In June 1940 the American journalist and novelist Christopher Morley published a short story in The Atlantic about a radio that turned itself on in the middle of the night and started flicking between the frequencies. The resulting babble of voices included a presenter reflecting on:
What he calls the Great American Smell. No, it’s not flowers or manure or that old California whiff of oil fields. It’s the smell of a new car the first time you drive her. Wonder where they get that smell; they invent it in Detroit. . . (Morley 1940)The story of what would become colloquially known, by the late 1940s, as ‘New Car Smell’ is one that tracks closely to the broader history of design and the senses across the twentieth century. It is a story that involves the odours of new materials, their subsequent reification into an ‘ideal type’ odour through synthetic fragrance chemistry, and latterly the concern that ‘new car smell’ – and other smells of newness – might not be quite as good for drivers as it was for the profits of car dealerships. However, during the same period from the 1940s to the present, the number and variety of car air fresheners has also proliferated – offering new ways of scenting car interiors that go beyond the ‘new car smell’.
Initially the smells of new cars were an unintentional result of the materials used. There is therefore relatively little explicit discussion of a ‘new car smell’. It is only in the 1950s that the phrase ‘new car smell’ becomes more and more common. It emerges into public consciousness at precisely the moment when it is synthesised and mimicked by new sprays designed to give older cars the same scent. Where before the odours of the car interior were referred to by their individual material origins – the smells of wood, leather, glues, or rubber – by the 1950s they had been subsumed into a general moniker – the ‘new car smell’.
It is no accident that the idea of 'new car smell' entered common language in the U.S during the 1940s. After rising throughout the 1910s and 1920s car ownership dipped and plateaued in the depression years of the 1930s. But from the late 1940s onwards the number of car-owning households rose massively. From around 42% of households in the mid 1940s to 80% by the 1960s. In this context the circulation of used vehicles increased, car dealerships selling used cars spread, and the distinction between old and new became more important.
In the 1940s and 1950s it was recognised that the new car smell came from the rubber cement use in installing the various trims and the rubberized compound used to waterproof and embed the windows. An article explaining this to readers in widely distributed magazine Popular Science noted that 'there are now on the market at least two chemical perfumes, or re-odorants, for spraying in used cars to make them smell like new' (‘What’s that smell?’ 1950) Several advertisements in the same magazine in fact offered postage paid bottles of ‘new car smell’ that could be mail-ordered for personal use.
As more plastics and glues were used in car manufacturing the bouquet of new-car smell gained further complexity. In 1965 another Popular Science article examined the new synthetic scents being produced by the rising tide of fragrance and flavour chemists.
A “new-car smell”, employed by shrewd used-car dealers, consists of banana oil, glues, leather, rubber, gasoline, and plastic scents. A piece of flannel is soaked with the scent and placed behind the seats. One California dealer advertised: “Our second-hand cars look like new, run like new, smell like new” (Irwin 1965).
Getting that new car smell right through the use of synthetic materials has not been restricted to cheaper models. This method can also be found in the design and marketing of luxury cars. In 1965 Gary Wiley, a graduate student at Temple University, visited a Philadelphia car dealer with the aim of seeing a Rolls Royce Silver Cloud – his dream car – in the flesh. He asked to sit in the car and then apologised to the dealer, admitting that they both knew he could afford it. The dealer told him that nobody could and that he could sit in the car as long as he liked: ‘You are going to love the interior. Wait until you get a whiff of those leather seats’. Wiley sat in the car and
the smell inside the cabin was intoxicating. If you have never sat inside a brand new car made in England, your nostrils are missing out on a real treat. British leather seats have a unique smell that makes anyone sitting on them say, “I’ll buy it, just for the smell. I’ll trade in my car, my wife, and kids”. And unlike the new-car smell you find in Detroit cars, that English leather smell lingers on as long as you own that British product. I just sat there and became intoxicated by the smell of all that leather (Wiley 2012).
