January 17, 2020

That New Car Smell

1970 Dodge Swinger

Growing up in New York in the late ’50s and early ’60s, if a neighbor got a new car, it was a big deal. Back then, you got married forever and you kept your car forever. But if you did get a new car, the whole neighborhood knew it. 

If a kid wanted to check it out, and if his hands were sparkling clean and his shoes weren’t muddy, then the neighbor might let the kid sit in it. However, if it was the gold standard — a Cadillac — a kid wouldn’t try to get near it. If I got too close to a new Caddy, my parents would say, “Stand back and don’t touch it.” As if I might pull out a hammer and bang on the windshield. 

Because of the icy winters and heavily salted roads, your new car looked like an old, rusty can of Heinz beans in short order. Plus, New Yorkers squeezed into parking spaces by banging into your new bumper 38 times. When the bumper was hanging off your car, they were done parking. 

My father didn’t get his first new car until he was 42. He was so happy driving around in his brand new $3,000 1970 Dodge Swinger with AC and a vinyl roof. For months after, he couldn’t stop talking about the new car smell. “Smell it. Smell it” was his mantra. Once, when he was about to get a ticket, he asked the cop to stick his head in the window and smell it. The cop laughed so hard that he let him go. 

Back then, few people ate or drank in their cars. Cars didn’t have cup holders; just ashtrays. People smoked in their cars and got pregnant in their cars, but eating in the car was out of the question. I recently told my friend I wanted to get a slice of pizza. He said there was one in his glove compartment. 

And when you sold your car, no one ever asked if it was a nonsmoker’s car. The “nonsmoker car” question hadn’t been invented yet. In fact, the nonsmoker hadn’t been invented either. You could smoke in your hospital bed an hour after having lung surgery. 

Back then, cars didn’t have cup holders; just ashtrays.

When I started to drive, my parents occasionally let me borrow their car, which when I think back on it, was an incredible act of love considering the kind of lunatic I was back then. At the end of the night, I always put from 50 cents to a buck’s worth of gas in. Gas was 36 cents a gallon then. 

Practically everything my father taught me about a car could apply to living a better life. My father took great care of his car. How you drive and how you take care of a car says a lot about the person and who they are. If the inside of your car looks like a storage bin turned upside down, then there’s a good chance that your insides are also a mess. My father reminded me, “If you want to keep nice things nice, it takes work.” But we all know people who have to clear the front seat and floor of their car before you can get in, to prevent the possibility of stepping on something that was once alive. 

My dad taught me how to put air in the tires and how to check the oil. We’re Jewish so we only check the oil, not change it. These days, most people I know couldn’t find the dipstick because they don’t know where the hood release is. He also taught me how to use hand signals — even the ones that let people know exactly what you think
of them. 

His marriage tip was: If you see a woman and her car is broken down, stop to help her. She could be the one. When he was single, he worked at an auto school where one day my mother came in for driving lessons. A year later, they got married. She passed her driving test, and then proceeded to drive him crazy for the next 39 years.


Mark Schiff is a comedian, actor and writer.