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I was walking to my car in a parking lot the other day I encountered a familiar and frightening smell: the sickly sweet aroma of anti-freeze subjected to extremely high temperatures.


The aroma is familiar to every car guy and it scares the liver out of every one of them.


The smell emanated from another car, but I felt an instant jolt of sympathy for the car’s owner.



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Clearly he or she had a cooling system issue with the car and faced a long list of possible solutions that ranged from minor problems like low coolant to a huge problems like a cracked block.


My money is usually on water pump failure but any way you look at it-the smell meant trouble.


Old rides have a variety of aromas that will give car guys a little insight into the problem, if not the solution.


One that springs to mind is the smell of old gas in a running engine and this one is completely avoidable because only a knucklehead runs ancient fuel from a rusty gas tank through an engine that has not run for a long period of time.


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The result is a sputtering engine trying to ignite old gasoline that could be better used to put out fires. The smell should be enough to convince car guys not to be this stupid but, if that fails, the complete rebuild of the fuel system should do it.


Another type of fuel odor is new gas smell and this can be a dangerous aroma. It means gasoline is escaping from its confinement in the fuel system, and flames/explosion, are now a possibility.


The issue can be anything from the fuel tank to the carb or fuel injection and can put the owner in an Indiana Jones-worthy situation in a big hurry.


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The burning smell of brake pads or shoes is never good news because they are made with high temperature materials. It means you have a serious brake issue that will only get worse, up to and including an actual fire if you really test the boundaries.


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The same burning smell may also put you on the side of the road for another reason: your clutch is very close to death and its high temperature material is trying to make a funeral pyre under the car.


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Speaking of fires, another source of automotive bonfires is the car’s electrical system where fires can start from old wiring issues, or new wiring issues when bad things happen to good car projects. Electrical issues produce an aroma that is somewhat familiar because they usually smell like burning plastic.


One of the more familiar aromas from old cars is a burnt oil smell. The issue is usually oil pushing past the piston rings and mixing with the gas before the spark plug explodes the mix. The problem is manageable to a certain extent through lots of motor oil but eventually the engine will blow up, usually under stress.


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Most seasoned car guys have experience any or all of the above because old cars develop new problems and eventually they will encounter these aroma-centric car hobby misadventures.


The trick is how they will handle their ride’s sensory warnings before the onset of complete disaster.


Jim Sutherland

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