Chuck Howard, 45, is in love with his car.

"I'm crazy about it," the Southeast Washington resident said recently as he gently rubbed wax onto the torn vinyl roof of his gray Lincoln stretch town coupe. "The last of the long ones," he boasted.

After two hours, he was nearly finished with a wash, wax and wipe ritual that he repeats three, sometimes four times a week.

"I paid $4,000 for it four years ago," Howard explained, "and I tell you what, I'm not planning on buying another one."

It is this kind of passion, this driving dedication, that brings Howard, and scores like him, to Sam's Self Serve Car Wash. There, on a one-acre plot of black asphalt in Prince George's County, the classic American love of the automobile is played out daily.

"Most people who take pride in their cars come here regularly," noted Howard, who works nights as a juvenile counselor.

But Sam's is not just about automobiles, it is also about old Army buddies getting together over a hood, sports car fanciers comparing wheels, and old men sharing road stories.

Recently, Sam's has also become a popular gathering place for the area's young adults, among them college students, professionals and blue-collar workers who consider car washing a pastime, not a chore, and sometimes an alternative to singles bars.

On the most glorious summer days, when crystal blue skies promise a weekend without rain, hundreds of cars bearing license plates from the District, Maryland and Virginia can be seen on Sam's lot, just across the District line on Branch Avenue.

"It's the hangout," according to 21-year-old Tracey Bailey of Temple Hills. "I come here all the time."

Sam's as singles bar? Bailey initially scoffed at the idea, explaining her twice-a-week visits this way: "My car needs to be washed. It's white."

Later, the Prince George's Community College psychology major conceded that man-hunting is on the minds of some young women who go to Sam's. "A lot of guys with fancy cars come here," she explained. "If he has a nice car, you know he probably has money."

The center opened in 1981, and, according to its owners and area residents, it immediately became a popular car lovers' retreat, often attracting auto owners who congregated on the lot according to vehicle type: Jeeps in the center, for example, sleek sports cars on the right, the more sophisticated BMW motorcars in the back.

"A self-service car wash attracts your nice, high-price cars," explained Nick Schiattareggia, a member of the family that owns the chain of car washes in Maryland and Northern Virginia.

In recent years, the Branch Avenue self-serve center (there is an automatic center a block away) has become popular even among people who do not need a wash, Schiattareggia said. The company has had to place guards at the center on weekends to keep traffic and loiterers moving.

For Howard, the suburban car wash is a welcome respite. He could wash his car in front of his home on Southern Avenue in the District, he says, but he would rather spend two to three hours at Sam's, uninterrupted.

"Time is not an issue here," Howard said.

"It's just a nice place to be to take up with your car," echoed Donald Perry, who was Howard's helper. "Look at that girl there in those white shorts; that's a nice reason to come."

Elsewhere on the lot, Tracey Bailey's conversation was interrupted when a young woman, whom Bailey did not immediately recognize, sped by and called her name, then swerved around again.

They talked about -- what else? -- their cars. "Is it new?" the woman queried.

Later, Bailey explained to a visitor, "See, she's just riding through, seeing who she can find."

Brenda Boylan, an automated data processor at the Pentagon, is more seriously involved. "I'm just looking at {whether} I get my car clean," she said. Dressed for the occasion in a Mickey Mouse T-shirt and shorts, her blond ponytail bobbing, Boylan, for the first time in months, soaped down her burgundy compact. "It's filthy."

On weekends, cars, Jeeps, trucks and four-wheel drive vehicles jam the lot, sometimes creating a two-hour wait just to get to the vacuum station.

"I ran into a couple of my Army buddies two days ago," said Robert McKinney of Forestville. He shook his head, still amazed at having found friends here that he had not seen in years. "This is where everybody comes."

McKinney and James Lawton, both guards for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, were able to wash and wax McKinney's gold sports car in less than 30 minutes. "We work as a buddy system," Lawton said.

Sam is Sam Schiattareggia. In 1957, newly arrived from Sicily, he opened one of the area's first car washes when most of the cars coming through were Packards and Chevrolet Bel Airs. Today, Schiattareggia's sons and grandsons -- Hugo, Sam and Nick -- operate four centers in Prince George's and one in Manassas.

The Branch Avenue self-serve center is the chain's flagship, the largest and most popular. But business is still brisk at Sam's nearby Brushless Car Wash.

The cars there are longer and older than at the self-serve center, more station wagons than two-seaters. And for their owners, there seems to be no passion, no excitement, no social life in car care.

"It's such a hassle," said James Melbourne, a special-education administrator for the District's public school system. He routinely drives there during lunch hours to run his white Cadillac Seville through the automatic car wash, he said, a suit coat flung over his shoulder. "This is so much easier."

Chuck Howard is sometimes at Sam's when it opens at 5 a.m., and he says that is the time to get there on the weekends, before the lines and crowds start forming.

He ran his car through the vacuum and wash station, applying a hot soap spray and hot wax spray, spraying it with hot water and then staking out a spot toward the back of the lot.

Four "pine fresh" air fresheners dangled from various points on the dashboard. Howard, tall and portly, his dark skin even more burnished by the sun, looked up smiling as he relished memories of traveling down I-395. "When you cut your air {conditioner} on and the pine mixes with the air, people say, 'God, it smells good in here.' "

Despite all the activity, he says, the Lincoln is his reason for going to Sam's.

"If it rains, I'll be back tomorrow," he said while doing battle with a spot on the right rear back fender. "Have you ever seen whitewalls after it rains? Well, it looks terrible . . . .

"And besides," he said, "a car runs better when it's clean."