M. Giant's
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Tuesday, October 09, 2007  

Stench on Wheels

Trash's car smells.

We don't know what it is. Last week, she called me on her way to work to alert me to a foul and mysterious odor that was her persistent fellow passenger. Even M. Small noticed: "I smell something," he said on the way to getting dropped off at day care. "Something bad."

That night, I searched Trash's car to find whatever might be the cause or source of the foul and mysterious odor. Nothing was visible -- no restaurant leftover boxes, no used Rubbermaid lunch containers, no dropped M. Small snacks, no severed body parts, nothing. I even shone a flashlight under the seats and came up empty.

I promised Trash that the next day, I would bring it to the fancy-ass car wash in our neighborhood where they give it a thorough inside-and-out cleaning. Which I did. M. Small especially enjoyed this, as he got to watch from the windowed hallway as the car progressed through the car wash, ultimately coming out clean and shiny on the outside and smelling strongly of vanilla on the inside. Mission accomplished.

Except the next morning, the inside of the car smelled like vanilla rot. And by afternoon, when we left, the vanilla was gone.

Trash's mom took a sniff, trying to find the source herself. All she could say was that it was in the upholstery of the back seat. I went and got the big spray bottle of "pet stain and odor remover" and saturated the back seat, even taking out M. Small's car seat to do so (during which time we conclusively determined that it was not the source of the smell). I let it do its work, and after a while the chemical-cleaner smell faded away and the familiar one had returned. This despite the fact that by now the inside of the car looked as though you could manufacture microchips in it.

We'd done everything we could. By this point, there was only one reasonable thing left to do with the car: get inside it and go on a six-hour road trip. Which we did.

It wasn't so bad once we got on the freeway. It was warm enough that we could drive with the windows open, and a seventy-mile-an-hour wind whipping through the passenger compartment does wonders against a stagnating stink. But then about a half hour out of Green Bay we stopped to gas up, buy junk food, and steal a couple of minutes of hotel wireless, and it was like being on a road trip with an obnoxious hitchhiker who mercifully slept while in motion, but then wakes up the minute you stop and asks if you've got any weed. And who also is dead and being quite smelly about it.

Throughout our two-day trip, we drove everywhere with the windows open -- including during the rain, which was not our favorite. We left them cracked whenever we parked it, and aired it out in the morning before we left.

My initial, not-very-optimistic theory was that something had crawled up into one of the car's AC/heating vents and died there, and getting out the remains was going to require stripping the car down to its frame until I extracted a sad little skeleton that by that time wouldn't even smell any more. But since the source seems to be the back seat, where there aren't any vents, that theory doesn't really hold up. Which makes me wonder if I'm just going to have to tear out the whole seat and duct-tape M. Small's car seat to the floor.

Fortunately, the smell isn't really holding up either. We "accidentally" left Trash's back car windows open on Sunday night, and it rained from midnight till morning. So now the scent of corruption has a gentle "musty wet car" undertone that makes it almost pleasant.

I heard somewhere that a mouse takes two weeks to fully decompose. I’m giving it that long. If the smell is still there, I'm going to plan B: assume it's a rat and giving it another two weeks. Beyond that, we may have to improvise.

posted by M. Giant 9:14 PM 13 comments


We had something like that happen with our Jeep, which we only use when it's cold outside or if we have a lot of passengers. After a couple of months of non-use, we got in it and were almost knocked out by a horrendous stench. We sprayed, left the windows open, etc. It eventually turned out that a container of restaurant leftovers (barbecued ribs, actually) had managed to wedge itself into a hard-to-see spot. Very, very bad.

By Anonymous Anonymous, at October 9, 2007 at 10:02 PM  

We had that happen in a car (unfortunately the car in which I was attempting to learn to drive stick) during the summer once, and it turned out to be fish juice--it had leaked out of the bag we had brought our fresh fish home in and soaked into the rug, swiftly becoming less-than-fresh...yum. I hate to say it, but the smell never left.

By Blogger OodRebellion, at October 10, 2007 at 8:41 AM  

I got a second-hand car that smelled of cigar smoke. I drove around with pans of baking soda in the back footwells for a few months and it really helped. You can also work baking soda into the (dry!) upholstery and carpets and vacuum it out again.

By Blogger Betsey Langan, at October 10, 2007 at 9:30 AM  

If the smell seems to be coming from the back seat, you need to rule out the trunk. I've had stuff get wedged in the trunk behind the seat back. Don't forget the spare tire well.

You might also take it to an auto shop and have them put it up on a lift to see if the problem is something stuck to the undercarriage or the rear axle.

By Anonymous Anonymous, at October 10, 2007 at 10:19 AM  

This happened in an ex's car - turned out some milk had spilled in the trunk, gotten through the carpet, and pooled in an indentation in the frame. The smell was indescribable. I second the suggestion to check the trunk.

By Blogger Jennaratrix, at October 10, 2007 at 11:26 AM  

Once you've ruled out that forgotten body in the trunk, you might try using a steam cleaner on the upholstery in the back. I had a friend who let her son eat a bowl of cereal in the back seat on the way to school one day when they were running late, and en route one of our fair city's infamous potholes caused him to upend the mostly full bowl all over the back of the car. It was the dead of winter and it still reeked. She rented a steam cleaner and added Oxi Clean to the water/shampoo and it really became quite tolerable after that - just a vague whiff of spoiled milk on the hottest of days, easily solved by leaving the windows cracked open in summer.

By Blogger Heather, at October 10, 2007 at 1:40 PM  

Definitely check the trunk. We once had a cantalope fall out of a grocery bag. Yech.

By Anonymous Anonymous, at October 10, 2007 at 3:00 PM  

I had a potato, one teeny little potato, fall into a compartment in the trunk. Horrendous smell, took a month to locate the source.

By Blogger Bunny, at October 10, 2007 at 4:08 PM  

everything i need to know, i learned from tv. the "how clean is your house" ladies deodorize using charcoal, the plain, unfueled variety.

By Anonymous Anonymous, at October 11, 2007 at 6:10 AM  

This probably isn't the problem you're having, if you've isolated it to the actual back *seat*, but I drove around for like a year with a weird smell. I was convinced my evil asshole neighbors were doing weird things to my car, but it turned out to be the result of broken seals inside the passenger side doors which were letting water in when it rained, which soaked the carpet and just *sat* for days and days and days. Somehow, this also caused water to collect underneath the bench part of the back seat, which didn't help with the smell--does the bottom of your backseat lift up, by any chance, so that you can put the seats down and fit more crap in the trunk? You might check there as well.

By Anonymous Anonymous, at October 11, 2007 at 4:39 PM  

I don't have a car because I walk everywhere, but sometimes my shoes get stinky and then I either put them in the washer with Tide (which stinks worse than anything that could ever get into my shoes) or I just throw them out. I know this doesn't help with your car stink problem, but I wanted to get on the stinky transportation bandwagon.

By Blogger XUP, at October 12, 2007 at 11:06 AM  

Mythbusters debunked the myth that you can't get the smell out of a stanky car(http://mythbusters-wiki.discovery.com/page/Episode+7:+Stinky+Car,+Raccoon+Rocket?t=anon). Hopefully you won't need to remove the seats like they did!

By Blogger Teslagrl, at October 17, 2007 at 10:16 AM  

Try to lift the car. A friend of mine had been smelling this awful stench inside the car but couldn't find it til she decided to check underneath the car where they found a dead cat's deteriorating body.. Eew..

By Anonymous Anonymous, at October 24, 2007 at 12:28 AM  

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