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Vroom with a Phew

Claim:   No buyers can be found for a beautiful but cheap car because of the horrible smell that permeates it.

LEGEND

Origins:   The story is told of a car sold for a fantastically low price, its only flaw being a persistent disagreeable odor. Someone had met the Grim Reaper in it and the remains were not discovered for many months. The smell clinging to the car was that of decomposed flesh; no amount of washing or scubbing would make it go away. Buyer after buyer was lured by the bargain, but each of them invariably returned the car.

The possible source for this "death car" legend is explained in a 1959 book on folklore:
In 1953 I was collecting Negro folklore in the tiny community of Mecosta in central Michigan, where a colony of colored people had Settled on the sand barrens shortly after the Civil War. Called on to speak on folklore before the crowd that gathered on Old Settlers Day, I related the case of the depreciated Buick, as an instance of contemporary folklore. That evening some of the young fellows pulled me aside and politely explained that the incident had occurred in their town. A white man named Demings, who owned a 1929
Model-A Ford, committed suicide in it in 1938, after his girl, Nellie Boyers, had a spat with him on a date. He chinked up all the cracks under the seat and on the floorboards with concrete, and then sniffed a hose he had connected to his tailpipe, while the motor ran. This was in August, and the car and the body were not found until hunting season in October. A guide kept returning to the spot where Demings had pulled the car off the road into the brush, and seeing the car would say, 'That fellow's always hunting when I am.' Finally he investigated.

This Model-A was painted all over with birds and fish, and was quite an eye-catcher. A user-car dealer in Remus sold the car to Clifford Cross, who tried every expedient to eradicate the smell. He reupholstered and fumigated the interior, in vain, and finally had to drive around in midwinter with the windows wide open. At length he turned the car in for junk.

I talked with Clifford Cross and his friends who had ridden in the Ford. Here was the first verified case of the Death Car. Did this modern big-city legend originate with an actual incident in a hamlet of two hundred people in a rural Negro community and by the devious ways of folklore spread to Michigan's metropolises, and then to other states? Unlikely as it seems, the evidence from many variants, compared through the historical-geographical method of tracing folktales, calls for an affirmative answer.
Though this would appear to be the beginning of the legend, folklorist Jan Harold Brunvand said of it, "Richard M. Dorson thought he had traced Cartoon of the legend 'The Death Car' to a 1938 incident in the small town of Mecosta, Michigan, but later study turned up prototypical elements earlier in Europe."

Though the make of the car continues to update as time marches on (Model A, Buick, Cadillac, Corvette, Jaguar), astute readers will note that the vehicle is almost always described both as new and of a model deemed to be highly desirable in the time of the story's telling. Unsellable or not, this is yet another of the "cheap car" legends in which a young lad's wet dream of a car is sold at a bargain basement price. (Another legend of this genre can be found on our $50 Porsche page.)

Various homilies can be guessed at as the moral of the tale. "You get what you pay for" and "Don't attempt to profit from another's misfortune" being but two. Gail de Vos provides us with an especially intriguing one:
The offensive smell is perhaps not only the smell of death but that of filthy lucre. The prestigious sports car symbolizes wealth; the legends suggests that the only way working-class people can obtain such a product is if it is defective — in other words, if it stinks.
Barbara "heaven scent" Mikkelson

Sightings:   An episode of television's Seinfeld ("The Smelly Car," original air date 15 April 1993) featured a car whose stink (from a valet's B.O, not a decaying corpse) made it undriveable and unsellable. More smelly cars (of the rotting flesh variety) can be found in the movies Christine (1983) and Mr. Wrong (New Zealand, 1985).

Last updated:   12 March 2011

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Sources:

    Brunvand, Jan Harold.   The Baby Train.
    New York: W. W. Norton, 1993.   ISBN 0-393-31208-9   (p. 133).

    Brunvand, Jan Harold.   The Choking Doberman.
    New York: W. W. Norton, 1984.   ISBN 0-393-30321-7   (pp. 212-213).

    Brunvand, Jan Harold.   The Mexican Pet.
    New York: W. W. Norton, 1986.   ISBN 0-393-30542-2   (pp. 12-13).

    Brunvand, Jan Harold.   The Vanishing Hitchhiker.
    New York: W. W. Norton, 1981.   ISBN 0-393-95169-3   (pp. 20-22).

    Brunvand, Jan Harold.   The Study of American Folklore.
    New York: W. W. Norton, 1998.   ISBN 0-393-97223-2   (p. 208).

    Czubala, Dionizjusz.   "The Death Car; Polish and Russian Examples."
    FOAFTale News.   March 1992   (pp. 2-5).

    de Vos, Gail.   Tales, Rumors and Gossip.
    Englewood: Libraries Unlimited, 1996.   ISBN 1-56308-190-3   (pp. 109-112).

    Dorson, Richard.   American Folklore.
    Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1961   (pp. 250-252).

    Emrich, Duncan.   Folklore on the American Land.
    Boston: Little, Brown, 1972.   ISBN 0-31623-721-3   (p. 338).

    Smith, Paul.   The Book of Nasty Legends.
    London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1983.   ISBN 0-00-636856-5   (p. 79).

Also told in:

    The Big Book of Urban Legends.
    New York: Paradox Press, 1994.   ISBN 1-56389-165-4   (p. 29).