Binary time

I love the smell of fresh Cadillac in the morning

We all know the crisp smell of a new car — that heady bouquet of antiseptic cleaning agents and new plastic. It’s such a desirable odor that Cadillac has actually distilled it into a perfume. It’s called “Nuance,” and they now use to liberally coat the inside of their cars, to make them smell extra new. There’s a story in the New York Times business section today:

“You pay the extra money for leather, you don’t want it to smell like lighter fluid,” said James T. Embach, G.M.’s manager for advanced features. “You want it to smell like a Gucci bag.” …

The new-car smell need not stop at leather, however. “We believe there is growth potential in people wanting to be in this big burly S.U.V. with rich walnut and they want it to smell like wood,” said Jeff Rose, senior vice president at Collins & Aikman.

Interestingly, this tweaking of a car’s sensual appeal isn’t just about smell. It’s now also about sound:

Ford used computers to generate, and focus groups to confirm, a signature rumble for the engine of its redesigned F-150 pickup truck … Visteon added four resonators to the engine’s intake system. The devices, which cost a few dollars apiece, produce sound waves tailored to cancel certain sound waves from the engine, peeling back excess white noise to reveal what Mr. Green called “a classic V-8 sound.”

This is a really trippy ontological moment here: The marketers are separating out the sound of a high-performance engine from the actual question of whether the engine truly performs, uh, highly. Would it be possible, one wonders, to add that testosteronic rumble to cars that otherwise totally suck, like Hyundais?

I probably shouldn’t be too surprised by this development. Cars have always been evaluated by aesthetics; even if you can’t actually afford real horsepower, you can sort of look bad-ass by adding fakoid big-ball wheels and an enormous spoiler to your hatchback. Taken to its extreme, this produces the much-ridiculed “rice boy” phenomenon, in which teenage boys add racing-car stylings to Honda Civics, the lamest of all possible vehicles. They’re still stuck driving something that handles like a rider-mower, but the chicks dig it, so what the hell.

But this Cadillac-smell stuff goes even deeper, I think. Cars are one of the most highly mediated toys we have — so everpresent in action movies that, as in the case of The Italian Job or 2 Fast 2 Furious, the cars are essentially the leading actors (with Mark Wahlberg and Charlize Theron existing merely as glorified “The Price Is Right” girls, seductively stroking the products). Once you’ve spent your youth watching kickass cars fishtail through A-Team moves, soar through the air with Dukes of Hazard improbability, or race backwards at 100 miles underneath 16-wheel trucks on the highway, a la The Fast and the Furious … well, the prospect of put-putting along in your four-cylinder Ford ZX2 starts to seem kinda anticlimactic, doesn’t it? Video games have the same effect. J.C. Herz, the digital-culture writer, once told me a couple of years ago about a consulting visit she did to a major carmaker. She told them that in ten years, they’re going to have a lot of very demanding customers on their hands — because today’s kids are learning about cars by driving incredibly cool race-car simulators that let them actually design their own rigs from scratch, tweaking everything from the shocks and fuel-injection to the freakin’ military-class heads-up-display. So the first time these kids actually get behind the wheel of a real, live car, they’re going to go, jesus, is this it? This sucks.

The point is: We’re so drenched in car media that we have essentially separated out “carness” from actual, well, cars. The platonic ideal of the car has detached from anything that actually has to do with real automobiles — the crappy, leaky, expired-warranty boxes of metal we drive every day, which groan like busted Soviet technology and reek of a McDonald’s Happy Meal that mysteriously vanished two months ago and has since been quietly decomposing under the front seat. No wonder we’ve created a market for a detached smell du Cadillac. It’s the pure essence of industrial bloat — the gorgeous odor of a piece of high-end technology lovingly assembled by robots, untouched by human hands, and gently loitioned in ultracarcinogenic disinfectants.

My personal fetish is somewhat related: I become almost alarmingly turned on by the smell of new electronics. When I was kid, I cracked open my first electronic toy — a LED car-racing game — then held it up to my nose and inhaled the pure essence of fresh circuitry: The smell of the future.

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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