Exposing older cars to winter’s unfavorable elements—specifically, the dual-pronged attack of moisture and road salt—is a quick way to end up facing off with metal’s age-old nemesis: rust. Any classic car fan calling the Northeastern or Midwestern half of the country home has felt more than a passing twinge of envy for their compatriots in many southern and western states, who enjoy a drier climate that allows for year-round enjoyment of their rides without living in constant fear of the tin worm.
Corrosion, however, tends to attack vehicles of a certain vintage far more aggressively than their modern counterparts. It’s not just a question of being “old,” either. In certain eras, brand-new cars could shed their metallic skins while still sitting in the showroom.
The answer as to why today’s vehicles are more resistant to such a sudden fate is somewhat complex. Automotive industry’s long, slow march toward more durable materials is the result of advancements in design, engineering, and manufacturing, as well as the corporate buy-in required to implement an actual anti-corrosion plan.
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Good article. My family is in the steel business, galvanizing is pricey and adds weight. In the basic form (hot dip) it also warps thinner metal and even (too automotive hobbyists) thicker metal if spans are longer. Zinc coatings have filled that gap. Many auto companies struggled with getting their finish paint to stick long-term to these early coating attempts though (i.e., 90s GM trucks with not rusting hoods shedding paint).
The pickled salt brine used in many jurisdictions in increasing intensity the past decade plus doesn't help. Ontario, Canada insists on this while other parts of the country get just as much snow (or more) but don't use the salt. We bring cars from those provinces into Ontario and from southern states for a reason.
Their efforts are not working. In the Midwest it's common to see rusted out, especially pickups, that are only 5 years old today. Hopefully Tesla's stainless steel pickup solves this.
Manufacturers use the galvanized sheets for underside brackets but when they're stamped out the material thickness is bare metal and the rust starts there
My horror story concerned a 1973 Triumph Spitfire which I found in a field with a tree growing through the floorboards. It required not only the floor but trunk liner, numerous brackets, headlight mounts and a number of other hard to find and expensive parts. I learned my lesson with that car. The next one I owned, a 1973 911T was completely rust free and from AZ. Nice car to work on as bolts just unbolted. A joy compared to the Spitfire. Rust is death.
No mention of the deep dip rustproofing used by Nash/AMC for years to combat this very problem. Chrysler did the same when it went to uni-body in 60.
By the early '80s AMC was using two sided galvanized steel and Zeibart rustproofing.
That's not exactly "It took almost a century for the auto industry to move from a total disinterest in the prospect of rust protection to a dedicated effort to make good on the multi-year perforation warranties that became commonplace by the time the ’90s rolled around."
Galvanized steel was around in the '60s. Some makers bragged about two sided galvanization so the suggestion that the industry just looked the other way for 100 years is hyperbole.
All the points are well taken, and, yes, I learned all about bondo as a teenager in the midwest in the '70s. I hated seeing our 66 Mercury Montclair begin to rust within 3 years.
It is also why I loved the concept of the polymer panels on Saturn products. A direct response to the quick rust out of Japanese cars and a selling advantage. That all four fenders could be removed for easy replacement just like Checkers and Studebaker Larks was an added perk only a geek who had done rust "repair" every spring on that beautiful 66 Mercury could appreciate.
Good article. Doesn't go far enough and paints a picture that's true..... to a point.
Chrysler's notorious Aspen and Volare were rushed into production, part of the reason they rusted so quickly. Cut costs, sloppy assembly.
The Vega, same thing: a weapons grade corporate cluster hump. I saw those things rusting the front fenders within two years of intro. More bad design, cost cutting and sloppy build quality.
Of all of them I'd say Ford was the least interested in investing $$$ in rust resistance tech and had a couple of class action suits lobbed at them because of it.
I guess I was sort of hoping for more details about industry attempts at rust proofing. That's probably too wide a scope to expect.
But as is, it makes the US industry look like ignorant boobs while the Europeans and Japanese ride to save the knuckle draggers in the US once again, the hapless fools.
Not the full story by a long shot
After having totally dismantled my 1963 Auto Union to build my 1939 Auto Union Type C/D replica I contemplated the slightly (mainly surface) rusted frame and thought of all the time and effort required to clean off the rust and prepare to paint. I hit on hot dip galvanizing the whole thing. A local boat lift manufacturer had it done for me for $130. I didn't paint over it but I could have and it's still a nice silver/gray after more than 15 years. I'm sure the prices have gone up but it still is an excellent way to go when restoring old frames.
