I have a car! But it smells funny. How can I fix it?
July 1, 2007 10:19 PM   Subscribe

How can I make my car smell better? I have recently been passed partial stewardship of a family car and I want to fix it up. It's a good car, but recently it's had some window issues that have, in turn, led to some smell issues.

Basically the windows wouldn't stay up, so a certain amount of water would get inside it when it rained (especially because we park it outside, uncovered, sometimes). Not a lot of water, because the windows were never stuck more than an inch or two open, but over the course of a few months I think it's made the car smell sort of... funny. Add to that the fact that my father smoked in it when he was the primary driver, and you get a car that smells somewhat unpleasant- not awful, but it definitely has a musty funk that I would like to keep from getting any worse. The windows are fixed now, which should help, but I'm worried about mildew.

I'm going to have access to the car this week because my brother, the other driver of the car, will be out of town. I have plenty of time and effort to devote to this project, but unfortunately not much money or other resources (including any knowledge of cars or how they're made). I can maybe spend/convince my mom to spend about 30 bucks on supplies beyond what we already possess, but not much beyond that. I want to make this thing smell good. What do I need to do? What parts can I easily clean without having to dismantle the car beyond what I'm comfortable with? I want to do the best job I can.

(I did search for and find other questions about wet cars, but they didn't really apply to this situation because most of them dealt with soaked cars. This is more a matter of dampness.)
posted by MadamM to Travel & Transportation (12 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I had a similar problem with my car and the "smell o' death." The smell is almost certainly from mold and mildew. You have to: 1) eliminate any standing water and thoroughly dry the car out, 2) plug up any places where water is getting in - this means fixing the windows and seals, 3) clean out anything (food under the seats) that might be contributing to the smell - a good vacuuming will help.

If you do all of this, the smell should greatly improve or go away. The mold/mildew will still be there, but as long as its dry, it's not going to make much of a smell.
posted by zippy at 11:10 PM on July 1, 2007

"... fixing the windows and seals if needed." You already fixed them, so you're set here.
posted by zippy at 11:13 PM on July 1, 2007

I've become obsessive about keeping my car clean, and, prior to my obsession, it smelled pretty bad inside. (Not mildew, though, so my experience isn't 100% relevant.) The thing is that you want to eliminate the smell, not cover it up.

If you have floormats or anything else removable, I'd leave them outside on a sunny (and not too humid) day. The sun can help. (The floormats should be included in what I'm about to describe, in addition to leaving them out in the sun.)

I'd first vacuum everything out, and then shampoo the carpets, (and make sure they dry!). This did wonders for me. I also sprayed some Febreze onto the carpets/upholstery after shampooing them, although I really have no idea if that helped.

FWIW, you don't necessarily need a carpet shampooing machine... I just sprayed some (very diluted, very warm) Simple Green onto the carpets, scrubbed them vigorous with a brush (like you'd use to clean a bathtub), and then rubbed them with a towel (to pick up dirt, and to get some of the moisture up.) Then I went over them with a Shopvac, to pick up all the dislodged junk and to try to get up a little bit more of the moisture. (As mine wasn't mildew, I can't comment on how effective Simple Green is on mildew... All you really need is something safe for spraying on your carpet/upholstery (e.g., not bleach!), something that'll kill the mildew, and something that smells decent...) You don't need a ton of 'solution' to clean with: I'd recommend against pouring anything onto it. Just a medium spraying should be okay.

As far as what parts to clean: basically everything cloth or cloth-esque, including (but not limited to) floormats, carpet, upholstery/seats, and the ceiling. (It probably won't help with the smell, but as long as you're taking the time, clean your windows and the rest of the interior, like the dashboard.)

Even though leaving your windows open was how you got the smells in, I'd encourage you to consider leaving them open on dry days. It can do a lot to get the smell out. (Just don't forget they're open!)
posted by fogster at 11:16 PM on July 1, 2007

I once owned a Honda wagon with a leaky... well, everything.

First, take every carpeted object out. Start with the floormats, then think about the carpet. Look close, usually you can start at the driver's side door, and remove the entire floor carpet without unbolting anything.

Put them in the sun. All day. Few stinks can survive the UV light provided by our own sun. For extra effect, do a silly dance over your floormats, in the sunshine, preferably where people can see you.

