I Accidentally Turned My Car Into A Moldy Superfund Site. Here’s How I Fixed It

Polka

Ah, summer’s finally in the air. That means the toys that I put away for the winter can finally come out to play. Apparently, it also means mistakes I made last year come back to haunt me. I accidentally turned my beloved 2005 Smart Fortwo into a horrible Superfund site of moldy disaster. Here is how I got rid of a ton of forbidden polka dots from my interior.

A couple of weeks ago I found myself cracking open my mini warehouse with the goal of rearranging the vehicles inside. It’s not very wide, but it goes quite deep. Currently, there are six cars, three motorcycles, and too many sets of wheels inside. I ran some calculations and discovered that if I line the cars up just right, I could fit a seventh car. Perfect! I just had to move every car in the unit.

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Mercedes Streeter

This process actually went pretty well, at first. Even the hardest car to move in the unit–a first-generation Audi TT with a VIN branded as stolen–was able to be bump-started thanks to my workhorse Volkswagen Touareg VR6. This car has a bad starter that I’ve yet to replace. Last year, my neighbor tried to steal it to feed his drug addiction. The bad starter meant that he couldn’t get it going. Instead, he successfully broke into the glovebox and jacked the car’s title and a cheap Gambler 500 ring. Yeah, a hard lesson was learned that day. Don’t leave titles in cars, kids!

Anyway, the “stolen” TT roared to life with a Touareg tug and I moved it to one of my other storage sites. Everything else moved out easily and it wasn’t long until we had just one car to go: my 2005 Smart Fortwo Passion Coupe.

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Guess which one is the 2005? Credit: Mercedes Streeter

I got this car for free in 2017 when its first owner could no longer register it in his home state. These first-generation cars were never officially sold in the United States. They are among the few cars exempt from the infamous 25-year import rule so long as it’s converted to meet FMVSS. However, while this car is legal on the federal level, not all states will register it. Some state DMVs simply won’t be able to find this car in their systems. That was the issue faced by the first owner, and after fighting Colorado for several years he just gave up and gave the car away. Now it’s in my hands.

I parked the car right before the first snow of winter 2021. This warehouse rearranging day would have been the first day I drove the car this year. But there was a big, toxic problem:

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Mercedes Streeter

Yuck! Your eyes don’t deceive you, that’s a ton of mold just growing on everything. I ran full-speed and in full shock out of the unit. All of my other cars were shiny and clean, so that was not what I expected.

Thankfully, my fiancée, Sheryl, isn’t just an experienced lawyer but someone who has had to remediate mold more times than she can remember. Her years of helping rental tenants and growing up on a farm are about to help me big time.

Sheryl’s plan involves multiple prongs. The first involves this Bissell Little Green Pro cleaning machine. It injects searing hot water (or a chemical mix) into the surface that you’re cleaning and uses both brushing action and vacuum to get the job done. She combined it with RMR-86 Pro mold remover. The jug of RMR contains one of the active chemicals of bleach, among other harsh stuff.

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Mercedes Streeter

We also picked up PPE, gloves, and an interior cleaner for non-porous surfaces. Mold wasn’t covering everything, but we were cleaning everything in that interior, anyway.

Sheryl got to work before I could take a true “before” picture, but here is what the situation looked like after she had spent just a few minutes getting into the passenger seat.

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Mercedes Streeter

The passenger seat looked only slightly less moldy than the driver unit over there.

And check out the mold just dangling off of the steering wheel!

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Mercedes Streeter

Sheryl made somewhat short work of the mold on the passenger seat. It took several passes and lots of scrubbing, but it took give or take an hour for her to be satisfied with the job.

Take a look! The seat is now even cleaner than it was than before it was parked.

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Mercedes Streeter

Next came the driver seat, and she said that the growth on it was much worse. The seat bottom in particular required a lot of scrubbing to get through. However, after about two hours even it, too, looked extremely clean.

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Mercedes Streeter

Next came the dashboard, carpeting, and that horrifying steering wheel. One neat thing about a Smart is that the carpet is easy to pull up. We found that the mold didn’t get too deep into the carpet foam. Sheryl estimates that this is about two, maybe three months of growth. That would make sense as three months ago we were still dealing with below freezing temps in my area.

