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(kzenon/Getty Images/iStockphoto)
(kzenon/Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Road Sage

My car was spotless. And then I had kids Add to ...

My grandfather, Cecil Lyman Clark, drove a ninth-generation four-door Oldsmobile 98. I spent many an hour in the back strapped in by nothing but a seat belt. To call the ride smooth would be an understatement. It felt like you were flying above the clouds with zero turbulence. It had no DVD and the radio, to my knowledge, was never turned on. Its entertainment system consisted of a window, through which you could gaze.

What I recall most vividly about my grandfather’s Oldsmobile, however, was the cleanliness of its interior. It was spotless. It almost sparkled. It didn’t have a new car smell. It had a cared-for car smell. In this respect, the car was an extension of my grandparents’ approach to life. Their house was clean, my grandfather’s workshop was ordered and tidy, the lawn was raked. Like many in their generation who experienced the Great Depression and Second World War, a craving for order wasn’t a chore – it was a default mechanism.

I was reminded of this fact the other week when, while entering my Dodge Grand Caravan, I stepped on something that I can only believe was, at one time, either a cookie or an apple. Examining the rest of the vehicle’s interior, I saw a garbage landscape. Empty coffee cups, Halloween wrappers, an unsettling food-based film on the floor and a black, gnarled substance in the far back seat I was afraid to confront. It hit me: My kids will not recall driving around in a pristine car interior. They will recall a crusty, food and detritus-laden rolling minivan where all hopes of cleanliness came to wither away and die.

I’m now one of those drivers. I’ve got an “interior complex.”

How did it come to this? Well, gradually and then suddenly, of course – and I’m not entirely alone. According to a 2008 survey by Milliken & Company’s YES Essentials brand, a full 37 per cent are ashamed of the state of their vehicle’s interior and 48 per cent have felt the need to apologize for the messiness of their interior to a passenger. It’s likely that these statistics have grown since then as commuting times have worsened.

When it comes to the interior, there are three kinds of drivers. The first are true car nuts who keep their cars immaculate. They are interior superiors – the notion of allowing one’s ride to become unkempt is inconceivable. They’d be so outraged by my above confession that, if they were reading this article online, they’d go out to buy it in print just so they could rip it up and flush it down the toilet.

Next, we have the cleanliness-challenged crowd – also known as car slobs. To them, a car is a garbage pail on wheels. They drop whatever they’ve just eaten or consumed on the floor and, every six months, purge and clean out the vehicle. These are like mini archeological expeditions in which the driver can relive the past. For instance, “I remember drinking that latte! It was sunny and I’d just bought new shoes. Good times.”

Finally, we have drivers who sit on the fence. They try to keep it clean but frequently fail. If they have time, they wipe down the inside and empty garbage on a daily basis. They take pride in their rides, but as soon as they are pressed, late for a meeting or on a long road trip, they let their standards fall. They are “high-functioning” car slobs in denial.

Unfortunately, many couples consist of one interior superior and one car slob, just as in every romantic union there always seems to be one chocolate lover and one chocolate take-it-or-leaver. This leads to a never-ending struggle: One person can’t understand why their spouse or significant other won’t simply clean their crap up while the other can’t understand why their spouse or significant other makes such a big deal about the interior of a “car.”

This can go on for years. Often it’s resolved by the clean-freak car nut getting his or her “own car.” This becomes the “good furniture” vehicle – the kind you cover in plastic and don’t let the kids sit on. It remains pristine. The car slob spouse can use it any time, provided they adhere to the immaculate standard, so never.

For most of my life I’ve been the diet-cola version of the clean freak, uptight and tidy but not compulsive. I liked vacuuming the interior and wiping down the dashboard. I liked taking my car into the hand wash for luxury treatment. But the double whammy of driving a minivan and having kids saw my standards atrophy. I started with the best of intentions but soon, after a long trip, I’d see a mess or stain and find myself asking my wife, “Is that human excrement?” If the answer was “yes”, we’d rock-paper-scissors it to see who had to clean it up. If the answer was “no”, I’d slide the door closed and hope it would somehow go away.

It’s a reason, but it’s no excuse. There is a fine line between leaving a mess and being a mess. It’s time for me to recommit to my vehicle. It is never too late to right a wrong. Somebody get me some upholstery cleaner, a super-sized bottle of Febreze, an Autobahn Max Vac and some micro-fibre towels. I’ve got a job to do.

If you have questions about driving or car maintenance, please contact our experts at globedrive@globeandmail.com.

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