When was the last time you washed your car?
I almost washed my car the other day.
While that may sound reminiscent of a line from a Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young song, the reality is that it served as the launching point for another one of those strange automotive epiphanies I occasionally have.
After a long bout of heretofore unheard of rain in Southern California, I walked out front of my house, over the holidays, to see my daughter’s now filthy clunker in the driveway. Ordinarily, I’d likely drive it to the local car wash to at least knock “the big stuff off” and make it somewhat presentable for my neighbors, but with the holidays I wasn’t sure if the car wash would even be open. As a result, I briefly toyed with the idea of dragging out a chamois and a bucket and washing it myself…before I quickly came to my senses. But, in coming to my senses, I suddenly also came to the realization of how much this simple automotive rite has changed over the years.
Is it my imagination, or does no one wash their own car anymore? Maybe it’s simply a function of my advancing age or living in a drought-stricken state, but I certainly don’t. However, what I find interesting is that I no longer see anyone else doing it either.
Back in the ’70s, it seems like washing the car was akin to an automotive sacrament. Each weekend, one morning was always set aside where my father and I would wash his car. It was both necessity and ritual—one part scullery and another part homage. Regardless of how clean or dirty the car was, we’d wash it, vacuum it out, polish the chrome and Armor-all the tires. It was both father-son time, as well as automotive communion, all rolled into one. Didn’t matter if he was driving a lowly VW Bug with a primered fender at the time, or a Porsche, we spent time on the car. And as far as I can recall, we weren’t alone. On any given weekend, I can remember any number of neighbors, up and down the block, doing the same. It was just part of the weekend routine.
Even decades later, when I was married and out on my own, I still carried on with the rite. However, I think that I personally started losing the faith, sometime in the 1990s. Whether that is the point where we as a society started to drift away from this or not I cannot say, but it is likely not coincidental that this was the time period when I purchased my first “big truck.” I was racing quite a bit back then and so needed a powerful truck to tow my racecar and gear. As such, I bought a full size, Ford crewcab “dually,” essentially the road-going equivalent of a Supertanker. Having, up to that point in my life, devoted an hour or two of each weekend to washing the car, I continued with this time-honored tradition. But it didn’t take long to realize that single-handedly washing and detailing a 25-foot long, 10,000-lb battleship was going to eat up the better part of a full day! Soon, I started to slide. One week I’d wash the behemoth, the next I’d pay what seemed like an outlandish sum to have someone else do it. But as time went along, the time spent washing became ever more dear and the cost to have it washed seemed more and more like a value. Eventually, I came to the point that I’d sooner have my spleen resected without anesthesia than invest the time to wash my own car.
And so, as I recently stood in the driveway, staring at my daughter’s filthy beater, I not only became acutely aware of how long it’s been since I’ve physically washed a car, but as I gazed up and down the street, I also realized that I couldn’t remember the last time I had seen one of my neighbors wash a car either. Perhaps it wasn’t just me? Have automatic and/or “hand wash” facilities become so economical and efficient that it no longer makes sense for any of us to wash our own cars any more? Or is our connection with the automobile becoming more tenuous? Has the car moved from a place of reverence and worship to one of the mundane and pedestrian?
I should be able to address this latter question soon…all the chrome on my Alfa is overdue for polishing!