Workin' at the car wash

2013-01-16 00:00

CAR washes became iconic in popular culture with the 1976 film and song by Royce Rose that was reprised for the theme song of Shark Tale in 2004.

Although owning and working in a car wash may not be like in the movies, it does give Donovan Nimmo a ready fund of stories to tell and a chance to meet just about every high-end luxury car available — and often drive them, too.

Nimmo, owner of Hilton Quarry Car Wash, offers a collect-and-delivery service, which is how he gets to drive some clients’ cars. “My favourite car is the Jaguar XKR sports car. The new Mercedes C class is very comfortable to drive and I also like Range Rovers, Prados and the Hi-Lux.”

However, his business takes care of more than just luxury cars; in fact, everything from motorbikes to long-distance interlink haulage trucks. “We get everything to clean: quad bikes, passenger cars, bakkies, vans, school buses, earth-moving equipment, and TLBs. The eeriest vehicle I’ve worked on was a hearse. It was a bit creepy cleaning that.”

The cost of cleaning a vehicle depends on the time it will take and the quantity of cleaning chemicals required. “To clean a large vehicle like an interlink truck takes a long time, lots of manpower and chemicals, so it can cost upwards of R100.” However, Nimmo warned, some private passenger car owners could also be in for a high cost if they do not treat their cars with respect and take care of them (see box).

Nimmo assured me that he doesn’t just supervise his staff of five, but gets involved in cleaning vehicles himself. “It’s not fair to ask people to do things you can’t or won’t do yourself. And besides, how can you tell if it’s done properly if you don’t know how to do it yourself?” To clean vehicles, they use high-pressure water hoses and cleaning chemicals for the exteriors, then industrial vacuum cleaners and valet machines and cleaning agents for the interiors.

Conscious of the vast quantities of water it must take to clean cars, I asked about waterless car washes. “We can do that. There’s a spray cleaner available that you spray on and buff off, but it’s more suitable for cars in city environments that don’t get that dirty. Unfortunately, living in the Midlands means mud, and often, especially if vehicles go off-road or on dirt roads, lots of it, too. To clean cars in our environment, we just have to use high-pressure water hoses.”

Recounting some of his “worst car wash” experiences, Nimmo said he is constantly amazed at some of the things people do in and to their cars. “One man came in with a dead calf in the car boot. We cleaned it, but cleaning the boot was a challenge — we skirted gingerly round the calf. A woman came in with a car that had the most awful smell. We refused to clean it and eventually she had to take it to the garage to find the source of the smell. They dismantled the dash board and found a dead rat there.

“The worst drivers have to be sales reps. They often don’t bother to take care of their vehicles. We once took a whole black rubbish bag of fast food containers out of one car, and the ash trays are often overflowing, too.”

Another group of not-so-great vehicle owners are parents of young children. First, there’s the rubbish: chip packets, sweet wrappers, cold-drink bottles, fast-food containers, etc. Then there’s the kiddie debris left stuck, squished and smeared on car interiors. However, the “Worst of all” title goes to the vomit cars. “We have had several parents come and ask us to clean interiors where their children have vomited. We will valet the car, but only after they have cleaned off what they can. I’m not prepared to ask my staff to do what the parents themselves aren’t willing to do. So, I ask them to take the car home, clean what they can, and bring it back,” Nimmo said emphatically.

However, a vomit car does not qualify as the most difficult car the car wash has had to clean. That title goes to a honeymoon car. In addition to having to clean confetti out of every crevice imaginable, Nimmo has had a honeymoon car experience that tops them all. “A guy came in once who’d just got back from honeymoon. His friends had filled his car with rose petals and smeared sweet-chilli sauce over all the hard surfaces. He’d been away a while, so it had hardened and stuck fast. There were rose petals and dried sauce everywhere — the air vents, storage wells and door handle sockets, etc. It took us two and a half hours to clean that car,” Nimmo said, shaking his head in disbelief.

Another absolute no-no inside cars is beach sand. “It is so fine that it’s really difficult to get out of carpets. If people go to the beach on holiday, especially if they have kids, they should fit rubber mats over the carpets and make kids clean up before they get in the car.”

Another “Car Wash Can You Believe It” story involved a carpet Nimmo was asked to clean. However, it wasn’t a vehicle carpet but one from someone’s home on which a woman had given birth. “We took it on and managed to clean it, but it was quite a job,” he said.

In addition to unpalatable vehicle care, his business has also allowed Nimmo to observe and engage with some less-than-attractive aspects of human behaviour. “People take chances, so I have to be really careful. One man came in with the bumper of his car damaged, and afterwards tried to accuse me of doing it. Fortunately, there was orange paint on the bumper but none anywhere on our premises, so I could show it wasn’t us.

“Several times we’ve had people accuse the staff of taking things out of their cars, which they haven’t. A while later they come back to apologise and admit they found the item at home. We do sometimes find things like wallets, watches, keys and money in cars, but we are careful to return items to their owners.

“The best kind of client, and there are some, are people who take care of their cars and are friendly. If people look after their cars, and are pleasant to deal with, it makes my job a lot easier,” he concluded.

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