By on March 23, 2013

Well, it looks as though winter is about done—at least from my vantage point west of the Rockies; but I still have a few more “revelations” to relate on the subject. As I stated in my last entry, these experiences were all new to me, since I’d never lived where “true winter” driving conditions were a regular occurrence. So, without ado, and as “green” as spring vegetation, here are a few more of my cold-weather “discoveries”.

While I wasn’t unfamiliar with a parking brake (some call it an emergency brake—which may in itself be a subject for further discussion) stuck in the “applied” position, I soon found additional reasons for this to occur in true winter weather.

Typically, on the West Coast, I’d see parking brakes sticking mostly because the brake shoes (we’re talking about rear-drum systems here; as most vehicles in the U.S.—save for Corvettes and upmarket Eurocars—were so equipped at the time) were wet when the brake was applied, allowing the shoes to “bond” to the drums via the oxidation process. It seemed like the VW Buses of the day achieved the most notoriety for this phenomena—particularly unfortunate for the tech called upon to “unstick” them, if the “Plan B” drum removal process was necessary.

In true winter weather, besides the “wet shoe scenario”, there were other possibilities involving the actuating linkage under the vehicle.

The worst was—and still is—when moisture would get down in the actuating cable and freeze the cable within its housing. The remedy would first involve some form of in-field procedure to free the brake enough to get the vehicle to the shop—or at least allow it to be maneuvered for towing—where it could be thawed enough to effect further repairs. Those “in-field” procedures were an eye-opener for me, as I had precious little experience in dealing with the weather conditions associated with them! Of course, the solution centered on using the right “gear” to minimize the effect of the harsh environment—along with resetting the Attitude Control to the “Mind-Over-Matter” position. After going through all that, the customer would usually be happy enough just to have the brake actuation reset to “off”, and they would make a conscious effort not to use it during similar weather in the future.

Speaking of in-field procedures in harsh weather, I can still recall the pain in my fingers while trying to reset distributor contact points well enough to make the vehicle run well enough to get it to a warmer place in which to work on it. When the ambient temperature got down to anywhere near 10F, this operation—as technically simple as it was—could be a real challenge (and provided one more reason NOT to mourn the passing of ignition contact points, for sure)! This was true of any procedure attempted in such conditions where bare hands were necessary.

I also found that any of the vehicles fluid-carrying systems had to be completely free of moisture to operate properly in the cold. Typically, in my L. A. stomping grounds, a little emulsified moisture in the power steering system, braking system, or transmission wouldn’t make its presence known—in the form of erratic operation—during the winter.

During true winter, however it was a different story. I learned to make it a point to regularly change and otherwise properly maintain these fluids, so as to keep all traces of moisture out.

When it came to the PCV System, I’d never heard of the PCV Valve and its associated plumbing rendered inoperative due to the water vapor passing through actually freezing. I had wondered why vehicles produced for the true winter market I’d been working on had insulation over the PCV plumbing. I remember reading a Honda Service Bulletin involving the retrofitting of insulation around the PCV valve and some of its plumbing, for the purpose of—you guessed it—reducing the possibility of system icing, and consequential oil-leak issues due to the ensuing over-pressurizing of the crankcase! I can’t remember ever working on a vehicle actually experiencing a PCV icing problem, but it was all food for thought.

Another cold weather bogey I learned to deal with involved the vehicle starting system. Component condition and circuit voltage drop rose to an extremely critical level, in comparison to the level acceptable in the warmer climes of the Southwest. If the battery, starter, or associated relay(s) were marginal, you’d know it when the weather turned cold—even though those components seemed to work all right in warmer temperatures. All of the test procedures and standards I learned during my schooling took on a new relevance, now. If things were not up to those standards, it turned out they flat-out just didn’t work in the cold. I became a “believer” and learned the new level of “critical” necessary to keep my customers rolling without drama during the winter months.

Phil ran a successful independent repair shop on the West Coast for close to 20 years, working over a decade before that at both dealer and independent repair shops. He is presently semi-retired from the business of auto repair, but still keeps his hand in things as a consultant and in his personal garage


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38 Comments on “MEMOIRS OF AN INDEPENDENT REPAIR SHOP OWNER: Cold-Weather Cause-And-Effect (not “Tall Winter Tales”) — Part Two...”

