Cleaning Up with Toothbrushes, Car Detailers Restore Wrecks 'n' Rolls with Fender-Loving Care

UPDATED 12/02/1985 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 12/02/1985 at 01:00 AM EST

Saying that Judson Smith washes cars would be like saying Joe Di Maggio used to play baseball. The entrepreneur is the leader of a thriving new trade that is elevating an old driveway chore to high tech. Proving the axiom that it takes merely a new twist on an old idea to part the American driver from his ever-shrinking wallet, a customer can now deliver his road-weary Porsche or plebeian Chevy to Smith's Detail Plus "car appearance center" in Mesa, Ariz. For $139.95, a team of white-shirted, patent-leather shod experts will lavish meticulous attention on the beloved metal beast. Caressing hoods with lamb's-wool buffers, they raise paint and chrome to a jewel-like gleam, scour behind grills with custom-designed toothbrushes, swab dust from between radio buttons with treated Q-tips, pressure wash and wipe down engine blocks, shampoo upholstery, scrub doorjambs, plug worn carpets and even pluck paper clips, straws and pennies from the accursed slot between windshield and dashboard with a goosenecked, spring-loaded "grabber." When a first-time customer returns, Smith, 36, hands him a white glove and dares him to find a speck of grime anywhere, inside or out.

"With the price of cars today, the American car is almost the new living room," he explains. "People are becoming more finicky. The average John Doe expects the same care for his vehicle that he wants for himself and his home."

Detailers coast to coast are mining a rich vein of auto-smitten male yuppies (70 percent of the customers are men) bent on keeping up both automotive investments and appearances. Since 1982 Smith has licensed his original Detail Plus store in 28 states, 13 foreign countries and recently signed a $13.5 million deal to build as many as 10 detailing centers in Saudi Arabia.

Even though Smith maintains that detailers can't sustain national business on high-ticket cars alone, Steven Marchese is cleaning up on Rollses, Ferraris and Jaguars. Marchese, 31, who has two Steve's Detailing shops in status-conscious Orange County, Calif, and shops in New Jersey and New York City, hopes to have 30 franchises (at $45,000 apiece) by July 1986. "My customers are mostly young executives who see their cars as extensions of their professional images," he says.

Both men have found that first-time customers soon become detailing devotees. One Oahu-based real estate man ferries his Mercedes, Porsche and VW Rabbit from Hawaii twice a year for Marchese's automotive Elizabeth Arden treatments. Over a seven-year period, another customer brought his Ferrari in for detailing each time he drove it—once or twice a month. Some seem to take perverse pleasure in spiffiness. One of Marchese's customers inspected his Porsche 930 after its detailing and, assured of its pristine condition, lit up a cigarette and climbed in. "I was horrified," says Marchese. "I said, 'You're not really going to smoke in there, are you?' He looked at me, smiled, flicked his ashes all over the seats and drove off."

Both Marchese and Smith came to detailing from car-buff boyhoods. Born in Batavia, N.Y., Marchese moved with his family to California, where he attended Orange Coast College before dropping out to work as a buyer for an electronics company. Weekends were saved for his first love, car detailing. When a computer software entrepreneur (now one of his partners) steered about a dozen of his Mercedes-owner employees to Marchese, the business was born.

In 1971 Judson Smith, the king of detailers, invented an automatic waxing system that brought him $150,000, later sold detailing supplies to dealers and then opened his first Detail Plus in Mesa in 1982. Next month he plans to elevate the concept to a still higher plateau when he opens the $1.5 million Carousel, a detailing center to be surrounded by an outdoor topiary garden with car-shaped trees. Inside the ultramodern circular building (which he designed), customers will be able to watch the detailing of their cars while they browse in an auto accessories store.

Both Marchese and Smith believe they have only dented the huge market of auto addicts. When Judson Smith gazes at shopping mall parking lots these days, he is like a farmer surveying a bumper crop. "There's 125 million dirty cars out there," he says. "That's a lot of opportunity."

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