The late 1940s and early ‘50s were the height of classic American road culture, a time when flashy hot rods sporting white-wall tires reigned supreme on the highways and a gallon of gasoline cost less than a quarter. Carwashes too were far different beasts than they are today.
“A carwash back then would be what we call today ‘full-service,’” says Dan Pecora, owner of Erie Brush & Manufacturing, a Chicago-based detailing and carwash supply manufacturer.
Express carwashes weren’t mainstream yet. Most carwashes during the mid-20th century were operated by dozens of employees, and a carwash attendant drove a customer’s car into the wash; the interior and exterior of the car were cleaned, and then dried by hand. It was not only a time-consuming process — it sometimes put the customer’s prized automobile in the hands of a young, inexperienced driver.
As a child during the ‘50s, Dan and his father, Carlo Pecora, used to make hog’s hair carwash brushes (a specialized brush that’s easier on a car’s paint job and is made of real hog’s hair) at night in the basement of their Milwaukee home. During the day Carlo would hit the road selling the brushes. It was during all those trips to those countless carwashes that Dan’s father thought about how to speed up the carwashing process.
The idea was relatively straightforward: Create a simplified carwash that specialized in exterior washing only. In 1962 Carlo Pecora purchased property in Appleton, Wisconsin, and the following year he opened his first exterior-only carwash in North America — the precursor to the express carwashes seen commonly around the country today.
The carwash, called Automat of Appleton, was located on the far east side of Appleton — the west side of town already sported a rival carwash, and the property on the east side was relatively inexpensive.
“There was absolutely no traffic on that street,” says Dan about the piece of property that his father chose for the wash.
What made the Pecora’s carwash unique was that the customer never had to watch someone else drive their car — they simply drove up to the wash and their car was hooked onto a 90-foot conveyor belt. They were then pulled through the wash, where automated equipment quickly cleaned the exterior of the car and a super-powered blower dried it off. Then the customer drove off.
“My father eliminated the employees driving the car on and off the conveyor, and he eliminated the employees doing the inside windows and the vacuuming,” he says. A central vacuum system was provided free for customers to use themselves. By doing this, labor costs were significantly reduced as compared to all other carwashes, so the Appleton carwash cost far less for the customers.
“We were only charging 90 cents for a car wash,” says Dan, noting the cost was lower if the customer also purchased gas.
At first, business was slow. “No one knew we were there,” Dan says.
At 18 Dan worked as the carwash’s manager, and he took it upon himself to drum up more business. He went about posting flyers all across town, and posting ads in the newspapers to promote the family business. The marketing campaign worked: The low-cost plus the quick turn-around was enticing enough for people to commute from the other side of town.
“Nearly every one of the customers were coming out of their way,” says Dan. In November of ’63, just months after opening, they washed roughly 10,000 cars; in December, they washed an estimated 12,000.
The Appleton location was the first of many carwashes the Pecora family opened in the U.S. — they also opened car washes in Minnesota, Missouri, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana and elsewhere in Wisconsin. All of the properties they purchased for their carwashes were inexpensive to keep overall costs down. The first location continued to do well, so much so, in fact, that “people started contacting my father to buy it,” says Dan.
They eventually sold off each of their carwashes throughout North America one by one, and by that time, “everybody and their brother were building exterior carwashes,” says Dan.
“He dreamt up all kinds of things,” says Dan about his father’s entrepreneurial skills.
Dan has continued to follow in his father’s footsteps, creating innovative equipment that helps to increase the effectiveness of the modern carwash industry.
Erie Brush & Manufacturing makes high-quality replacements for automated and self-serve carwashes, foaming brushes, and specialty cloth and foam products. Erie also makes the patented Wheel Wonder™ and Poodle Brush used in automated carwashes for cleaning the small spaces within today’s intricate wheels and rims. The company also still makes the hog’s hair carwash brushes that Dan and Carlo made together over 60 years ago.