This set of photos of the Western Paint Remover and Steam Cleaning facility on South Western Avenue in Los Angeles, taken in 1924, shows a type of specialty automotive service from the past. The operation used a large wood and coal-fired steam boiler to supply steam under pressure for cleaning. It is likely this business catered to car dealers, repair shops and paint and body shops to quickly and thoroughly clean vehicles and strip off old paint before refinishing.
The felt seals, oil slingers and gaskets of the early days left a lot to be desired, and oil leakage was common. The engine and its compartment along with the entire underside of a car all the way back to and including the rear axle where usually coated in it. Added to this was road dirt mixed in over time that resulted in a caked-up and gooey mess.
A boiler such as used here for cleaning vehicles produces a relatively high temperature pressurized steam. It removes an oil and grease film by first thinning it out and then by the effect of the steam pressure washing it away; detergents are sometimes also added to the steam to help the cleaning process.
Paint removal services were also offered by the company. Steam will soften and loosen many types of paint so it can be easily scraped off, and this may have been how the removal process was accomplished. In addition to this, water droplets in high-velocity steam under controlled conditions can be as abrasive as sand particles which may have helped the process.
The photos give you an excellent view of the facility and the interesting steam cleaning equipment. A wide variety of vehicles can also be seen in the yard including an early Pierce-Arrow that appears to have been converted into a truck and a late-teens Cadillac Roadster. Photos courtesy of the USC Libraries.