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Patricia Ward Biederman

His approach to glamorizing cars is that of a committed craftsman, not a religious fanatic. : In California, soil on a car is evidence of moral turpitude.

December 27, 1985|Patricia Ward Biederman

Harv Simmons is a cosmetician, of sorts.

The 50-year-old former police chief looks more like a cop than George Kennedy. But, in fact, Simmons is in the beauty business, that archetypally Angeleno branch of the looks trade that deals with vehicular pulchritude.

Simmons, owner of the Car-Tender in Woodland Hills, details automobiles, not simply washing and polishing them but primping them into a gleaming state of near-perfection.

A decade ago, Simmons had never heard of detailing. That's because he lived in New Hampshire, where cars are valued, not for their timeless beauty, but for their ability to start the morning the sheep dog freezes to death.

Even now that detailing is so trendy that it's been featured in People magazine, residents of New Hampshire aren't running out and probing their car parts with Q-tips. Most people in New Hampshire don't really care if you think their chrome looks vaguely leprous. They are grateful that the rock salt that is the only thing that keeps their roads from turning into long skating rinks hasn't rotted out the chrome altogether.

Remember, there is no Car Radio (as L.A.'s KHJ bills itself) in New Hampshire. There are cars, there are radios, there are car radios, but if you gave traffic information every 10 minutes on a radio station in New Hampshire, the audience would think you were demented. A state passionately committed to auto detailing doesn't take as its motto "Live free or die."

In California, on the other hand, soil on the body of a car is considered evidence of moral turpitude. OK, maybe not moral turpitude (unless the car is a Rolls or an Excalibur, in which case it is both a sin and a felony punishable by deportation to New Hampshire), but certainly reckless disregard for appearances. Of course, it's inevitable that appearances would count more in places where you can actually see the surfaces of people and objects year-round, unobscured by down parkas and heavy drifting.

It is not true that you can be exiled from parts of Encino for failing to have your car washed. But it is a truth, universally acknowledged, that your chances of getting a date for Saturday night drop precipitously. According to a recent survey, reported on Car Radio, most people in the Northeast think of their cars as a means of transportation. Southern Californians regard them as extensions of personal hygiene.

In New Hampshire, cars do not bathe between Dec. 1 and March 15. Not if the doors have to be opened before the spring thaw.

So how, you wonder, did Harv Simmons become a detailer? Before he was a car-tender, he was a bartender, seeking refuge from law enforcement after a dispiriting stint as chief of police in Coventry, R. I. A person who all but crackles with excess energy, he began spiffing up cars for the money and because he worked nights and his wife, Dianne, worked days. The meticulous grooming of an automobile was called "reconditioning" in the East.

One day he looked at Dianne (now his partner and interiors specialist) and said: "I think this could go someplace, but it's not going to happen in 4-degree weather in four feet of snow. Where are there more cars in this country in good weather than anywhere else?"

The answer wasn't Arizona.

Simmons, who charged his first client $15 and spent $18 for supplies, now charges $109.95 for a mid-size car. He has detailed everything from a boat to a school bus but said no to the man who brought in his 10-speed.

Simmons figures he has professionally groomed 40,000 vehicles. His clients include people who want to sell their cars, or propose in them, and simple automobile freaks. Among his celebrity patrons are former "Dallas" star Mary Crosby, who drives a modest blue Honda, occasionally used to haul hay for her horses, and actor Robert Blake. The star of "Baretta" doesn't know that Simmons is the one who makes sure you can eat off Blake's car ashtrays, should you be so inclined, because the actor simply turns his automotive dirty laundry over to Vista Ford and lets them worry about who does the surgical scrubbing.

Simmons has benefited from the current detailing mystique, but he hasn't fallen for it. He is a candid, down-to-earth sort, not given to waxing poetic about waxing, or anything else, for that matter.

When Dianne asked him why he didn't talk much about his experiences in Korea during the war, for example, the ex-Marine replied: "What is there to talk about? We flew over, we lost 3 to 2 and we flew back." Simmons, who played AAA ball for the Yankees before Korea, was attached to a Special Services unit with a troop-morale mission. His wartime orders were to squat down and catch baseballs for his country.

Predictably, Simmons' approach to glamorizing cars is that of a committed craftsman, not a religious fanatic. "You know the special brush all detail people talk about? It's called a toothbrush!" he reveals. While he favors a pricey, hand-rubbed glaze to surface cars and an expensive finisher to shine tires, he and Dianne also use plain soap and water when they deem those most effective for a particular task.

And, no matter how small the cranny in which dirt is lurking, Simmons never, never uses Q-tips. This practice isn't based on some psuedomedical principle like "Never put anything smaller than your elbow in your carburetor." The principle here is purely economic. You could run through a thousand Q-tips in the course of a single Mercedes.

Instead, he explains, "we use a damp rag on a screwdriver."

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