New carwashes make a splash

Jason Gehrig, who has built three top-of-the-line carwashes in Fargo-Moorhead since 2018, is adding a fourth — the second in Moorhead — at Eighth Street and 32nd Avenue South. (Photos/Nancy Hanson.)

Nancy Edmonds Hanson

For 60 years or so, washing cars hadn’t made much of a ripple. Introduced in 1951, the automated carwash was big news in its day, taking the garden hose and chamois out of the driveway and into those spinning, spraying tunnels that have added an income stream to countless gas stations everywhere.

Then came something new – and, says Moorhead native Jason Gehrig, it’s turned a tired old business into what he calls “a destination experience” instead of a dull duty. Thanks to new technology that reinvents the look, accelerates the speed and adds pizzazz to the experience of spiffing up your grungy car, he has taken the local market by storm. This summer, he says, his first Custom Express Car, which opened at 4648 32nd Ave. A. in Fargo in 2018, sent its millionth sparkling-clean vehicle on its way.

That business was followed by another at 1702 40th St. S. south of West Acres. He completed his third Custom Express spot here in his home town in July at 3102 Highway 10, on an out lot in front of the Eaten Shopping Center. Now he has broken for a fourth on the corner of Eighth Street and 31st Avenue South; it will open in June or July next year.

“People are tired of the old carwashes,” he says. “Cars are stacked up six deep, waiting to drive in. Each wash takes eight and a half minutes. The chain-and-roller system is noisy, and the tunnel is dark and kind of spooky. By the time you drive out, you’ve invested almost an hour to get it done, mostly sitting in line. No one has time for that anymore.”

Jason’s carwashes are different. Instead of the standard gas-station in-bay wash, with brushes and nozzles ratcheting back and forth around a stationary vehicle, Custom Express locations use a conveyor belt to carry cars through a series of sprays and soft spinning scrubbers. When the vehicle enters, human preppers spray it by hand to dislodge dirt and debris. Then it moves onto the belt for the 130-foot cruise down the fully automated alley, caressed with soft cloth and foam, and ending with a thorough drying – all in just three minutes.

The secret to the high volume of vehicles served in these washes is the long glass-enclosed tunnel through which they travel. A line of five cars simultaneously slides along the conveyor, eliminating the need to wait your turn. Each Custom Express Carwash can process 150 cars per hour.

Another innovation also speeds the process. Entering drivers choose one of three lanes, one with a cashier, another automated to accept credit cards and cash, and a third that’s fastest of all – exclusively for car owners who are part of the monthly subscription plan. By signing up, the owner is entitled to unlimited washes for one vehicle for that entire month. The amount can be automatically debited from the driver’s bank account; the plans range from $29.95 (bronze) to $54.95 (platinum), each with its own menu of soaps, waxes and extra touches.

A veteran of 30 years in the automotive detail business, Jason – a 1989 Moorhead High School graduate – opened his first venture, Custom Truck and Auto Shine, 20 years ago. The company offers body work, interior and exterior detailing, and washes to vehicles of every size and shape, from cars to semi trucks, recreational vehicles, boats and even farm equipment.

He researched the carwash industry for years, he says, to find a system that produced the quality results he himself was looking for. Not only did the technology need to be right; so did the locations. “It has to be easy to get in and out,” he points out. “If entering or exiting is confusing, the driver won’t come back.”

What brings customers back, he suggests, isn’t only the quality of the clean or the convenience of unlimited visits. An equally important part is the experience itself. His carwashes are imbued with a touch of Hollywood, from their bright red-and-white colors inside and out and windowed, rounded tube to the strobe-and-laser light shows that sparkle from the tunnels after dark. The air is scented to suit the season – berries in June, pumpkin spice at the moment. Coming soon: a “haunted carwash” experience, attuned to Halloween.

In the end, Jason contends, keeping your vehicle clean is a good investment. “Rain, dust, road chemicals – exposure to the elements is harmful,” he observes, then adds, “And there’s nothing like the great feeling you get driving a fresh, clean car.”

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