Sam Skelton finds the olfactory appeal of old cars one of their most powerful traits

My car smells. No, it’s not a simple playground insult toward the best that Trollhattan could muster, but my 9000 genuinely has a new aroma to it. Somehow, a 5-litre bottle of oil has fallen over in the boot, unscrewed its own lid, and emptied itself all over the carpet. My toolkit, also in the boot, was affected. Fortunately, my beloved ancestral tartan picnic blanket remained unscathed.

I blame my mate Vikki. When I related the tale she insisted upon seeing the bottle in question, and, face stricken with guilt, declared it to be a bottle designed by the plastic packaging company she works for. Evidently, the screw cap is not fit for purpose, and she will be reporting back as such to her bosses. The world of plastic packaging is likely to be unaffected.

Anyway. Repeated application of bicarbonate of soda, vacuuming and other means of cleaning the carpet have been largely unsuccessful, so I fear I shall have to source a replacement. And the inside of my SAAB has lost the lovely leather scent in favour of an oilier aroma. It’s not the end of the world – I don’t mind oil. But it’s got me thinking.

A lot of the appeal of old cars is in the way they smell. Stick your head inside a Rolls-Royce and you’ll see what I mean; my old Bentley had the faintly musty yet well-bred scent of a library in a stately home. As well it should, with Wilton on the floor, lots of lovely wood panelling and armchairs trimmed with nought but the finest hides. And equally, the petrochemical scent of a Mk2 Morris Marina evokes many memories of trips to the seaside in the mid 1970s. Scorched legs all round for children unfortunate enough to be wearing shorts.

I had an entertaining discussion with Hootenanny hero Jools Holland a few years ago, a man who shares our love of old motors. And he agrees – having bought an Austin Westminster just for the way it smelled. And it’s understandable – stick your beak in through the window and inhale, and it smells like an old car should. The sense of smell is arguably the most evocative of all – unlike sight or sound, scent can catch you entirely by surprise and take you back to a forgotten youth. In my case, a Benson-tinged Rover 827 would immediately take me back to being six. It might be that your dad was Arthur Daley, and so Hamlets in an old Jag would have the same effect upon you.

And it’s why I’m so dismayed about the fate which has befallen my poor SAAB. Because now it doesn’t smell of Elmo leather, it won’t have the same unexpected effect on people who once experienced 9000s in the dim and distant past. It’s as if an important part of the car’s history has gone, thanks to an errant plastic cap and a couple of dead and decayed dinosaurs smeared into the very fabric of the car’s interior. Former News Editor Jon Burgess once had a Peugeot 605 SVE which had previously been used to transport several bags of indeterminate rubbish to the local tip, and he was adamant that no matter what he did, the smell simply couldn’t be removed. Its leather-lined Gallic charm had been sullied by detritus and no matter what, would return no more.

I’ve certainly learned my lesson; oil is to be carried in tins rather than plastic. It’s more trustworthy. And I’m tempted to establish a League of True Historic Car Smells to try and stem the tide of inappropriate aromas destroying the sense of history which can only be recaptured through a lungful of whatever’s inside an 80s Ford.