History of the Car Wash

Like most things we take for granted today, the car wash started from humble beginnings and grew  into a multi-billion dollar industry.

It’s been almost 70 years since the first automatic car wash was opened and a lot has changed.

Prior to 1946 manually operated car washes were pioneered started in 1914 using man power to move the cars during the washing process. With manual car washes in the United States reaching a peak for 32 drive through washes nationwide, it was time for the first automatic car wash. The first semi-automatic car wash was operated using an automated pulley system and then manually washed using brushes, in Detroit, USA.

A lot happened to the carwash industry in 1955, Dan Hanna being inspired by the Detroit carwashes opened his own automated car wash (Rub-a-Dub) in Oregon. By 1957 Hanna Enterprises had 31 carwashes in America. Around the same time in 1955 car wash professionals formed the Automatic Car Wash Association  (ACWA) later being recognised world wide, being re named to the International Carwash Association (ICA).

By the early 1960’s the first fully mechanised car washing systems were being installed across America. With conveyor car wash equipment advancing the 60’s saw inventions of such equipment including recirculating water systems, soft cloth friction washing, roller on demand conveyor and wraparound brush. By the late 60’s car washes were becoming a prominent industry worldwide with car washes being installed in countries including Japan.

The 70’s saw a downturn in business for car washes with the global economy weakening especially in the birthplace of the car wash, the US. With the sales of cars down and petrol at a high the need for car washes was fading. However car washes managed to stay alive with innovative inventions from Hanna Enterprises including automatic wheel cleaners and polish ‘n wax.

The mid eighties saw the return of the economy and car sales were at a record high with a reported 162 million cars in the US alone. Australia was also seeing success with car washes throughout the country. By the end of the 80’s there were automated car washes in 56 countries including Australia.   

The 90’s saw the global boom of the car wash with new technologies expanding across the far east, China, Russia and eastern europe. With Latin America and Southeast also amongst the growth Hanna Enterprises now (Hanna-Sherman International) were the biggest global car washing factory in the world.

The car wash evolved into weekly trip for many people predominantly on a saturday with hand car washes developing into charity fund raisers and weekend jobs for kids. The ICA estimates that there around 22,000 car washes worldwide employing about 500,000 people.