Auto Maintenance in the Winter – A Survival Guide
Being a gearhead in a cold and wintery environment is the absolute worst! Without some kind of heat source in your garage, you won’t even know that half of your knuckles are missing. You say you don’t have a garage at all? I know that lifestyle all too well. In that case, you might as well forget that the outdoors even exists until March 11th. That’s when the 2018 daylight savings finally rescues us from never ending darkness and unproductive evenings. Now, I’m not trying to be Debbie Downer here. I’m just writing what every single sub-30-degree-living car enthusiast is thinking. Being a Massachu…setts…ite(?) and hardcore wrench spinner for my entire life, I’ve learned a few things that may (or may not) help you survive another depressing winter.
Here is my top 10 list of things that all gearheads need to survive winter:
#1 Carhartt Jacket
I don’t know how people survived before these existed. I prefer the heaviest one that they make, with the hood, and all black in color. That way you can go straight from the junkyard to the class reunion and nobody will have a clue (other than the smell) that you’re covered in oil stains and gasoline. Most importantly though, these jackets keep the wind and cold out. In late January, when everybody else around me is crying about the cold temperatures, my jacket allows me to feel like I am on a beautiful Caribbean island.
#2 Carhartt Overalls
No, I am not getting paid to brag about this stuff, I promise you. Same deal as above, but I do recommend trying these on in a local store before buying them. You want a size that will slide over your jeans easily, and not bunch up, and not show off your ankles to old man winter. Obviously, I also prefer a dark color for its filth-hiding properties. Combined with the jacket, these basically make you unstoppable in a winter environment.
#3 Portable Tool Bag
We all know that the coldest thing on earth is a wrench in the winter. If you are doing a quick repair job outside or in a frozen garage, grab the tools that you will need, throw them in a portable tool bag and bring them all in your house for a couple hours before tackling the job. As long as you don’t rest them in the snow, they hold their above-freezing temperature for longer than you’d think.
Wearing gloves while working on cars is not ideal. The rubber and latex ones tear after three minutes and swell up the moment that carb cleaner breathes on them. Then there are the cotton ones with the black dots on the fingers. They protect your knuckles quite well, but absorb oil and transmission fluid like a sponge, and don’t allow you to grip small bolts. The truth is, though, in the winter, you need some kind of knuckle protection. Your best bet to saving your numb, floppy, frosty fingers from injury is a good set of mechanic’s gloves. They still won’t allow you to thread in any small bolts, or keep your hands warm, but they will hold your skin together when you slide your snow-covered knuckles across a rusty heat shield.
#5 Battery Tender(s)
Has anybody else noticed that $50 car batteries don’t exist any more? You and I both know that you have at least one car that always has a dead battery when you want to move it around the yard. Just fork over the $20 for a battery tender to keep the battery topped up, and love your life when you need to start up your project car. Many of them even come with a connector that you can permanently attach to your car, so hooking up the battery is as easy as connecting a hidden plug.
#6 Cardboard & Tarps
I have spent far too much time laying in a piles of snow in my driveway, under cars. Doing this is literally why the word “cold” was invented. Oddly enough, it is also the definition of “misery”, especially when the nasty water drips on your face. I don’t even like thinking about it. To relieve yourself of the pain and suffering associated with this event, remove as much snow as you can from under and around the car. Then lay down a bunch of cardboard. This gives you a little padding, insulation, and a dry environment for a little while. The tarp can be used as an additional barrier underneath you, or it can be thrown over the car to create a tent. Believe it or not, it does feel warmer when you do this. It’s gives you less wind, and all of your 98.6 degree breath to swim around in.
#7 Safety Goggles
Notice I did not say glasses. When you are under a car that is dripping disgusting melting snow-salt-mud on your face, you want real goggles. They come in three-packs at Harbor Freight for a couple bucks, and are worth trillions when that winter yuck-mud is dripping in your eyes. Give one to a friend since three is too many to wear at once.
#8 Water Proof Boots
This seems obvious, I know. Be sure to tuck your jeans into your boots before you tie them up. It makes you look ridiculous, but the overalls you went out to get midway through reading this will cover it up anyway. It keeps the cold and snow out when you are welding mufflers on in the snow.
#9 Magazines, Forums, and Facebook Groups
This gearhead’s guide isn’t just about removing bolts, you know. For us gearheads to survive another horrible winter, we need to stay motivated by living vicariously through our warm-climated friends. There are plenty of great magazines (yes, made with real paper) out there that can help you stay amped-up for spring when there is 18 inches of snow in your driveway. If you think magazines are sooo Y2K, then you may want to join a car forum or Facebook group online. There is one (and sometimes many) for every car out there, and most of them are great resources and motivation. Just be sure you know the lingo.
#10 Kitchen Auto Repair
As I write this, I have no less than two pistons sitting on my kitchen table. I’m not advocating that you rebuild your engine in your kitchen. However, I am suggesting that before winter gets real bad, you start saving up projects that can be done inside the house/apartment, while it is dark and snowy outside. Here are a few suggestions:
- Remove an entire wiring harness, clean the whole thing, remove extra junk, and re-tape it.
- Polish all the interior and exterior trim
- If you can stand the smell, there are some great brush-on paints that can be used inside your house, for all sorts of car parts. Paint every small under-hood and interior knickknack you can find. Headlight bezels, brackets, trim, pedals, shifters, etc.
- Customize your gauge cluster. Whether you are restoring an original, or building a sweet gauge setup, it can all be done in your living room with minimal power tools.
- Seat upholstery. I don’t have any idea how to sew, but I have replaced a handful of seat cushions and done some seat upholstery. This is a relatively clean job, just be sure to lay cardboard down on the floor first so the seat brackets don’t damage your carpets.
- Rebuild your carb. There isn’t a carburetor in existence that doesn’t need a rebuild right now. Bring yours inside (after you dump the fuel out) and rebuild that guy. Oh, and if you don’t already own the gallon bucket of carb cleaner that you can dunk parts in, you totally should. It’s the best.
- Rebuilding automatic transmissions is where things start getting questionable. Manuals on the other hand are totally fair game! They are smaller, lighter, and they don’t hide gallons of fluid like automatics do. I say buy the rebuild kit for your Muncie or T5, and just rebuild it.
- This is my last tip on kitchen auto repair: go buy some disposable cooking pans, the aluminum ones, lots of them. Maybe the 20 or 40 pack. They are absolutely awesome for doing auto repair indoors with. Thank me later.
With those tips, you and I will be as prepared as we can be for the arctic months. It’s gonna be tough, and it’s gonna be brutally cold. There may be times when you will consider throwing your carburetor into the snow bank beside the driveway, and that is understandable. Don’t let the truly horrible winter months stop the progress of your project car. Keep wrenching on the small stuff until there is nothing left to clean, paint, or rebuild. When spring finally does arrive, treat yourself to an entire weekend of attaching all of the winter-rebuilt parts onto your vehicle. It will be here before we know it.