But, says David Charman, chairman of the Car Wash Association (CWA), momentum is swinging back towards the forecourts, and it's the hand-wash outfits that are feeling the squeeze. Under pressure from the CWA many authorities have cracked down on the rogue traders, and while some are still operating or springing up, consumers are moving away from the bottom end of the car wash market seeking a better experience, and a more convenient way to make their car look its best.
He says: "The industry has changed direction, maybe partly because of the hand car washes charging their £2 or £3 and doing a fairly rubbish job. Even many of them have realised there is a market for doing a better job, and moved towards valeting and away from the very cheap splash and dash.
"Retailers need to be offering the full range of facilities because people's expectations are quite high, and they are happy to pay for those kinds of services."
The former Forecourt Trader of the Year and current Convenience Retailer of the Year, Charman owns the Spar Parkfoot forecourt, on the A20 in West Malling, Kent, and has witnessed the changing consumer trends at first hand.
His site has two WashTec rollover washes and two WashTec jet washes and he says: "It's quite common to see someone jet wash their car, then put it through the car wash, then spend time vacuuming, and ending up spending about £15 in our place."
With the renewed consumer interest in car washes, Charman believes it is a good time for operators to be considering whether to install car washing facilities, although he accepts they may not be appropriate for every forecourt.
Space is the most important issue and he says if operators have space for a jet wash or a full car wash facility, they have to weigh up whether they will get a better return from using that space to extend their shop, or even providing more parking. He adds: "I'm really enthusiastic about car washes and the industry. We've had a really tough time and it's been difficult, and to some extent that has thinned out the less successful operators. But the right machine in the right place marketed correctly is still a fantastic money spinner."
When it comes to deciding what the right option is, he advises talking to the car wash suppliers about what will best suit a particular site. Kevin Pay, managing director of Wilcomatic, says: "At this stage you really need to contact a car wash supplier, as we have the experience to tell you about profit margins, payback times and how to build up trade."
The choice between a rollover or a jet wash is important, he says. "They attract different customers. Rollover customers are looking for convenience and taking the shortest time to get a high-quality wash. This doesn't mean that they are prepared to take a second-rate service, they are just as discerning and particular about their car's finish as anyone.
"Jet wash users fall into two camps those who feel they can do a better job themselves than an automatic machine and those whose vehicle is unsuitable for a rollover, such as oversized 4x4s or those with a permanent roof rack etc."
He adds: "There are big differences in costs. A typical new entry-level rollover machine will cost from around £32,000 delivered and installed up to £100,000 for a top-of-the-range machine. A jet wash will be about £7,000."
Pay continues: "Some forecourt operators with a great deal of car washing experience are currently trialling different methods of touchless washing, where all the cleaning is done through the use of water jets and chemicals, which allows them to meet demand from customers who, for various reasons, do not want brushes touching their cars, even though all the evidence shows that brushes do not damage paintwork. For those just starting a car wash operation, I would stick with a traditional entry level rollover or jet wash."
Once the equipment has been selected and installed, regular maintenance is a must. Pay says: "Bays and machines need to be kept clean and well maintained. You also need to use high quality chemicals to achieve a good wash and maintain customer satisfaction."
He adds: "Your staff also need to be engaged, and possibly incentivised to sell the facility and induce customers to trade up to higher-value programs.
"Finally, you need to get the signage and branding right. It has to be highly visible and simple to attract customers and allow them to use the equipment as easily as possible."
Conscious of the high cost of a new car wash, Mike Ambrose, managing director of Car Wash UK, says his company asked Italian manufacturer Aquarama to design a machine that reduced cost and maintenance levels to a minimum. The result was the M6, the first of which in the UK has just been installed at Budgens of Clevedon, near Bristol, with the Co-op opening the second next month.
Ambrose says Aquarama has used high-tech production methods to keep construction costs to a minimum. The M6 is made from sheet metal that is precision cut by a laser and then shaped by computer-controlled presses, with the sheets fixed together with rivets like an aircraft. All of Aquarama's machines are modular so they share common features and controls, again reducing manufacturing costs. They are designed so all the working parts are visible and robust to reduce maintenance costs, and with stainless steel fixings and a minimal amount of welding, the risk of corrosion is minimised.
Ambrose comments: "I've been working in this industry for a long time and this is the best machine we have come up with. I'm delighted with it."
Earlier this year Istobal launched the M'Start car wash and it has been taken up by clients including Morrisons and MFG. It has a 3kW on-board high-pressure pump so it doesn't need a separate pump in the plant room.
Tom Byrne, managing director of Istobal Commercial Services, says that compared with car washes with lower pressure, the high pressure pre-wash not only breaks up dirt, it gives the driver the experience of getting a good wash. He explains: "In today's market you have to offer something different to give the client a wash he believes is well worth the purchase price, and enabling the provider to charge more for the program."
In the jet wash market Istobal has launched the N'Joy range, which it describes as a new generation of jet washes offering customers six programs.
Next up from the company will be the M1. This provides a basic wash with a fixed drier and three-brush rollover designed for the dealer market. It has already launched in Spain and is due in the UK next year.
Kärcher has also launched a new car wash machine, the Kärcher CB3, which will be available in the UK from January.
Pending a totally new car wash, which is scheduled for release in 2016, the company says the CB3 showcases some exciting improvements and innovations as a taster for things to come.
One of the major changes comes for sites unable to select high-pressure features due to small or distant plant rooms. The CB3 solves this problem by housing a compact Kärcher high-pressure pump inside the car wash, which means higher quality washes, cost savings and improved revenues for the operator.
UK business development manager David Austin says the CB3 will be shown at April's Forecourt Show at the NEC, allowing operators to see for themselves how the CB3 achieves such a comprehensive set of options.
Dave Sharma says his Jet Hertford Road forecourt in Edmonton, north London, was the site of the first American-style conveyor washer in the UK about 40 years ago, and has maintained a reputation for its car wash service ever since.
The current machine on the site is a stainless steel Econocraft conveyor washer that was imported from the US 10 years ago and is still going strong.
Dave says: "Because it's stainless steel nothing goes wrong. The only thing we've had to change is brushes, so I've no plans to change it."
Business is brisk rising up to 900 washes in a good week, and falling to around 400 in the slower summer months, although rainy weather can depress sales.
Reacting to pressure from the hand-wash sector, Dave says they upped their game with a jet wash for cars before they enter the car wash and an American-style wipe dry at the end to ensure there are no spots on the finish.
With a need to also manage traffic flow to the conveyor, so it doesn't interfere with the busy forecourt, he says that at busy times the car wash can require two people working front and back. He explains: "It's harder work but to keep the numbers you have to keep the customers happy."
He has also introduced car valeting to do the inside as well to keep the numbers up and adds: "We are keeping all our customers and, as more hand car washes are popping up, they are losing their business because customers are going to other car washes."
Dave says one of the benefits of a conveyor is that it can handle up to 60 cars per hour, so there is a fast-moving queue with no one waiting more than 10 minutes.
He believes high standards are important and ensures the car wash and the forecourt generally is kept clean. With such a robust machine other maintenance is minimal, with a walk through every week to ensure everything is greased and working properly, and then every six months it's serviced by engineers.
Dave says the car wash is an important element of the business that helps to attract more trade. "We're always doing deals like 'Buy £30 of fuel and get a half price car wash', and that was very effective. Once a month we offer a free wash with £35 of fuel and it gets new customers to see the quality of the wash."
Alongside the car wash, Dave also has a lorry wash. He says it is the only one on a petrol station in north London handling vans and lorries. It is a Christ rollover with a height limit of 14ft 6in.