By on October 17, 2019

1988 Oldsmobile Cutlass Cruiser wagon in North Dakota junkyard, rust - ©2019 Murilee Martin - The Truth About Cars

Good morning, all. Your author here just awoke from a nightmare, one whose subject matter should strike fear into the hearts of all vehicle owners. Allow me to describe the dream.

In a rainy and somewhat threatening near future, yours truly noticed something on the rearmost part of his driver’s side rocker panel. A blemish. Maybe dirt or asphalt, I thought, walking over to flick the speck away. Drawing nearer, I realized, to my horror, that this speck wasn’t a foreign object clinging to my vehicle’s blue (why blue?) ⁠paint — it was a hole. Around said hole wasn’t dirt, but a heat rash-like spread of surface corrosion. With mounting dread, I fell to the ground, anticipating worse to come underneath.

Sure enough, my fears were realized. Acres of rust and widespread perforation beneath my relatively new vehicle! I had let a silent killer sneak up on me.

The dream ended as I was dashing to the store ⁠— literally running, not driving (for some reason) ⁠— in search of a few cans of dripless undercoating, and perhaps some body filler, too. I knew, though, that I had already lost the battle and was merely trying to buy myself some time.

Around this salty locale, rust will come for your car just as surely as the executioner’s footsteps will one day echo down the halls of Death Row, stopping outside your cell. The only way to prevent this fate is to get ahead of it ⁠— something many people put off until it’s too late.

You’ve probably noticed by now that yours truly is something of a cheapskate. I look at the services offered at my local undercoating place and scoff at their elevated prices, preferring instead to take a haphazard, “this’ll do” approach to rust prevention. My last car (Cruze No. 1) went without it for its first three winters (what lessee is going to pay to undercoat a car they plan on ditching after 36 months?), something that should have ensured an early death. For the next four winters, I merely discharged two or three cans of Coat n’ Protect ($14-$21) at its vulnerable bits, hoping all the while that this skimpy protection was man enough to do its job. Imagine my surprise when, after jacking up the thing for a tire change, I saw damn little corrosion underneath. And after seven salty winters; three of them completely unprotected!

It’s truly not the ’70s anymore. Naturally, I took the same level of precaution with Cruze No. 2, and plan to give the undercarriage another go sometime later this month or early next. Say what you will about GM, but they’ve vastly improved their anti-corrosion efforts in the past decade.

Other owners are not so lucky.

Speaking from experience, many people see in real life what I just experienced in my dream ⁠— and by that point, you’re just trying to stave off the inevitable. The corrosion appeared and proliferated in those few years after purchase where you didn’t give much thought to undercoating. Now, your rockers look like the hull of a beached freighter, and your child’s pinky finger could probably poke a hole through the oil pan. You’re boned.

Have you ever ignored rust prevention until it was too late? How quickly did it crop up, and what became of the vehicle?

[Image: Murilee Martin/TTAC]

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45 Comments on “QOTD: Did You Leave It Too Late?...”


  • avatar
    theflyersfan

    I’ve mentioned my first ever car, the Nissan Stanza that would not die. Well, it went through a lot of hellish winters in areas that just cake the roads in salt…and Japanese cars during this era weren’t the best when it came to rust prevention. This seemed to happen suddenly and the car was only 5 or so years old when there was some stone damage to the driver’s door that led to rust under the paint. I was washing the car when some of the bubbled paint gave way and it unveiled a large rusted out hole surrounded by several inches of rust that was covered by paint. Not the best look, but being a college student on a budget, it remained. I think it remained during the life of the car.

  • avatar
    MiataReallyIsTheAnswer

    I tend to not keep them long enough to matter. They do use craploads of salt around here, though, so I get expensive car washes with “bottom blaster” often during salty months for my 4×4 Tahoe, which I have managed to hang onto for several years now, which tells you I must really like it.

  • avatar
    dukeisduke

    Was it a Mazda?

    I’m fortunate to live in North Texas, where rust isn’t generally a thing. But now, with folks moving in from elsewhere, like tons of State Farm employees moving down from Illinois to work at State Farm’s HQ2 in Richardson, we have to be vigilant when looking at used cars for rust, and Carfax reports, to see where cars have been.

