Elephant Car Wash (Seattle)

  • By Kathrine Beck
  • Posted 1/20/2021
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 21172

In the 1950s, before seat belts were standard equipment, young Seattle baby boomers bouncing around in the back seat of the family car were entranced when they were driven past a rotating neon sign in the shape of a cheerful pink elephant. It wore a rakish little pillbox hat and was hosing itself off with its own trunk. Children were known to beg their parents to stop and get the car washed at the Elephant Car Wash, the business the sign was promoting. The place was the very profitable brainchild of a farm boy from Whidbey Island, Eldon Anderson, one of a family of five boys and a girl. He and two younger brothers came up with both innovative technology and some inspirational branding to create a beloved Seattle business. In 2020, when it was announced that the landmark sign would be vanishing from the landscape, Seattleites representing multiple generations reacted with sadness.

Innovative Entrepreneurs

The basic element of a production-line carwash is the tunnel, pioneered by the Detroit "Automobile Laundry," which opened in 1914. Employees pushed cars through the tunnel past three workers who, in turn, soaped the cars with large brushes, rinsed the vehicles, and dried them. By 1940 the manual pushing became automated when a Hollywood, California car wash came up with a winch-and-pulley system to move cars through the tunnel. But according to one of numerous online histories of the car wash, "It was a car wash in Seattle, Washington that showed the world just how high tech car washes could be" (PMC Staff). In 1951, Eldon Anderson (1910-1999) and his wife Virginia opened the Five Minute Car Wash on 4th Avenue South and Lander Street.

The entrepreneurial Eldon had worked as a steam shovel operator during the Depression, moving around the state with Virginia to help build the Deception Pass Bridge and other big construction projects. Virginia tired of all that moving, and during World War II, Eldon found work in the Boeing Metal Stamping Shop and was soon promoted to shop foreman. He got a real estate broker's license and began investing in real estate, and he and Virginia built two large homes out of river rock by hand.

Eldon and his brother Dean Anderson (1918-2009) are credited with inventing the first completely automated, no-touch car wash by updating the basic tunnel design with a new car-pulley system, nozzles with both soap and water, an overhead sprinkling system, mechanical brushes, and a 50-horsepower dryer. Business was good and the family prospered.

By 1956, the business included a third brother, Archie Anderson (1917-2001), and was known by the three brothers' initials as the A.D.E Corp. They broke ground on a second location, to be known as the Super Car Wash, just north of downtown Seattle at 6th Avenue and Denny Way, on a triangular piece of property in a high-traffic location. Interstate 5 hadn't been built through Seattle yet, and the location was close to downtown businesses and shopping, and just off Highway 99, the region's main arterial. This car wash contained new equipment for which Eldon had applied for patents.

Archie's Elephant Idea

Archie was said to be the brother who came up with the idea that an elephant -- an animal with an anatomy that included a functional water hose -- would make a good name and logo. The Andersons decided to go all out on big, bold signage, seeing as getting the car washed was often an impulse purchase. Campbell Neon, the sign company they hired, suggested the elephant be pink. Beginning in the early twentieth century, pink elephants were associated with drunken hallucinations — frighteningly so in the 1941 Disney movie Dumbo — but were also used as a more fun and festive symbol. In the 1950s, items such as pink elephant ceramic planters and salt and pepper shakers, tie tacks, and cufflinks proliferated. 

The sign's designer was Beatrice Haverfield, who would gain posthumous recognition as Seattle's "Queen of Neon." Her signs for businesses such as Ivar's Acres of Clams, Sunny Jim Peanut Butter, the Chubby & Tubby surplus store, and Dick's Drive-In became Seattle icons, and none more so than her pink elephants. Her designs for the business included a large rotating elephant with lots of blinking lights and four baby elephants at the base — two with pink bows on their heads — said to be homage to Haverfield's two sons and two daughters. There was a smaller rotating elephant on another side of the lot, so cute elephants were visible to traffic coming from all directions.

Business was great. The Anderson brothers had turned out to be as good at marketing as they were at engineering. In 1963 they opened a third car wash, this one on Pacific Avenue South in Tacoma. While over the years the family often expressed surprise that the elephant sign became a Seattle landmark, they ran with their winning mascot. When the circus came to town, they paraded elephants through the tunnel and washed them, and Archie managed to figure out a way to position an elephant on pontoons for a photo shoot to make it look like the animal was waterskiing.

