Thursday, June 29, 2006

New Car Smell

I got my car washed today. Notice that I didn’t say I “washed” my car. I can’t remember the last time I “washed” my car.

I take it to one of those full-service car washes. At this one, you pull up and talk to a well-groomed college kid — five years from now, he’s going to be a vice president at some bank or maybe a top salesman in his district. You decline the special that they’re having today on detailing and hand-waxing, take a receipt from him, and turn over your car for the bath of a lifetime. It goes into a long tunnel where it is showered, scrubbed, polished, and rinsed.

It emerges from the other side, drenched but generally happy. Then about three or four more college boys pounce on it to give it a good rubdown. (In ten years, they will all be cpas working for Mr. Order-Taker on the other end of the tunnel. But today, hey, working at a car wash pays better than spending your summer as a life guard.)

When they are done, they signal that your car is ready. You press a few dollar bills in their hand — nobody knows why, but everybody has to do it. And then they ask you “the question”.

“What fragrance would you like today, sir?”

The answer, of course, is always the same.

“New car.”

If people would stop and consider what the “new car smell” really is, they probably wouldn’t be so excited about it. It’s actually a complex combination of volatile organic compounds including several varieties of glue, solvents, and paint. Mix that with some fumes from freshly-curing leather and vinyl, bake it with sunlight in an enclosed environment for several hours each day, and you have a delightful aroma — sure to please your senses and remind you of the first time you sat in the car and look down, noticing an odometer that registered fewer than ten miles. What a treat!

There’s a good reason why we treat the new car smell with the same sense of denial that forbids us from thinking about what’s really in a hot dog. The reason is because the sense of smell is one of the most effective triggers for memories — usually fond memories. The source or the toxicity of the smell are overcome by the association to the memory.

And the association with “freshness” is one of life’s greatest joys.

A friend of mine once told our department secretary that she smelled like a freshly-mopped floor. It was intended as a compliment and she took it as such. She knew that “freshness” was the true association with the smell. It didn’t matter if she smelled like Ajax or Mr. Clean or Glade. The fact was that she smelled “fresh”, and that’s all that mattered.

Anybody over the age of 40 remembers the fresh aroma of a page printed by a spirit duplicator. Sparkling white paper and fuzzy blue ink were the rule of the day when I was in school. It didn’t matter that your algebra test was printed with a 50/50 combination of isopropanol and methanol. The fact was, you knew everything was going to be okay because, well, the test smelled “fresh”.

People are making millions of dollars today because they have perfected car odorants that smell like volatile organic compounds and women’s perfume that smells like Lysol.

I think I could make a bundle if I could invent a spray that smelled like a ditto machine. Image the sniffing that would happen in my next meeting if I were to spray the agendas before I passed them out. We’d probably have to adjourn the meeting early, just so everybody could go back to their cubicles and inhale to their heart’s content in blissful privacy.

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