Help Tom and Ray Diagnose This Smelly Car

Dear Car Talk

Dear Car Talk | Aug 15, 2013

Dear Tom and Ray:

My daughter has a Volvo named Smelly. It has a very distinct chemical smell that we cannot get rid of. We have had the car detailed, we've put an ozone machine in it for four days, we've left the doors open for days in the sun -- nothing puts a dent in the smell.

She is 17 years old and drives to school every day, 45 minutes each way. She is in the car a lot, and I am concerned that it is unhealthy for her. Some of her friends say it smells like crayons.

-- Carolina

RAY: Does it smell like the Crayola 64 box with the built-in sharpener? Or more like a box of Dixon-Ticonderogas?

TOM: This one's actually a mystery to us, Carolina, as well as to many other people. There's a minor epidemic of European car owners having flashbacks to first grade when they're driving.

RAY: VW owners seem to complain the most about this mysterious crayon odor, but we see complaints from Volvo, Mercedes and BMW owners, too. And no one seems to know what material in the car is causing it.

TOM: If you haven't already, you might as well ask your mechanic to take a sniff. Because if it's not this Mysterious European Crayon Odor, it could be something common, like a small oil leak from the valve cover, or a leaking heater core, and an experienced mechanic should be able to identify it with a sniff or two.

RAY: You'll have to find a mechanic in the "sweet spot" of his career, when he's smelled enough leaks to know right away what it is but hasn't smelled so many leaks that the inside of his nose is charred and useless.

TOM: Once you know what kind of a leak you're looking for, you're more than halfway to fixing it.

RAY: But my guess is that it's not going to be oil or coolant (or an old magenta crayon that some kid pushed into the vents 100,000 miles ago). And your mechanic will be as stumped as everyone else is.

TOM: Speculation centers on the leather used for the seats of those cars (which does have an odd smell, although I would describe it more as "decaying carcass" than "crayon"), or the sound-insulation material that keeps engine and road noise from being overwhelming.

RAY: But it's really speculation, as far as we can tell. So let's ask your fellow readers for help. If anyone has had this crayon odor, and has had success in positively identifying it and getting rid of it, drop us a note and let us know. If we get anything that's more than just speculation, we'll pass it along, Carolina.

TOM: In the meantime, if your daughter starts having visions of coloring books, have her roll down the windows.

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