  • avatar

    Having someone from warm climes talk about the effects of cold weather on cars seems a bit strange. 10F is considered a heat wave in much of Canada in winter. We have to keep going in temperatures down to minus 30 Celsius (-22F). Below that, extreme measures are required, such as removing the battery from the vehicle to prevent it from freezing. From about Sudbury and north, it is common to mandatory that outside parking spaces be provided with an electrical power outlet to feed the block heater and battery heat blanket. Many cars are equipped with a block heater as standard factory equipment. Synthetic oils have reduced the need for the block heater, but it is still much better on the engine and provides heat quicker when these are used. Fluid contamination is mostly a problem with fuels- diesel and gasoline. A small amount in the fuel system can freeze the fuel line. The ethanol now used in gasoline has improved this greatly as the ethanol mixes with the water, keeping it from freezing. Diesel is not so lucky, requiring a water removal filter. Door locks, door handles, and even the doors themselves can get frozen. Ice is a very effective glue- that is what is happening with your parking/emergency brake shoes.

    I have had the air filter clog with snow while on a long highway trip. The engine gradually loses power until…..

    My winter trunk kit includes booster cables, a small shovel, a blanket, and a snow brush and scraper. I buy windshield washer fluid by the case as you need at least two 4 litre containers in the trunk always. Winter tires are highly recommended, as “all season” tires seem to exclude winter from “all”. A mobile phone to call for help is essential. Usually when the weather is bad and you need help, so do a lot of others and then you have to wait a long time.

    You don’t let your tank get too empty, because that extra fuel could keep you alive in an emergency.

    • 0 avatar

      Remove battery to prevent it from freezing? Hadn’t heard that one before. Though down on power, they still seem to function down to -45C, in my experience. I don’t even use a battery blanket. With a good battery, it’s unnecessary. They simply disguise a weak battery.

      Any decent modern vehicle will start after sitting overnight at -40C. But it’s much happier about the situation when you use a block heater.

  • avatar

    Nice article. As a kid, I grew up where it regularly hit minus 40F. I have lived every one of your stories, either personally, or through friends and family!

    These days, I can’t believe how cars have progressed to the point where winter matters hardly a whit.

  • avatar

    That squares with my experience. Everyone looks for mint southern cars up here, but come that first January all the usual gremlins come out to play. Sure there’s no rust, but smooth operation in Arizona doesn’t mean the same will apply on the other side of the country.

  • avatar

    I still have my kit. I carried it with me for years. High quality booster cables,spark plug socket and ratchet,extension cord and a battery charger, A plumbers torch,and quick start, to be used VERY carefully.With the old ignition systems anything sub zero,made for a shaky start. If your plugs, points,wires,and battery was good it should start.

    10 or 15 below? Block heater,or bring your battery inside. Anything colder than -15 the block heater is a must.

  • avatar

    Ah yes, winter driving in the old days. For me “real winter” was in the 70s north of Chicago. Tune your cars up in the fall. Don’t buy cheap batteries and don’t keep them too long. Cars had block heaters, but that only worked at home. Starting first thing in the morning at home was no problem but on super cold days after working late starting after work could be a problem. I had a 69 C-10 pickup with an inline six. It never stranded me but there were a few evenings when it would crank awfully slowly then just catch on a few cylinders, you could feel the others start as you sat there in the freezing hard seat, frosting up the windshield with your breath, rooting for it to smooth out. One extra cold morning in a different car, I got the door open OK but it wouldn’t latch shut. I didn’t want to be late so I tied it shut with a rope between the interior door handles across my lap. About half way to work it warmed up or vibrated loose and would latch. Those were not the “good old days” when dealing with cars in the cold.

    • 0 avatar

      I remember parking at my grocery job so the radiator was facing away from the wind. and/or putting some cardboard in front of it. DIY rustproofing in the 1 gal containers, which in circumspect probably lead to worse rusting later on as the tarry goo provided a nice trap for any salty water that got through.

