Southland Auto Wash History

Southland Auto Wash, built in 1950 by Ernest Ellis, was originally named the Kwik Carwash and was located in downtown Grand Rapids, at the corner of Sheldon and Oakes.

Ellis was an accomplished author and a World War II Navy (aircraft navigator) veteran. He was one of the earliest pioneers of the automated carwash business. Steam guns were used to remove bugs and clean whitewalls, while most of the washing was done by hand, as employees were positioned throughout the building with wash tanks and mitts on their hands.

Southland Auto Wash Car Wash Exit circa 1980

Sherman Larsen, founder of the prestigious Sherman Vacuum Company, later the Sherman Carwash Equipment Company, drove his companies flatbed truck himself from Palmyra New Jersey to Grand Rapids, unloaded the equipment and installed it, and helped Ellis get the wash up and running. The equipment consisted of a pull chain conveyor, a 3 nozzle blower, a top brush and 2 side brushes, a steam cleaner, and a vacuum.

Southland Auto Wash Car Wash circa 1980
circa 1980

The wash was later operated by Ellis’ brother, then the downtown location closed, as the Ellis family built the current Southland on west 28th Street in Wyoming, across from the (then) Southland Plaza. Wyoming was the up and coming place to do business in 1964, with a lot of auto traffic. Two of the Ellis brothers ran Southland until 1970, then Ernest Ellis again managed the business from that date forward until his death in early 1980.

Southland, with its 200 foot conveyor was the longest carwash operation in the country at that time, and competed with Kamminga’s Auto Wash, another (early) pioneer at 28th and Division. Ernest Ellis passed away in 1980, and Mark Ellis, who started fresh out of high school with the company in 1971, took over the reins at Southland.

During the 1980’s, Kamminga’s was sold, then eventually closed, as Southland grew into the busiest carwash in Western Michigan. In 1983, Southland purchased the former Rainbow carwash on 28th between Eastern and Kalamazoo, renamed it Southland “Junior”, and redesigned it as a state of the art, high speed exterior carwash. Bargain Tuesday, spot free rinsing and free vacuums were all new innovations at Southland Junior.

In 1995 the former Alfour Carwash on Alpine and 4 Mile in Comstock Park (Walker) was purchased by Southland. This property included an 8 bay self service wash and a small tunnel wash. It was totally remodeled, with a brand new 5 bay self serve facility, and a longer, better equipped tunnel carwash. This location was the first in the country to operate with 3 automatic tellers that included RFID vehicle recognition. Southland on Alpine has one of the largest vacuum plazas anywhere, free for its wash customers to detail their own cars at their own speed.

Then in 2005 the former Outsider/Leonard Hill Carwash on 28th Street just east of Breton blew up and burned to the ground. Its former owner sold the remains to Southland, and we proceeded to build a very exciting and modern wash which included all of the most modern equipment, controls, and systems. We call this our Woodland location.

Then in 2007 the old Leonard Hill carwash on west Leonard Street became the 5th Southland location. A modernization of this aged facility, a free vacuum plaza, and upgrades to the latest technology have revitalized Southland on Leonard into a very successful location.

During the late 1990’s Sean Ellis and Brett Ellis, 3rd generation carwashers, worked in the business as they attended high school. After graduating from Indiana University with a Masters in Human Computer Interaction, Sean Ellis took a full time position with the company as Vice President, and was instrumental in the pioneering use of RFID tags to identify vehicles, and the use of automated wash plans.

Curt Male, who manages the original Southland in Wyoming, has been a fixture and valued part of the organization since 1980. Jim Newhouse, Southland’s highly skilled service technician started with Southland in 1978. Many other exceptional staff members make up a very high quality organization, with roots in the local community, locally owned and managed.

Southland’s innovative carwash operations include professional and award winning detailing services (Wyoming location), water purification and recycling (all locations), foam brush technology to improve the finish with every wash, RFID readers and Unlimited Wash Plans, free vacuums at all express locations (all but Wyoming). These and many other innovative marketing and service strategies are copied on a regular basis by competition locally and other carwash companies around the country.

This 3rd generation carwash family intends to stay your best quality and service option for washing, detailing, and preserving your vehicle in the west Michigan area, for many years. As a locally owned and operated business, we employ 60 local people, and support local charities, schools, and projects.

We are not a franchise. We are a family business whose purpose is to help keep our local economy viable by providing good jobs with benefits, and providing a compelling value in our service model so that every car owner in the Grand Rapids metro area will know of and want to do business with Southland Auto Wash.

We’d be happy to answer your questions. Drop us a line at