COSTA MESA — In California, where the automobile is king and social status is equated with the model you drive, the $150 car wash has proven to be more than just a passing fancy for the rich and famous.
About 4,000 detailing shops, which have been called health spas for cars, have opened around the United States in recent years, and a young pioneer in the fast-growing business has plans to export his techniques to Canada, Europe, Asia and Australia.
Steve Marchese, a 34-year-old Californian whose passion for a 1972 Porsche 911 led him into the now-lucrative field eight years ago, and two partners began selling franchise rights to Steve's Detailing shops for $45,000 apiece about five months ago. They have closed more than 90 deals.
The demand has been so strong, Marchese said in a recent interview, that negotiations with a Mercedes dealer from Malaysia and entrepreneurs from Saudi Arabia, England, Australia and Canada have been put on hold until between 40 and 50 new Steve's shops can open across the country this year.
Europe 'a Natural Market'
"Business couldn't be better. We're going flat out with the U.S. market but we're still looking to close the foreign deals by the end of the year," Marchese said. "We think Europe, where there's a tradition of respect for fine automobiles, is a natural market."
In the service bays of Marchese's flagship shop, athletic-looking young men are armed with the usual hoses, sponges, towels, vacuum cleaners and electric buffers. But they also wield some unusual weapons in their battle against grime that can take years off a car's life span and cost the owner thousands of dollars in resale value.
Toothbrushes, cotton-tipped swabs and tongue depressors bought from a dental supply house are combined with special leather and vinyl cleansers and waxes to chase the dirt out of every nook and then use a non-abrasive polishing compound to restore the original luster of an expensive paint job.
After eight to 10 hours, the car gleams inside and out and under the hood, where the engine is given a final toothbrushing.
Marchese says a first visit costs up to $150. Regular customers, some of whom bring their cars in every two weeks by appointment, pay less on subsequent detailing jobs because there is simply less to clean. Steve's also does a simple hand wash for $15.
Computers Control Business
The only high-tech machines in evidence are the computers in the executive offices that control every aspect of the business.
Marchese likes to think that his firm is at the top of the heap when it comes to detailing. "Other shops will charge as little as $50 but, as the saying goes, you get what you pay for," he said.
"We won't turn away any car, but we're looking mainly at the upscale market, the guy in the Rolls-Royce, the Mercedes, the Porsche, who looks at his car as a long-term investment and can afford to maintain it in peak condition.
"Others have tried to do what we have done, but failed. We know how to deal with that customer and we do it in a subtle way. I mean, you won't find us advertising in the Yellow Pages."
The franchise fee includes training, management consulting, a closely guarded operating manual and the territorial rights to the company name.
Franchise owners can lose their rights and initial investment if they do not maintain exacting standards.
"If they get their hands slapped three times, they lose the franchise and their $45,000," Marchese said. "Credibility and customer satisfaction are our only real assets."
More Harm Than Good
Marchese says the neighborhood car wash for $5 or $10 often causes more harm than good. Many of the assembly-line washers use abrasive brushes and detergents that eat into a car's finish by making tiny scratches in the paint.
Those who advertise as being brushless, the experts say, are doing little more than rinsing off dirt, about the same result as a do-it-yourself wash job.
He explains that detailing got its start with classic car buffs who worked endless hours getting their vehicles ready for shows around the country.