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Mercedes Streeter

Before long we had gone through the entire car. The entire gallon of the chemical mix was used up, as well as three gallons of water. But the result was fantastic. The car has never looked cleaner than this inside. Sheryl even managed to put a dent in the giant oil stain on the driver seat. We also gave the HVAC system a good cleaning and just disposed of the floor mats. Those weren’t even worth saving.

With the first treatment done we decided to move the car to one of my outdoor parking areas. There, the interior can dry out under the hot summer sun.

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Mercedes Streeter

These older Smarts have clear glass roofs that turn the interior into an oven. That’s bad when you’re trying to keep cool in the summer, but perfect for killing stuff.

So, how did this even happen in the first place? When I saw the mold on the seats it hit me that I made a terrible mistake. Last summer I parked the car outside with a car cover on it. The car cover was a little too big, so I thought that I’d make it fit better by closing some of it up in the doors. For some odd reason I thought that this would work. Instead, water trickled in and pooled up in the parts of the cover that was inside of the car.

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Mercedes Streeter

When I opened the doors to take the car cover off? Oh, gallons of water spilled in. And yet, it never crossed my mind to dry out the interior.

Making matters only worse is the fact that my mini warehouse sits 500 feet some a huge lake, so it’s always humid in there. Yep, a dehumidifier is also on my list!

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Mercedes Streeter

Sheryl plans on hitting the car with a second and a third treatment, then finishing it off by putting an ozone generator in there for a few hours. Best of all, we’re going to be getting this done for about $300, far less than even the cheapest quote we got from a professional. More work is needed to be done. But for now, it’s nice not to have the car looking like a scene from a horror movie.

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65 Responses

      1. Wow, a great venue. I want to know how you found a mini warehouse that will take that many cars. The ones around here are stupidly expensive and you can only fit one toy in each. Jeez it would be cheaper to finance a 3 car garage but the Glendale building inspector police won’t allow it. My oldest brother, unfortunately deceased too early, was an aeronautical engineer at United Technologies and would come ‘home’ to Wisconsin for the EAA and the sadistic ritual of a golf outing with the siblings. The best part was the surprise airplane guest and the warbirds section. He was enamored of the PW rotary engines, as that was where his first job was. The giant C3, the Concorde, some crazy airbus cargo plane. Of course it was usually so hot that people dropped like flies from heat stroke, but the busiest airport on the planet for 1 week only. October is a great choice. Changing colors and modifying temperatures, I’m happy for you both.

  1. Mercedes, I always thought your photos looked oddly familiar and I finally figured out why. You’re my neighbor!
    Don’t worry, I’m not a stalker, I just noticed that you live by-
    An auto parts plant that a bunch of my buddies worked at back in the day
    The hospital my dad was in after his stroke
    The former used car dealer where I bought my Volvo
    The former Polish restaurant where my HS grad party was
    No wonder everything looked so familiar.

  2. Ugh. I sold my old F150, at least in part because it sat idle too much, and would grow mold inside also. Same techniques to remove it (we have one of those Bissels from when we had two pet cats, and kept it because we sometimes host guest cats for others).

    As others have said, glad to see you here and writing, you have a lot of cool projects going on. Now y’all just need to convince Tom McParland…

  3. When I park my (mostly) summer car for the winter I let it run/take a drive with the heat cranked and the AC on to help dry out any moisture in the car. Then I pour flower dessicant stuff from the craft store into cheap dollar store aluminium pans and leave it in the car and trunk. Same idea as damp rid but cheaper. Seems to work well.

    Glad you got it cleaned up. My wife jokes that the best gift she ever got me was a carper cleaner based on how much I use it. Such a useful thing to have around.

    1. “My wife jokes that the best gift she ever got me was a carper cleaner based on how much I use it. Such a useful thing to have around.”

      For those without a carpet cleaner or room for one a shop wet/dry vac can work wonders too, especially as a spot cleaner.

  4. The same thing happened to me once, only I got it before the mold did.

    I was working on a car and had left a cloth (a thin towel if I recall) shut in the door and a thunderstorm came up unexpectedly. I can only guess that it acted like a wick, as it basically transfered a whole shit ton of water into the car. I even had to pull the carpet to get all the water out. Hell I think I could have left the door wide open and less water would have gotten in! It was like a funnel.