Despite the various attempts to mimic the scent, by the 1970s research was showing that the ‘new car smell’ was a dangerous travel companion. In 1971 Kevin P. Shea summarised the research on the use of plastics in medical units and blood bags. In particular, Shea focussed on studies of the impact of the plasticizers and stabilizers that were added to the monomers and resins to control a plastic’s pliability. The studies Shea focussed on demonstrated that several of these materials had toxic properties. He noted that not only were these materials prevalent in car interiors, but the enclosed, sealed-off, nature of the modern car interior provided the perfect atmosphere for generating high concentrations of dangerous compounds (Shea 1971).
By the 1980s the concern about ‘new car smell’ was being linked to concerns about other smells of newness. In 1981 the University of California physicist and expert on energy efficiency Dr Arthur Rosenfeld was testifying before a Congress sub-committee on energy efficiency in which he raised the issue of indoor air quality and noted that:
if you buy a new car it has a new car smell which is bad for you. It smells good, but it is bad for you. If you buy a new home, unfortunately it has as new home smell which involves all sorts of unbelievable things that you shouldn’t be breathing. Probably we are going to learn that we need some experience in monitoring, as a public service, the indoor air quality in homes (Rosenfeld 1981).
However, some of the work of re-scenting cars – particularly that by fragrance experts working in the design teams of car manufacturers themselves – was an attempt to keep the smell of cars constant despite the attack on ‘new car smell’.
In the late nineteenth and twentieth century many of the odours that had characterised automobile interiors were genuinely new. The new car smell was caused by new materials and new chemical treatments of materials such as leather that had distinctive odours. By the early 2000s these smells of the new were not really new at all: they were in fact a marker of heritage, of nostalgia, and of tradition. The new car smell – particularly that which includes the mix of treated leather, wood, glue, and rubber – has become a new old car smell. Many of the biggest names in motoring have been busy over the last twenty years designing out dangerous chemicals that had in fact produced the original, highly valued, smells of new luxury cars. In 2002 an interview with Claudia Schemp and Klaus Hermann, who worked in the smell team at Mercedes Benz produced a really nice potted description of precisely what was at stake:
The scientists are now working on a new leather smell, even for cars that already have leather trim, because the smell many people associate with leather from years ago is largely down to the chemicals used to treat it, which are now banned (Woodland 2002).
The work of smell design in the car industry is now – in many cases – one of trying to stabilise the new old smell of cars. An unintentional smell that was then fetishized has now become the focus of synthetic fragrance chemists who are trying to create facsimile smells without the dangerous underlying chemical properties that were associated with the original materials.
The development of the automobile during the 1920s and 1930s involved the gradual enclosing of the car as a sealed unit with a roof and windows that shut off the individual from the outside world. The car became an auditory cocoon as a result of these changes. Where sound had once been crucial to the maintenance of an automobile and successful driving had involved ‘listening out’ for changes in the sounds of the engine and other components, by the 1930s and 1940s sound was being designed out of cars to enable a silent ride (Bijsterveld 2014).This cocooning was also, in part, olfactory in character. Recalling a family trip in a Morris Cowley in the 1920s, one Ronald Gene remembered being ‘exposed to a variety of horrid industrial smells’ as they drove through Birmingham (O’Connell 1998). However, an article in the English magazine Country Life, published in 1901, noted that the ‘vile smell’ of the motor-car would soon be abated by the popularization of hoods and glass windows. These, the author suggested, would provide the same sensory insulation and comfort as sitting in a ‘first-class railway carriage’ (‘Motoring’, 1901).
To some extent the author in Country Life guessed correctly. The olfactory experience of driving a car changed in these new models. Better sealed windows and cabins by the 1940s had created a very different car. As the car was gradually enclosed in the 1930s and 1940s, the experience of driving was described in new ways. The first we have already touched on – the car interior as a condensed version of a London club or a English country house library – all leather and wood.
The second was the idea of the ‘cinematic’ drive, a way of describing driving that became more common as the twentieth century wore on. As Karen Bjisterveld has argued, the world curated from the perspective of the car became a controlled, desirable, entertaining one that lifted the driver out of the world outside. As one German description of this experience from 1929 had it:
The automobile world presents itself through the windows of a sedan.... A new, exciting, and desirable world, full of variety, and more entertaining––a world that approaches from the outside, less harsh and imperious, but rather charming and humble. (Bijsterveld 2014)
Smell came late to this world, but it did eventually arrive. In 1952, the ‘Little Trees’ car air freshener was invented by the German-Jewish chemist Julius Sämann, after hearing complaints from a milkman whose vehicle smelled of spoiled milk. The tree-shaped paper, scented with essential oils from evergreen trees and hung on a piece of string, would eventually lead to a whole industry based around car fragrance.
