Written by Randy Gerdin on April 1, 2016
I have a son who lives in Portland, Oregon who bought his used car here in Minnesota. The car spent much of its life here in the Snow Belt and some time out east. Anyway, it has seen its share of winter driving and salt covered roads. He told me he took his car in for service and they joshed him about that rusty car from Minnesota. They do not have rust problems in Portland. These days, the bodies of our vehicles hold up pretty well, but vehicles are still made of steel, and steel rusts. In fact, we had a couple of vehicles in within the last month that were so rusted underneath that one of them almost had the engine fall down due to a rusted engine cradle, it had to be towed to the dealer for a recalled/updated engine cradle. The other vehicle had a left front strut tower rust out so badly that the vehicle was undrivable and unrepairable, so off to the salvage yard it went. The point is that without having your vehicle up in the air and thoroughly inspected, you may not know the true condition of the underside of your vehicle.
In most cases, everyday drivers last about 20 to 25 years. But there are a some models that have a few specific problems like the ones I mentioned. Still, you may not have any major structural issues with your vehicle, but the salt does its work by rusting and corroding many items. One thing we see commonly is brake systems that are rusted, some to the point of the system not functioning properly. In many cases, a good cleaning and lubrication with the proper lubricants (yes, there are special lubricants for different systems) is all it takes to put it back in top shape. Of course salt sprays up and seems to get on everything. This does little harm itself, but it does affect removal of nuts and bolts as things are disassembled for replacement. We have experienced bolts breaking off when replacing everything from exhaust system parts to water pumps. We have taken things apart and found parts literally rusted away.
One other issue is that our vehicles are made out of so many different materials that in some cases the materials (we call them dissimilar metals) chemically react with the salt and water spray. This can cause things to seize up and stop working. This can be especially true if it is something that you may not use often. One time we had a rear door that would barely open because the driver never opened that door. Usually these types of things can be cleaned up, lubricated, and put back into working order. It seems each spring we see our share of vehicles come in with rusted out brake lines. Again, they are steel and steel rusts completely through the brake line causing a brake leak. These usually are not fun. Your brakes may work fine one moment and then if a line blows you may all of a sudden have a low or spongy brake pedal and stopping distances are greatly increased.
Along with external brake lines rusting they can also rust from the inside out. Brake fluid itself has a characteristic that if left open, the fluid itself will absorb moisture. This moisture mixes with the brake fluid and it travels in the system and can cause internal brake failure. We had a vehicle in the other day that had a left front brake seize. The metal caliper piston in the caliper had frozen. The brake would apply, but would not release. This is one reason why it is recommended to have your brake system flushed out every few years. This contaminated fluid, of course, gets into all the parts of the brake system including the anti-lock unit and master cylinder. These are a couple very expensive items that can be cared for with a brake fluid flush.
I know it is impossible to keep the water and salt off your vehicle during the winter, it is a fact of life. Frequent car washes are helpful, especially the types that blast under the vehicle to wash the corrosive agents away. But with winter comes salt. I Hate When That Happens!