The Swedish Car Wash

My days as a travelling salesman took me all over the world, representing my company and also of course in a small way, my country. Regrettably, when working you often don’t get to see the parts that tourists usually get to see. Conversely you sometimes get to see and do things that tourists either couldn’t or would rather not. This may count as one such occasion.

My schedules were often far too tight to spend countless hours sitting around in airport lobbies. So. Risking life and limb with a three day furious drive up from Milan, through Switzerland and Germany and then via a Baltic ferry to Sweden; finally finishing up in Stockholm on 7th December 1983. Save for one or even two customer visits in each country, all virtually non stop and in the depths of winter. My car, a state of the art Rover and normally shiny, jet black, SD1 V8, was by this time so dirty as to be almost unrecognisable. It was also making me and any other poor sod that accidentally brushed against it very dirty as well. So through a car wash I decided it had to go.

Now the Swedes drive, for the most part at least, on the right hand side of the road, whereas us Brits drive on the left. This means of course that the driver’s seat in a British car is on the right hand side. This is most inconvenient when it comes to fiddling around in foreign places with coin or token operated barriers or equipment such as car washes.

I’d sat patiently in the queue and marvelled at the large and sophisticated car wash machine that the Swedes had designed. This thing was like one of the more futuristic rides at Disney World. The machine actually lifted the whole car onto a moving rail system and took it through a tunnel containing a series of ever more impressive and very wet processes. Alternating hot foam and then steam jets worked their way into every nook and cranny of the vehicle in a scene that could have come from a film version of Dante’s inferno.

My turn came. I operated the switch to lower the passenger side door window and then switched off the engine as the signs instructed. I reached into my pocket and produced a ten Kroner coin. I then leaned right across the inside of the car to reach through the passenger window to poke the coin into the slot. I was fully expecting the machine to take at least a few seconds of pre-ambling or whatever before it started up. No chance. With a neck snapping jerk and accompaniment of a less than tuneful siren, unseen mechanical claws instantly grabbed the front wheels and the car was dragged onto the rails. Unfortunately, when I had switched off the engine I had actually turned the key past the second click, isolating all electrical power and simultaneously locking the steering. The mechanical claws that had so efficiently grabbed the car’s front wheels in their vice like grip had done so at a time when the wheels had a slight amount of lock or turn away from the straight ahead position. The resultant conflict between the claws and the wheels applied sufficient force upon the steering lock mechanism so as to freeze it solid. Thus defeating any attempt at turning the key again in order to re-energise the car’s electrics and therefore the window motors.

The first wash operation was the application of a concoction of scalding hot, pink foam. In generous Swedish quantities of course. I had the presence of mind to climb over the seat backs and reach for my umbrella. Opening an umbrella in a car is not easy. I had never had occasion to try it before and was now finding the operation less than straightforward. I got it figured just as the car entered the first of the rotary brushes. I was amazed that these brushes could suck my umbrella out of my grip and through the window with such violence. They then proceeded to use it, cheekily wrapped around the brush like a flail, to beat seven bells out of my car. Much to the amusement of the occupants of the inevitable line of Volvos that were following me through. Amused that is until realising, like me, they too had no escape and were next at the flail. Through all the water I could just make out the expression on the face of the driver behind me. What a picture. "No sense of humour these Swedes." I thought.

Following the umbrella experience I hesitated before using my briefcase in an attempt at thwarting the next onslaught, this time from a hot steam bath. However, it quickly became apparent that the steam was of the superheated variety as frequently used for example in poultry processing plants to remove the skin from freshly slaughtered chickens. I decided that my best course of action was to return to the back seat of the vehicle. From this vantage point I was able to see for the first time the full effect of high pressure steam jets upon genuine walnut veneer, sophisticated instruments and electronics plus the Connolly Hide upholstery of an almost brand new, modern, executive class motor car.

The final high powered hot air stream did little to put right any of the damage but it certainly had an interesting effect on my now saturated pin stripe business suit and my hair. Yet again I was able to visit one of my more important clients, in less than fifteen minutes time, looking every bit the image of the highly professional and polished international sales executive.

Chris Smith