Living in the northeast, I've battled this issue for decades. What most people don't realize is its not only the cosmetic damage, its ALL the other failures and hazards created by the salt. Brake lines, fuel lines, sensors, rotors , all threaded fasteners, clips, and bearings. Working on a salted vehicle doubles the labor and part cost, not to mention the value plummets 2 fold compared to a non-salted one.
I know you're thinking "so what" " we have to salt to prevent accidents" Right? , The answer is NO. My point is this: There is probably nothing worse that salt when it comes to ruining automobiles, roads, and bridges - period.
1. Use less - how many time have you seen them pouring it on when the temps don't require, just was treated, or other reasons the effectiveness is minimal? Stop doing that!
2. Use alternatives. There are many. Ignore the cost excuse - its lame. Your damaging BILLIONS $ in equipment, roads, bridges, etc. The salt lobby spends millions convincing municipalities its the only way.
3. How many accidents, deaths, and collisions are caused by rotted brakes lines, leaking fuel, and other SALT RELATED damage? Answer: A lot more than you think! Is that ok?
4. Put more money into driver competence and teach how to drive in marginal conditions. The benefits will far outweigh the effort. More salt and more overtime is NOT the answer.
5. Automobile manufactures are hesitant to spend money for corrosion protection because its only a problem where they use salt. Why should all the customers pay for something they don't need?
Bottom line is its not just the cars that get ruined, its more cost and more damage for everyone. Seems pretty simple that eliminated the PROBLEM rather than the symptom makes the most sense!
An interesting take on salting roads-You have a good point. A few years back, the NYC mayor got grief because the public was caught off guard on an early winter snow storm. Thousands stuck in snow covered streets that were not cleared. After that, the roads were salted heavily at the slightest hint of snow.
What a load of crap. You don't recall the Hondas and Toyotas with structural problems due to rust? Is the author from California?? Everybody had issues and it was because cars were cheap. Always the hate America routine from these totally biased "journalists".
Why don't you talk about some of the coating technology and application methods that have been used since era of throw away cars. Probable beyond your capability. Talking about galvanizing as a modern rust preventative is what I call a throw away article. I hope Hagerty drops you!
I spent my entire career in the auto industry, and I thought this article was very well written. I can testify that GM took corrosion prevention very seriously. Unfortunately, often times their efforts were deleted in favor of reaching their annual product cost reduction targets. This is what Bob Lutz railed against in his book "Car Guys vs. Bean Counters".
As a lifetime Chicago-area resident, I recall that "salting" roads was limited in the '50's and early '60's with only important intersections receiving that treatment. Effective lobbying by the salt industry then resulted in jurisdictions scrambling to increase use of that product. I always thought the auto industry was "blind-sided" by this development as their northern based cars began to dissolve while southern cars didn't. My personal grudge against increased salting at the time was that it destroyed my boyhood winter sport of "skeetching".
Remember the Pontiac TranSport and Chevy Lumina vans? Plastic body panels over galvanized space frames, should be impervious to rust, right? Wrong! The sub-frames were not galvanized, they were the same as other GM V-6 subframes. And whatever they did to rust proof the floors, it wasn't enough.
Salt is used far more than should be, they'll use any excuse to dump it on with glee. I got smart, bought an '02 Lincoln Town Car, entire exhaust system is stainless steel, as are other lines, heat shields. lower body is plastic, can't rust and it doesn't, even in our MN salt-strewn winters. A well used 3500 buck car, still looking and running like new. Sometimes you can get far more than what you pay for.
Is that a Borgward next to the Corvair in the top photo? Borgwards had a diamond shaped logo. My dad owned a Borgward Isabella coupe in the 1960s. I've only seen one or two others in the USA.
My panel shop reported to me when my 1951 Buick was being restored that the body had been galvanised and that's why there was no rust anywhere, however, about two years after the paint job rust appeared in several spots where the sanding apparatus had gone through the zinc on some high spots. Would this hot dipping, zinc plating have been normal on a '51 Buick?
I’m surprised the author doesn’t mention John DeLorean. He was fed up with how badly GM cars would rust after a few years. He decided that his car would have a fiberglass body with stainless steel panels for exactly that reason. Neither of those ideas were new, but he was the first to combine both. I really thought that stainless would have caught on as a car building material but apparently it is much more difficult to work with (and more costly) than aluminum.
