QotW: How do you get bad smells out of your car?

The question this week is a personal one. Of the many traumatic things that happened after my AE86 got stolen (and recovered) is the fact that the entire car now smells like smoke. I’ve owned the car for 20 years and one of my favorite things about it was that it smelled like an AE86. I could sit in any AE86, even one in Japan, and provided the driver wasn’t a serial lung abuser, instantly get a hit of that heady Aichi off-gasing in my nostrils. It was heaven. Now it smells like a crack house. Vintage cars are about the senses — all of them — and I want to get my car smelling like it’s supposed to, if that’s even possible.

How do you get bad smells out of your car?

The most entertaining comment by next Monday will receive a prize. Scroll down to see the winner of last week’s QotW, “What Japan-market car from 1998 would you import?“.

The answers ran the gamut, proving that Japanese cars still had loads of diversity in 1998. What would one even say in 25 years about the cars of 2022? There’s nothing appreciably different about them. But I digress.

But in 1998 we had everything from popular kei cars like f31roger‘s Suzuki Wagon R to tuning house creations like LB1‘s Tommykaira ZZ. Rally-bred specials like Scotty G‘s Subaru 22B to turbo sedans like Porterhousestk‘s Toyota Chaser. Hot rod wagons like エーイダン‘s Toyota Caldina GT-T to luxury sedans with solar roofs like Mark Newton-John‘s Mazda 929. The possibilities were endless!

It came down to two Toyotas. It was a very close call between Jim Klein‘s Crown Comfort taxi and daniel‘s Century. A automatically opening and closing rear door would upstage just about anything in the grade school parking lot, but daniel’s notion of V12 flagship’s timelessness eked out the win.

After thinking about it a lot, imagining something that perhaps I could never get and be timeless… Toyota Century V12, being 1997 the first year of that engine, it wouldn’t be bad at all. In a world that is going towards electricity and hydrogen, I just want to transcend time.

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18 Responses to QotW: How do you get bad smells out of your car?

  1. Taylor C. says:

    That’s a tough one. But I have usually aired-out the car hard, with the windows wide open and under the sun all day long. I have also sprinkled baking soda that’s been infused with those essential oils, and then once it’s in the carpet / seats, use the hand vac and suck it up. That helps a bit, but remember you need to clean the vac filter, since it will eventually clog.

    I guess an Air Spencer or a My Shaldan with window closed and good sunny day might help as well, but then I feel that bakes the smoke with the air freshener as well.

  2. Jim Klein says:

    To get rid of the cigarette smell in the car, you just need to start smoking cigars in the car. As in nature and the lairs of predators, a smaller predator will move out if a larger one moves in. A bad smell completely goes away when a worse smell moves in. You’ll see.

    Or just stop by the car wash for the best selection and get one of those mirror dangly things in AXE Body Spray flavor. Judging by my teenager, that stuff overpowers everything and also clears your sinuses like you wouldn’t believe as an added bonus.

  3. nlpnt says:

    When my mom used to smoke she swore by dryer sheets (Bounce or similar) placed under the front seats and in other strategic places.

    As an aside, wouldn’t an AE81/2 have the same smell, or at least Japan-built ones while NUMMI ones smell like Chevys even if Toyota-badged since they’d used different suppliers, materials and methods than Japan did?

    • Ben Hsu says:

      That is a very good question! I spent a lot of times in Novas of that generation, and they didn’t smell particularly Japanese to me. But I’ve never been in a Japan-market one, so I have no point of reference.

  4. Fred Langille says:

    Only time and tomato juice can rid any vehicle of skunk odors. Never dealt with it but, have heard from those who have.

  5. Keith P says:

    Check out ozium. I have head good things about this cleaning up bad odors in cars.

  6. Hachibrokeyou says:

    When my ’98 Rav4 was stolen several years ago, it was also recovered with a new, very potent smoke smell. Aside from a lot of vacuuming, the thing I mainly used was the little ozium gel canisters that fit in the cupholders. It took a really long time, but eventually it regained some of that familiar old Japanese car smell.

    Side note- the one and only thing that made me chuckle about the whole situation, was that when I got the car back, in the trunk area the thieves had left behind a broom and a pair of jeans (not mine). So at least I can say I got something out of the whole ordeal haha. I’m so sorry to hear that you’re in this situation. Even though the car is back, its never quite the same.

    • Ben Hsu says:

      You know what I got? A stack of receipts that led us to some security camera footage of the thief. It’s good to know that the Japanese car smell can be recovered. That’s the main thing I want, not just to get rid of or mask the cigarette smoke.

  7. Brian85 says:

    How about a bowl of baking powder? We use that in our refrigerator to help remove odors.

