By on April 11, 2019

No, we’re not talking about your college dalliance with the counterculture scene. But we could very well be talking about an event from your college years.

Higher education usually involves empty pockets, bloodshot eyes, and dry gas tanks — usually slung beneath a vehicle held together with Bondo and bought for a song. A vehicle that gets lighter as time goes on, even as your expanding midriff packs on the pounds.

Maybe college has nothing to do with the memory. Maybe, at one point in your life, you simply fought a losing battle with the scourge of autodom — corrosion — and lost.

Mechanical failure that isn’t worth the cost of repair usually dooms these types of rides to the scrap heap, but a good many vehicles keep running, even as their earthly body de-materializes before the driver’s eyes. It’s a sad thing. Increasingly rare, too, as car bodies tend to hold up better than in years past.

On a couple of occasions, yours truly lost out on what could have been a great automotive romance due to the presence of rust; enough of the stuff to kill the sale. No Volvo or Jeep for me.

Premature rust can also nip an existing romance in the bud (the Chevy Vega, Plymouth Volare, and Mazda 3s and Toyota Tacomas from the 2000s spring to mind), but corrosion alone rarely ends a vehicle’s life. It did in a friend’s case. The circa ’04 Nissan Altima had simply seen too many salt belt winters; the hole that appeared beneath the front seats even before he took ownership continued to spread thereafter. The carpet touched the ground. Eventually, despite the sedan’s still-beating heart, the rust spread from sill to sill, eating up the sides, weakening the floor to the point that the rocker trim began pulling apart, ominously, at the base of the B-pillar, indicating an alarming weakness amidships.

Eventually, it all became too much. Putting a dime into a car with that much corrosion would be foolish. Driving it was similarly unadvisable. When it became financially feasible, the old Altima was swapped for a slightly newer one — this one almost free of the reddish menace.

Have you (or someone you know) ever fought a losing battle against rust? How bad did it get before you threw in the towel?

[Image: Murilee Martin/The Truth About Cars]

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58 Comments on “QOTD: Lost to the Red(dish) Menace?...”

  • avatar

    1990’s GM rocker panels. Had to ditch my 92 LeSabre by 2000 because of this. Malaise 101.

    • 0 avatar

      Once I bought a ’74 (?) Colt/Mitsubishi for $100 that had the strut towers rusted out. I welded some suitable steel (I think it was room divider uprights) and drove it for a few years.

      I had an Econoline that had rusted out bottom 1/4 of the body. I welded the front fenders from a ’68 Belvedere and it looked pretty nice except for the side marker light in the middle of the van.

      Got rid of many vehicles before their time, with perfectly functioning running gear.

  • avatar

    I’d rather have one of those in good condition (with updated drivetrain and suspension) than most of what’s on the road today. Only two real doors and a proper, what we in the US used to call a Hatchback (vs the more modern term Liftback.) Go back between about ’69 to ’75 and this overall body style was quite popular.

  • avatar

    I lived in Atlanta for 25 years before moving back north, I was surprised to see that rust was still such a big issue with cars. I thought science had pretty much eradicated the problem. I am now fighting it tooth and nail on my own cars. Staying ahead of rust is doable, but it’s a constant battle

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    Over 40 years of car ownership, at least half of my cars lost this battle (Pittsburgh area).

    • 0 avatar

      I’ve been lucky. In, as you say, over 40 years of car ownership, not one of my cars has gone to this extreme or even close, the worst being a couple spots in the seams on the back of the cab of my 1990 F-150 about 3″ in diameter and some pinpoint rust along the leading edge of the roof above the windshield. The rest of the body was remarkably clean for its age (nothing at all in any fender wells OR the corners of the cab and doors.) Yes, I looked. What kind of shape it’s in today? I have no idea. And my ’97 Ranger was ridiculously clean. Oh, frame and underbody components could have used some work–a quick sandblast followed by undercoating–but nothing visible on body panels, outside or in. None of my older cars ever went that far because I actively watched for it, sanding and primering before any spot got larger than a dime.

      So either I was more attentive or I was very lucky.

    • 0 avatar

      I have family in Buffalo, OMG what cars go through there is ungodly

      • 0 avatar

        There is no way to keep you car from rusting here…the best policy is to have a winter beater and a nice car you take off the road during winter.

        They buy X amount of rock salt, and since it won’t keep during the summer (40 tons of rock salt, exposed to summer humidity, turns into A 40-ton piece of rock salt you have to break up with a front-end loader), they make sure they use it all before winter ends. Terrible way to do this…

  • avatar

    If only the body panels of that Citation had been produced by whomever manufactured the rust-free wheels.

