New Car Smell - The Holy Grail?

Posted by Dan Farrell-Jones on

"NEW CAR FRESHENER" - The most searched for air freshener related term on Google, and as a manufacturer of fragrances with a heavy emphasis on vehicular usage, we would be fools not to attempt to provide a product that would be discovered each time that phrase, or some derivative of it, was typed into Google or perhaps Bing.  Maybe even Lycos...

When F-JAS was much younger, I had the intention of trying to create a fragrance that replicated the smell of a new car interior, and I felt honestly I could do a good job of it. Several Years later and 7 (and counting) New Car Type fragrances in our range, and I am forced into the realisation that perhaps the holy grail of car fragrances, is just not going to happen, simply because of the one lesson that has been drilled into me over the last few years - everyone thinks different.

The first New Car Smell we tried was a leather type scent, that we still offer now as "Factory Fresh".  The smell itself is very similar to the smell of Zaino-Z10 Leather Cleaner. This was the fragrance that to me personally, gave the best impression of a brand new from the factory car interior, with plenty of synthetic notes giving impressions of curing glues, resins, plastics and rubbers along with a non-smoky leather scent, more reminiscent of latex than what I would detect as leather.  The fragrance was popular, and sold very well, however complaints were quite high.  I remember one customer was absolutely irate about the smell, saying that it smelled more like a chemical factory disaster than a useable car air freshener, before swiftly demanding his money back.    Eventually, enough people were complaining that I had to look again at the New Car Smell.

 The second variant was created to match an actual blend of the chemicals that would be found in a new car interior.  The finished result was fairly impressive considering I had no idea how it would turn out, but it was quickly apparent to me that this fragrance suffered from contextual issues, in that it just smelled of chemicals, and whilst a new car interior having that smell without knowledge would probably be quite accurate, the fact that the customer has personally sprayed this fragrance into the vehicle gives the wrong context, and therefore, it was back to the drawing board.  This fragrance, we still offer as "New Car Type B".

A totally different approach was then taken as a stop-gap measure.  To achieve this, Leather & Vanilla were combined with Sandalwood and a small amount of New Car Type B, to create a deeper, more luxurious scent that focussed more on the leather interior of a new vehicle as opposed to the chemicals associated with the new car.  This fragrance found many fans, and it is still popular today as "New Car Leather & Vanilla" but it did still suffer from contextual problems - with some customers detecting it as a smell of stale cigarettes, a common issue with leather fragrances as they can develop a smokey note for some people, and indeed, not an ideal choice for an air freshener.

So it was quite apparent that we were not going to be able to please everyone trying to create a true new car fragrance that matched either the chemicals or the materials in the car, as too many customers, given the popularity of the keyword, were going to dislike the end result.  

We therefore decided that the only option for "New Car Smell" was to try and create something that people would quite like and be hesitant to dislike, even if it was not what they expected, and to this day, we prefer to think of "New Car - 002" as "Clean Car Smell", as it is intended to simply be a nice, clean, fresh scent suitable for a vehicle, for those who want a break from fruity, floral or designer type fragrance.

The approach does appear to have worked, as complaints for the new car smell have gone down considerably in the last year or so, although we will occasionally get word from a customer that doesn't feel it is a "new car" smell.  At least in that case we have 6 other samples we could send them!

It appears the main problem with the popularity of the search for "new car freshener" is that:

a). those who know what they want, will likely be disappointed as they are relying on the product to smell exactly how they want it to smell, and hedging their bets that the formulator felt the same way as they do.
b). others simply don't know what to expect, and are just looking for a non-invasive pleasant and clean scent, and are likely to be put off by the smell of chemical replicas.

The reality of New Car Smell

The smell you detect inside a new car, is now considered to be carcinogenic, as it consists of a blend of aromatics slowly released from the various glues, resins, curing agents, rubbers, paints, plastics, fabrics, protectrants, oils & metals that are settling into their new homes from the manufacturing processes involved with the creation of the vehicle.  

Aromatic compounds are generally detectable as different smells to us, and make up all synthetic fragrances available, with occasionally some natural compounds involved as well.  Unfortunately, or fortunately if you enjoy staying alive, only a small number of these compounds are approved for use in fragrance preparations, and almost all of those which create the true "new car smell" are not allowed to be used as fragrance ingredients.  We're talking the basics like Benzene, Toulene and Naphthalene through to more complex aromatics like 1,2,4 Trimethylbenze and compounds with more numbers than a London suburb.  This is why a true new car smell can not be created - the ingredients would be, by their nature, carcenogenic and dangerous, and it would be akin to selling our customers sniffing glue.  That being said, we can try to get as close as possible, using the ingredients we are allowed to use, and hopefully, we can come up with fragrances that our customers can appreciate. 

Do you have a favourite New Car Smell from F-JAS or any other manufacturer?  Let us know...

Dan Farrell-Jones is a former Analytical Chemist who operated the Oil & Petrolchemical Laboratory at Jones Environmental Forensics LTD.
Images used under license from

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