The solution to an odoriferous car: ditch it

SATURDAY'S HERO

February 05, 1994|By ROB KASPER

When your car is smelly, life stinks.

I say this because I am recovering from a battle with a car that smelled like cherry cough syrup. I fought the foul odor with fresh air, charcoal briquettes, orange peels, sweaty basketball players and lots of soap, water and elbow grease.

I'm not sure the odor ever completely disappeared, but after 10 days I got rid of the car.

The car was a rental. It was pinch-hitting for our station wagon, which was recovering from being attacked by a flying road sign. That's right, a flying road sign. It happened one morning during the drive to school. Somehow, a big orange sign, the kind that warns you about road work ahead, or lane narrowing, had escaped from its moorings. It was lurking on the pavement of the Jones Falls Expressway when a car traveling in front of me passed over it and made the sign go airborne. There I was, driving a station wagon full of kids to school, when a large orange object swooped down from the sky, battered the hood of the car, hit the windshield, then disappeared to parts unknown.

I kept going, for several reasons. First of all, stopping a car in the middle of an expressway is not a good idea. Second, as most car-pool drivers know, when you are toting a load of passengers to school, you are a man on a mission. Virtually nothing can stop you from making your appointed rounds.

When we got to school -- and let the record show we got to school on time -- I stopped to assess the damage. It was a broken headlamp, some deep gouges and scratches on the hood. The body shop said it would take seven to 10 days to fix.

So while the station wagon licked its wounds, I looked for a rental car that could perform car-pool duty and seat six passengers. This took some doing. Somewhere it has been decided that the American family car no longer seats six -- it seats five. The change is in the front seat. Instead of bench seats that can hold three people, most front seats have been split into two buckets seats. That is exactly what the front seat of the first car the rental presented me with looked like.

When I returned this five-seater to the car rental office, I was so delighted that the replacement car could seat six people I shrugged off the fact that the car smelled like a floozy.

The car had just been washed, and I figured the aroma came from some car "freshener" solution that an attendant had sprayed on the upholstery to make the car smell clean.

Sitting behind the steering wheel was like sitting next to a dame doused in cheap perfume or a guy who bathed in pungent after-shave. The smell was so strong it made your head hurt.

I figured the smell would fade if I just lowered the windows. I would blow the odor away. It was cold outside, in the low 30s. Nonetheless, I went zipping along the Baltimore Beltway with the windows down and the heater on high. When I got to the parking garage near my office, the aroma was still there.

Next, I tried to absorb the offensive odor with charcoal briquettes. Charcoal, I had been told, eats odor. So that night after work I carried some charcoal briquettes, and a bucket of soap and water, out to the car.

I turned on the car radio and listened to President Clinton give his State of the Union address. I don't think I had ever listened to an entire State of the Union speech before. But then again, I don't think I had ever spent a January night scrubbing car upholstery.

The president and I finished our tasks in about an hour. Just before locking the car up for the night, I placed paper plates loaded with charcoal briquettes on the floor and seats of the car. I even pushed a few briquettes in the empty ash tray. I had hoped the briquettes would absorb the awful odor.

They did. The next morning, when I sniffed the briquettes, they, too, smelled like cherry cough syrup. And so did the rest of the car.

Next I tried to overpower the awful odor with other potent smells, some pleasant, some not. In the pleasing odor department, I tried leaving orange peels scattered around the car. They smelled good, but they were no match for the sickening cherry odor.

The awful odor was also more potent than the fragrance of three sweaty basketball players. When the players, 12- and 13-year-olds, piled in the car after a vigorous practice session, everybody immediately lowered the windows. But it was the odor of the car seats, not the sweaty players, that needed ventilation.

Last Saturday the weather warmed and I went out in the back yard to once again wash the car interior and listen to the radio. This time I used some bleach in the water and soap solution. And this time, as I scrubbed, I listened to a broadcast of a University of Maryland basketball game. Maryland lost the game, to Duke, but the bleach seemed to defeat, or at least weaken the cherry aroma. I also pulled the floor mats, the smelliest parts of the interior, out of the car, and gave them a thorough soaking in the basement sink.

On the 10th day of the battle between me and the sickening cherry aroma, the guys in the car pool declared me the winner. They took a deep sniff and said they could barely catch a whiff of cherry smell. Then they slammed the car doors and ambled into school.

A couple of hours later, I turned in the once-smelly rental car and got back my repaired station wagon. Sitting behind the wheel of the station wagon, I caught a whiff of the aroma of car paint. I ignored it.

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