  • avatar

    2003 330i, special order. Loved and ran that car 334k miles. The clutch finally went. Took it to my indy, who starts off with “you can afford a new car, right ?”…huh, what ?….”I mean, you can afford another car, right ?”. I said, I guess so, why ? “Because I can’t put this one on the rack anymore……..

    NY Salt had eaten out the sills behind the front wheels, and large chunks of metal could be removed…..

    For the record, the engine was still very good, with only an air injection pump check engine light showing up occasionally….proof that synthetic plus 7500k intervals works.

  • avatar

    What’s rust?

    • 0 avatar

      Yeah that’s one reason I’m staying in New Mexico. We do get snow but put a “grit” on the roads that’s not salt and it’s so arid when it’s not actually precipitating that almost nothing rusts. A rusty vehicle here is usually a sign of poorly repaired damage or a vehicle that started its life in the mining industry and got pelted with more minerals than you can shake a stick at.

      My classic Mustang has quite a bit of rust being an Ohio vehicle originally but since moving it to where the humidity is routinely single digit it is as if time has been frozen.

    • 0 avatar


  • avatar

    Losing that battle is my story also. I understand the mechanical needs of a vehicle and why it’s important to maintain a car in the best possible manner. For whatever reason, that same sense of need is much less so when it comes to dealing with rust. Had I made the same effort against rust as I did towards the mechanical end I would have made my goal of 500k miles on the 84 Charger I owned. As it was, due to the overall dangerous condition the car was in due to rust, I sold it at a little over 400k and moved on. I could not jack the car up to change a tire – the unibody would just bend when attempting to do so. The engine was still running well although the clutch was in need of service as it was slipping a bit by that many miles. I understand that our friends in the Great White North have outlets that deal directly with the rust issue. Wish we had that sort of service here in the lower 48 – specifically the Midwest.

    • 0 avatar

      I actually saw an ad for Krown someplace in the Detroit area. AFAIK, there’s none in Ohio..not sure about other states. (They’d probably do well in Buffalo.)

      I wonder if Ziebart will do an annual oil treatment on the undercarriage?

  • avatar

    Not my car – but my father’s 74 Maverick.
    Four years in northern NJ killed it.
    Went to trade it in on a 78 Fairmont and the sales guy asked if it had been under water.

  • avatar

    Losing battle with the Rust Monster?

    1987 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme Brougham (307 V8 eQuadraJunk er Jet)

    Dad bought it with about 50,000 miles on it and had his body shop owning cousin do some some sheet metal rust repair at 70,000 miles. It was a great job. The car was passed to me at about 100,000 miles.

    At around 130,000 miles the front frame rusted to the point where the driver’s side swaybar mount detached from the frame. Clunk, clunk, clunk over every imperfection.

    At 150,000 miles it was stolen in Southfield, MI. Guy did me a favor. The insurance check was more than I would have gotten in trade.

  • avatar

    A good friend of mine owned a ’66 Ford wagon back in the early ’70s that was rusting away. He really loved that car. He was driving through town one day with one of his daughters hanging on the back of the driver’s seat, jumping up and down singing a song. Suddenly, the singing stopped – he looked in his rearview mirror and saw the little girl sitting up on the road outside several feet behind them. She had broken through the corroded rear floor. He junked it a and purchased a new Jeep Wagoneer that day at his wife’s urging…

  • avatar

    When I’m down south I’m taken aback by the number of decent looking old trucks and even G and B bodies from the 1980s. If I ever move to Tennessee or North Carolina, I’ll be driving an ’78 Malibu.

    My own battles with rust – rusty frame on a ’81 Malibu station wagon. I feared the jack or jackstand was going to punch a hole right through the metal, trapping me underneath the car. Never did but I sure hated going under that car. I did what I could with POR-15 and bondo on the rear quarters which were chewed through.

    My ’98 Toyota T100 was bought used and rusty. Best $1800 I spend. I tried to fix the super rusty rear quarters with the same POR-15, bondo, and a rattlecan paint job. One winter later and the rust came back with a vengeance. I ended up selling that truck to a friend whose wife used it as a winter beater, only hastening the truck’s trip to the rust factory. Apparently it got worse with holes in the floorboard. Oddly enough the frame, at least when I owned it, looked good but the rest of the car was melting away bit by bit.

  • avatar

    Hatch struts still work?
    W T Fudge?

    My sawed off broomstick handle was always in the back.

  • avatar

    There’s only two problems with living in New York: politics and rust.
    Car life is measured in winters because they spread vehicle solvent on the roads from October through April.