    Recently I was looking at a 2007 Camry XLE for my daughter. Fairly loaded, with 141,000 miles. I started looking around inside the trunk, and noticed a 3″ diameter crusty rust spot, toward the driver’s side, along a seam behind where the bumper bar mounts to the body. I figured it spent some time up north. That scared me off, and when I looked at the AutoCheck report, sure enough, its first nine years were spent in Chicago.

    • 0 avatar
      Jon

      Ive had a similar experience here in phoenix. Lots of snowbirds come here from the midwestern and northern states for our winters (they clog up the cosco isles and take 20 minutes to pull into a parking space). With them come lots of cars with rust. Since i don’t know a lot about rust, I avoid anything that has even mild rust on it. Its not worth dealing with.

      Its too bad. Sometimes i see some immaculate really low mileage trucks or cars for sale that were senior owned but have rust.

    • 0 avatar
      slap

      “when I looked at the AutoCheck report, sure enough, its first nine years were spent in Chicago.”

      That’s one of the most important uses for CarFax/AutoCheck etc – finding out where the car probably lived. Of course, just because a car is registered in some state doesn’t guarantee that it spent all of its time there.

    • 0 avatar
      MBella

      Car dealers will also buy plenty of northeastern cars from auction.

  • avatar
    JMII

    The wheel wells of my Dakota pickup are pretty much gone… and I could have prevented it. I live in FL so its not due to winter’s slush, instead the salt came from launching my boat in saltwater. The tires would grab water off the ramp, fling it up into the wheel wells where it slowly ate the metal away. I noticed it, but figured it was surface rust only (nope!) and didn’t realize just how much had been effected (lots!). So I’ve got some serious work ahead of me. Thankfully it only effects the bedside, not the outside skins, thus once a bedliner is inserted you’ll never see my poor bondo and primer job. Once repaired several coats of rubberized undercoating will be applied. Rust is just not expected in FL thus I was caught off guard.

    • 0 avatar
      MiataReallyIsTheAnswer

      Here in the midwest we tend to think we scored if we get a shot at a CA or FL car, but apparently if the car spent a lot of time near the actual ocean, the salt spray can really tear it up.

      • 0 avatar
        Lorenzo

        I’ve lived three blocks from the Pacific Ocean in Southern California for over 40 years. The salt spray doesn’t get that far. I owned the same car for over 20 years there, and the only rust was on the roof and trunk lid – after the sun evaporated the water-based top coat of paint, the flat undercoat, and the zinc-based white rustproofing.

        That was in 15 years outside, with most of the damage occurring in the last year, all on a Japanese car, before they switched to clearcoat. The sun melts that even faster, 5-8 years of sun, max. The laws limiting VOCs forced a switch to less durable paint, and clearcoat is no substitute for quality enamel.

        Despite often driving over salt-encrusted sand, blown onto the streets near the beach, the underbody remained free of rust. When automakers went to a 7/70 rustproofing guarantee, they did a good job avoiding the payouts.

  • avatar
    ToolGuy

    Steph,

    You are treating symptoms – consider root cause solutions:
    – King Ranch (Al > Fe)
    – Move

    The last salt to contact the bottom of my vehicle came from the Bonneville Speedway.

    • 0 avatar
      jack4x

      Can’t move, but did buy an Al body King Ranch last year and had the chassis rustproofed.

      Hoping it lasts a good long time, the last 3 trucks I’ve owned have been about gone by 12-15 years old.

      • 0 avatar
        sgeffe

        It’s a crime how fast the pickups start to get the tinworm in Northwest Ohio! Especially since beginning in the early aughts, the prices started their escalation to bank-busting levels for even a well-equipped mid-level trim!

        The best Chevy and GMC design, the GMT900s, are starting to succumb — the shapes of the side windows are awesome, and the interiors just look great, especially the non “work truck” dash! The 2004 generation of F-150, another favorite of mine, has been collectively rotting away for the last couple years.

    • 0 avatar
      krhodes1

      I moved. 3/4 of the year in FL, summers in ME. My cars have no idea what salt is.

      But MOST cars are just sooo much better at resisting the tinworm than in days past. My Mother’s 8yo Prius-V is fine underneath, just a little surface corrosion here and there. The ’80 Subaru my grandfather bought needed the sills welded to pass inspection when it was 3 years old. A friend had a 10yo Outback fail inspection for rust issues a few years ago with only 70K on it. Some companies have been slower to learn than others.

      The Fords still have steel frames, even if the bodies shouldn’t rust. Friend of mine had a mid-2000s Ford truck where the dipstick tube rotted in half and was hanging in the breeze. That’s impressive… The whole chassis looked like it sat at the bottom of Casco Bay for a few years.

