It's hard to keep a good gorilla going these days.

Just when you've got it set up out on Ritchie Highway -- flagging down customers, generally doing a bang-up public relations job -- WHAM. Along comes a gust from a passing tractor-trailer sending your gorilla crashing to the pavement.

It happens often at Ritchie Car Wash in Brooklyn Park -- just about every time the help forgets to bolt the gorilla to the windproof base.

Car-wash owner Tom Fine has the gorilla spare-parts bills to prove it. Not to mention the three gorillas, damaged beyond redemption.

Fine really likes gorillas. He figures they're great for business. It can be tough trying to get noticed out on Ritchie Highway in Brooklyn Park, what with businesses set cheek by jowl, a kaleidoscope of signs clamoring for the motorist's attention.

"Excellent" is how Fine rates the mechanical gorilla as a promotional tool. "People call and ask where we are. All I have to say is 'There's a gorilla out front.' They say 'Oh, yes. I know exactly where that is.' It's an extremely effective landmark. That's why we haven't done away with it."

Fine has sunk $2,785 into gorillas since 1986 -- not including the cost of spare parts -- for the three gorillas: Automan I, Automan II and Automan III.

Fine didn't exactly figure on a gorilla trio when he decided to buy his first in June 1986. The occasion was an International Car Wash Association annual convention and trade show in Chicago. Among the businesses displaying their wares was ABC Warehouse-Happy Sign Division, of Austin, Texas, a leading manufacturer of mechanical primates.

"We had looked at them for many years," Fine said. "We thought we'd like something to attract business."

The first gorilla arrived for work in July 1986 and the car wash immediately held a contest to name it. A Pasadena woman won by coming up with Automan. She was rewarded with coupons for 52 free car washes.

All went well at first. The 6-foot electrically powered gorilla swayed at the hips and waved its mighty right arm. So lifelike were its movements that Fine said several people called to complain that it was cruel to make a man in a gorilla suit stand out on Ritchie Highway in the heat of a Maryland summer. On two occasions, Fine said, southbound bus drivers spotted the gorilla waving and stopped to pick him up.

And how long did it take for the drivers to catch on?

"Not long," said Fine.

However, it did take car-wash workers a while to get the hang of the gorilla routine. In the rush of morning opening, Fine said, they'd move the gorilla from inside the garage to his spot at the curb, but forget to bolt the gorilla to the base.

Automan was constantly falling down on the job, raising havoc in his mechanical innards. Soon Fine was sending to Austin, Texas for spare gorilla parts. Soon Fine was in the market for a new gorilla.

He bought Automan II at a convention in Atlanta in 1988. A year and several gorilla mishaps later, he bought Automan III.

Ralph Baccus, who owns ABC Warehouse, said his 10-year-old company sells between 200 to 250 mechanical figures a year. The gorilla is the hottest seller of the seven mechanical display characters ABC makes, approached only by the clown.

"A lot of people like the gorilla because you can put different clothes on him," said Baccus, speaking from Austin where a gorilla in green shorts beckons at the entrance to Baccus's vacuum cleaner shop.

According to Baccus, a gorilla's mechanical works usually run about four years, barring accidents of the sort Fine describes.

As a result of years of abuse, Automan I is relegated now to staring from the front window of Ritchie Car Wash, his lifeless arms hanging limp at his sides, his rubber hands leaking white stuffing.

Automan II -- his head just about torn from his brown, furry body -- also has been moved permanently to an inside job. Automan II stands in the car wash lane, presiding over the spray and the soap. Gorilla in the mist.

The youngest of the three, Automan III, still works outside but waves no longer. His fan was broken in a fall. His motor tends to overheat and seize up.

Don't expect to see Automan IV waving from the curb at Ritchie Car Wash.

"No more gorillas," said Fine. "Not unless they come up with a new improved model" that can withstand crashes. "Or I can get my help to bolt him down. There's more chance of them coming up with a new gorilla than getting my help to do what they're supposed to."

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