    1. My dad once decided that the best way to keep the sun out of the interior of his beloved 1988 Country Squire (carbureted 351! In 1988!) was to put an old bedsheet across the windshield and hold it on by closing the doors on it.

      Then it rained.

      The next time I tried to open it, the doors were full of water. As the drains were blocked, it sounded like it had a couple of half-empty metal jerry cans for doors.

      The smell in that car only got funkier from there.

      1. I bet so! But, I have done something similar in winter to keep frost off the windshield. I don’t tuck it in the doors, I put the wipers halfway up and put the sheet or towel under that. Works pretty good.

        Keep in mind, I use it just for keeping frost off, I doubt it works for heavy snow!

  5. 2015 Smart ForTwo owner in the “always sunny” PNW here! Mold in Smarts seems to be an endemic problem. I’ve got about 4 dehumidifier bags stashed in various spots inside the car, and have definitely had to do the bleach/mold removal process once or twice already. Thankfully not as bad as yours, but still a total hassle to deal with!

    1. I had issues with moisture on many of the clunkers I bought up there. I’d go to RV stores and get their dehumidifing products.

      I’d buy cars for $35 at abandoned vehicle auctions north of Seattle, and drive the thing home. Crazy.

  6. The sheer amount of quality content you have written for this site in such a short period of time is an indictment of how much you were held back previously.

    I’m so happy you made it over here!

    On topic: I buy 50lb bags of calcium chlorite and use that in as damp-rid refills for my cars in humid spots. It’s the same chemical that’s in damp-rid but 100x cheaper than their refills.

    1. “On topic: I buy 50lb bags of calcium chlorite and use that in as damp-rid refills for my cars in humid spots. It’s the same chemical that’s in damp-rid but 100x cheaper than their refills.”

      Great tip, thanks!

    2. Edit:

      I meant Calcium Chloride! You can get it for cheap in bulk marketed as ice melt.

      The damp-rid containers are good to buy for their structure. Once through the original stuff, refill as needed with scoops of the CaCl2.

      1. Mostly used for things that go in storage for 6 months out of the year like boats or RVs but it is a godsend. Dammit, now I am thinking about my boat (which has been in my family since I was born) which I need to get running and in the water. Anyone near Cleveland wanna come help me wrench?

      1. Agreed – the DampRid is a huge help to keep the mold from coming back after you get it cleaned up.

        My spouse’s 07 Fit had white mold all over the carpet from water leaking from the front windows and rear hatch. I’m lucky we spotted the mold quickly so it wasn’t as bad as your Smart, but the Fit’s parked outside so while I was finding and fixing all the leaks I would keep a bucket of DampRid in the car and it prevented more mold from growing. I would just suggest putting the bucket in an obvious spot like the driver’s seat because once I forgot to take it out before running an errand and then had to clean up a puddle of goop and crystals when it fell over in the passenger footwell.

  7. Having flashbacks to my college ride, a 1985.5 Porsche 944 with the leaky sunroof. That I had to park outside. In a state with a significant amount of annual rainfall.

    It was such a disheartening, never-ending cycle. It was never truly mold-free because I’d rarely get more than a week between rains and then the carpet would just be damp all over again.

    I still have some fondness for it as a fun/cool/interesting car, but at this point in my life I’ll take a “boring” but problem-free car any day.

  8. Add this to the list of reasons why I don’t own that many cars. If it’s growing mold, it means it ain’t getting used. Why own something that ain’t getting used? Lots of work to properly maintain a car that ain’t getting used.

  9. Just always leave the windows a tiny bit open. Not enough for bad people to get in to them easily.
    I’ve had some of my cars long term storaged for around 20 years, and never had any mold problems. And I live in a quite moist country with a lot of rust on used cars.
    Before I learned that trick my interiors would get mouldy in just a couple of months.

  10. Once again I am thankful to live in a semi desert where my biggest problem is dust. Granted the interior plastics suffer a bit but as long as I don’t have mice I don’t need hazmat gear. Extra bonus is Oregon doesn’t use road salt. so no rust either.

  11. That looks amazing! Great job! I used to detail cars decades ago when I worked at a car wash near Troy, Michigan. The steam cleaner alone brought back memories. Now I’m inspired to deep clean the interior of my Ranger.

    Thanks for the article!