    NaCl+ Fe + H2O -> FeO

  • avatar

    Canadian prairies here, so usually a vehicle is pretty worn out by the time rust becomes more than a cosmetic concern. The worst rust I’ve experienced involves older folks who don’t drive very far.

    My elderly neighbor has an ’89 Cavalier with about 80k miles. Garage kept since they got in ’91 or ’92, so the paint on the top half is excellent. But there is almost nothing left of the rocker panels. Whenever I take it for a spin to diagnose or work on it I can hear it losing flakes of metal as the body twists going around corners. But all the hidden metal seems alright.

    Unlike her partner’s ’92 Crown Vic that I sold for him a few years ago. I started jacking that thing up one day and stopped, because of the strange noises, to find that the rust holding the front and rear of the frame was barely hanging on. I sold it, fully disclosed, to someone who needed something mechanically dependable for the winter and figured it was still better than riding the bus. The neighbor liked older vehicles but replaced it with an ’04 CR-V that my buddy’s parents were selling and he appreciates the seating position, visibility, practicality, and fuel economy.

    • 0 avatar

      My Dad’s best friend was a used car salesman. An elderly member of our church traded an early 80s Malibu to him in the early 90s. Car had barely 60,000 miles on it and hadn’t been driven much when her husband died.

      The salesman was eyeing it to purchase for his son’s first vehicle when he and the mechanics put it on the lift. It had been garaged it’s whole life and in the Ohio Climate + Moist Garage = A frame you could put your hand through.

  • avatar

    Had a ’69 Nova with holes in the rear foot wells. I covered them up with rubber mats and all was well until I took a bunch of buddies for a ride one night.

    My friend Marvin rolled up one of the mats, stuffed it through the hole and dragged it on the interstate until it caught on fire. Then, not knowing what else to do, he stuffed it the rest of the way out. The first I knew about it was in the rear view mirror when I saw the flaming mass fly out out from under the car.

    Good times, good friends.

  • avatar

    So many states manage winter WITHOUT salt, proving it CAN be done, I would very much like to see some class action lawsuits against DoT’s that insist on using salt and willfully destroying the second largest investments of the population that pays their salaries.

    • 0 avatar

      I agree, or at least greatly reduce the amount of salt used. Here in southern Wisconsin I appreciate that they stay on top of snow removal, but the amount of salt they use is ridiculous

    • 0 avatar

      Maine uses salt on major roads, but then they use a lot of sand as well on lower trafficked roads. I’m surprised at the amount of older, decent looking cars I see on the road here, particularly GM products from the 80s and 90s. However I also see a lot of rusty Dodge Rams. I try to avoid rust by subscribing to a car wash in the winter months and keeping the car as clean as I can.

      This article also reminded me that I needed to make an appointment at the Rust Check place, so thanks!

  • avatar

    I just lost the rust battle with my 2000 Saab 9-3 in Southern New England. Two holes in the floor, both rear doglegs, and the left front wheel well. It only had 140,000 miles. Interestingly, my 2000 Volvo S80 does not show a spot of rust.

  • avatar
    MRF 95 T-Bird

    My next door neighbor growing up outside of NYC had a 80 Omega in the same tan color. By around 1985 it was afflicted with the same rusty pockmarked blemishes.
    I had a dentist who lived nearby with a mid 70’s colonnade Buick Regal Luxus coupe. After a few years the nice maroon finish became pockmarked. GM vehicles of this era had their share of paint issues that would lead to the rust.

  • avatar
    Matt Foley

    In the mid-90’s, I worked with a guy who flew out to Phoenix with $1000 cash and said he was bringing back the nicest truck he could find. He came back with a pretty little late-’70s Ford Courier, 2.3, 5-speed, no A/C. He polished up the faded yellow paint and was feeling really proud of himself…

    …until every tiny nick and ding on the body started to rust from our Ohio road salt. A Ford Courier was made by Mazda, and nothing rusts like 1970s Japanese steel. Two years later, the poor little Courier looked like it has spent its entire life here.

    I wondered what would have happened if he’d bought a dozen rattle cans of clearcoat, masked off the glass, and sprayed everything else. A little orange peel or a run or two would look a hell of a lot better than iron oxide swiss cheese.

  • avatar
    Scott Johnston

    Thank God this one is off the road. These thing were unsafe garbage from day one. Another in a long line of General Motors unsafe legacy.

  • avatar

    I see a fair number of automotive lepers in Minnesota. Is there anything to be said about keeping the vehicle outside during the cold months to prevent the constant freeze/thaw cycle? Something about the freeze/thaw being a catalyst for corrosion to take hold.

