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Cleaning Up at $125 Each : Detailing, or What Price Car Wash?

Times Staff Writer

If cleanliness is next to godliness, you can now buy a ticket to heaven for your car.

The bad news is, super-saver fares are not available.

Several hundred members of the International Carwash Assn. and National Carwash Council streamed into Washington this week for their national convention, trumpeting the ultimate car wash, certainly at the ultimate price: $125.

Higher Prices in Prospect

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“Price is not important at all,” said Harvey Miller of Sacramento, president of the Northern California Carwash Assn. “We could get more money than we are now. And very shortly, we will.”

The process is called car detailing, and car dealers have been using it for years to make their cars sparkle inside and out for the showroom floor. Now, because of the rocketing cost of automobiles, people are hanging onto their cars longer. More and more of these owners are willing occasionally to plunk down three figures for a cleaning that involves not just the hand-washing of the car, but also rubdowns with special chemicals that revitalize the finish, a shampooing of the trunk and interior, a de-greasing and washing of the engine, and for those really tough little spots: Q-Tip attention. There are meters to compute the exact degree of gloss of the paint, as well as the thickness of the paint left on the car, which determines exactly what kind of treatment it will receive. Virtually every square inch of the car, inside and out, is gently cleansed white-glove clean.

They never, never use a brush.

Car wash owner Shelly Grossman of Long Beach, Calif., said he has about 15 detailing customers a week.

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Does he find these are somewhat goofy people?

“Some of them are,” Grossman said. “There are fanatics in everything, but they’re a small percentage. Mostly it’s the person with the more expensive car.”

As colorful graphs and mounds of statistics flashed across a screen in a slide show, three successful car detailers explained the process to the eager conventioneers.

Garage ‘Like a Hospital’ Now

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Miller showed “before” slides of his early car detailing garage, a graffiti-stained, sloppy place that charged $45 for detailing.

He remodeled the facility, concentrating on what he called “impressive cosmetics,” white walls, carpets, a waiting room with a color television, impeccably groomed employees and color-coordinated equipment.

“It really looks like a hospital,” Miller beamed. And indeed, it did.

“The customer who used to pay us $45 in the old detail shop is now paying us, and I kid you not, $130 to $139,” Miller said.

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Miller has a dress code and mailing lists. And lots of optimism.

“This thing is a winner,” he said.

“It’s the most dramatic, impressive, exciting topic I’ve seen hit our business in the 29 years I’ve been in car washing.”

Jud Smith of Arizona stressed the need for computer software, promotional supplies and professionalism, comparing the growth and operation of his Detail Plus chain to the McDonald’s hamburger chain. He grosses $30,000 a month, Smith said, as car detailers across the nation pull in $144 million a year from about 4,000 outlets. California has more than any other state, the dealers estimate.

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“Eighty-five percent of the business is commercial, but that is changing rapidly,” Smith said.

Bud Abraham of Portland, Ore., told the group, “Up to a year ago I didn’t know anything about the detail business.” Now he grosses $10,000 a month. At the convention, he displayed lots of graphs, one showing that people spend less time today caring for their homes and cars.

“These people will not spend their leisure time working on their automobiles,” Abraham said.

Smith noted that even if car owners had the time, they no longer have the “confidence” to “do it yourself” on such expensive cars.

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While detailing was easily the most attention-grabbing topic of the convention, it certainly was not the only one.

The conventioneers had a full slate of workshops on such issues as water treatment, cost control and power washing (washing without brushes).

They swept nothing under the carpet. They really cleaned up.


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