The car wash: Mercedes-Benz Museum Inside No. 20/2020

The car wash: Mercedes-Benz Museum Inside No. 20/2020
November 2020
  • From feather duster to drive-through car wash: Car cleaning through the decades
  • The aim of car cleaning is to care for the vehicle and retain its value
  • “33 Extras”: Exhibits of motoring culture at the Mercedes-Benz Museum

Stuttgart. 160 vehicles and a total of 1,500 exhibits are presented in the varied permanent exhibition of the Mercedes-Benz Museum. The “33 Extras” are a particular highlight: they can bring the history of personal mobility and motoring culture to life using details that are often surprising. The Mercedes-Benz Museum Inside newsletter series draws attention to the “33 Extras” and focuses on their background stories. Todayʼs edition is all about car washes and the associated technology.

20/33: The car wash

All spick & span: Anyone who values their car not only drives it but also takes care of it – the body as well as the interior. Numerous tools are available for washing and cleaning cars – this includes the “plumeau spécial pour automobiles”, one of the “33 Extras” in the permanent exhibition of the Mercedes-Benz Museum. This feather duster made of ostrich feathers was used at the beginning of the 20th century to gently remove dust. Dust accumulated on the paint finish as the car passed along roads that were often unsurfaced in those days. One practical feature was that the wooden handle could be unscrewed, making the implement small enough to store in a cardboard roll.

Ritual: Washing the car with a sponge and water helps to remove stubborn dirt. In the Federal Republic of Germany, this activity developed into a real ritual, especially in the 1960s. After the “economic miracle” of the 1950s, more and more people were able to fulfil their dream of owning their own car. This not only changed individual mobility, it also made people proud of their new possession. On Saturday afternoons, the car was carefully washed by hand and polished to a high gloss. The ritual was deemed perfect if accompanied by football coverage playing on the car radio.

The conveyor belt principle: In the United States of America, mass motorisation got off to an earlier start than in Europe, and it was here that the first car wash facilities were built. The initiators of this idea are considered to be Frank McCormick and J. W. Hinkle. They opened their first car wash in 1914 in Detroit, the Motor City. They observed the principle as it was used for assembly lines in the car-making industry: a clear division of labour between different stations along a production line. However, the system did not yet involve mechanical actions. Instead, employees pushed the vehicles through the facility where the individual work steps were also carried out manually.

Automation: Today, mechanical car wash systems have become well established. In 1962, German inventors Johann Sulzberger and Gebhard Weigele applied for a patent for an “automatic car wash for motor vehicles”. The cleaning technology involved two rotating brushes on rails revolving around the car. Car wash systems based on the same principle still exist in modern facilities. However, they no longer use bristles. Instead, they take a more gentle approach using textile or foam strips.

Portal or conveyor: There are two strategies for automatic car washing. Either the car stands stationary in a gantry system while brushes and nozzles pass over it, or it is conveyed mechanically through a car wash system. During this trip through the car wash, the driver sits in the vehicle and can experience the process through the windows. The Mercedes-Benz car wash function, as available in the GLS and GLA, makes the whole experience that much more convenient. A single command is all it takes to fold in the outside mirrors, close the side windows and sliding sunroof, deactivate the rain sensor and set the air conditioning system to air-recirculation mode. When the car leaves the car wash, the automatic system resets all these settings as soon as the vehicle accelerates to more than 20 km/h.

Full service: Over the years, the number of steps added to the washing process has steadily increased, e.g. blow-drying and, above all, the preservation stage. Amongst other things, hot wax protects the gleaming paint after cleaning. Nowadays, one does not have to worry about the environment, even with premium care involving all the extras. This is because current technology recycles the majority of the water used and filters out critical substances such as oil.

Do-it-yourself: Many car owners still wash their vehicles by hand. In this process, there are some things to look out for. Car washing in the road is prohibited in most German towns, as the ADAC car club warns, for example. On your own property, only clear water and a sponge or brush may be used for cleaning cars – and the waste water must not be allowed to enter the sewerage system or watercourses. The best way to do it yourself is to go to a special DIY set-up where you can hand-wash the car thoroughly, such as those offered at petrol stations and car washes. Here, you can even get rid of coarse dirt with a high-pressure cleaner and then the paint finish can be washed with car shampoo. In addition, retailers and workshops offer a wide range of care products.

Service: Authorised dealerships provide car washing as one of the services in the context of servicing and repair. Historical photographs from the Mercedes-Benz Classic archives show how the technology installed for this purpose in the brandʼs branches and authorised workshops has developed continuously over the years.

Museum: Cleanliness and care also play an important role for the 160 classic cars on show at the Mercedes-Benz Museum. They are dusted daily. For this purpose, soft cloths are used – and feather dusters like the “plumeau spécial pour automobiles” from the “33 Extras” series. On Mondays, when the Museum is closed for visitors, there is that extra bit more time for more elaborate care and polishing. On the oldest vehicles, the brass fittings as well as the paint are also given a high-gloss shine.

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The car wash: This feather duster made of ostrich feathers with a divided wooden handle helped combat the dust from unpaved roads at the beginning of the 20th century. T his is one of the “33 Extras” at the Mercedes-Benz Museum. (Photo signature in the Mercedes-Benz archive: D587986)
Mercedes-Benz saloon from model series 123 in an automatic car wash. (Photo signature in the Mercedes-Benz archive: 00128059)
Mercedes-Benz 190 D tailfin (W 110) in an automatic car wash with rotating brushes. Photo from 1965. (Photo signature in the Mercedes-Benz archive: 2007DIG2702)
Mercedes-Benz 190 D tailfin (W 110) in an automatic car wash receiving the finishing touches with a hand-polish before it leaves the car wash. Photo from 1965. (Photo signature in the Mercedes-Benz archive: 2007DIG2711)
Mercedes-Benz luxury class saloon of model series W 108/109 in the automatic car wash. Photo taken in 1967 at the product preparation workshop of the Mercedes-Benz import centre for France in Molsheim (Alsace). (Photo signature in the Mercedes-Benz archive: 2008DIG30036)
Mercedes-Benz Zurich branch office. Car wash area for passenger cars with a vehicle lift. Photo from 1940 showing a model series 21 saloon. (Photo signature in the Mercedes-Benz archive: 1990M2824)
Mercedes-Benz SLK from model series 170. Care of the leather seats with Mercedes-Benz leather care products. Photo from 1996. (Photo signature in the Mercedes-Benz archive: 00026069)
Mercedes-Benz GLS from model series 167. Special function for automatic car wash mode. Photo from 2019. (Photo signature in the Mercedes-Benz archive: 19C0482_061)