The car wash I frequent is a full-service location and part of a metro-wide chain comprised of two-dozen-or-so sites. It is also one of the chain’s older washes and, frankly, it’s beginning to show its age. The waiting room is dated, the furnishings tired, and the restrooms can do with being freshened up (I assume the conditions I encountered are duplicated on the ladies’ side).

Perhaps more seriously, the equipment is in need of a little help. Three and a half years ago, in this space, I recounted my experience at this wash with inoperative wheel washers/tire brushes. This proved to be of little consequence in the end, as I was more than happy with the final results (including the wheels). During later visits, I’d noticed that the triple-foam application only activated after a good half of the car had already passed the arch, resulting in a beautiful display of three-color foam starting only at the rear doors. On a subsequent visit I asked the service writer if the problem had been fixed and was assured that it had. I was skeptical and opted for a lesser package. Here the service writer showed his worth: he upgraded the package at no charge, thus enabling him to not only tell me but also show me that the triple-foam application was functioning as intended. And show me he did.

I keep returning to this wash despite the occasional hiccups — which admittedly are minor — despite the past-its-prime furniture, and despite the worn restroom. Why? This wash satisfies my primary need by performing its primary function very well, i.e., to produce a clean, shiny, dry car. Sure, a couple of new comfy chairs might be nice to soften the hardship of having to spend 30-odd minutes waiting for my car, but that’s not why I go there.

In an attempt to establish just how much absence of pampering I can tolerate, I decided to give one of the chain’s express exterior locations a try. Prominent street signage posted a wash price of $3. The menu offered a simple three-package choice, with services listed on the left and prices posted on the right, ranging from $5.99 to $14.99. At first, a couldn’t find the $3 wash, but there its was, at the bottom of the menu, with the services (their description: touch-up wash, light cleaning only — light wash, light rinse, light dry) listed on the right and the price posted on the left.

The auto cashier functioned admirably. I was guided onto the conveyor by one of two site attendants and handed an air freshener and a moist dash towel. The trip through the tunnel was uneventful, and I exited with a clean, shiny, and surprisingly very dry car, ready to tackle the free self-vacuuming component of the express exterior experience.

What struck me most about this particular site was the layout. This clearly is a conversion, so the operator was pretty much stuck with where the building was located. You enter the wash along a driveway flanked by 24 self-vacuuming slots (12 on either side). Immediately before reaching the auto cashiers, there is an escape lane, thus allowing anybody off the street to avail themselves of the free vacuums without having to purchase a wash. It essentially places the whole community on the honor system. Many would consider this commendable; some would think it foolhardy.