  • avatar
    PrincipalDan

    I’m so much happier living in the Southwest than the MIdwest.

    We get snow in the Southwest, the local DOTs spread grit instead of salt.

    In my younger Ohio days my Dad had a 1987 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme that later became mine. He spent a few hundred bucks on rust repair (surface bubbles) during his ownership and a few years after it became mine I moved to Detroit. One of the front sway bar links eventually rusted through and let go during my ownership.

    The guys who stole it and stripped it did me a favor in the long run.

    • 0 avatar
      ToolGuy

      In college a friend from Ohio related the story of their family car which had been passed down to the kids. Ran for years – pulled up to a stop sign one day and the car *broke in half*. LOL.

  • avatar
    slap

    In the Washington DC metro area rust on cars is a somewhat rare thing – I usually assume that the car or truck came from somewhere else. When my son started college in Ohio we spent some time there – it was weird seeing so many rusted out cars.

  • avatar
    slavuta

    Yep. When my 98 Protege was about 11, I was like, “ok, I’ll give it another year, as long as I don’t need invest heavily.” It kept going. At 12yo rear wheel wells rotted on the bottom. I cut out the rust. Cut some cans from food previously eaten. Formed this metal into new wheel well shape. Riveted all in. Put some Bondo to complete the shaping. Sprayed few layers of paint that was closely resembling but not quite matching the original. Inside wheel well sprayed black undercoating. And for the next ~3 years, it did well. I actually sold car later for $950.

  • avatar
    Thomas Kreutzer

    I believe I’ve told the story of the Ford Freestar I bought while we were in Buffalo. It had a couple of rust issues – at least that I could see – when we purchased it used but I had those repaired and thought everything was settled.

    Then we got a recall notice that said the van needed to go into the shop because of rust issues around the rear seat mounts. I didn’t believe my van would have any issues, but that was wrong. I had one of the interior side panels off to look at the AC system and could see right down to the ground. It turns out that the mounts to my son’s seat were almost completely gone and the entire assembly looked like it would tear loose in an accident.

    I had the recall repair completed and traded the van in on our Town and Country about a month later. Six, almost seven years later, that T&C still looks and runs great (although it did have a transmission rebuild about 4 years ago).

    Now that we are in VA, I suspect salt isn’t such a big issue but our new Versa and my Hardbody stay inside on snowy days.

    • 0 avatar
      sgeffe

      Did you have to convert all of your modifications on that T&C back to US-spec when you got back here, and if so, how long did you have to complete the work before you could register the vehicle?

      • 0 avatar
        Thomas Kreutzer

        I did it right away and had it done in less than an hour since I already had the US spec headlights. Not an issue at all. The van cruised through the State inspection.

        • 0 avatar
          sgeffe

          Nice!

          One well-travelled van, that!

          • 0 avatar
            Thomas Kreutzer

            Indeed. There was so much more stress involved taking the T&C to Japan. I look through those old write-ups now and that sense of pressure immediately comes flooding back.

            There were so many unknowns and so much useless running around. Getting the right parts cost so much money and took so much time to get – for example, it was a major issue finding headlights that would work and in the end I was lucky to find them at all.

            People still write to me occasionally to ask about taking their own vehicles to Japan and I almost always tell them not to do it. It just isn’t worth the hassle at all. If we ever go back, there’s just no way in hell…

            Coming home could not have been more different.
            The state here let me register the vehicle without an inspection with the understanding I would get it done as quickly as I could. Once it arrived, I just changed out the headlights, reconnected the orange running lights that the Japanese had insisted I remove and took that stupid mirror off that let me see the front tire on the passenger side. No kidding, the whole thing took less than an hour.

            Once that was done, I popped down to my local Midas and had the inspection done while getting an oil change. No issues at all.

            Last month, I took it in for its second annual inspection since coming home and, again, no issues. Not that I expect any, the van still has less than 40K miles on it. At the rate it’s going, I’ll probably be quite old by the time it needs to be replaced.

