As I get older, it is constantly amazing how all the little things stir a memory from my past. Certain smells, for example, hold the key to many parts of my brains drawers. A certain suntan lotion can bring back a long forgotten summer on a sandy beach in Wales when there was actually summer sunshine. A perfume caught on a breeze floods the memory bank with a vision of a lost teenage love from a school disco and that fumbling slow dance that you hoped would bring a first kiss. The clutch of your first car burning itself out in traffic on the drive home from a bank holiday weekend. You never forget your first clutch.
Unlike Wales and the Soltan lotion though, the visual memories of cars from my past don’t always sync. Whether that is grey matter starting to go off or the fact that some cars weren’t as good as I recall I am yet to determine. For example, I’m pretty sure that I can recall being driven in a friends older brothers VW Scirocco Storm MK1 and having immediate trouser trouble at the speed, cornering capability and gold on cream/brown interior surrounding us, yet recently, upon meeting a quite decent version of this car, the trousers were not troubled at all.
Similarly, whenever there is a whiff of a clutch going these days, it generally makes me suck air through my teeth and think of what it may cost to fix, added to how long before I can get it booked in. As a youthful man I merely thought of the trip to the scrap yard and a weekend of mini-beers in the garage fixing it and how that would be a great way to spend the time.
However, one thing that has stayed on both levels for no apparent reason is interiors and their smells. Everyone goes on about that ‘new car’ smell which is lauded as a nice thing. Really? It’s just a concoction of plastics, glue, rubber and metals so I’d hardly want to bottle it and dab it around my wrist before a night out.
But to some, they think that this can be replicated in the form of an air-freshener. Now, I’ve not gone near these for a couple of reasons. One, a new car is only new once and as such, the addition of my middle-aged carcass plus others and our no-longer new clothes and footwear, means that smell is gradually going to fade. By putting in an air-freshener that is apparently ‘new car’ smelling, is going to result in one thing, namely, it smells like an air-freshener. And why do you want that?
How many mini-cabs have you been in where it appears you are stepping inside a rolling cave of pot-pourri rather than a vehicle? I’d rather take a mid-nineties black cab with that odour of old fags and diesel than the fake, nostril burning stench inside these things. Even the ladies and gents who work in the perfume section of a department store would to turn it down and that’s saying something.
Might I suggest then, dear mini-cab owner, that if your transport requires more than one Magic Tree then you don’t need to bring it to work? You need it to be condemned as a public health hazard. I fear that should you try and use the new car smell versions of these things, there may be no room for passengers. Or you. Clearly, what you should do is remove all the working parts from the exterior and turn the remaining shell into a flowerbed. After all, you probably have mushrooms growing in there already.
Imagine then that whenever you enter any car that is over five years old, your nostrils are expecting anything but a new car smell. Is that a whiff of child? Of a discarded McDonalds French fry that fell under a seat a few years back? Nope, it’s a mixture of muddy shoes, cat piss and dog turd. That’s because, when it comes to cars, on the whole, many people don’t clean them that often and when they do, they’ve got suckered into Sunday trading and forgotten the art of washing the car themselves. Instead, off you trundle to one of many ‘hand car washes’ in the area where the queue isn’t too long and the whole thing can be cleaned, vacc’d and polished for a fiver. Or less.
But stop and ask yourself something. How good a job are they going to do? Clearly better than you because you’ve become so lazy that you can’t fit washing the car at home into you schedule and I find this a very sad thing. You see washing the car when I was young was never a chore. Mainly because it meant I knew what was expected which was good enough work that I would be rewarded with not only my pocket money but also two words that I still love to hear. ‘Good job.’
Over the years, I washed many different cars and not always my own families. This meant that I got to see, touch and experience many different models and makes that also helped me understand good and bad among the streets where I lived. Washing a vinyl roof on a sunny day meant you needed to dry it off quite quickly to avoid any water-marks. The inside wheel arches of many Austin/Leyland cars meant you needed to carry plasters. The inside wheel arches on a Range Rover rear door meant the rubber around it would come away as soon as you looked at it and reveal a hole in the weld underneath. Most Mercedes owners liked you to leave all the air-vents facing the right way and at the symmetrical angles – clearly they all had OCD. This knowledge went on.
But the car that I fell for and the car that I offered to wash for nothing was the BMW M635CSi owned by my brother-in-law. It meant a five-and-a-half mile round trip cycle ride but it was worth it. No other car on my round, in my neighbourhood even, had wipers on the headlights. THIS, my dearest Scirocco, is the definition of trouser trouble.
And, so it has come to pass after all these years that I have a close encounter with a 635 again. This time, I don’t need to wash it but as I approach it, I am already back to the days of my youth and this feels more like those disco nerves rather than car-washing admiration. I loved my brother-in-laws old beemer to the point of probably being sadder to see it leave than he was and here in front of me might be something that turns out to not meet those visual memories once more.
I walked around the car first of all fondly remembering the feel of those panels and corners that I’d washed so many times before. The air was warm with sunshine and the smell of it was already seeping into my senses as was the nicely warmed fresh tarmac she sat on. As I rounded on the drivers door I knew only one thing would eminate from the inside; years of interior stink that would sit hidden underneath some cleaning fluid or worse, another sodding air-freshener.
That familiar feeling of the door handle under my fingers was right, the shapes and styling was right, Jesus, even the wipers on the headlights were right. I opened the door, ready for that entire fake odour to cover me in a shroud of disappointment. It didn’t happen. I almost winced because I thought I’d not done it right but the door was open and all that greeted my turned up face was a smell that took me right back to my bucket and sponge. It was pure 1988 BMW leather interior and there was nothing fake or wrong about it.
Poking my head inside it was all present and correct and I don’t think I’ve been happier. Finding any car that has had the interior looked after is a joy. Not to the point where you have plastic covers on it forever as though the occupants are to be murdered on their trip, but genuinely cared for. This is a car that has not been taken lock-stock to the fiver wash. This has had someone doing it right. Cleaning the interior, vacuuming it out, shaking and brushing the mats before re-assembling it all and then washing, drying and polishing the outside. Amazing.
Driving this car was secondary because I’d never driven my brother-in-laws car as I wasn’t old enough so had no reference but as I drove it around the countryside in the sunshine, the windows down and that lazy engine drifting me around, the breeze blowing in wasn’t making me smile but the breeze blowing in and swirling the interior smell around me was. It goes to prove, to me at least, that when you do have an aural and visual link that hits all the right notes, it is a memory of divine beauty.
Christ knows what will happen if I meet Jane Millichamp and she’s wearing Drakkar Noir perfume…