Michigan Radio, the local NPR station up on the Great Lakes, recently did a spot on the country’s first automated car wash. The Automobile Laundry opened in 1913 in Detroit and became one of the few solutions to hand washing your vehicle yourself. It was especially handy in the days of dirt roads, the station reports.
Joel Stone, the chief curator at the Detroit Historical Society appeared on the radio station’s show, Stateside, to talk about how two business owners launched the first automated car wash. He told the station that a wash went for $1.50 back then. By today’s standards though, that’s about $36 a wash. Pretty steep considering it had fewer bells and whistles than the automated washes of today.
The three-minute radio spot talks about how the Model T was a big car back in the day. Stone said two guys started the company and called it the Automobile Laundry. One of the men had a marketing background. Their slogan was “Everything back but the dirt.” Drivers went through a building and popped out the other side with a clean vehicle.
But here’s the catch. Drivers had to get out of their vehicles while workers literally pushed the cars down the line. They would clean the wheels then clean the cars quickly, because paint back then couldn’t hold up to soap. The entire process took 30 minutes.
Automobile Laundry could do about 100 cars a day. It wouldn’t be until 1947 that another Detroit automatic car wash opened, this one the first modern-day version of the machine. That version could do 180 cars an hour.