* This story was sent to me by Danny Fedun and is a reminder that it's not just the sights and sounds of these old cars that make them so special. Thanks Danny! *
Whenever car people talk about classic cars they always talk about the paint, the body lines, the wheels, the bumpers, the interior, the colors, but no one ever talks about “The Smell”. I know right, “The Smell”. The one sense above all that can bring us back to a place and time just by closing our eyes and taking a deep breath.
Now, my connection to classic cars and the smells that remind me of them goes back to when I was born, and it must have been the ride home from the hospital in my dad’s 47 Ford Business Coupe. You see, I rode home in my mothers arms in 1974 from the hospital with the sound and smell of a 27 year old Ford Flathead purring away while I slept. The smell of the rubber mats, the soybean interior plastic, the upholstery, the leaded fuel from the dual exhaust, all smells that bring me back to being a child. The Seven, as she is affectionately known, is an original survivor my dad bought from the original owner in 1967, a year after my parents were married. With its original black paint, firestone tires, and immaculate interior, this car would see many cars shows, parades, and trips in its lifetime.
The smell of a classic is forever cemented in my senses as the hot days spent in the back seat in a parade, or the ride to the local ice cream stand for a cold treat (one that could never be eaten in the car by a 6 year old). The smell of gas on my dad’s hands after he fixed the vapor locked carburetor in the middle of a parade, or the smell of oil on his clothes as he helped fix someone else’s car. You see, the smell is as important as the cruise or the ride, it helps to round out the experience and make it whole. If it wasn’t for the smell, there would be no experience, just a ride in an old car.
Now, growing up, the World of Wheels car shows were a big deal. The local arena would be packed tight with all sorts of custom and classic cars, motorcycles, and vendors. This of course was in the 70’s and 80’s when customs were a whole other thing. A smell that just takes me back to those car shows is the aroma of the t-shirt vendors heat press vulcanizing the glittered-out logo or photo of your favorite car or truck on a fresh white tee or trucker cap. The Firebird Trans-Am or the Deuce with Rat Fink and the big shifter sticking out over the windshield to name a few. The smell of the rubber vulcanizing to the fabric is, and forever will be, the smell of a classic to me.
The Seven was a car I learned to drive in, the 3 on the tree, the shaky clutch, the drum brakes were all part of the experience. The car I first took a girl for a ride in before I even had a drivers license. The car my dad let me take on my first poker run in with 3 of my friends when I was only 16 years old. The photos of my wedding party with the car the day I got married. The smell of that car takes me back every time. Just that car sitting in my dad’s garage tweaks the sense of smell every time I go in there, the garage smells like my childhood. Yes, my dad still has the car, and my now 20 year old son gets to experience the same smells I have told you about and interpret them in his own way. He takes the car with my dad to the local cruise nights, drives it in weddings for friends, and maintains it in tip top shape.
When I was 4, my dad decided he was going to restore a 1930 Model ‘A’. Now this car came with a whole other range of smells, much different than the 47. My memories with this car are triggered by the smell of Tremclad paint with the potent smell of varsol or paint thinner not far behind. The stuff he cleaned my hands with after painting car parts in his workshop. You see, I was only 4, and he would let me stand on the workbench with one of his work shirts on so I wouldn’t get paint on my clothes while painting parts hanging by haywire from the floor joists of the house. The smell of the laundry detergent my mom used to wash my dads clothes was in the work shirt I would wear, this reminds me of not only the classic, but of my mom too. There was the smell of the body shop when the Model ‘A’ was getting body worked and we would go to see the progress, the Bondo, the sanding dust, the paint….all smells of the classic.
The experience of the smells with the Model ‘A’ were different from those of the 47 for me because the 47 existed as a whole car from the day I was born and the smells were not associated with the building of a car but rather the enjoyment of it. The Model ‘A’ was a build, literally what you picture in your mind when you think of a project car. These cars both displayed at the car shows together. I would run around them with a clean rag dusting them off like it was the most important job in the world. Now as a parent, I understand it was to keep me in one place where my parents could find me.
For others, the smells of a classic can be varied and far from the smells I have described. They could be the smell of the wet bush when the classic Model `A’ was cut out of the trees and winched on a trailer for the ride home to become a street rod or restored classic. The smell of hay or cow manure when a grandfather, son, and grandson or a grandmother, daughter, and granddaughter move some hay bales or tractor parts to get at the family farm truck that had been packed in the barn for decades, now fixing to be at the next cruise night. The smell of the ocean from attending your first cruise night or the smell of a greasy funnel cake you enjoyed while walking the lineup of cars on display at the state fair car show. Freshly cut grass at the fairgrounds or community center while browsing the swap meet for car parts with your dad. The smell of welding and grinding in a garage, or the smell of a wood burning stove keeping the shop warm on a cold winter night while you work on the frame, or the body of your next cool project. There are so many smells that can be associated with a classic, for each of us, they have deep meaning or are associated with memories, be them happy or sad.
The Model ‘A’ was sold in the mid 80’s, but it never really held the same status as the 47. For us, the Seven is more than a car, more than the smells it is, (as most of these classics are to people) just simply family. The smell of a classic, an untouchable, non-visual reminder of key moments in one’s life that take you back in time with one deep breath.