  8. エーイダン says:

    Getting the smells out of a vehicle I learned at work; Get the source of the odour out of the vehicle and it’ll start smelling better after a few minutes of the windows down. Unfortunately though sometimes the source of the smell are those, lumpy, squidgy things known as…..the work crew.

    • nlpnt says:

      I had a Geo Metro (2-door!) that stank of stale cigs when it was left closed up on warm, wet days. It wasn’t until I was cleaning it up to sell that I discovered a rear-seat ashtray that the dealer who sold it to me also missed and it was filled with butts. I can’t even begin to understand the thought processes of whoever at Suzuki Auto in the late ’80s who decided to put it there and how GM’s bean counters missed the chance to swap it out for a blank plastic plug, Woulda rather had pop-out rear windows…

  9. Dan says:

    Ozone – you can buy a generator on Amazon. When I picked up my Miata, the tonneau cover reeked of stale cigarette smoke. I kept it in a garbage bag with a generator and within a couple of days and it doesn’t smell like cigarettes anymore. What does smell like, however, are old hotel rooms that have been converted from smoking to non-smoking – not quite cigarette smoke but not quite neutral either.

    Of course, you shouldn’t be in the car while the ozone is working, and it may accelerate degradation of plastics etc. because it is a highly reactive substance.

    I’ve also heard good things about a product called Zero Odor Pro on Amazon.

  10. John C says:

    You should check out Larry Kosilla’s channel on Youtube, AMMO NYC. He’s a pro car detailer in the New York area and has numerous videos about cleaning up “barn finds” and other such cars (not to mention some pretty exotic stuff).

    I believe the product he used on a particularly nasty rescue was Simonize Odor-Out which is a chlorine dioxide tablet that gets dissolved in a small jar of water set inside the car.

    Hopefully this helps!

  11. Redbull says:

    Charcoal. This old home remedy is like nature’s toxin absorber. …
    Baking Soda. Few products have as many uses as sodium carbonate, or baking soda. …
    Vinegar. This harsh but clean-smelling liquid is ideal against overpowering smells. …
    Carpet Cleaner. …
    Air Fresheners.

  12. f31roger says:

    My Project car not only smelled a bit, but it was abused HARD. A lot of “it’s a drift missile” and it looks like someone had a dog as co pilot as well (which is fine), but that co pilot chewed the driver side interior.

    Smell + chewed parts + missing parts + old interior that was left exposed to weather via opened windows = replace and redo everything.

    It was something I had to face. Since I was rebuilding the RB25det, I couldn’t have a nice engine in a car that was horrible in and out. So I committed to doing everything.

    Since I am a regular guy, I paid out of pocket for everything.

    Initial Interior assessment =

    Gutting out the interior =

    Getting spare interior parts and cleaning carpet/headliner =

    Including trunk lining =

    Re did the dashboard, rear seats and panels. R31 door cards

    Besides redoing the seats/panels, professionally cleaning carpet and headliner, I also cleaned the interior while it was bare.

    Hopefully a professional detailing shop can get out that smokey smell.

    * Don’t forget the squash air freshener!!!

  13. Chet Manley says:

    I would try getting an air ionizers like those ones that sharper image used to sell. You can find them on fb marketplace for cheap. Leave it in there for a day or two and it helps out a lot. The dealership I used to work at would do that for smoker cars and even my old VW mechanic shop would do that in campers that smelled mildew-y after they replaced the moldy bits.

  14. Land Ark says:

    This is relevant to my interests since the Celsior I bought over the summer has a bit of a smell in it. The previous owner smoked heavily based on how much ash came out of the cabin air filter and was down in the center console. When I bought it the dealer said it didn’t smell of smoke – a lie – and there are burn marks on the shifter base and a couple small marks on the carpet.
    It has had baking soda in the center console since I bought it and the dealer threw a can of gel air freshener in it but all that did was replace the, frankly kind of faint and tolerable, smoke smell with sickening fruity smell. I also bought one of those air freshener bombs and set that off in it and it seemed to help for a month or so, but the smoke smell came back.

    Luckily it is kind of faint like I said, but noticeable in the right conditions. But I pretty quickly go nose-blind to it and really only catch the smell when I first get in the car.
    Ultimately, I think to fully get rid of it a full professional deep cleaning is needed. Since my car has wool seats, I am terrified to try anything for fear of ruining it.

    Now, let me tell you about how bad my driver’s floor mat smelled… After several rounds of deep cleaning and hosing down, as Seinfeld said, it still smells? It still smells! And I wish it smelled like smoke.

  15. bbracer says:

    Supermodel with nice perfume? That was the solution in the ’80’s anyway I thought.

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