  • avatar

    One of the major benefits of modern vehicles is thier ability to handle winter without a hiccup. Cold and snow are just facts of life where I live and I remember well all of the issues described above. For a few years I lived in Northern BC along the Alaska Highway. Temperatures of -40C or colder were not uncommon, and when it’s that cold getting your engine started is just the beginning. Manual transmissions that refuse to shift, power steering that feels like manual steering, lumpy tires were all just part of the deal.
    Once warmed up, most people would just leave thier vehicles running if they were only stopping for a couple of minutes. It was not uncommon to go a store or shopping mall and see every vehicle in the lot unattended and running. I don’t recall ever hearing of one being stolen though.
    One of the benefits of living in that part of BC was the nearby oil and gas fields. Propane was widely available and usually cost about a third of what gas did, so lots of people converted thier pickups to run on it. If the temperature went below -44 propane would remain in liquid form and the engine would not start. When it got that cold it was a given that half the town would be late for work and we all got very adept at pouring a kettle of boiling water on the vapourizer and quickly cranking the engine. It usually worked. Sometimes you had to disconnect the vapour line and pour out liquid propane. Just another little chore before leaving for work.
    As you can imagine, new vehicles didn’t stay new for long up there. At those temperatures, metal is very brittle, plastic shatters like glass and lubricants don’t flow properly. It was a good place to make a living as a mechanic though, there was simply no choice for people but to keep up with maintenance if they wanted to drive.
    Can’t say I miss it though.

  • avatar

    Here in western PA, I’ve experienced all these things.

    I once had an in-tank fuel pump quit on me at the office in very cold conditions. A sharp rap on the gas tank with a stick, and it came to life enough to make it home. Then I had the fun of changing the pump in the snow in the driveway, while trying not to blow myself up with an open tank of gasoline.

    Come to think of it, the electric Leaf doesn’t suffer from any of these problems in cold weather!

    • 0 avatar

      Except that cold weather slows the chemical reaction within the battery, reducing the range by about 1% for every 4 degrees below 70F. A Leaf owner came up with a chart for us:

      Most things just don’t work as well when cold.

      • 0 avatar

        Good stuff, thanks for the link I found it interesting.

      • 0 avatar

        I am familiar with this chart. But at least the BEV doesn’t have to deal with cold fluids, oil pumps, stiff power steering, squealing belts, starting fluid, exhaust pipes, a myriad of engine sensors, frozen fuel lines, or balky cold weather startup issues.

  • avatar

    I just found a new one. Parked my car, came back a few hours later….very loud thump-thump-thump as I started moving. Checked the wheel wells, nothing. Crawling under the car–so much fun in the snow–found that a very thick icicle had formed on the drive shaft, and it was loudly wacking a bracket on every revolution. It’s always something….

  • avatar

    Ah yes. Driving my sisters 510 Datsun from the coast to Wenatchee for Xmas ’83 demonstrated carb freeze on Bluet Pass. Also demonstrated the difference between stuck on a LA freeway and rural Washington. The former means no one stopped and if they did you are heading over the guardrail. With the latter a rancher, a farmer, and a WSP bull stopped within 5 minutes. I had popped the air cleaner lid off and realized the icing was the problem amd sitting there for 10 minutes melted the ice and off we went. Upon arriving in Wenatchee I popped the hood and stared at air cleaner lid and the decals marked “winter” and “summer” and the lever between. I traced the linkage to a hole in the bottom of the air cleaner assembly…and noticed that a corresponding fitting on a exhaust header sheet metal heat shield. “Oh”. No connecting tube. Duh. Carbs never iced up on the coast (on the ground that is) , but go inland a bit..sure enough.

  • avatar

    Yes, winter motoring is much easier than back when my grandfather would drain the Model T’s radiator water every evening into a pot that sat overnight on the back burner of the stove. Couldn’t use a block heater–the farm had no electricity!

  • avatar

    Not uncommon after a night of blowing snow (and shoveling your car out of a drift) to set off for the drive to work only to find that, once reaching highway speed, your car exhibits all of the symptoms of a badly-unbalanced wheel.

    That’s because this is exactly what it is. The drifted snow accumulated on the inside surface of one or more of those stamped-steel rims you bought to mount the winter tires on, throwing your wheel balancing to the dogs.

  • avatar
    Ron B.

