My Car Smells Bad And Smokes, What Should I Do?

When you get a fever, start coughing, and have no energy, you know you have a cold. But when your car starts smelling funny, making odd noises, and leaving puddles behind, you can’t just give it aspirin and let it lay around on the couch watching Star Trek until it feels better. How do you gauge your car health?

Smoking CarA change in your car’s behavior usually signals that the machine needs a car maintenance service of some kind. It is after all, not a self sustaining ecosystem like your body. It does not have an immune system to repair itself, nor tools to attach a hose that might be loose. You and your auto center have to stay on top of your car. Addressing “symptoms” can prevent further damage to your vehicle, and stop a much lengthier and intricate repair down the road. Not taking care of a small problem inevitably leads to a bigger one. A problem with your car will not go away, it needs some TLC to get back to optimal health.

Stinky Car

Hopefully, the smell is not so bad that you’re gagging, or bolting away from your car to get some fresh air. Many times burning smells come from various fluids, like your oil, or coolant. Gasoline odor generally means you just flooded your engine. If a gas smell persists, even when your engine is not flooded, you probably have a fuel system leak. Best to get that addressed before your car starts a fire somewhere. When anything leaks in your car, it will puddle if the escaping quantities are large enough, and smoke when the heat of your vehicle connects with the escaped fluid. Not having a leaky item repaired leads to failure of that particular system eventually. Best to deal with the steering fluid hoses now, than let it persist and blow out your steering. Because, I almost did that. I noticed the funky “industrial smell,” persisted after I had driven for a few miles. Checked the various fluids, and discovered the power steering reservoir was very low. So I grabbed a couple of bottles of power steering fluid at the nearest mini market, and filled the reservoir. Later in the day, the stinky burning smell came back. I checked the fluid levels again, same thing. After a few days of this, I went to my local auto center, and left the car to be analyzed. The hose connecting the fluid to the steering column was damaged, and any liquid I put in was slowly leaching out. That means my entire steering column was pretty much running dry, with very little lubrication. If I had not constantly refilled the reservoir, my steering column could of been irreparably damaged.

Some unpleasant persistent car smells are not fluid burning, but mechanical parts going in to failure. A “burnt toast” smell is indicative of an electrical short. Sulphur, also known as rotten egg smell, can indicate a problem with the catalytic converter. Overheated brakes and the clutch will release a nasty chemical smell. It is not of concern if you just came down Rabbit ears Pass in Routt County, but if it persists, your brakes or clutch need some immediate attention. You don’t want to go down the pass again with no gears or brakes.

Car EngineEssentially, any smell that you know is not caused by that old sandwich under the seat, and that persists apart from a known strain on your car, is indicative of something going in to failure. It may be as simple as a disconnected hose or plugged filter. Little things like these, do not repair themselves, and if you can’t find and correct the problem on your own, it is best to get it checked, and avoid disaster.


A small quantity of fluid will inevitable pool under most vehicles. Normal condensation can leave a bit of water under your car, and we all have seen oil drops under our vehicles. If what is under your car when you move it looks more like a wet spot than a few drops, it needs attention. A puddle of fluid is even more ominous. If you then drive off and experience a bumpy ride, rough handling or vibration, you most likely have a problem. You are probably leaking needed fluids. The problem could be as simply as a bad hose, but it could also indicate an overheated engine (radiator problem,) or a bad water pump.If you are seeing large oil residue under your car, a bad seal or gasket is probably leaking. Power steering and power transmissions will leave behind an oily spot, usually red.

Odd Noises

Your car will grumble and complain when something is loose or bent in the engine. A damaged or loose fan bland will make a clicking noise. So will any kind of stuck valve. If you’re low on oil, you could hear a clicking noise as well. When you are accelerating,and hear a squealing noise, it probably indicates a loose or worn power steering fan or air conditioning belt. (Think how your computer sounds when it’s fan overheats, or needs to be replaced-it gets loud.) Brake problems create screeching squealing noises. A “pingy” noise can occur when you are using the wrong kind of gasoline for your engine. Loud knocking that is rhythmic could be a loose transmission torque converter. Flat out clunking noise that is random occurs with things like defective U-joints and other driveline components as well as mufflers, converters and defective exhaust pipes.

These smells and puddles do not indicate your car is in danger of imminent failure. But they are distinct symptoms of something needing maintenance or repair in your vehicle. If after your own cursory check of the engine, you do not find anything amiss that can be easily corrected, take your car to your favorite auto canter and have it checked out.