A clean car, a clean conscience

My father was hardly a car person and our family did not own a car until I was about ten years old. Then he relented and bought a used car from the local telephone company where it had been driven hard by salesmen.

There was no back seat, so my two younger sisters were provided tiny folding seats that faced each other. Finally, after two years in that cramped space, the family moved up in 1950 to a new Buick Special. And it was that shiny vehicle that gave rise to the weekly car washing event.

I guess the logic behind the car washing was that the investment in a new car made so little financial sense any reasonable owner would feel the need to care for the car so it would last for years.

Indeed our next family car was another Buick bought in 1960. For those years, which saw me grow from sixth grade to college graduate, I became the assistant to my father in the Sunday car washing ritual.


I can see him now dressed in a ragged set of old gray trousers and a fully amortized ancient Yale letter sweater carefully assembling his equipment with the care of a skilled surgeon.

The car was docile. It sat silently in front of our home in suburban New Haven. It was as if it knew it was about to be the recipient of a ritual cleansing.

First the garden hose had to be attached to the side of the house. Then the car was thoroughly sprayed to remove the outer layer of grime.

My assignment was to fill a pail with hot water into which I poured some car wash soap. I also located the large sponge. But the head of our wash crew handled the all-important task of washing the car and he did so with vigor.

He scrubbed with special attention paid to the wheels and to the grill where an ordinary worker might have taken it easy. While he scrubbed, I was directed to follow behind with the hose and to wash away the dirty soapsuds. We worked in silence. I have no memory of any attempt to make light of the task. This was work and it was to be done well.

The next stage was hard labor. Together we took rags and wiped down the chrome and metal of the car to absorb the water and to prepare the car for the Simonize or wax that was the finishing touch to the effort.  

Even with the strength of a young man I soon recognized the wiping down of the car was tiring. But the leader of my crew simply wiped in silence, working with the solid pace of a man who knew how to work. I followed along knowing better than to pause or to complain.

Finally came the waxing and the work imposed even more demand on muscles that were feeling the stress.  

But the success of the car wash was fully dependent on the quality of the waxing and so there was intense attention paid by my crew to the final touches. He and I polished vigorously and again in silence. 

Rarely, he would stand back and offer a comment. “How’s it look?” Then he would promptly turn to a few closing swipes at a wheel or the chrome of a door handle.

Because my school teacher mother drove the car to school every morning, this car washing was virtually a weekly event.

On some occasions we skipped the waxing in which event the process took less time. But only bad weather excused the ritual as my father clearly believed a clean car was the moral equivalent of a clean conscience. Moreover, he wanted her car to look well when she started out in the morning.

Somehow I associate this car washing with the crisp fall weather.

When we finished we shared a sense of achievement as the car sat resplendent in its shining dark blue hue.  

The washing was generally a Sunday event and one of the rewards of the day was the enjoyment of a televised football game that afternoon.  Then , my father, a former NFL official, would sit quietly with his ten cent Muniemaker cigar and relax.

But the car wash had somehow justified the passive enjoyment of the game.

The lesson was learned—a mixture of pride, work, relaxation and satisfaction.             

Fay Vincent is a former CEO of Columbia Pictures Industries. He served as the Commissioner of Baseball from 1989-92.