    I’ve been In Russia in a normal Winter and seen first hand the diesel trucks parked at night with a small wood fire burning under the fuel tank to keep the diesel from turning to Jelly. The drivers could barely aford to run the trucks so they would have to shut them down to save fuel other wise they would have left them idling.
    My 1969 mercedes 6.3 has a hot water connection on the throttle body to prevent icing at high speed in cold climates. Air,like any gas ,will cool as it expands and the throttle body is fine example of air expanding as it passes the throttle blade. Imagine a torque monster like these with the throttle body stuck open at high speed…..

  • avatar

    I’ve experienced most of these in Maine. One interesting winter symptom was that my ’85 Jetta would creep like an automatic when in neutral with the clutch in when it got down to single digits. Gearbox oil got thick enough to transmit motion! That car and the ’84 GLI that followed it never, ever had a problem starting though, even at -20F in Northern Maine. The wonders of fuel injection!

    The coldest I have ever been in was -45F in North Dakota, my rented Ford Escape just would NOT produce heat. Ended up blocking off the radiator with cardboard and running the poor thing down the highway in 2nd to keep from freezing to death. 3 years in a row I got to spend a week in January in Langdon, ND, I think the high for all of it was -35F. And with a nice stiff breeze blowing too. Brrrr.

    • 0 avatar

      My guess is that you had the heater running full blast. Some engines simply can’t produce enough heat to tolerate that, especially in the severe cold. Easing back on the heater fan speed usually results in better heating than if you crank the heater to full fan speed. I used to ease my fan speed up as the engine temperature gauge moved, as I found that a fully-warm engine could usually sustain full fan speed operation in the severe cold but I know people who had cars whose engines would cool off if you ever went to maximum heat.

      Counterintuitive, but it works.

      My Accord’s heating system is automatic (if I let it, and I usually do) and it does this for me. I don’t get full blast heating until the engine is fully warmed up.

      • 0 avatar

        No, being from cold climate I am well acquainted with that. Even with the heater OFF it would not move the temp gauge off the peg. Note that the heat was perfectly fine at a balmy 20F when I picked it up in Grand Forks, the cold snap came a couple days later. It just could not deal with near 60F colder temps. A combination of blocking off as much air as possible into the engine bay and keeping the revs up eventually got things tolerable in the cabin. Never exactly toasty though. Had similar issues with a Malibu Classic in MN too.

  • avatar

    One problem my brother in law had was model specific: The Volvo PV444. After driving awhile in slushy conditions, he found the clutch pedal frozen – he couldn’t shift the transmission.

    It turned out the clutch linkage went through the firewall into the left front wheel well, and back into the engine compartment to the transmission. After driving in slush, he’d built up a block of ice that froze the linkage.

    After he found that out, he’d shift periodically to check the clutch linkage, and if it was difficult, he’d stop, get out and whack the ice buildup with a hammer before it froze the clutch linkage again.

  • avatar

    Here’s something that might still be a problem for many vehicles…My first winter as a college student in Oswego, NY with a car showed me who is boss. My 72 Fury was flawlessly maintained, so one morning I chuckled as I saw all these disabled cars in the drive aisles of the parking lot. That’s what people get for not taking care of their cars properly I told my friend as my car started right up in the 10 degree weather. I jumped out to clean the snow off the car as we had a pretty good driving lake effect snowstorm the prior night. I jumped back in and put my car in gear and backed out of the spot. I selected drive an hit the gas, only to find my car starting to miss wildly for a moment, then it died. Cranked it over and it caught – and died again. I lifted the hood and saw, well NOT the engine. Inside the engine compartment was packed solid with snow. I learned the hard way what a night of snow falling horizontally driven by a stiff, cold, Canadian wind coming off of Lake Ontario can do. As the engine began to warm up, the snow started to melt and it killed the ignition system. I was quite humbled by all of this and my friends busted my balls for a week or so. I miss real winters…can’t wait to move to New England for retirement…

  • avatar

    @Golden2husky…..Oswego NY, you say. On a real clear day I can see Oswego. If I was to walk 33 miles due south from where I sit, I would be in Oswego. Of course, I would be very wet,and in trouble with U.S. customs. Sorry about that nasty wind blowing across the lake. Yes, and that lake effect snow,really sucks. Us folks on the other side of the lake just send you the wind. I believe that the moisture that creates the snow,comes from the American side of the lake. Up here in Canada a north wind makes for very uncomfortble conditions. But we don’t get the snow.

