Dispatches, thoughts, and miscellanea from writer Jon Konrath

The smell of a VW

I wish I could describe the way a VW Rabbit smells. I was thinking about this last night, while writing the book. One time I was watching an episode of Wings (the airplane show, not the sitcom) or some other Discover channel documentary on the B-52 and one of the pilots mentioned that all of the planes had a distinct smell, of old wiring, new electronics, jet fuel, spilled Cokes, and everything else. You’d think any military hardware would be sterile inside, but it’s usually much worse than an old car. My old VW is about the same vintage as a MiG-25, and similar in many ways – the silver color, the boxy construction, the minimalist instruments and controls, and the mix of comfort and discomfort that makes it a unique piece of machinery. You can reach every piece of the engine on a VW and easily strip the whole thing apart with five wrenches, but there’s no good place to rest your left foot when it’s off the clutch. The MiG-25 can fly over Mach 3 and high enough so you can see the curve of the earth, but it uses only vacuum tubes in its circuitry, and it’s far too easy to push an engine to failure.

The smell – I think of this because I spent so much time in my car this weekend, stuck in traffic. It snowed about 4 microns on Saturday, which meant every fucking soccer mom and Microsoft yuppie with a 4×4 SUV ended up in a ditch or shutting down a floating bridge because they thought they paid $60,000 so they could drive and brake at highway speeds on glare ice. Anyway, this meant the car got nice and toasty inside, and while I was strapped into my minimalist little seat in my aluminum-silver cockpit, the odor of a 20 year old VW made me think of my history with these little cars.

First, the West Germans made great little cars that were fun to drive and still got 30 or 40 MPG, but they had horrible wiring systems. My current VW has about 10 wiring problems, ranging from an intermittent rear defogger to no horn or reverse gear lights. For a while, my front turn signals wouldn’t blink when the headlights were on, and then they miraculously healed. Same with the dome light, although it comes and goes. On my last VW, all of the dash warning lights would turn on when it was raining, and on the one before, a buzzer would sound if it got too wet out. The substandard wiring gave the car one of its smells – a mix of old rubber insulation and ozone that increased when the temp went up. This mixed with the paper and cardboard used under the dash, which gives off the aroma of old books – not the paper and dust mite smell, but the thin cardboard cover of a 1960’s owner’s manual. All of this mixes with the smell of a rich gas engine, or the unique odor of the thin, black dust given off by a tiny diesel powerplant. Add the slight smell of oil and an aging plastic dashboard, and you start to get the idea.

It’s odd how unique the VW aroma is, yet how standard it is among the make. A couple of years ago, I was in Snoqualmie at a company picnic and saw two Rabbits that had been tricked out for some kind of racing – they had no doors, one seat, some NASCAR-esque netting, and so forth. I looked at the cars for a while, feeling some nostalgia for my old VW. When I climbed in, it smelled just like the interior of my old VW. And it’s not like what my old Camaro smelled like, the rich smell of 8 cylinders rumbling, with Armor-All, carpet cleaner and Turtle Wax all over the interior.

Maybe I’m nuts – I have a sensitive nose, but I can’t describe smell that good. It reminds me of different times, eras. When I spray Lysol, it reminds me of the summer of 1992, when I used to spray the shit constantly in my tiny roominghouse apartment on Mitchell Street. Every cologne I own is a time machine going back to when I first started using it – same with every shampoo, cleaning product, and candle. If I knew anything at all about differentiating this stuff verbally, I could probably get a job designing perfumes or something. Maybe not…

Speaking of time machines, I am vageuly starting to study them a bit more, so maybe I will go from Summer Rain tight into working on the third book again. I haven’t written in here all weekend, but I spent a lot of time reorganizing and moving around stuff in Summer Rain‘s third book so it fell into a logical order. I think I had about 7 or 8 weekends in August, and that didn’t work out. The shuffle went without a major hitch, but now I’m almost out of energy to continue with it. I think I’ll plow away until Marie gets here in 4 days, and then start something else after she leaves – maybe Rumored, maybe the yet-unnamed time travel book.

I better go. It’s snowing again and I’m worried about making it home. The Rabbit drives excellent on the ice – it’s such a light car, and front wheel drive. The Rabbit’s weight is distributed just right so when your wheels don’t let you turn anymore, you can swing the weight of the car around and aim it almost perfectly. But the fucking idiots out there are probably causing 200 car pileups on the freeway, and if my 3000 pound Rabbit got hit by a 9000 pound Suburban that didn’t know what the fuck they were doing, well, you could guess who wouldn’t be updating his journal for a while.