    Anecdotally speaking most of the cars in my neighborhood only show surface rust and they’re pretty old. There are few garages around me so the salt/snow slurry doesn’t thaw much.

    • 0 avatar

      ‘Minnesota’ might be the problem there. When I was growing up in South Dakota the conventional wisdom was to avoid used cars that came from MN because they’d be rustier than a local car.

      Small sample size here, going both ways… but I do remember once (maybe a decade ago, now) seeing a ’96/’97 Ford Thunderbird on a MN used-car lot that was lower mileage than my own ’96 and looked better from above, then I looked underneath and it was downright cancerous compared to my car that at that time had split its life roughly evenly between South Dakota and North Dakota.

  • avatar

    I owned a body shop in Mass for several years and saw lots of rust of course. I would usually turn these jobs down because the customers expectations and willingness to pay were usually misaligned.

    Some usual offenders – ford and dodge HD trucks rear wheel openings, maxima radiator supports, Buick century rockers. Oh and then there were early 2000s Mercedes – good God they could be horrific.

  • avatar
    cimarron typeR

    What no Tru Coat? I’ve always wondered how well Crown and other aftermarket “professionally” installed rust proofers work? I used to have to apply black tarry undercoat stuff at a GM dealership I worked at as lot boy.What a mess trying to get it off with 3812 solvent .I’m surprised I don’t have cancer or brain damage (? :/)
    I’ve been fairly lucky, although in HS the 80 Accord had some bubbling around wheel arches but its scored bearing got it before we bothered with the rust. This was in SW Mo.My MK1 GTI had not a single rust spot all despite being almost a 10 years old when I got it.

  • avatar
    Arthur Dailey

    Southern Ontario/GTA resident.

    Back in the days of big domestic v8’s the truism was that the body would go, long before the engine would.

    You would know when a Beetle was rotted because you would have to ‘lift’ the doors to close them.

    There was the ‘Rusty Ford’ lawsuit, for their allegedly ‘disintegrating’ cars of the 1970’s.

    Italian, French and non-luxury British cars were reputed rust buckets.

    And early Japanese vehicles, in particular the first Hondas.

    Personally, I swear by the Krown treatment. Would now not own a car that I did not have Krowned. Tried some others, without the same success. And the waxy type of treatment if breached, can I have heard, hold/retain humidity/moisture thus causing problems.

  • avatar

    Unless someone has been carefully and systematically painting on a salt solution in little circular patterns to the passenger side of the car pictured above, that particular vehicle has some corrosion issues that go back to the date of manufacture.

    Possible culprits:
    – The steel itself (grade, uniformity)
    – Steel prep
    – Galvanization or lack of
    – Paint prep
    – Primer/Base/Clear issues

    Imagine you’re the smartest guy in your graduating class – in high school, college and even your PhD program. You go to work for GM R&D – because they have money and can hire smart people. Ask yourself which of the following assignments you would be more likely to get:
    a) What lessons could we take from anti-corrosion measures used on steel ships (which spend their entire lives soaking in a highly-concentrated brine solution) and apply to passenger vehicles to extend their effective life?
    b) Hey Al, how much thinner can we get these coatings without screwing up the 90-day IQS results? The guys upstairs would like to reduce the usages on primer and paint again.

    Interesting book: Rust – The Longest War – Jonathan Waldman
    Chapter 7 on galvanization (vs painting) of bridges will have you calling your congressional representative.

  • avatar

    Dad picked up a used ’68 Beetle to weather OPEC II, one with the “AutoStick” so Mom could drive it when necessary (normally she drove the ’72 Riviera).

    One day when I was about 4, Mom took me to K-Mart with her. When we got back to the car, she pulled the driver’s side door shut and the battery promptly fell through the rusted-out floorpan. That was triaged with a piece of plywood and Dad started car shopping soon after.

  • avatar
    Jeff S

    I had 2 cars that rusted–one on the bottom of the fire wall and another where the unibody was attached to the frame rails. I have had the rock panels rust on one of my trucks and had a body shop replace the panels and rust proof them. That was not cheap but for the last couple of years no rust and few mechanical issues mostly maintenance. It was much less expensive in the long run to fix the rust since the rest of the body was rust free.

  • avatar
    schmitt trigger

    Interesting that you mention galvanizing on bridges.

    Some time ago, walking the Brooklyn bridge, I came across a Chinese tourist group on the walkway, which had hired a local guide.

    The guide was pointing to the roadway below, which was being rebuilt mainly due to corrosion. However the suspension cables, which are original, have withstood the passage of time and weather since the XIX century.
    He mentioned that Roebling specified triple galvanization coats in the cables.

