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:
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 the make of the car continues to update as time marches on
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:
Sightings: An episode of television's Seinfeld ("The Smelly Car," original air date
Last updated: 12 March 2011
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).