This article first appeared in Goodwood Magazine
My favourite smell ever is a memory – I’ll spare you the Proustian analysis, but it is nonetheless encapsulated in the nostrils of my pre-teen self, seated in the passenger seat of a beaten-up bronze green Land Rover, pulling a rickety horsebox containing two ponies, one of which I would be riding in a local gymkhana. It was the summer of 1974; Rock The Boat by Hues Corporation was cranked up on the radio; hot dry air, fragranced with the high green hedgerows and infused with the dust of the Norfolk grain harvest, rushed at us through the open windows, mixing with the scent of ponies, diesel, saddle soap, Labradors and the vague tang of the driver’s Hermès Calèche. It was heaven. I was 12.
Now that I think about it, it’s possible I’ve spent the rest of my life trying to re-connect with that moment – which was my first real taste of the feeling of freedom that driving can offer. More than the actual mechanics of the 4X4 itself though, it was the elation of that moment captured by my nose (and registered in my brain) which has stayed with me – and for which I yearn, in truth, almost every time I sit in a car. I should say at this point that ever since I can remember, I have displayed hyperosmic tendencies. In other words, I have an overactive sense of smell, which means “bad” smells are the equivalent of nails on a blackboard, and cars are, for me, often the ultimate torture chamber.
As a result, I can happily trace my adult life in cars via their fragrances. My first car – an ancient grey VW Beetle, which I happily drove around the lanes of Norfolk, singing loudly to Supertramp’s Breakfast in America, smelled of petrol (it was always leaking and breaking down), leather – from the shiny red, cracked hide seats – and the gauche perfume of my youth, Anaïs Anaïs, which I used to drip onto the grey woollen floor mats to improve the ambience. I knew I’d met a kindred spirit when a new friend, a sophisticated German, studying in Norwich for a couple of years, whipped out a bottle of Chanel Cristalle almost before she’d fastened her seatbelt and sprayed it wildly around my car. Upon reflection, perhaps she just didn’t like Anaïs Anaïs, but what she exclaimed as she released the jet of Chanel has always remained with me: “Why on earth don’t they make perfume for cars?”
My university years were a bit of a let-down on the car front. My own car, a mustard-coloured Austin 1300 (worse than admitting to having a perm in one’s teens), always smelled, well, like an Austin 1300 – staid, stately and, frankly, deeply average. Were it not for the fact that I lived in a gamekeeper’s cottage on a country estate, miles from university, and I needed Austin, I would have parked him up and walked away from him forever, such was my indifference towards him and his fragrance (Austin was the only car I referred to as “he”). I can never smell burning rubber (it’s a long story) without thinking for a moment of him.
Some years later, the Porsche and the Saab Turbo should have been warning enough, not to mention the lingering scent in each of them of another woman’s fragrance, mixed with last night’s tennis kit and Sunday morning’s football boots. But, reader, I married him anyway. I didn’t get to drive either of the cars because the ex-girlfriend took the Porsche 928 as her own particular form of alimony and the Saab went back to “the company”. But never mind, because “the company” moved us to New York, where we owned a bright red Golf Rabbit (GTI) which smelled of Gitanes cigarettes and peanut butter. The Rabbit took numerous merciless beatings on the pot-holed Manhattan streets and highways. And it never seemed to mind being towed away by the NYPD, which it was, on countless occasions, since my ex never paid his parking tickets – right up to the day when we went to the car pound and the police refused to hand the car back unless he paid every overdue ticket. The cost – $2,500 – was more than Rabbit was worth. We waved goodbye to her through the wire fencing on the West Side Highway.
Another leather-lined Saab Turbo convertible (this time in black metallic) came onto the scene. It was the early 1990s, New York was happening. Hell, we were happening. The Saab had the sweet
smell of success like no other car I’ve owned or driven since. It had a car-phone (our first) the size of a shoe-box, heated seats so hot they burned a hole in your Calvins, buttery cream leather that smelled like Paul Newman’s neck (or what I assumed Paul Newman’s neck would smell like) and it drove like a Derby winner.
