Car Wars

A showdown is simmering over Columbus' new topless car wash, and one outraged car wash owner vows to keep the fender-scrubbing industry clean

by Melissa Starker
There was a time when Columbus residents could only experience car washing and bare breasts together on late-night cable TV. That era ended last Wednesday when the Wet Spot topless car wash opened on the West Side. For $25, customers rent the services of at least three young women who shed their shirts to give a good scrubbing to cars and trucks, moving to the rhythm of music playing in the washing bay.

But not everyone is happy to see this new addition to the city's business community. A battle is brewing among those in the car wash industry--yes, there is a car wash industry--who want to keep the fender-polishing business clean.

On Thursday, November 2, the day after the Wet Spot opened, Lance Winslow III, a California-based car wash entrepreneur with a local franchise, sent out a heated e-mail denouncing the new car wash as a blight on the industry. Winslow said he will make sure the Wet Spot doesn't succeed.

The world of car washes is not the most obvious battleground for a moral show-down. Professional jealousy seems a likely explanation for Winslow's complaints, though his service probably isn't in direct competition with the Wet Spot.

Wet Spot manager John Orozco doesn't seem too concerned with Winslow's motives, but if his rival follows through on plans to picket the topless car wash, Orozco isn't going to take the attack lying down.

"We keep it private."

John Orozco got the idea for the Wet Spot from similar operations in California and Florida, as well as all-nude car washes in Texas. Successful in another business (which he declined to discuss), Orozco leased the simple cinder-block building at 875 W. Mound St. and said he put a lot of time and effort into cleaning up trash and grease before opening.

To his knowledge, only two of the women he hired to wash cars without shirts worked in strip clubs previously. Others came off the welfare rolls. Bonnie, a former club worker who declined to give her full name, manages the women, making sure they're fed during their shift and taking care of schedule conflicts.

So far, Bonnie said the only complaint the washers have is that "we need to get some hot water hooked up, because it's pretty cold." Otherwise, the bays are heated and the washers don't come out until all garage doors are closed, as much to keep them warm as to make sure no one outside the bay gets a free peek. Additional security is in the form of extra outside lighting and a very large bouncer. Offensive or not, this is undoubtedly a lucrative profession for young women without a college degree. There's a big difference between a monthly welfare check and the $700 to $1,500 the women can earn at the Wet Spot in a week.

Orozco was "shocked" at how well business went opening weekend, and mentioned plans to open at least one other branch on Brice Road. "[The women] don't have to pull down their panties or get slobbered on," Orozco said of the work atmosphere. "We keep it private and that's the way we're going to keep it, for girls and for customers."

Not if Lance Winslow III has any say in the matter. In the car wash business since middle school, Winslow has created a national franchise operation called Car Wash Guys, a portable wash service hired by office buildings and residential customers. He's also been an active fundraiser, sponsoring charity events through the Lance Winslow Foundation.

"We started a truck wash yesterday at Pilot truck stop and the same day we bring clean trucks to our city, the Porno Peep Show launches and will have five more porno car washes this year?" states Winslow's November 2 e-mail. "Screw that action. We will attack."

On an unspecified date in the future, Winslow plans to arrive in town in the "Blitz Team," his company's signature 18-wheeler. The Wet Spot will be picketed and customers will be photographed leaving the facility. Winslow is currently working on a website to post the pictures of Wet Spot patrons.

"This is not about competition," Winslow told Columbus Alive in another e-mail. "It is about the integrity of a whole industry. This is about right and wrong and about kids and family." He is a competitive businessman, but in this case, "we will use that winning instinct to defeat our opponent's use of women's bodies to promote car washes," adding, "My wife is appalled."

Winslow's biggest complaint seems to be with the way Orozco has tied two different businesses together. "They can run a clean car wash if they want, and probably make more money at it," Winslow wrote. "If they want a peep show, then have a peep show, but do not destroy the car wash industry."

Car Wash Guy franchise owner Craig Marcum, speaking from the Pilot truck stop in Pickerington, said up front that "Rush Limbaugh is a little to the left of my views," but offered a more balanced perspective on the conflict. "It's a creative idea, I'll give the guy that," he said of the Wet Spot, but, "I don't like to think our industry is tied to topless dancers."

Mark Thorsby, a spokesperson for the International Car Wash Association, a trade organization based in Chicago, said that topless car washes are not new. "They usually don't last very long, but it makes for great headlines," he said. "From our industry standpoint, it's unfortunate, but the market will ultimately decide whether this is appropriate."

Marcum confirmed that with a customer base made up largely of working mothers, and a service area that includes Ohio, Kentucky and West Virginia, his Car Wash Guy business will not be affected by the Wet Spot. He believes the new facility "just shows the desperation of businesses to use sex to make a buck."

Marcum sees the Blitz Team's visit more as a way to promote the positive side of the industry, a "friendly protest." Busy schedules will most likely keep local franchise workers from participating.

"A car wash first and foremost."

When John Orozco was told of statements made by Lance Winslow III in his initial e-mail, Orozco replied, "This man is hilarious." Orozco takes Winslow's claims of action very seriously, however. "That's called invasion of privacy and stalking," he said of the planned protests. "I'm sure he wouldn't want me to picket his business."

The city of Columbus is currently looking into whether the Wet Spot is operating against any existing zoning laws, according to Beth Clark, chief zoning official in the Department of Trade and Development. Orozco was scheduled to address community concerns at a meeting of local residents and businesses on Tuesday, November 7. Before that meeting, Orozco indicated he has already gotten mixed reactions from his neighbors.

As for Winslow, if he follows through with his threats, Orozco said, "I'll hit him with everything in the book," and offered to match his rival bank-account-for-bank-account to cover legal fees...

...Debates over the moral cleanliness of topless car washes aside, Orozco has one argument in his favor: His detractors have not visited his car wash personally. "I just don't think it's fair to boycott or picket without experiencing it," he said.

During a recent visit to the Wet Spot, accompanied by fellow Columbus Alive reporter Jamie Pietras, I found the experience almost wholesome. We were first asked if we knew the car wash was topless. After signing a release form stating that no drugs, alcohol or cameras were in the car, we were directed to one of four bays and instructed that the windows must remain up at all times.

The bouncer took our ticket, closed off the bay to prying eyes, and five young women entered through a side door, removing their bikini tops. These were real women of various shapes and sizes, with not a hint of silicone among them. There was something safe about the physical barrier of glass and metal between washer and client.

Bonnie's statement that "We get the car done, we're a car wash first and foremost" turned out to be true. One woman tended carefully to the side mirrors while three scrubbed away at a mark on the back driver side window. When there was no music on the radio, the women enthusiastically sang along with a local jewelry store's commercial jingle.

Sure, the occasional body part would be pressed soapily against the car windows, but this was done more playfully than sexually. At the end of the wash, the girls brought out a coffee can tip jar and asked me with a smile, "That wasn't too bad, was it?" It wasn't, though it's not an experience I'll rush to relive.

Article reprinted from Columbus Alive wireD, November 9, 2000.

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