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A history of the all-American car wash charts the progress of the US car wash industry

America has a love affair with cars, and we don’t hesitate to spend money to pamper them.

At the start of this winter, the busiest season of the year for car washes, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that the car wash industry has an annual revenue of $5.8 billion. When you factor in gas purchases, the revenue jumps to $48 billion.

The car washes of today (even waterless options!) have chaged a lot from your Grandpa's day. Here’s a look at the history of the all-American carwash. 

Early 1900s

In 1914, the first car wash business opens in Detroit, Michigan called the “Automated Laundry.” It was actually a hand wash assembly line where attendants soaped, rinsed and dried the cars as they were pushed through the tunnel manually. Customers had to leave their cars all day in order to get them washed. 


Hollywood, California becomes home of the first “automatic” conveyor car wash in 1940. Instead of manually pushing the cars, this car wash had a winch system that hooked to the bumper and pulled the car as attendants washed and dried the car as it moved through the tunnel.  

By the mid-1940s, there were about 32 drive-through car washes nationwide. In 1946, the industry changed greatly when Thomas Simpson invented the first semiautomatic car wash which greatly reduced the need for manual labor. A conveyor belt hooked to the bumper of the car and the car was pulled through a tunnel with an overhead water sprinkler, manually operated brushes and a blower for drying. 


Just five years later, in 1951, Archie, Dean and Eldon Anderson fully automated the car wash by inventing a completely hands-free car wash in Seattle, Washington. Machines now handled soaping, scrubbing, rinsing and drying. Car wash owners scrambled to install automatic equipment at their businesses and improve efficiency. 


Hanna Enterprises establishes itself as the premier manufacturer of car wash equipment with patented inventions such as the wraparound brush, roller-on-demand conveyor, soft cloth friction wash, triple approach to tire washing and recirculating water system. 


The car wash industry took a hit in the 1970s when the U.S. recession saw increases in the price of gasoline and shrinking profits for car wash operators. Hanna continued innovating with new developments such as the automatic wheel cleaner and a polish ‘n wax application. 


Car wash manufacturers once again revolutionized the industry in the 1980s as cars began to decrease in size and be sold in record numbers as the economy rebounded. The “Adjust-O-Matic” car wash automatically adjusted to the length and width of any vehicle. 


Today’s car washes are faster and eco-friendly, with milder soaps and lower water and electric requirements. A conventional tunnel car wash can recapture as much as 85 percent of its runoff, making them far more efficient than a carwash done in your driveway. 

What’s next?

The “waterless” car wash which utilizes a number of car cleaning solvents and sprays that function as “quick detailers” have come to market in recent years and use even less water than traditional detergents. The first car wash with no hoses, no spray nozzles and no water called Eco Green Auto Clean opened last year in Redwood City, California. Hertz recently switched to waterless washing using a nontoxic, biodegradable solution. It appears the next big car wash innovation will be the one that saves the most water. 


Take a look at our carwashes for sale at


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Andrea Miller

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