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Car Washes

High-end 'auto salon' cleans up with car buffs Add to ...

Welcome to the $75 car wash.

Or, $350 for wash, wax and the works.

Your reporter is here to work and learn.

What makes a $75 car wash worth it - better than a cheap drive-through with hand drying - is the question for the day.

Our shift begins at 10 a.m., early for your reporter, an hour and a half after Cato's Auto Salon has opened. A Ferrari 599 GTB already has been prepared for waxing, an Aston Martin DB9 convertible is being washed, and proprietor Cato Batista has just picked up an Audi Q7 for a wash. The place is booked to capacity all day.

"Your car," he tells me, "is going to be a Porsche GT3 RS."

A $166,300 Porsche. With Batista riding shotgun, I'm to retrieve it from the owner's garage and accord it the full treatment (as directed by the shop's specialists).

Cato's has operated in a Cumberland Street parking facility basement since 1988. In Mexico, Batista was a motorsport photographer and journalist but here he turned to detailing. He's grateful that word of mouth has brought him a stream of new clients because affection for automobiles isn't what it once was.

"As leasing took over, there was a switch in mentality," he says. "People were not attached to their cars as they were when they owned them. A scratch appears, they don't care, they only have a year left on the lease."

Even the most beautiful cars, the fastest, those of the highest pedigree "have become appliances," Batista says.

Not most of those that come here, though. The GT3 RS, for example, appears spotless as I drive it into the wash bay.

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Wayne King, employed here since the beginning, directs my attention to two large buckets of different kinds of soapy water. He never submerges a wash mitt in either, he explains: he first sprays water into the cauldrons to create a thick layer of foam. It's with the foam King suds the car, washing with both hands, crab-like, top to bottom, side to side.

Meticulous drying is another important component. Batista hands me a squeegee with a rubber blade and sets me to scraping water off the entire vehicle. Next, an electric blower comes into play clearing the water out of the car's mirrors and crevices, so dribbles don't appear later, and drying the disc brakes.

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Raul Duran, a 20-year employee, waxes. He easily manoeuvres the Porsche into the area where fluorescent lighting illuminates the car from the side as well as overhead. Now for the plastic bag test.

Rubbing the surface with my hand in a plastic bag as Batista has demonstrated, spots I can't see are clearly felt. Rubbing the just-waxed Ferrari 599 GTB, on the other hand, reveals a near absence of friction. An Audi A4, new from the showroom a month ago, looks fine but feels like sandpaper.

This calls for clay-bar cleaning. The process, familiar to extreme car buffs, is simple enough, beginning with flattening a lump of clay ("Like making a taco," Batista says) after donning rubber gloves. The flattened clay is rubbed over small areas at a time that are first sprayed with solvent. Offending deposits of minerals and whatever are picked up by the clay. It's quite satisfying work, actually.

The waxing doesn't go as well.

As directed, I apply the pure carnauba wax thickly in the centre of panels, approaching edges or rubber trim or taped lettering only as the wax on my cloth thins, so as to avoid contaminating them with wax. But after drying, the wax refuses to yield a shine.

"We put it on too thickly," Batista says, meaning I put it on too thickly.

Duran, who has been shaking his head dubiously while watching me muscling a dust mop-like polisher, brings an orbital buffer into play. Batista joins the fray as well. I'd have been polishing into the night.

The pace picks up and, at some point, I realize I have been relegated to watching. The GT3 RS's owner expects it returned by 4:30 and it's almost 4 p.m. Duran cleans the windows inside and out, using two micro-fibre cloths (one moist, one dry). Next, vacuuming. Batista moves a portable fluorescent light to the front and finds one fly somehow impregnated in the paint. He uses Meguiars Scratch X20 to eradicate it.

At 4:08 p.m., Batista applies dressing to the tires, a finishing touch. Minutes later, we're on the road and the GT3 RS is home on time, beside its Porsche Cayenne garage mate. In two weeks, of course, it will return for a wash. A full treatment every two months, a wash every two weeks.

Why? Because its owner, described by Batista as a long-time Porsche enthusiast, wants his car to never look anything less than perfect.

"A car is like clothes," the owner of the splendid Aston-Martin, John Migicousky, had said in conversation when he picked up his DB9, and he was a man dressed casually but elegantly. "You wouldn't be seen in a dirty shirt."

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