  • avatar
    Big Smoke

    BUT, at the same time, you can also luck out.
    I bought my boss’s 1999 ford explorer.
    It had 290,000 kms on it. He did maintain it, oil and services. The odd car wash. But mostly cleaned by rain. I bought it and gave it to a friend at the cottage. She rolled another 170,000 kms onto it. It just went off to the wreckers with 460,000 + kms. She did two sets of brakes and two sets of tires, and one used muffler. It lived outside, drove it all winter, washed it in the spring, whether it needed it or not. Engine was done, but not a spot of rust, and as shinny as a 100k car. Sometimes you’re just lucky.

  • avatar
    dividebytube

    My ’98 Toyota T100 was bought used with a lot of rust, mostly centered around the rear quarters. I went to town with POR-15, bondo, and paint to fill in the holes. From a distance it actually looked good even though I’m an amateur when it comes to body work.

    Well one winter later and the rust kept on growing – right along the edges of the bondo and the POR-15.

    I sold the truck a year later to a friend who wanted winter only wheels for his wife. Amazingly it soldiered on for another four years, to the point where there was holes in the floor.

    I’ve had various rust issues over the years – two Nissan trucks, 80s Honda Accords (around the fuel door), and even my Buick Roadmaster in the rear quarters. My wife’s 2003 Mini Cooper S seemed to hold up the best – when we got rid of it this year there was a quarter-sized rust spot underneath the license plate and a dime sized one on the passenger door. It’s my theory (based on a small sample of one BMW and three MINIs) that German cars are better painted.

  • avatar
    dal20402

    We don’t have rust around here (Pacific NW).

    So I was totally ignorant when I sent my ’88 Accord with some body damage to western New Hampshire with my then-girlfriend, who moved out there for a job.

    By three years later it was a heap, fit for the scrapper.

  • avatar
    Ryoku75

    Most of my cars had bits of hodden rust, them being old cheapos.

    The one good thing about my Volvo 850 was that it was largely rust proof, as that was the one thing that Volvo did well on these. The plastic bits don’t catch salt between themselves and the metal.

    My other Volvos had their share of rust, mostly rockers or the battery tray. I did get a 240 that had some nasty rear wheel well rust that was patched up.

    The Hondas were worse, in paticular I had a 92 where I could puncture the metal behind the rear seats just with my fingers.

    My current CVPI has some bad rocker rust that I’ve slowed down with rustoleum, rusty rear bumper, and a floorboard hole over the drivers cat. Stinks, since rust and paint aside this has been a really good car (and I used to be a skeptic).

  • avatar
    burnbomber

    Love the south central rust free land of Oklahoma, and it’s even better in Texas. NO rust issues until the rest of the car is crap. I’m talking 25 years before a perforation appears; it came up in a door bottom, in the seam. This was on a GM A-body front driver Celebrity. That was a good car.

    Maybe it helps that my vehicles are garaged or carported. It’s more essential around here that they be covered in hailstorms, that occur with regular frequency. The Celebrity was dinged multiple times in it’s live; hail dings are more common than rust-thru.

  • avatar
    SilverCoupe

    I had kept up the body of our ’64 Riviera (which reverted back to my dad when I got a Scirocco in ’78), but by ’95 our local mechanic told my dad that the frame was so rusted out that the car was no longer safe, so he sold it. Still, 31 years is not bad in Philly!

    I doubt my Scirocco did as well. I was living in Ithaca at the time, and the Scirocco had lots of body rust after three years, and I sold it in ’84. My more recent cars have not had rust issues.

  • avatar
    Matt Foley

    F’n rust. My dad bought a very basic ’70 Camaro brand-new: 307* 2-bbl, 3-sp stick, Autumn Gold with black interior. I loved that car.

    In 1981, he junked it. It had only 92K miles and never had a mechanical failure of any kind, but both doors were rusted through (top edge and bottom), the trunk floor had rusted through, the passenger footwell had rusted through, and the final straw was when the right rear leaf spring shackle rusted through and the car basically collapsed at that corner. 11 Ohio winters had completely destroyed that beautiful car.

    *Yes, a 307, not a 305. From 1968-72, the base Chevy V8 was a 307 – a 283 block with a 327 crank. 200hp. I’m sure it wasn’t fast, but it sure felt fast when I was a little kid.

  • avatar
    -Nate

    Rust ~ I hate it, so many wonderful oldies from the 30’s , 40’s & 50’s fell apart before my eyes in new England during the 1960’s .

    -Nate

  • avatar
    sgeffe

    The door on that Ciera in the picture is definitely a goner!

