Swancy’s Auto Laundry: Car wash does work the hard way Don’t look for automation at 88-year-old Swancy’s

“It’s sort of the last of the old-time car washes,” said longtime customer Turner Woodard, an Indianapolis businessman and antique car collector. “You can just sit there, read the paper and watch your car get washed … and dried by hand.”

No question, Swancy’s is one-of-a-kind. It has been operating at 934 N. Senate Ave. since 1942. For 23 years before that, it was located on a long-vanished alley nearby. It has been owned by the same family for 88 years-passed from founder Andrew Swancy to his niece Bonnie Sheffield and her son, also named Andrew.

Swancy’s is housed in a cinderblock building that clearly hasn’t changed much since opening its doors. There’s none of the mechanical paraphernalia that defines automatic car washes: no maze of pipes, drop-down air blowers or wind-blown stuffed animals.

Instead, there are a couple of unadorned concrete bays with vinyl
hoses, buckets and stacks of chamois cloths. Along one wall is a row of tub clothes washers. The old-fashioned agitators are the only way to clean chamois, Sheffield said.

“We have to stockpile the tub washers since they don’t make them anymore,” she said.

The reason for the minimal equipment, of course, is that everything at Swancy’s is done by hand.

“It’s an example of the original approach,” Sheffield said. “That’s how they did it [in the old days]: with soap, a hose and chamois.”

That’s still the best way to wash a car, she said, because it’s easier on a vehicle’s finish. Car makers recommend a hand wash, particularly for convertibles that are prone to leaks.

Not surprisingly, Swancy’s attracts owners of expensive cars-current customers drive everything from Corvettes to
Bentleys. The care Swancy’s workers use also makes it appealing to people with classic cars, who naturally want their vehicles to be babied.

Woodard, who is owner of the nearby Stutz Business Center, 212 W. 10th St., has his cars washed there-including his 1914 Stutz Bearcat.

“It’s the best place for antique and classic cars,” he said.

Of course, Swancy’s is happy to clean any kind of car. Reel Valve and Pipe President Rick Reel brings his minivan there for its regular washing.

“There’s really a noticeable difference with a hand wash,” said Reel, whose father used to bring his Corvettes there, launching the family tradition. “It’s been going on for several generations.”

Of course, most full-service hand car washes have gone the way of the dinosaur. Sheffield said people prefer the speed of the automatic car washes.

“We live in very fast times,” she said. “Everyone wants it yesterday and I guess I’m as bad as anyone.”

An automatic car wash can handle a car in two or three minutes, while Sheffield estimates it takes her crew an average of 10 minutes to clean a vehicle. But that
doesn’t count the lengthy lines often encountered at automatic car washes. Add that in and the time savings aren’t that significant, she said.

Swancy’s has explored the idea of installing automatic equipment, but dropped the notion after realizing the building wasn’t big enough. Sheffield seems happy enough with her business the way it is.

“It pays the bills,” she said. “I’m not getting rich, but paying the bills is what most people’s paychecks do. We’ve been on this corner for 65 years and I’d like to stay here for another 65.”

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