    So the science to prevent corrosion has been known for close to century and a half.
    I ignore whether this science can applied to automobiles.

    • 0 avatar


      My dad (an adhesives/composites/coatings guy) got all torn up on a trip to California when they pointed out on a tour that the Golden Gate Bridge gets painted essentially constantly – they start at one end, move to the other and then do it again. He blurted out kind of unconsciously “I can spec you out a material that…” LOL.

      The goldengatebridge dot org website gives kind of conflicting information – it says the painting is only ‘touch-up’ but then it lists off 34 full-time paint employees plus 16 ironworkers who do maintenance. You can see their working platform in any picture I’ve ever seen of the bridge.

      Very cool on the triple galvanization of the Brooklyn Bridge cables. The first steel cables provided by the contractor didn’t meet spec (discovered after installation) but Roebling’s large safety factors allowed him to do a workaround.

  • avatar

    My first car was a 1978 Honda Accord that I bought in 1984. I live in an area that uses lots of salt on the roads in winter and is also on the Atlantic coast so salt air is an everyday experience. And Japanese cars (American too, to be fair) hadn’t yet figured out rustproofing.

    The Accord was a two door (I think all of them were in ’78) and if you opened both doors at the same time the car would sag in the middle. No one could ride in the back seat on wet days because the rear fender liners were badly perforated and the rear seat would get sprayed with road grime.

    I put a lot of miles on that car and even had to rebuild the transmission but the body never completely gave out. I sold the car to my sister in ’86 and what eventually killed it was her learning to drive a manual on it. I borrowed it once in ’86 or ’87 and by then it couldn’t even go up moderate hills.

    One great quirk it developed when I had it was that on a cold start it would produce a HUGE, HUGE, HUGE amount of white smoke. I never figured out where it was coming from because none of the fluids were being depleted in a way that would explain it. I can’t stress enough how much smoke this was. Conjure up an amazing, incredible amount of smoke and then multiply that by ten.

  • avatar

    The Tin Worm never sleeps .

    Glad I moved way out West as Mechanics in the rust belt have _two_ jobs, the primary one being rusty everything .

    Oddly, here in La La Land the kiddies like the create rust, they call it ‘patina’ and because they’re all dumber than a bag of hammers, they think it’s !COOL! to take a nice old survivor and wet sand it using salt water….

    Not a rumor, I see thus allmost daily .


  • avatar

    The roof at the header is rusting on my 2000 Lexus. It’s really irritating because it’s in a place virtually impossible to repair and the car still has another 10-years in it.

  • avatar

    I remember GM advertising bragging about all the rustproofing on the 1980 X-bodies. Riiiight.

    Living in Hawaii, the rusty old cars there were amusing. One old Malibu trunk lid literally had a rusted out and missing area. One could look through and see trunk contents.

    On a remote part of Oahu there was an early seventies car parked on a dirt road above the ocean. I still have Kodachrome slides of it somewhere. Literally a car’s footprint defined by rusty rubble. The early seventies rhinoceros bumpers were aluminum (I’d guess) entirely intact, as were the plastic bits like washer fluid tank, and the engine block, which obviously takes much longer to corrode away, were the only things not rotted. A colleague at work told me her father used to get rid of his old cars by pushing them off of that dirt road into the ocean!

    • 0 avatar


      Apparently there was an issue in the 70’s or 80’s with several manufacturers who got ‘sour steel’ or something – so it tended to corrode no matter what you did. I’ve never gotten specific dates or heard the story from a technical person.

      Best vehicle disposal story I’ve ever heard: Guy’s family has some acreage and a backhoe – the son watches his father get in the family’s old station wagon and turn the starter – nothing. The dad silently gets out of the car, fires up the backhoe, digs a large hole, pushes the car into the hole and then buries it completely. Goodbye Family Truckster!

  • avatar

    Fnck. I’ve lost lots of cars to the tinworm. I had a 97 Cavalier that I ran up to 265000 miles. The drivetrain was solid, but just looking at the body gave you tetanus. I took it off the road because I was afraid that if it got hit, it would just disintegrate into dust.

    In Northeast Ohio, everything rusts. The difference is how soon. GM cars used to take the longest to rust, everything else was quicker. AMCs, European and Japanese cars were usually a two year to dust, Fords and Mopars about three to see perforation, GM cars (depends on which ones) about four years to perforation. Ziebart or any of those other treatments hardly helped.

    In the 80’s the domestic car companies saw the light and started putting better rustproofing methods in their cars. Nothing is totally impermeable, but it did help a lot. Now cars last usually about five years before you see trouble… Which is about how long your payments last…

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