You're right that's true! First of all the Japanese bought all their scrap metal from us the United States! Melted it down, and in that process the metal was thinner, they knew how to make that metal go further! In most cases the Japanese cars weren't any better, actually worse! And neither were the German or Italian cars for that matter! Having said that, mechanically the Japanese cars were good, but some not any better than American cars particularly today's cars! People thought they were so much better, they got better gas mileage but that's about it. It's a fallacy to think otherwise!
That sure is a Borgward, Tony! My dad also owned an Isabella coupe and a wagon. The wagon's gate opened to the side like an ambulance. On the subject of corrosion, the Borgward's window mechanism was made of brass!
My Isabella had rusted floorboards around two sides, but nothing that a little tar paper and roofing cement couldn't fix! It was a great first car, and much better than contemporary VW beetles.
My wife is the original owner of her '06 Civic which has never been garage kept in its life. Living in central Indiana I'm always impressed when I crawl under it to change the oil to see that the entire undercarriage is just as rust free as the day she bought it. It could use a wax job under there but it IS just a Civic after all!
I know that Imperial had a fairly complex anti-rust treatment in the 1960s, how was that accomplished? Those cars are still around and very resistant to rust.
"Zebart", "Rusty Jones": poke a hole in, jab a 360* nozzle ona wand & move around - spray perservitive, w/drawal, push ina rubber plug. 'After Mrkt 'Rust-proofing' - a buncha BS actually.
Many of the rocker panels were galvanized early on, actually the 1971 Buick Riviera had a Galvanized trunk lid. They did it because it had a 52 louvers punched in it. One of the issues was they had a hard time keeping paint stuck to galvanized parts.
My father worked for Buick as a metallurgical engineer from 62-78 ish.
I worked for a Chevrolet dealer in the late '70 to '80's. In central Illinois there was a gm foundry that offered up scrap slag to mix with the road salt. We started seeing surface rust on new cars. Under magnification we found little curls of slag stuck to the paint! Buff and wax, problem gone. Local government stopped using there slag!
I recall that Cadillac in the early '60s touted "10% thicker steel" in their cars. Ergo, Cadillac implied that it took longer for a Cadillac to rust out.
You have left out a really important fight against rust: Cathodic electrodeposition primers developed by PPG and later used globally by all car makers. It started sometime in the late 70’s and is still in use today. It prevents rust by greatly slowing down the Fe O2 formation.
I remember in 1976-ish, seeing 2 year old chevy pickups with the tops of the rear fenders rusted out! Course that's living in the God forsaken frozen wasteland of N MI. I lived and worked in Tucson AZ for two years, the cars were amazing, i purchased a 1977 Trans AM that when I did shocks, I simply cracked the bolts loose and (ready?) ..... spun the nuts off with my fingers. Still own the car, it is like new and completely rust free, gorgeous!
today we just shoot 'em w/'plastic paint'. Weather it be a car, truck, off roader we use the POR-15, zero crumb count bed liners (raptor frm GB), etc and just spray the underside. Brought down to bear metal or good adhering oe. No more 'under coat' - the rust can be seen under those ol attempts. On the rotisserie (restores) or lift we now have the technology (20 yrs?).
Since the early 1930's, most north American cars have been treated with zinc phosphate prior to painting to enhance paint adhesion and rust resistance. The zinc phosphate will tend to heal minor scratches and chips that go to the metal surface, it can't mend the paint but it will slow the tendency for rust to form. In the late 80's manufacturers started using galvanized panels in rust prone areas of the vehicles. Paint adhesion was a problem and chemical companies struggled to modify the zinc phosphating systems. Between the early 70's and early 90's the salt spray resistance more than tripled. PPG's cathodic electrodeposition primer also enhanced salt spray resistance and allowed paint to be electrically charged into areas that could previously not be reached with primer. Prior to the 70's, the only galvanized parts were brackets and rocker panels. Some southern assembly plants used iron phosphate because it was a cheaper process to enhance paint adhesion but did little to stop rust. Vehicles made in these plants were not supposed to be sold in rust belt areas.
