Cornies: Simple chore makes clean break with present

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I washed the car this week.

Not at one of those drive-through joints with the high-pressure water jets, bolts of spinning rags and blowers that seem to have been borrowed from a second-hand wind tunnel.

No, I did it the old-fashioned way: by hand. The way my father taught me.

My dad liked cars. At age 89, he still does. There aren’t a lot of photos of him from his late teens and early 20s. But among those that survive are several pictures of Dad with his first car: a three-year-old 1946 Ford. He’s there in his white shirt, tie and Brylcreemed hair, one foot on the bumper. The licence plate hung in his garage for nearly 50 years.

My oldest son tells me the “car” gene skipped me. He and my dad see cars as finely engineered mobile sculptures. They admire sleek lines, hidden horsepower, well-appointed interiors and the murmur of a muscular ride down an open highway. Me? I’m more of a point-A-to-point-B guy.

There were a few things, however, that my dad made sure to teach his sons. Among them were how to change a tire and how to properly wash a car.

Three seasons of the year, washing the car was a weekly chore. Fridays or Saturdays were the best times. There was church to attend on Sunday mornings — and there were few excuses for showing up in a dirty car, even for a farm family.

The routine began by pulling the car out of the garage and onto the nearby lawn. Not only did the grass provide a cushion for kneeling wheel scrubbers, it was rewarded by the runoff.

“Detailing” the car’s interior was done with a small hand broom. No handheld or industrial vacuuming units; the brushing action was all in the wrist. The rest of the car’s interior was dusted with a damp rag.

The water came from a hose attached to a faucet next to the barn. Its water was drawn from an adjacent gully. The water wasn’t drinkable, but it did suffice for greenhouse irrigation and other farm uses.

With the hose in one hand and a brush in the other, it was important to begin at the top, then work one’s way down to the hood, the windows and windshield, the trunk, the bumpers and then the side panels. Headlights and taillights got a bit of extra attention.

The cardinal rule in this process: no soap, unless it was urgently needed to get rid of a grease or tar stain. Soap would strip the vehicle of whatever remaining gloss was left from the last wax job. (A coat of liquid or paste wax was part of the process two or three times a year.)

The car’s tires and wheels required their own routine. It was important to use a thick scrub brush, laden with as much powdered cleanser as it would hold, and then apply all the elbow grease one could muster. The whitewalls had to glow.

The drying step required the chamois, which usually hung on a nail in the garage. To this day, I am perplexed by the molecular structure of the car-wash chamois. Stiff as a board when dry, it would collapse into a pliable, absorbent piece of leather-like cloth after soaking for a few minutes.

As I washed down the little Prius in our driveway this week, I was keenly aware I was an anachronism. Environmental concerns have changed our routines: I performed the task on an odd day, as per our house number, and used a bucket rather than a running hose, in order to save water. I broke my dad’s rule about not using soap (a wax job is on the to-do list).

Most car owners today think of hand-washing as a waste of time. But there remains a simple satisfaction in cleaning a car this way. Gas stations that sport automatic car washes — with their non-responsibility for damage, multi-tiered prices, 90-day passes, new technologies (“touchless,” “soft cloth,” etc.) — all suffer the same problem: The car doesn’t come clean.

At least not the same clean as appeared on an Essex County greenhouse farm, at the end of a creek-water hose.

Larry Cornies is a London-based journalist. 

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