    Thats why we call it free trade.

    • 0 avatar

      mikey, that made my day! I, for one, miss the excitement of the lake effect. I know I am in the minority, but I really like winter, and snow. To me, snow is a lot like money. You can have too much, but it’s hard to reach that point. And I miss those Canadian runs to score some Bradors….always a hit at the party!!! I filled the trunk of the Fury with cases of the stuff. Can you see the strobes on the NIMO powerplant smokestacks from your vantage point? Oswegonins referred to the plant as “Big Dick”…

      • 0 avatar

        Well, we never called it the Big Dick. Its got to be a real clear day,and it looks like a smokestack in the middle of the lake.

        I hate to disapoint you, but I think Brador is gone.

  • avatar

    All of these remind me why I don’t miss living in New England !.

    I left before the advent of fuel injection and electronic ignition….

    I well remember cast iron engine heaters we’d load up with charcoal and light then slide underneath , they worked pretty good . this was back in the days of tar top batteries . I always worried about catching the vehicle on fire but it never happened .

    The nylon ply bias tires would thump pretty loudly until they warmed up too .


  • avatar

    Heating up the spark plugs in a burning rag helped start our Lada. Not sure why people use emergency brakes at all.

  • avatar

    I never had a problem starting old carbureted vehicles, and it gets very cold here in Northeast Ohio. I learned early from my Dad that if you keep them tuned up, make sure the timing is set right and your choke is working properly, keep the oil changed and make sure your battery is good then it will start. I always used a battery at least one size bigger than the vehicle called for, and I would replace them before their time was up. I also used a bottle of dry gas in the tank when the temps dropped to around 0 or below, just to make sure that I didn’t get fuel line freez up.
    @Husky, your story reminds me of something that happened here during the great blizzard of 78. We had the worst winter storm we had seen in over 100 years, and it resulted in quite a few deaths. I can’t remember what the temp was, but it was extremely cold. Snow drifted in front of our 75 Ford wagon and covered it. My Dad shoveled it away and lifted the hood to find the engine literally covered with snow, it was packed. My Dad said “I’ll never get this thing to start.” He took a broom and dug the tight snow out with the handle, then cleared the rest away with the other end and his hands. He got in it, pumped the gas pedal a couple of times, turned the key and that sucker fired up immediately. It was running rough & misfiring at first from the wires being wet, he let it idle for a few minutes and when the wires dried out it started running fine.

  • avatar

    As a young sailor I took orders to Newfoundland in July 1965. Having had a few flathead fords I bought a 53 Mercury from another sailor after I arrived. Big Mistake when winter hit. Never could get it to start when it got really cold. It sold me on the air cooled VW. I bought one of those shortly after the 1966 models came out.

    Despite the six volt system that thing never failed to start. When I transferred to Submarine School in New London (where two of my fellow students were Canadian and went to O class boats) it continued to work until I decided I needed a hot rod in 69. Put a blower and headers on it and had way more than I should have had. The only thing that was missing in all that cold weather was a heater of any substance. It was better than riding a bike but you had to heat in the old british sports car manner. Dress warm.

  • avatar

    The parking brake story reminds me of an incident we had when I was a kid. My older brother had a Chrysler New Yorker with a 440 V-8, and he put the parking brake on while we were shopping at a mall. We got back in the car, got out on the interstate, and a few miles down the road there was the strong smell of hot brake shoes. Apparently the parking brake mechanism had frozen or rusted up, and we drove for miles with that big 440 pulling us along and he somehow never noticed any difference in performance. We got home that night and my dad told him “Don’t EVER put the parking brake on !”.

    I’ve had all kinds of winter incidents. Came home from work one night in my Pinto wagon and the HOT idiot light came on and the car started running rough. I pulled over to see what was going on and the radiator was so cold that it froze up and wasn’t circulating to the engine anymore. After that I drained the antifreeze and replaced it, and alwas carried a piece of cardboard to block the radiator in cold weather. Drivers door frozen shut, crawl in through the passanger door and crank the heater on high. Door locks frozen up, heat up the key with a cigarette lighter and stick it in the lock.