If you really want to keep rust at bay look at a product called Corrosion Free. It's a Canadian company and the product works wonderfully I have personally been using the product for about 7 years. I liked it so well I bought all the equipment and started doing it myself about 6 months ago. It really does help and even helps on used cars as well as I can attest
That was an intereseting read. I remember the cadillac cars of the early 70's rusting along the body mouldings when they were only a few years old. Wasn't there a class action law suit-something about crappy steel from Japan? Anyway-I keep my 77GP under a shelter here in NY. I take it out during the winter but always avoid road salt, rain and snow.
Nice article but, it ignores the steel manufacturers who developed the galvanized sheet metal products that the auto manufacturers needed to meet the demands of the market.
United States Steel was one of several steel companies that did the R&D To develop the electro-galvanizing process and invested $100’s of millions to build the facilities to manufacture the new materials. “Exposed automotive” sheet metal is one of the most challenging steel products to produce.
The steel manufacturers in this country are largely unknown to the general public and like many other basic industries have gone through tremendous change in the last 50 years. I know because I worked at US Steel’s Gary Works for 37 years.
in the late 70's, I worked for a company that made and installed robots used to weld on auto assembly lines. At the time Chrysler had started to use galvanized sheet metal in the lower portion of the car. Supposedly, one problem the robots solved was that spot welding galvanized metal resulted in the release of carcinogenic fumes that would be detrimental to human welders.
The article makes it sound like Japanese cars were way ahead of American cars. I remember my brother bought a 1980 Honda Civic. We live in Connecticut were they use plenty of road salt. Within about a year the tops of the Honda front fenders were completely rusted away. There was a hidden warranty that he used to get them replaced. After several more years the car was so rusty that he could not open both doors at the same time because the car would sag, and you could not close the doors. I am pretty sure that car had no galvanized metal.
I bought a new Plymouth Horizon TC3 in 1980. Chrysler was using galvanized panels. My car suffered absolutely no rust, and eventually went to the junk yard more than 10 years later due to an accident.
My first new car purchase was a 1977 Honda Civic. I lived in SE Florida. The front fenders rusted within 2 years and the paint on hood plus roof faded and thinned to nothingness. Honda later faced a recall for the rusting and paid for the repair work incurred. I laugh at the false praise of 1970's Japanese vehicle superiority...they were junk. (three water pumps, head gasket failure, rust plus a list of issues all within 4 years and 60K miles).
If you store your classics in an unheated shed (particularly in the rust belt states) cover concrete floors with discarded carpet and park on that...this somewhat prevents the buildup of moisture on the concrete when the sun warms the shed...this "bath" of moisture will attack all steel suspension components...the concrete acts as a "cold sink" during the cold months...when your shed warms up the moisture in the air will deposit water on the top of the concrete...and Mother Rust starts her nasty business...
Interesting that you credit the Japanese with being pioneers in auto rust resistance. This would be different than my personal experience. I worked on Japanese and other European imports from about 1974 to 1984. At that time the Japanese cars were throw aways. Good build quality but very poor long term (50,000 mile +) durability. Both the mechanicals and the bodies fell apart. Fast forward to my 1991 Geo Storm (AKA Isuzu Impulse) A wonderful little car and mechanically very reliable, in spite of me driving the heck out of it, including 2 regional E stock autocross championships. Unfortunately, by 1999, the rocker panels and rear quarters were rusted through, and I let it go in favor of a GM product that lasted far longer.
I have worked in the auto industry for more than 30 years and my experience is a bit different from the authors. I have seen significantly more rust from the 80s and 90s Japanese cars than their American or German counterparts of the Era. Especially from Subaru and Nissan.
Another issue arose when cities were using a sand and salt mixture on the snowy roads in the winter. I remember growing up in Milwaukee how the sand would blast through the paint and the salt would start the corrosion. Milwaukee eliminated using this mixture after a while, but it's still being used in Colorado. Also thicker metal didn't necessarily mean no rust-through. I had a 1962 Ford Falcon with a side-ventilated trunk because both fenders rusted clear through. Nothing a patch job with riveted sheet steel and Bondo wouldn't cure (for a while).
I live in the North-East part of the country, and have been storing vintage cars during the winter for years. In an unheated storage area, a ceiling fan installed above the car greatly reduces condensation on the car. Even a small window fan blowing under the car works well. This is especially important in the spring and fall when temperatures and humidity vary greatly from day to night.
In my storage / parking garage I have a cheap ceiling fan that has run continuously for 20 years. Even the bare sheet-metal parts stock is clean after many years of storage.