    As good as the A-bodies were by the end of the run, they sure didn’t improve the rustproofing; increasingly, any A-bodies I see still plying the roads have variations of the picture happening, or the bottoms of the doors are gone! I did see a rust-free Ciera Cruiser yesterday, but Lord knows if the rockers were even there!

    What caused the kind of rust in the picture? Water infiltration over time, probably mixed with a helping of calcium chloride? I’ve seen GMs of all varieties from the ‘80s and ‘90s so-afflicted!

  • avatar
    CobraJet

    I’m lucky to live in an area where rust is not an issue. However in the last decade our state highway department dumps lots of salt and some sort of brine on the highways when there is even a hint of wintry weather. Fortunately that only occurs a couple of times each year. I try to keep my older vehicles off the road until rain can wash it all away. My 69 Mustang and 94 Silverado don’t have any rust.

  • avatar
    PentastarPride

    I would love to see legislation where municipalities and states are given x months/years to move to a non-destructive and cost-effective ice mitigation method before criminal charges are filed against those within DOT (jail time!), with a count of property destruction per registered car that could be potentially affected. By the deadline, if nothing is fixed, current and valid car registrations are pulled from DMV databases and forwarded to a prosecutor — each one counted as a “count” to be filed against anyone involved in salting. That should really motivate salt-happy DOTs.

  • avatar
    Polka King

    My 1966 F150 officially died when the whole body dropped five inches down over the frame on the bottom and onto my head on the top.

  • avatar
    Scott

    I am living this to a small degree right now, when cleaning my 2016 Escape (bought new in March 2016) I noticed rust beginning to bubble at the inside bottom edge of the doors (at the seam). Not a place I would expect rust on such a young car, looking at the forums it appears it is not an uncommon problem, needless to say it is going away before there is any breaking of the paint.

    • 0 avatar
      -Nate

      The pinchwelds (seams) have always been a rust trap .

      In 1969 New Hampshire’s heavy salting poisoned & ruined our well that was 30′ from the state highway .

      We had to dig another well way back against the tree line .

      -Nate

      • 0 avatar
        Scott

        Haven’t seen this in any other of my more recent cars, and being that the car is only 3 year old (and is most of its 40,000 miles have been done in the summer on vacations, I am not impressed. Even the Mazdas which people say are so bad didn’t rust on us this quickly,(didn’t t rust at all in 6 years and more mileage, more done in the winter{at least not visibly ) no more Fords for me.

      • 0 avatar
        Scott

        Haven’t seen this in any other of my more recent cars, and being that the car is only 3 year old (and is most of its 40,000 miles have been done in the summer on vacations, I am not impressed. Even the Mazdas which people say are so bad didn’t rust on us this quickly,(didn’t t rust at all in 6 years and more mileage, more done in the winter{at least not visibly ) no more Fords for me.

  • avatar
    ToolGuy

    Carbon fiber is the answer.

  • avatar
    don1967

    Show me anyone in the salt belt who claims that their 10-year old {fill in the blank} has “no rust”, and I’ll show you someone who’s never looked underneath at the brake lines, fuel lines, subframes and other hidden bits. They’re always closer to spending money than they realize.

    The main exceptions seem to be Audi/VW, BMW and Volvo. Our untreated 8-year-old S80 looks remarkably new underneath. Even the original brake rotors and (never-greased) pad slides perform as new.

  • avatar
    Ol Shel

    If you want your sheetmetal to last, you need to learn about how your car is put together, and you need to treat the INTERIOR of the areas prone to accumulating moisture: Rockers, doglegs, door bottoms,inner fender tops, etc. Cars can rust from condensation, not just salty water. Buy a large quantity of a good rust preventative like Kano Labs’ WeatherPruf. Spray the stuff anywhere water can collect, and even places you don’t expect it, but all surfaces near moisture-prone areas. Repeat every 2-3 years, making sure that you don’t inadvertently close off any drain holes. Do this, and your car’s body will last a long time.

  • avatar
    ToolGuy

    B&B input solicited, please.

    The interior floor of my 1995 GMT400 has very limited corrosion in two spots:
    – Directly over the catalytic converter (looks like heat caused the paint to bubble slightly and then moisture went to work)
    – Where the driver’s heel wore through the original vinyl floor/cotton shoddy

    Current plan is to hit these areas lightly with a 3M Roloc Bristle Disc and then apply Dupli-Color Self-Etching Primer before continuing with the installation of the new sound deadening mat.

    Any thoughts? Thank you.


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