But, there are exceptionally rank, rancid, ripe stinks that survive even the strongest sunlight (my Honda bred these, unfortunately) . Sadly, neither the UV, nor the dancing can truly rid you of malodorous fibers of this degree. For these, you must work.

Take some of the perfumed baking powder that's designed for use on carpets (like this one). shake it on your seats, carpet, trunk, well -- pretty much everywhere. Let it sit 10-12 hours, then vacuum it all up -- all of it, this stuff sucks to sit on, so do a good job of sucking it all out, or your brother will kick your ass for defiling his car.

Did that do it? No? Ok. Get some citrus de-stinker. Something like this. You'll see it marketed as an air freshener in your local Trader Joes... but you're going to use it in much better ways. Spray it on your seats, under your seats, in your trunk, everywhere where it might get absorbed. Go nuts. Then close up all your windows, and park your car in the sun. You want to get the interior nice and hot, let the orange oil get a little steamy, and saturate every porous inch of your interior.

If that didn't do it then it's pretty much hopeless. Invest in incense, weed and scented candles -- the car will still reek, but a lot of people will smell it, smile and nod.
posted by toxic at 11:31 PM on July 1, 2007 [1 favorite]

I have this aromatherapy diffuser that plugs into my cigarette lighter. It's fabulous. It has removable pads that you can put drops of essential oils on. If you put enough oil on the pad it will give off a very strong scent, especially if you use oils like clary sage, pine- experiment to see what combo you like.
posted by solongxenon at 12:08 AM on July 2, 2007

Sorry, try link again here.
posted by solongxenon at 12:09 AM on July 2, 2007

After the vacuuming/airing/sunning of your carpets, stick a drop of something like NilOdour on them. It's super concentrated so you only need a teeny tiny bit - if you don't like the scent of it, leave the windows open on a suny day and all odour will be gone. It also works wonders on chunder smells.
posted by cholly at 4:34 AM on July 2, 2007

After you've dried the car out good, you can make a cheap and easily replenished air freshener - take a small jar and lid (babyfood, mustard), punch some holes in the lid, fill it with coffee beans. If the smell starts to weaken, leave it in the sun inside the car, once it finally gives out, just put some more beans in. Another option is to find a soap you like the smell of, buy a small bar, and put it under a seat. Just be aware that the soap option can be REALLY strong if the car stays closed up for several days at a time.
posted by pupdog at 6:18 AM on July 2, 2007

In addition to all of the above, check to see if your car has a cabin air filter. If so, change it.
posted by Floydd at 6:24 AM on July 2, 2007

I once drove through a tropical storm with a lot of standing water in the road, and afterwards, my car had the big reek, especially when it got hot.

A friend told me that pouring rubbing alcohol under the carpet would kill the mold and thus, the smell.

I never tried it (I'm a Febreeze man), but I thought I would share it here in case someone else has some thoughts on this method.
posted by 4ster at 7:39 AM on July 2, 2007

I thought my mom was crazy when she recommended Zeolite to get the body-odor-plus-rabbit-poop smell out of a former housemate's room, but it really worked. I found it at Bed Bath and Beyond.
posted by radioamy at 8:48 AM on July 2, 2007

Removing the carpet to clean it (and the baseboards once it's out) is the best solution, though not for the timid. You'll likely have to remove all the seats and potential a fair amount of side panels and runners. It's very doable and if you're careful and methodical you can get it apart and back together again.

If you're not willing/able to do that, my standard approach to dealing with excessive water was to buy a number of containers of 99% alcohol, pour them all the hell over the floor and stick a big ol fan in the car.

Here's the dilemma: alcohol is flammable.

I've done this half a dozen times and never had an issue but I'm hesitant to suggest this approach to anyone else.

My third choice, once I'd left a fan to sit in the car for a while to try to dry up any remaining moisture, would be carpet cleaner. You'll still want to take the seats out but that's usually a lot easier than taking the carpet out also.

If you don't have a garage to keep the car in while you let the fan run then look into a tarp or even just an umbrella stuck in and covering the partially open window.
posted by phearlez at 10:43 AM on July 2, 2007

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