I love the smell of exhaust and unburned fuel from a hot rod without a catalytic converter—I even like the way my clothes smell after I’m around it. But would I bottle it? Fortunately, Santa Maria Novella’s vintage race car concept fragrance doesn’t take it too literally.
Nostalgia’s inspiration was the metal, rubber, wood, and leather of hand-built Italian race cars. It’s a great concept for a perfectly masculine fragrance, very elemental, and very sentimental too. It was created—from the little information I can find online—in 2002.
I’d been fascinated by this odd fragrance for a couple years before I finally sprayed some on myself. Prior to last week, I’d smell the bottle and spray a little on a card every time I visited the Lafco/Santa Maria Novella store on Lafayette in SoHo. I’d delight in showing it to new people because the top notes were so weird. Santa Maria Novella describes Nostalgia like this:
Santa Maria Novella’s most original fragrance, Nostalgia is the scent of a vintage racing car. Using mixes of rare South American woods, vegetable musk, patchouli, citrus wood, tobacco, amber and vanilla, it brings to mind the small of benzene, tires and leather for a truly unique and individual eau de cologne.
When I got a sample of it, Jon Bresler, the owner of Lafco (the U.S. distributor of Santa Maria and the proprietor of the store), insisted that his employee fill the sample vial. He held up his hands and looked at me seriously and said, “I don’t want it on my hands.” I laughed. Bresler is not a fan.
That Nostalgia doesn’t have more fans may be a result of its polarizing top notes and its lackluster packaging (More on that later). I’m guessing many people never get beyond the top notes to the smooth, Bulgari Black-like vanilla and rubber stage.
The top notes are bright and utterly artificial smelling. I worked in a garage for a couple years and I’ve been around vintage cars my whole life but none of Nostalgia’s top notes quite conjure up the feeling of vintage racing to me. It’s closer to the smell of the plastic glue I used to use to build 1:24 scale models of cars as a teenager.
About an hour in, it smells a little more like Bulgari Black’s top notes: smooth and rubbery with a hint of leather and vanilla. It’s much milder than you’d expect for something that comes on with such a chemical assault. Unlike Black though, Nostalgia’s vanilla isn’t sweet; it’s more leathery with a hint of smoke. I love Black but I may prefer Nostalgia.
When I was researching Nostalgia online, I found an old review by Nathan Branch that quibbled with the target audience. “Just because men go agog over molded stainless steel and the powerful rumbling of a V12 doesn’t mean we have fantasies of rolling around in pools of old motor oil.” No, of course not—luxury car aficionados pay other people to get their hands dirty. Branch’s review was vague, dismissive, and filled with mixed metaphors and bad car clichés. All of which underscored the fact that he wasn’t, in fact, part of that target audience.
The race car-inspired concept is sound but suffers from poorly executed packaging. It comes in a plain rectangular bottle with a wooden cap reminiscent of a gear shift knob. The label looks cheap, like amateur graphic design. The typeface, while not quite the dreadful comic sans, is like a sign painting script, a variation of the Balloon typeface. It’s almost charmingly naïve and off-base.
Why not create a label that evokes the beauty and lines of a classic Italian sports car, one that references classic auto company logos? Where’s the chrome?
This isn’t easy to do. Ferrari doesn’t do it well with most of their colognes—except maybe the bright red bottle with a chrome top that looks like a piston. Jaguar makes a cologne that comes in a green bottle, at least trying to reference that classic British Racing Green car color. One men’s cologne does it perfectly though: Cartier Roadster. If Nostalgia came in a bottle with half as much thought put into it as this one, it would be a much more popular scent.