Recapturing That ‘Old Car’ Smell

Recapturing That ‘Old Car’ Smell

No matter how old it was, or who it belonged to, every time you got inside an old VW Beetle, it had a unique smell.

Spoiler alert for the instructors reading this column: if the number of birthdays you’ve had has crested the half-century mark, it means you grew up riding around in cars from the ‘60s and ‘70s. This being the case with me, I remember them well. The styles and designs were all different and unique, but no matter how different they may have been, most of them all smelled the same on the inside.

Come to think of it, I don’t remember them really smelling like anything. If they did have a distinct odor, it was usually the smell of cigarettes. And, that was a big factor in buying a car. If it didn’t smell like anything, it was probably at least moderately cared for. If it smelled in any way, you walked away, or did some serious wheeling and dealing because you knew it would be tough to get rid of the smell.

Somewhere along the line, I got used to hearing the phrase “new car smell.” It seemed to be a favorite line of used car salespeople. My family never had new cars, so I could only figure the “new car smell” was the melded odors of carpet, plastic, vinyl, rubber and cloth all cooped up inside. As soon as the car started to see use, the odors would eventually dissipate, and the interior would pick up the ambient smell of the world around us.

At some point, someone invented the “new car smell” in a spray bottle, and I’ve also seen it on rear-view-mirror air fresheners. I’m not sure if anyone was ever duped by this, but it never smelled like a new car to me. I thought it smelled like a bad perfume. Over the years, as I began to restore cars as a hobby, I learned what the new car smell was. There was only one way to replicate it when all the upholstery and interior components were new and could once again emit that magical blend of odors, at least for a little while.

There was one car, however, that beat the odds, and as a kid I never knew why. No matter how old it was, or who it belonged to, every time you got inside an old VW Beetle, it had a unique smell. It was intriguing, and there was somehow something alluring about it. They smelled like it new, and they smelled like it old. You could be blindfolded and sit in 100 different cars and not know what they were, but sit in a VW Beetle and you knew it right away.

So, it became an aspect of the cars that you came to expect and appreciate. Here was a car that retained the same “new car smell” for as many years as you owned it. And what was the secret? It was the seat padding. They’re called “horse hair” pads, but not because they’re made from actual horse hair. The term is used in the upholstery world for materials that are in the shape of a curled hair, synthetic or otherwise. In the case of the Beetle, they were made from coconut husk fiber.

Over the years, many a VW has been restored, replacing the old padding with new foam. It works fine, but the smell is gone. A classic Beetle will never be a Beetle without that smell. Luckily, many purists feel the same way and you can buy brand-new “horse hair” seat pads for just that reason. Pine trees step aside, it’s the one car that just has to have that original smell. 

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