No One Washes a Rental Car

Thomas Friedman? Lawrence Summers? Jack Kemp? Bill Creech?  Aircraft Maintenance Chief? Thomas Peters? Nancy Austin?

Dear Quote Investigator: New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman has used the following catch phrase several times:

No one washes a rented car.

I think this saying encapsulates an important idea. There is little incentive to wash or maintain a car that one does not own. For example, the renter does not benefit from the resale of the rental car. In fact, the renter may never see the car again. However, a person who owns something has a strong incentive to take care of it.

I searched through the New York Times archive and found that Thomas Friedman attributes the phrase to Lawrence Summers, an economist and former President of Harvard. Currently, Summers is Assistant to the President for Economic Policy and Director of the National Economic Council. But I think I originally heard the aphorism from a conservative, Jack Kemp who was a Congressman from New York. Could you investigate this quote?

Quote Investigator: Evidence indicates that the originator of this adage was not an economist, politician, or businessman. The saying comes from an aircraft-maintenance crew chief, and it was popularized in a bestselling book in 1985.

First, Thomas Friedman did use a version of the phrase in his column in 2002, and he did credit Lawrence Summers [TFLS] [QVWR]:

I heard Harvard’s president, Lawrence Summers, say once that “in the history of the world, no one has ever washed a rented car.”

Second, a remembrance of Jack Kemp written by a friend in 2009 shortly after Kemp died indicates that he did use the aphorism [JWJK]:

Jack was fond of saying, “No one washes a rental car before they return it.” Why? Because they don’t own it.

So the questioner has correctly identified some of the people using the saying. But the words can be traced further back.

QI believes the expression was widely disseminated in the 1985 book “A Passion for Excellence” by Thomas Peters and Nancy Austin. The volume reports on a variety of case studies including one that analyzes a reorganization of airplane-maintenance staff within the military instigated by General Bill Creech. The new organization assigns staff to maintain specific planes on a long-term basis instead of shifting personnel between multiple planes, and this new arrangement is successful according to the authors. The core of the maxim is pronounced by “one of Bill Creech’s noncommissioned officers (NCOs)” [PE]:

The general asked him what the difference was between the old, specialist organization and the new organization, in which the plane and the sortie are the “customer,” where the supervisor (“designated crew chief,” remember) “owns” the plane. The NCO’s to-the-point reply: “General, when’s the last time you washed a rental car?” We think that may say it all. None of us washes our rental cars. There’s no ownership. And there’s no ownership if you’re a specialist, no matter how well trained, if you’re responsible only for two square feet of the right wing of a hundred planes. Only whole planes fly.

Thomas Peters, the co-author of “A Passion for Excellence”, actually told the aircraft-maintenance anecdote at a conference in June 1984. So, he started to popularize the saying about washing rental cars one year before the best-selling book was released. The new 2012 reference work “The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs” traced the adage back to this 1984 speech [DPTP] [NLMC]. This wonderful reference obtains QI’s highest recommendation.

A 1987 article in Inc. Magazine also tells the story of General Creech’s reorganization. The NCO responsible for catalyzing the saying is identified as a sergeant [ICN]:

The crew chiefs took to their new responsibilities with a passion, doing whatever was necessary to make their jets the best. They went everywhere with them—on deployments, through inspections, to the wash racks. And they kept a sharp eye on the technicians—in military parlance, “kicking ass and taking names.” Excellence became an obsession. When Creech went to visit some crew chiefs to find out how they liked the new arrangement, a sergeant summed it up nicely. “General,” he said, “when was the last time you washed a rental car?”

Interestingly, the maintenance crews do not literally own the planes that they are working on. So the seminal anecdote used to illustrate this saying about the importance of ownership is based on an abstract or symbolic ownership. This wider non-literal definition of ownership has been present in the language for decades. The crews felt a motivating sense of ownership and responsibility for equipment that was actually owned by the government.

Thanks for the inquiry. As QI was working on the question he felt like he owned it. Hope you enjoyed the answer.

Update history: On June 15, 2012 the citation for the newly released book “The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs” was added to the post

[TFLS] 2002 October 27, New York Times, There Is Hope by Thomas Friedman, New York. (Online New York Times archive) link

[QVWR] 2006, The Quote Verifier by Ralph Keyes, Page 178, St Martin’s Griffin, New York.

[JWJK] 2009 May 29, Pahrump Valley Times, Remembering Jack Kemp by J. C. Watts, Pahrump, Nevada. (Online Pahrump Valley Times archive) link

[PE] 1985, A Passion for Excellence by Thomas J. Peters and Nancy Austin, Page 239, Random House. (Google Books snippet view only; Excerpt text checked using Amazon Look Inside.) link

[DPTP] 2012, The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs, Compiled by Charles Clay Doyle, Wolfgang Mieder, and Fred R. Shapiro, Page 33, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper)

[NLMC] 1985, “Selections from the Second National Labor-Management Conference” edited by Peter L. Regner, “A Necessary Revolution in American Management:  People, People, People” (a printed version of a speech given in June 1984) by Tom [Thomas] Peters, U. S. Department of Labor, Washington DC.

[ICN]  1987 January 1, Inc. magazine, Four-Star Management by Jay Finegan, Mansueto Ventures. (Online Inc magazine archive) link link

2 thoughts on “No One Washes a Rental Car

  1. Take note Larry Summers: My wife obeyed his maxim while using a rental car in Ukraine last week but when she returned the car to the airport she was charged $8 in local currency for a “dirty car” fee!!

  2. I own my car and I don’t wash it either … it’s just a set of wheels and a few times a year the rain or snow does an acceptable job.

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