an overhead sprinkler system that could wash vehicles. In 1955, Dan Hanna Sr. was so inspired by a car wash he saw across from his hotel while on vacation in Mexico that he opened his own car wash (Rub-A-Dub) in Milwaukie, Oregon when he got home. Realizing the need for more efficiency, he began building and testing new equipment. By 1959, he had successfully developed a working model of the first mechanized car wash. In the early 1960s, Hanna became the premier manufacturer of car wash equipment. (He also continued to innovate and earned several relevant patents, including for a wraparound brush, a soft cloth friction wash, and a recirculating water system.) Over the next few decades, various car wash businesses continued to develop new technologies and streamline processes. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, limiting waste became more of a priority and new technology was developed to better recycle water and reduce electricity usage. Today, there are three main types of car washes: automatic, self-serve, and hand-wash. Since their inception, car washes have steadily gained popularity. In fact, there are over 60,000 of them in the United States. While less than 50% of drivers used car washes in 1994, 77% of drivers were using them in 2019 — a testament to their ever-growing popularity in today's fast-paced culture.

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