In 1967, A.D.E. announced it had hired architect Milton Strickler to come up with a design for a what would become a $50,000 remodel, including a sleek covered walkway to a new waiting lounge and an enlarged vacuum room. New mechanical washing equipment was also installed. The site had already been visually enhanced by the presence of the five-year-old Space Needle looming nearby. It would take a while for both the midcentury aesthetic of the Needle and of bouncy neon signage to become more universally admired. In 1969, Seattle Times columnist Alf Collins suggested "sign parties" be established. Members could join a group of people for $50 a head, who would go on to purchase aesthetically displeasing signs and ritually destroy them. His three candidates for the first Denny Way sign to go under the sledgehammer were "the Buick sign, the Pink Elephant or the Dodge Fever sign" ("Odd Parcels"). 

A Change of Hands

In 1982, the Anderson brothers sold both the Denny Way and 4th Avenue South locations to Bob Haney. Unlike many successful entrepreneurs, the brothers moved on from their business success and appeared to enjoy the fruits of their labors doing just what they wanted to do. Eldon had already been semi-retired and for many years he and Virginia had spent winters in California and summers on Whidbey Island. The couple traveled the world, visiting countries in Europe, Africa, Asia, North America, South America, and Australia as well as islands across the Pacific.

Dean Anderson had farmed in high school with a horse-drawn plow and bought a farm on Dugualla Bay in Oak Harbor, where he would live with his family for 67 years. He now concentrated on raising turkeys, chickens, Black Angus and dairy cattle, and horses there. He enjoyed backpacking in the mountains, snowmobiling on his property in Mazama, Washington, and hunting and fishing. He served for many years as Oak Harbor Precinct Committeeman for the Democratic Caucus.

Archie Anderson lived with his family in Edmonds and was active as part of a Snohomish County group that lobbied against the state's Growth Management Act, traveled extensively and had a 25-year perfect attendance record at the Edmonds Rotary Club.

After the sale, Haney added more Puget Sound locations in Auburn, Burien, Federal Way, Maple Valley, and Redondo. The car wash business had boomed during the 1960s and early 1970s, but by the 1980s, recession had cut into most full-service car washes. Gas stations were competing by adding free washes to lure fuel customers, and budget coin-operated systems and bays with the cars' owners operating washing wands themselves were springing up.

By the mid 1980s, Vic Odermat was investing heavily in Brown Bear Car Wash locations around Puget Sound, offering more of the do-it-yourself options. But Haney's Elephant Super Car Wash on Denny Way was still going strong with its full-service approach. While figures weren't made public, it was universally considered to be the largest Seattle-area car wash by dollar volume. Its range of services including detailing, buffing, carpet shampooing, and waxing. Cashiers monitored a car's progress through the tunnel on a video screen and pushed a button to apply wax. Customers waited in the lounge, where they could get their shoes shined, and where hot drinks and snacks were for sale along with gasoline. A 1984 Seattle Times survey said it was rated "Best Car Wash," telling readers, "The pink elephant and the brown bear fought this one out, but the elephant came out in the wash" ("Best Car Wash").  

In 1997, the Anderson brothers sold their last remaining Elephant Car Wash, the location in Tacoma. It was subsequently renamed Pink Dolphin Car Wash. 

End of the Line

In 2020, Haney announced he would be closing the landmark location on Denny Way. The pie-shaped piece of land owned by Clise Properties, which had arranged the original lease to the Anderson brothers in 1951, was now assessed at almost $20 million. Haney said criminal and drug activity around the location, rising costs, and "the increased burden of regulatory demands" (elephantcarwash.com) had contributed to the decision. He announced that the large rotating elephant sign would be donated to the Museum of History and Industry (MOHAI) in Seattle. The sign had two of its four baby elephants still attached and was slated for restoration. It joined other signs in the museum's neon collection, among them the Rainier Brewery letter R and the Washington Natural Gas blue flame sign. Amazon, the owner of nearby skyscrapers, asked for the smaller rotating elephant sign, and Haney gave it to them.

Haney said he would still operate a Bellevue location and the original Seattle location on 4th Avenue South, in what had become known as the SoDo neighborhood. That location still displayed the iconic elephant sign.

One more pink Elephant Car Wash sign would survive outside of a museum. On Highway 111, near the intersection of Indian Trail, in Rancho Mirage, California, there was another fully operational Elephant Car Wash complete with the classic neon sign. That Elephant Car Wash was built in 1966 and owned and operated by Marilyn Annette and Richard Fromme, the daughter and son-in-law of Eldon and Virginia Anderson.

The couple later sold the business, and it was renamed Rancho Car Wash. Its neon sign, right next to a tall palm tree under habitually blue skies, was made in Seattle by a successor of Campbell Neon — Tube Art Display, later Tube Art Group — which has Beatrice Haverfield's original designs. It too is considered a local treasure, beloved by the residents of Palm Springs and the Coachella Valley


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