Touchy: Shell carwash up to scratch?

Around 7pm on January 31, Roy Van Doorn pulled his 1999 BMW 323i into the car wash at the Preston Avenue Shell. When he left it was dark, and he didn't notice "deep scratches" on the hood until the next morning. "I am very particular about my car," he said in his email to me, "and I know when I have a deep scratch."

Van Doorn claims he tried for two weeks to reach the station's owner-operator, Wesley Gfroerer, by phone. Finally, he went back to the station and explained what had happened. Gfroerer "summarily dismissed the possibility" that the scratch could have been caused by the car wash, Van Doorn claimed, "by stating that his wife gets her Cadillac cleaned [there] all the time and she never has had a scratch."

When Van Doorn "insisted" that Gfroerer take a look at the car, "he begrudgingly went outside and looked"– then declared that it "could not have happened" in the car wash and walked away.

Car washes fall into two categories, "touchless" and "cloth friction." The former uses only jets of water and detergent, but the latter, including Gfroerer's Autec Soft Wash, uses a system of automated cloths that rotate at high speed against the car.

"I used to own a car wash," Van Doorn said, "and I know that friction wash means that things rub together, and while remote, scratches can and do occur." He also pointed out that this happened during the time when lots of salt was being used on snowy roads.

Gfroerer strongly disagrees. When I went by the station to discuss Van Doorn's claim, he said that the type of equipment he has "is not capable of doing that," and pointed to the fact that more than 43,000 cars have gone through the car wash in almost three years with nary a problem. He also directed my attention to the sign that says the owner is not responsible for any damages.

Intrigued by his claim that the scratches on Van Doorn's car were "straight lines," whereas the automated cloths "wiggle," I made an appointment with Van Doorn and studied the scratches– which were at the front edge of the hood and roughly in the form of an incomplete oval; they were definitely not "straight lines." Also, part of the hood ornament was chipped off, which Van Doorn believes happened in the car wash as well.

Next, I took my car through Gfroerer's car wash and watched intently as rubbery whirling dervish strips mounted on vertical poles danced back and forth along the grille and front edge of the hood, after which longer strips descended along the line of the roof and moved up and down the rest of the hood. In other words, it seems possible that the damage could indeed have been inflicted by the car wash.

Colors on Parade wants $348 to repair the scratches. Since Gfroerer hasn't softened his position, Van Doorn has filed suit in General District (small claims) Court. There may be hope of a middle route, however; I spoke with Tim O'Leary, Shell's manager of media relations, who said that if Van Doorn calls Shell Customer Service (888-467-4355), they'll investigate the situation, even though– like most Shell stations– the station is independently owned.

O'Leary also cleared up some confusion that arose from my first column about Gfroerer's operation ["Oily treatment? Bring your own towel to Shell," March 4, 2003]. Part of the problem Susan Steedman, the consumer in that situation, confronted was that Gfroerer told her it was illegal for her to use a Shell card with her husband's name on it. When I checked with Shell Customer Service, however, they said that was okay.

After the column came out, Paul Staley of Petroleum Marketers Inc., which sells Shell products to Gfroerer, called to say that station operators are told in writing not to accept cards unless the customer's name is on the card.

O'Leary looked into the matter for me and said that Steedman's husband should indeed have had the additional card issued in her name. Steedman can call either 866-743-5562 if he has a Shell Mastercard– or 800-331-3703 if the card is a Shell corporate card– and rectify the situation.

Do you have a consumer problem or question? Email the Fearless Consumer, write her at 100 Second Street NW, 22902, or call 295-8700 ext. 406.