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That New Car Smell

lotus_girl_aroma_eyes_closed_white_background_76447_1920x1200The poet and writer Rudyard Kipling once said that “Smells are surer than sounds or sights to make your heartstrings crack,” and “”The first condition of understanding a foreign country is to smell it.” (the one who wrote the Jungle Books and tons of poetry that is rather neglected today, possibly because some of it’s too much fun for an English class).  He would probably have sympathised with those who find the smell of a brand new car intoxicating.

Just what is that new car smell?  Why does it press our buttons so much?  And is it possible to bottle it so we can spray it in our old faithful Toyota Corollas so they smell like new machines?  If we can, should we?

For a start, some of the pleasure that we get from smelling a new car is partly down to pure primitive psychology and associations.  The place in our brain where we process smells is right next-door to the memory department, so the two are pretty closely linked.  The first time most of us smelt a new car would either have been when we were buying something brand new or when we were drooling around the car yards, admiring the machines we love.  In the first case, the smell of a new car would probably thus be linked with the feelings of excitement, success and the joys of ownership.  In the second case, the smell of a new car would be linked with the machines we dreamed of but could never afford.  With such strong links between that smell and those strong feelings (aspiration and longing or else success), it’s no wonder that we love new car smell.

There’s a chance that we would love the new car smell even if it was awful, the same way that some people like the smell of tobacco because it reminds them of a beloved grandparent.  The relationship between smell and emotion is a very complicated one, like emotions themselves.  Scents that might put a smile on one person’s face might break the heart of another and vice versa. If you were abruptly and rudely dumped in the middle of a fragrant rose garden by the person you wanted to spend the rest of your life with, the scent of roses would probably conjure up the feelings of bitterness for some time to come.  Similarly, if you met the love of your life out on a fishing boat that stank of diesel and fish guts, the smell of diesel and fish guts would make your heart sing with the memory.

So what’s the case with new car smell?  Is it something that we’d find delicious if we smelled it in isolation from the car itself, rather like roses or cinnamon, or is it a fish-guts-and-diesel thing that we find pleasant because of the associations?

Just what is new car smell made up from?  Skipping the complex chemical names, most of what you can smell inside a new car comes from off-gassing from the materials inside the vehicle – the leather, the plastics, the vinyl, the glues, the rubber, the seat material and the paint.  In a new car, all the volatile chemicals will still be off-gassing; in an older one, they’ve all been used up.  OK, to be fair, some of these notes are likely to be found in actual perfumes: Chanel No. 5 uses a lot of aldehyde notes and heaps of old-school aftershaves use leather notes.  So it could be that new car smell is indeed intrinsically nice and it’s not just the associations.

new car headacheHowever, there’s a sinister force at work.  Back in 2000, research published by Australia’s very own CSIRO (Brown and Cheng 2000 ) found that all those volatile organic compounds that make up new car smell are pretty bad for you.  All the gases and compounds ending in –ene, -yl and –ane with random Ns in the middle of things you can’t spell that get blamed for “sick building syndrome” are found in brand new cars… and there you are, sitting inside that new car, breathing in that famous smell with the windows closed.  If you feel a little light-headed and intoxicated, it’s not just because you’re excited.  You’re not just getting a high from the thrill of purchasing a brand new vehicle – you’re also getting a chemical high like a common or garden glue sniffer, possibly from the same sort of glue.  Those headaches you get after driving around for a week or so in the new set of wheels aren’t some sort of buyer’s remorse or a result of worrying about putting a dent in the shiny new paint – it’s the new car smell making you feel a bit woozy and out of sorts.This puts a rather sinister twist on the technique of salespeople that involves getting you to sit in the car and breathe in the new car smell as a way of convincing you to buy a particular vehicle.  If the smell is getting you a little bit high, your sales resistance and some of your common sense may dissolve…

So what is to be done?  You need to buy a brand new car, so what now?  Now, I’m no killjoy.  I like the scent of a new car myself, and I also like Chanel No. 5 and all those aldehyde-note perfumes that are probably also bad for you.  I’m also aware that some of that research is well over 10 years old and car manufacturers may very well have changed their ways in this department, same as they’ve done better in the fuel efficiency department.  Buy that new car if it’s what you’ve planned on doing.  Take a sniff of the new car smell and enjoy it. However, after that, open the windows as much as possible to let all those headache-causing glue gases out; in a new convertible, get that top open!  After six months, the nasties will have got down to safe levels and you’ll still have a great car!

As for those sprays you can buy to make your beloved old car smell like a new one, they (a) don’t work and (b) are probably best avoided.  Grab a bottle of essential oil and make your own customised spray that’s actually good for you.