Except that in New York, there was nowhere to drive a racehorse like Saab – you certainly couldn’t on the world’s biggest parking lot, the Long Island Expressway, which we headed out on every weekend en route to The Hamptons. We persisted – driving through Central Park in the heat of the summer with the top down and Everything But The Girl blasting out of the sound system, speeding down Dune Road in Westhampton with our friends packed into the back on our way to drink tequila and dance until the early hours. Then we pushed our luck with Saab, by doing what every successful young couple living in Manhattan in the early Nineties did: we got a dog. Cream leather seats, a convertible roof and an excitable Vizsla puppy equals disaster.
We conceded defeat and, on our way to being “in the family way”, bought a 4X4 – a brand new Jeep Cherokee in racing green with, ahem, cream leather seats (again); but at least it had a large boot and a dog guard. It was the scent of the Jeep that won me over immediately: it was Winalot meets Hermès leather meets new puppy, plus (and this, not so attractive) an indefinable but clearly discernible whiff of smug.
Within a year or two, back in England, with the Jeep tagging along for the ride, there was new-born baby breath x2 to add to the mix, and after that my mucky riding boots and sticky Barbour to round it all off. I was approaching the nostril Nirvana of my teenage years. But then something went horribly wrong with the scent in my car and my life in general. The angelic “smalls” began
to grow into toddlers, with all the attendant itinerant mess and chaos that accompanied the process. The acrid sweet smell of sticky yoghurt cartons, apple cores, broken biscuits and sweaty socks began to permeate my four-wheeled sanctum. I searched feverishly for suitable fragrances to overcome the pong. A few squirts of Chanel would no longer cut the mustard. Car fragrances hadn’t improved since the days of the Feu Orange Traffic Light, which I remember begging my father not to purchase from our local garage, knowing only too well that it would bring on one of my teenage migraines.
One day, in one of my favourite places, the Farmacia Santa Novella in Chelsea, I found myself earwigging on the conversation between a patrician older gentleman who had emerged from the vintage Rolls-Royce parked outside and his fur-swathed female companion. “You see,” he was saying, “I buy the potpourri from here, pierce the bag and place it under the seats of all my Rollers. It works for a while.” His glamorous female companion expressed vague interest. I was riveted. I left the store having bought two bags, vowing to give it a whirl. He was right: the delicious aroma the Jeep was bathed in overcame all else, and lasted... for about a week. Then I was back to square one and eau de toddler took over again.
The toddlers turned into football-mad boys. Did I mention that synthetic footie kit stinks? To add to the pong, my eldest began swimming thrice weekly on a swim team, adding the stench of chlorine to the mix. It was at the point when I began burning joss sticks, while driving, to outpace the car stink, that I realised I needed to either create something myself or sell the Jeep (or the kids). A friend – a hospital consultant – suggested a surgical mask. I considered taking her up on the offer.
Instead, I began to research car fragrances and to ask the question: why had no one ever come up with a valid alternative to Little Trees (billions of which have been sold around the world). The answer, I discovered, is that it’s almost impossible to persuade a luxury fragrance to remain in a car long enough to make an impact, but not such an impact that it becomes an imposition. Years of research followed, alongside a number of magazine-editing day- jobs. By the time I’d found what I thought was “the answer”, the boys were in senior schools, my husband was my ex – a Lexus- driving one at that – and I was, much to the chagrin of my long- legged teens, driving a Mini Countryman.
How did I know my marriage was over? When I was able to wave goodbye to my exquisite convertible Beetle (a 10th-anniversary gift), with its delicious scent of newly tooled leather and box-fresh carpet, without so much as a backward glance. How did I know that Roadscents would work? When I travelled to Suffolk with my “GodSmell” dangling from the rear-view-mirror – the car stuffed to the gills with Dorrito-munching teenagers, two dogs, a couple of rose plants and a whole Brie cheese, without so much as needing to wind down the window.