  12. First off, I’m so happy you’re here, Mercedes!

    As a fellow weird car hoarder, I haven’t had much trouble with mold, but I’m in a constant battle with mice. I have loads of poison and traps in my storage areas, but they’re pretty robust little varmints. I just pulled a dead one out of my Saab 95 Aero wagon’s HVAC opening this morning after noticing the death smell from the air vent. I had over $1800 in damage done to a C6 Z06 a few years ago, but that was the only real damage to wiring I’ve experienced, knock on wood. Hope you don’t have similar woes, and I second the recommendation for an ozone generator. I got a great one on Amazon for around $80 and it’s been an easy solution to all malodorous issues.

    1. Thank you so much! 🙂

      I found some mice damage in one of my cars this spring, but it was one of the ones parked at home, not in storage. Thankfully, I lucked out because the mice seemed to have taken residence in the car’s hood insulation mat and under the engine cover, but nowhere else.

  13. This article is going to save my butt some day soon, given how much the T-Tops in my Firebird like to deposit puddles on the driver’s seat. I love my 3rd Gen, but they did a crap job fitting those t-tops.

  14. Other safer-than-bleach things you might try are Borax/boric acid, vinegar, isopropyl alcohol, baking soda, and bleach-less hot water. Maybe clean with a hot solution of vinegar and IPA with a final rinse containing baking soda and borax. The baking soda will nullify the acidity of the vinegar. Both baking soda and borax are anti-fungal agents and odor reducers too. I’ve used all these to clean carpets and they work fairly well.

  15. You were very lucky to find your partner, in my case my ex-wife would not have helped me even if she needed me to take her somewhere, on the contrary she would have been angry with me.

    Good to have you both here

  16. Having detail experience, I think one step not done would be to turn on the vents at high speed and grab a can of Lysol Disinfectant. Go to the cabin air intake and spray away. Use the entire can. You need to kill the mold/mildew in the vents as well. Switch from floor to center to windshield to ensure all vent paths are covered. You can even take that bleach cleaner and pour a cup of it into a pie dish and let it sit a couple of days with the windows up. Mold spores release into the air when they come into contact with bleach (bathroom tip, wet your tile and grout with water before using bleach products to clean mold…otherwise it comes back faster than you would expect). Letting the bleach evaporate into the vehicle will kill off more unseen mold spores.

  17. The newest team member is the most prolific writer it seems!

    Mold is nightmare fuel for me. I hate ambient smells, especially in cars. My brother had really sensitive skin when he was young, so scented anything was basically verboten in my house growing up. Somehow my brain just cannot handle or appreciate smells that aren’t food. I literally cannot sit in an air cooled VW because they all smell like a box of crayons and I get a headache.

  18. Pardon my spontaneous nasal discharge, just looking at the before-pic has me reaching for anything to mop up a runny nose. I just finished a mold-cleaning project as part of bringing my neighbor’s ’64 Fleetwood back to life, but that had been sitting for 20 years. He thought rust had crept up around the passenger side of the front seat, but wondered why it was all over the door-card and door-jamb windlace as well. I commenced to soaking, spraying, and scrubbing the best I could without causing damage to some of the delicate fabrics and it’s much better now. Granted, if a person looks close they can see stained areas, but for the most part it just looks like something that’s been okay-preserved from the era. Still, ick.

  19. Ozone Generators are great for disinfecting and helping out with lingering smells. Great for getting into the AC, run it 15 minutes with the AC cranked high on recirculating, after you’ve already run it in the car for 30 or 60 minutes sealed and off. Give it 15 minutes or so after it shuts off and you’re left with that weird clean oxygen smell from hospitals.

    1. Yep had a Covette that had a mouse infestation, nothing would get rid of the smell, tossed an ozone machine it it over the long weekend and it smelled sweet afterwards- we had replaced the seats and carpet heater box and cleaned it well beforehand

  20. Mold is just the worst. My better half and I just spent the weekend cleaning the interior of her late grandmother’s Buick that’s been sitting in a barn since 2017. Not quite as bad as your little Smart, but pretty yucky none the less. We put a couple of DampRid containers in there to soak up some of the… well, damp.

    1. Oh my god that made my day!

      Sheryl’s pants had two big green spots where she sat in the car during the cleaning. Her new nickname in our private chat is “Moldy Butt.”

      Mine is “Benz” because apparently with enough alcohol I develop a second identity. lol

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