Produced when American consumers weren’t spending billions of dollars per year in the foreign auto market, those long, streamlined rear-wheel drive machines, like our current economy, are dwindling in numbers every year. Many people simply do not have the ideal climate-controlled storage facility to tuck them away during the cool and damp fall and winter seasons in Syracuse while they steer front-wheel drive cars on icy surfaces instead. Or, some just think no harm is being done while they sit on the lawn like a statue outside year after year. And others just don’t give a damn and drive them on the salt-covered winter roads, which actually might not be the worst thing for a car—classic or modern.
“People think that as soon as salt touches your car, it’ll automatically start to rust,” says Dennis Connor, president of the Central New York Classic Car Association, an organization that promotes classic car events and oversees communication between all the local car clubs. “And while it’s true that salt does retain water and will cause a cause a car to rust and deteriorate over a period of time, it’s actually the amount of moisture that’s trapped to the surface of a car over a period of time that will cause it all kinds of problems.”
Obviously, the best thing Connor recommends for storing a car you will not be driving during the winter is to keep it in a spring-like temperature, climate-controlled garage; but obviously, nine out of 10 Syracusans don’t have that luxury and must leave it to fight Jack Frost.
“Elevating the car on blocks or jack stands and getting it off the ground is the first thing you should do if you plan on letting it sit all winter,” Connor continues. “Besides attracting more moisture to the frame and gas and brake lines underneath the car when parked at ground level, one thing people don’t realize is that a tire is designed to lubricate itself by rolling, and if it sits all winter in one position, it will cause a flat spot in the tire tread. And when you go to drive it again in the spring, the flat spot would cause the car to steer erratically and can be downright dangerous, especially at high speeds.”
And whether stored on the ground or elevated on jack stands or blocks, the worst thing you can do to preserve a car during outdoor winter storage is what most people do. “Whatever you do, don’t cover it,” cautions Connor. “I’ve driven by houses where I can see just the front bumper of a classic sticking out and I feel like stopping to tell the owner to take the cover off, but I usually just shake my head and keep driving. Many of those cars rot away to the point where they’re that much harder to bring back to life or too far gone to restore at all.”
Connor elaborates that putting a cover or bed sheet on a car in the winter will indeed keep snow accumulation off of your car, but evaporation or melting snow will become sandwiched between the surface of the car and the bottom layer of the cover. If this is your preservation method, don’t be surprised when you put the magician’s top hat on in the spring and presto the cover off, the patina of the paint is replaced with a layer of monkey-shit-brown surface rust—especially if the body of your car was made with sheet metal and not plastic.
Since the three major U.S. auto manufacturers—Chrysler, General Motors and Ford—inch closer to bankruptcy every year because of the American public’s fascination with foreign cars, they are forced to pinch pennies and slap together a car in the cheapest way possible. Gone is the sheet metal that used to form the bodies of classics, bent and designed in ways that would have made the late local sculptor Rodger Mack tip his cap. Nowadays, modern cars are thrown together with plastic parts—basically driveable toy models.
One negative aspect of metal, though, is that it oxidizes quicker than plastic and rusts over a shorter period of time. One area of automobile design that wasn’t able to make the metal-to-plastic transition that plagues both modern and antique cars are the gas and brake lines underneath the car. Left exposed to moisture over a period of time, they’ll most likely rot to the point where that $4 gallon of gas drips out as fast it’s pumped it in, while the master cylinder has lost all brake fluid and the pedal goes right down to the floor as you stop to turn right out of your driveway and end up knocking over the lawn jockey ornament in the yard across the street instead.
Another misconception people have about preserving their inert vehicle is starting it periodically to “keep all systems functioning.” Like covering a vehicle, that pre-emptive measure is also a false notion.
“If it’s in an unheated environment, people think they should start it periodically but there’s no need to start the car,” says Connor. “The best thing to do is use a stabilizer in the fuel system to prevent freeze and take the battery and leave it out until the spring or when you’re ready to use it again. Starting it again causes more moisture in the fuel and brake system and if it’s not run long enough to dry it back out, it’ll rust even more. And unless you actually drive it and run it through the gears, then park it on a dry day when it has ample time to dry out, it’s the same thing with the transmission, which is probably the most expensive thing to fix on a car.”
And for classic car enthusiasts, seeing an “oldie” acting as a decoration on someone’s lawn year after year would be as appalling as an art critic discovering that Jackson Pollock’s work was actually created by a blindfolded Bob Ross. But, chances are, if you live in a neighborhood where you’ve wondered why that ol’ jalopy has been sitting in that weird guy’s lawn since you were a kid, it’s because the owner has developed an unidentified sentimentality to it and can’t let go.
“Down near Cooperstown, there’s a man, if I’m going to estimate, who has about $2 million in vintage Ford cars and parts and won’t part with them,” says Connor. “The guy lives in a trailer and will absolutely not part with them. I’ve tried. He’ll probably die a lot poorer man than he should be, but if you can explain why he won’t, like so many other guys that tell me similar stories, you can put a sign outside your building or house and call yourself a psychologist.”