At the same time new experiments with smell were taking place in cinema – General Electric’s Smell-O-Rama in 1953 and the AromaRama system developed in 1959. I would argue that we can see car air fresheners such as the pine-scented little trees as engendering a similar smell-o-visual relationship to that found in these early cinematic experiments with scent. The cinematic flicker of visual images across the driver’s window screen were matched to a similarly selective encapsulation of the smellscape beyond the road, distilling it down into the ‘natural’ pine scent that evoked healthy evergreen forests without any of the odours of industry, manure, and other less welcome odours one might encounter on a drive through the countryside.
The third way of framing the driving experience was the car as a living room on wheels, a personalised privatized, intimate space that could be curated to the drivers own tastes. Exterior noise, bad smells, and dirt were all shut out of the car. Inside the car the sound of the space could be curated, first through radios in the 1960s and then latterly through tape decks and CD players. This was also increasingly true of the smellscape of the automobile. The pine scent found on Little Trees car fresheners was followed by an expanding range of diffusion devices and scents that allowed the greater personalisation of the car’s olfactory atmosphere. The American Lifestyle magazine Orange Coast featured a short piece on new car perfuming devices in 1989. It asked readers:
Remember those little green pine trees that used to hang in your car to make it smell like a hospital waiting room? Now you can scent your car in any fragrance you like, whether is Giorgio, Obsession, or another designer cologne... (Orange Coast Magazine, 1989)The supposed healthfulness of pine led to its use in a whole range of products in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries including disinfectant, toilet-cleaner, air-fresheners, and, of course, the Little Trees car fresheners. However, as this suggests, the sheer ubiquity of the smell and its association with a multitude of less than pleasant spaces resulted in the desire to scent cars with odours that were pleasant and personal rather than healthful and generic. In Britain this included the scent of Feu Orange, an air freshener shaped like a traffic light, the advertising for which amped up its associations with France, ‘the home of the most famous Colognes and Perfumes’ (‘Have a fresh day’ 1976). The expanding range of car air fresheners offered opportunities – like the CD player and radio – to curate the sensory environment of the car.
Three men were indicted yesterday for allegedly selling two used cars as new after treating them with a spray, costing $3.25 a can, that gives a car the smell of newness. (‘3 Indicted’ 1962).
In turned out that one of the cars had done approximately 10,000 miles and the district attorney’s office told the newspaper they were investigating at least 35 other cases in several car dealerships across Queens. The use of sprays to recreate the new car smell was making also making its way across the channel to the UK. 'An air freshener to give old cars a new smell' was listed among the items on show at the 1962 Ideal Home Exhibition at Olympia London. (‘Sunshine Galore’, 1962). According to the Sunday Mirror, car dealers were even using a machine called a 'Scent-O-Mizer' to waft the smell of new car smell throughout motor showrooms (White 1964).
By the late 1980s car manufacturers were responding to concerns raised by customers. In 1985 Audi put together a ‘nose team’ that tested the smell of individual components and the car as a whole for its smell. The team did not – and still do not – initially use electronic noses or gas chromatography methods which identify the individual volatile organic compounds responsible for smells by their volatility. Instead, they rely on the human nose. Their testing procedure involves a kind of deconstruction and reconstruction of the car through smell. Firstly, they test the air in the car as a whole, then they work to identify the parts that contribute to the smell of the car, then they test which materials in those parts are responsible. Having done all of this and, in the process, often having improved or switched out materials, they then test the whole car again with the new materials in situ. From whole cars, to large parts, to individual cuts of materials in glass jars, the car is smelt at different levels of construction. Each part is rated on a scale from 1 to 6 from no odour to an unbearable odour. Whilst the work of the nose team is aimed at deodorizing cars, the one exception is leather. The team attempt to design out bad leather smells – which the head of the team described in 2001 as ‘like those of belts or handbags from Morocco’ and ensure a ‘good’ leather smell, described by the same nose as like ‘exclusive English furniture’ (Luessmann-Geiger 2001).