    The worst was when I had to replace the clutch in my Corolla in the middle of winter with no garage. Eighteen degrees outside with snow on the ground, and me out in the driveway under the car laying on a piece of cardboard. Several layers of sweatshirts, sweatpants under my jeans, two pairs of socks, and gloves, and I still had to go back in the house a few times to get warmed up.

    I hated points on car ignitions, they were always burning and sticking or needing adjustments. The points burned and were sticking on my dad’s 69 Mercury during a family trip to Disneyworld. He popped the distributor top, borrowed an emeryboard from my mom, sanded the points down, and gapped them with a matchbook cover. That got us back on the road again.

  • avatar
    Compaq Deskpro

    Winter is not even close to over in Mass, it just snowed more than a foot a few days ago and the schools were closed.

  • avatar
    Andy D

    Yah , School is gonna run to July in some towns. So be it, MA has been fairly lucky this winter. Also the governor banned road travel at the height of the storm. People took heed and stayed home. Less dead cars to contend with, helped clean up to be mobilized in good order. It was well co-ordinated effort with the utility companies. 300K people without power. I was without power for 3 days. I fiddled with an old gen set and had power of a sort, and plenty of fire wood. Compared to similar events, this one was very well managed.

    In days of yore , bugs were great for snow. You had to dress well, because there was no heat and the windows had to be open to keep the windshield clear. Marina , my better half drove our 66 bug through the evening of the Blizzard of 78 . She made it past cars that were dug out a week later.

  • avatar

    One of my worst mornings ever was outside Pierre, SD in 1982 in about -15 degree weather. We were stuck there after a storm on our way from Las Vegas to Ohio, and I got talked into helping a relative of mine go up to his brother’s ranch and pick up a load of wood for his woodburning stove. I would drive his car back and he would drive his brother’s pickup, an old late ’60’s Chevy, in that odd bronze and white. So we go up there and the truck is sitting next to the pile of wood, so he never started it up until we were ready to leave, and it wouldn’t start. Totally dead battery. We can’t get into the barn to get a battery charger, so we decide to use the car to jump the truck, except the car was dead too!! It was horribly cold and my hands were killing me, and we actually tried to break into the barn, but his brother’s house and barn had been broken into and he did a great job of making them both burglar proof with bars and stuff. At this point, we made a fire near the corner of the barn and the small shed that sat up against it, and at least were able to keep from freezing to death. We sat in the corner on logs until someone showed up to let us into the barn to get the charger. The car fired right up, the truck wasn’t going to do anything until it got a new battery. We took the old one out and I drove what seemed like forever to a parts store and he bought a new battery that just barely started the truck up, it was slowing down badly when it finally caught. About 5 hours after we left, we showed up at the house, and I flatly refused to unload any of the wood until the next morning, and got yelled at by all my relatives at dinner that night. Funny how none of them volunteered to help do it, but hey, I’m a visitor from back East, so I should do it for all the…awful meals (His wife peppered everything to the point it was black on top), and lodging…but we stayed in a motel. Maybe I should have done it because of the great company. Sure, who exactly was great to be around? High point of the stay was seeing dead cows in the road.

  • avatar

    For some reason dad’s VW Squareback seemed to suffer the rusted shoes to drum problem, while my VW’s didnt.

    Fuel injection eliminated the stuck choke problem we used to experience at high altitude and winter cold. I would wedge the choke plate open to get the VW bus to start and run up here. With the Impala you could just floor it and the linkage would open the choke enough.

  • avatar

    The Brits got parking brakes right, at least in some cases: both my ’69 MG and ’63 Triumph had zerk (grease) fittings on the cable. A cable full of grease won’t freeze.

  • avatar
    old fart

    For some reason the street we lived on had a bad wind tunnel effect , so if we were going to get a decent snow dad would put a throw rug over the engine (fit better than cardboard ) to keep the engine from being buried in snow of course he would pull the coil wire off so as to not forget. Also points were always changed in the early fall and re-adjusted again before summer vacation. The older cars had to have their valves adj. once a year and of course the wheel bearings had to be re-packed more often due to the quality of grease back then .Tires didn’t last as long , dad could put new tires on the rim at home till radials came out they were tougher to do . We have it easy now

  • avatar
    Phil Coconis

    Yeah, the Brits got @ least half of the cold-weather battle licked. Getting the cars STARTED, on the other hand was a different story…

    Thanks for posting all these great stories!

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