Originally conceived as a musical, Car Wash deals with the exploits of a close-knit, multiracial group of employees at a Los Angeles car wash. In an episodic fashion, the film covers a full day, during which all manner of strange visitors make cameo appearances, including Lorraine Gary as a hysterical wealthy woman from Beverly Hills dealing with a carsick son. Richard Pryor also appears in a cameo as a money-hungry evangelist named 'Daddy Rich' who preaches a pseudo-gospel of prosperity theology.
One main character is Abdullah, formerly Duane (Bill Duke), a Black Muslim revolutionary. Among his other misadventures in the film, he must deal with a man ("Professor" Irwin Corey) who fits the profile of the notorious "pop bottle bomber" being sought that day by the police. It causes employees, customers, and the owner of the car wash, Mr. B (Sully Boyar), to fear for their lives, but the strange man's "bomb" is simply a urine sample he is taking to the hospital.
Mr. B's son Irwin (Richard Brestoff), a left-wing college student who smokes pot in the men's restroom and carries around a copy of Quotations from Chairman Mao, insists on spending a day with the "working class" employees, since he considers them "brothers" in the "struggle". As he gets ready to go to work, he sets off motion sensors that give him the first "human car wash", which he takes in a good-natured (if pot-induced) stride.
George Carlin appears as a taxi driver searching fruitlessly for a prostitute who stiffed him for a fare. The prostitute, Marleen, has her own hopes shattered as a customer with whom she apparently has fallen in love has given her a false telephone number.
Ex-con Lonnie (Ivan Dixon) is the foreman of the car wash who tries to mentor Abdullah while struggling to raise two young children and fend off his parole officer (Jason Bernard). Abdullah confronts Lindy (Antonio Fargas) and sharply criticizes his cross-dressing, to which Lindy coolly replies, "I'm more man than you'll ever be and more woman than you'll ever get".
T.C. (Franklin Ajaye) is another young employee who is determined to win a radio call-in contest to win tickets for a rock concert and to convince his estranged girlfriend Mona, who works as a waitress in a diner across the street, to accompany him.
Floyd and Lloyd are musicians who have an audition for an agent at the end of their shift and spend the entire movie doing their jazz-blues dance moves in front of bewildered customers.
Justin clashes with his girlfriend, Loretta, who wants him to go back to college, but he refuses out of the feeling that a black man like him will not get anywhere in the world with any kind of education. Justin's elderly grandfather, Snapper, works as the shoe shine man at the car wash and is a follower of Daddy Rich.
Other employees include womanizer Geronimo; Scruggs, a cowboy who works as the gas pump operator; Hippo, an overweight employee who briefly hooks up with Marleen the prostitute; Chuco, a scheming Latino employee; Goody, a Native American employee; Charlie, a scruffy middle-aged employee; Sly (Garrett Morris), a con artist employee and bookie who later gets arrested right at the car wash for a series of unpaid parking tickets; and Earl, who has the attitude of being superior to his colleagues because he doesn't get wet, he would appear to think that he is the supervisor at the car wash.
Among everything, Mr. B constantly makes passes against the receptionist Marsha (Melanie Mayron) as an escape from his troubled home life. Mr. B is constantly tense and worried throughout the film as he fears about his car wash going out of business due to a competitor a few miles down the street. Lonnie, on the other hand, is full of ideas on how to save the car wash that he cannot get Mr. B or anyone else to listen to, mostly due to Mr. B being a cheapskate.
Later at the end of the movie, Abdullah, after being fired by Mr. B for his unexplained absences, appears in the office with a gun while Lonnie is closing up, intending to rob the business. Lonnie talks him out of it, and the two commiserate at the status society has imposed on them: two proud men forced to work at a meaningless job for meager pay. It's a melancholy ending to the day as they all go their separate ways, knowing that they'll be back tomorrow to do it all over again.
Danny DeVito and Brooke Adams appeared in the movie as Joe and Terry, the owners of a food stand called 'Big Joe's Dog House' which is located next to the car wash. Though they had speaking roles, nearly all of their scenes were deleted from the theatrical version and they are only seen in the background. Their scenes were restored for the edited television version.
The film also featured the speaking voices of local L.A. disc jockeys Jay Butler, J.J. Jackson, Rod McGrew, Sarina C. Grant, and Cleveland's Billy Bass, all heard in the background of the film on the fictional "KGYS" radio station. The film also featured The Pointer Sisters performing their song "You Gotta Believe". The song also appeared on the soundtrack.
When the film was originally released, it received mediocre reviews (though Roger Ebert praised the film, calling it "a wash-and-wax M*A*S*H") and was not considered a major success. Since its initial release, it has had a small but constant following as a cult film, some notable disciples including Michael Bay and Sandford Bay. The film won the Best Music Award and the Technical Grand Prize at the 1977 Cannes Film Festival plus a nomination for Golden Palm. In the same year it was nominated for Golden Globe, plus it won a Grammy for Best Album of Original Score written for a Motion Picture or Television Special.
Gay film historian Vito Russo cites the character Lindy, played by Antonio Fargas, as being both funny and challenging through his gay militancy. Russo deems Lindy's response to the militant Abdullah as being potentially revolutionary had it not been placed strictly within a comedic context. African American cultural critic Angela Nelson identifies Lindy as a "sophisticated sissy." The "sophisticated sissy" characterization is often used as an easy contrast to the "appropriate" masculine behaviour that heterosexual black male characters are expected to display.
Car Wash, recorded by Rose Royce, was a major success, yielding three Billboard R&B Top Ten singles: "Car Wash", "I Wanna Get Next to You", and "I'm Going Down". The title track, written and produced by Norman Whitfield, was a #1 hit and was one of the biggest hit singles of the disco era. The Car Wash soundtrack won a 1977 Grammy Award for Best Score Soundtrack Album.
Unusual for film production, the sound track was recorded prior to filming of the movie. The director wanted the actors to actually listen to the same music that would later be added in Post Production while filming the scenes.
Car Wash had its network television premiere on NBC Monday Night at the Movies in 1978. Along with the standard dubbing of strong language, many scenes that included the gay character Lindy (Fargas) were trimmed or deleted. To replace these shortened scenes, and therefore shortened film, a subplot of a diner owner (Danny DeVito) (scenes shot for the theatrical version but cut prior to release) were re-inserted. As of 2013, commercially available versions of the movie were of the original theatrical release, not the revised TV version.