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s the press was busy sensitizing readers to the dangers of ‘new car smell’ which, as The Economist noted, was understood to be ‘the result of high levels of toxic chemicals, not cleanliness’ (‘The Enemy Within 1999). The Fiat Marea, released in 1996, made much in its press of an ‘odour neutralizer’ eliminated ‘the new car smell which cars retain for four to six months after they leave the factory’. The Marea also had a state-of-the-art ventilation system with a pollen filter, suggesting the way in which worries about new car smell were linked to a more general awareness of air pollution (Copps 1996). This was tied to anxieties about smell outside the car as well. Automobile companies were busy attempting to argue that their cars were less ecologically destructive and that smell was evidence for this. In 1990 Volkswagen advertised their new diesel engines with an ‘oxidation catalyst’, that ‘snuffles 50% of the smelly stuff called polycyclic hydrocarbons’ with the headline ‘Hear no diesel. See no diesel. Smell no diesel’.
The number of manufacturers employing nose-on teams in the design process to evaluate materials increased in the 1990s and early 2000s, by which point Volvo and Mercedez-Benz began employing smell panels to test components for smell as well as toxicity. The engineer group manager for organic materials at Vauxhall reported that ‘we had a lot of complaints about headaches in the beginning of the 1990s and now our goal is to have a non-smelling, a neutral car’ (Hart and Hall 2005). Studies in Australia and Japan in the early 2000s demonstrated the presence of a range of dangerous substances, leading to further press interest in the dangers of new car smell and further efforts by the automotive industry to demonstrate that they were doing something about it.
In 2000 Rolls Royce found that it was receiving complaints from owners that their newer models did not smell right. Both older and newer Rolls Royce cars had leather interiors, but in the old models the leather was laid on wood and in the new models it was laid on moulded plastic. This meant that the newer car interiors did not emit the mix of woody and leathery scents that were associated with Rolls Royce models. Hugh Hadland from Rolls Royce worked with fragrance experts to develop a scent based on the smell of the 1965 Rolls Royce Silver Cloud. He noted that: People assume that the smell is leather, but we found that a major constituent of it is wood. On its own it smells quite peculiar, but in the car it mixes psychologically with sight and other senses to produce a wonderful effect (‘New Rollers’ 2000). The resulting spray was then applied to newer Rolls Royce cars to give them the smell that people associated with the brand.
However, Barnard’s performance of a Jeremy Clarkson-esque masculinity with its blunt, no-nonsense, disdain for the feelings of others was not uniform. Much like one's living room, there is also an indication that the scenting of the car interior was partly a performance aimed at guest travellers. This involved a sensitivity to odour. Frustrated at the lack of places to hang an air freshener in her new 1993 Volkswagen Golf, the product of new safety regulations on how many pointy edges and spurs one might have in a car interior, Gill Cooper complained that
Being intolerant of traffic jams, I have been known to have the odd ciggy, and I'm conscious of the smell of smoke. I use the car for shopping, too, so an air-freshener is essential. I wouldn't like to think my car smelt of fish or anything (Cooper 1994).
There is an awareness here that the materials of the car were in fact porous and that they would suck up the traces of one’s daily olfactory life. In Gill’s case, the need for an air freshener was part of a desire to a put a public perfumed face on and obscure the underlying olfactory personality revealed by her car’s odours. However, some automobile manufacturers believed that this idea could work the other way round. In 1989 Jaguar marketed a perfume that was designed to smell like the interior of its cars - a mix of leather and wood with flowers, musks, and fruits. One of the models involved with the promotion of the scent noted that the purchasers were unlikely to be Jaguar owners. Rather 'They're going to be guys who ride nothing but the subways and the buses and want women to think they just stepped out of a flash car' (Graham 1989). If one’s car could end up being evidence of one’s olfactory personality, perhaps one’s own scent might in turn become redolent of the car one owned.
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