23 December 2013

S’no Problem: strap on snow tires and go

What would you say if a friend pulled up to your garage, unloaded a set of mounted snow tires and offered to put them on your AAR Challenger, ’55 Crown Victoria or Jaguar XK-120? You’d say something like, “You’re out of your mind,” minus a few choice adjectives.


But it isn’t that crazy. When these cars were new people drove them in the winter all the time. I had a series of MGB/GTs which I drove in the winter courtesy of snow tires on the rear—before we in the U.S. knew that four winter tires were the way to go. The episode I remember most was the time I was crawling along an icy street and a pickup that was going way too fast slid out of control. To avoid it I had to hit the brakes and I tagged a high curb. It didn’t seem to do any damage, but I hadn’t bargained on what happens to a wire wheel when it takes a hit like that. That night I was meeting friends at a place up in the hills. On the way there the right front started shaking really badly and I knew I had to change the wheel. Well, parked on a sheet of ice, with a wheel sticking to the knock-off hub, every time I tried to pull it off, the other wheel turned. With my friend too lubricated and occupied with a girl, I had to get a stranger to hold the steering wheel and I finally changed the wheel.


I drove that car all over New Jersey and New York State that winter. And if I had ground clearance I did okay. I just took my time, left plenty of room around me and watched out for less competent snow drivers. The one real problem I had was icing door locks. Tossing warm water on the lock got you in, but it froze worse the next time.


The following summer I bought the 1962 MGA 1600 Mk II that I still have today. When I picked it up, it had four radials on it and two spares, which were snow tires. Apparently the owner drove the car in the winter in the Sierras and he needed traction. Those tires eventually ended up on my mother’s Saab 99EMS.


All through the 1970s I encountered people who had snow tires on their Alfa Romeos, Fiat 124s, MGs, Triumphs, and Datsun 240, 260 and 280Zs, not to mention their American Muscle cars, including Mustangs and Camaros that are highly collectible today.  Of course, using them in the winter, particularly in the northeast and upper Midwest, meant that they rusted to bits, but that’s just the way things were.


In the 1980 and early 1990s my daily drivers were cars that are fast becoming collectible today: a first generation Mazda RX7, Rabbit GTI, Honda CRX Si and an early Miata. I put winter tires on all of these cars and with the exception of the Honda, they all did pretty well in the snow. But now, as these cars have been relegated to weekend and summer use, it seems odd to think of them as salt encrusted, filthy winter workhorses.


This scenario is similar for many generations of cars. There was a time when all kinds of Packards, Cadillac V-16s, Auburns and Cords were used year round, and they suffered for it.  It was just as true for the cars of the 1950s and 1960s. Now we wouldn’t consider taking the ’55 T-Bird on a ski trip to Vermont, or taking the Porsche 356 to the slopes. There were also plenty of Hemis and Ferraris that saw their day in the snow. And 20 years from now we’ll look askance when we see a 2010 BMW Z4 or a 2013 Camaro battling a blizzard. But, the cycle will go on year after year. Though once in a while you’ll still see a rusty car of the 1960s or 1970s sitting in a car corral or on a trailer wearing worn-out old snow tires, and it makes you think about the way things were.

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