Odds are a vintage Model A isn't your favorite winter beater, but it's a good start. I want to find out what's been the best "beater with a heater" for YOUR automotive needs, preferences and tastes. I am mostly asking because I am a native Houstonian, so what on earth do I know?
All I know that my preferred winter beater for my tastes (Ford sedan nerd) would be a 2005-09 Ford Five Hundred/Taurus (or its Mercury siblings) with all-wheel drive and a couple of mods to make winter more enjoyable: more traction (snow tires) and the ability for less traction (ECU retune, suspension bits from a later model Taurus SHO or Taurus cop car). Feel free to slam my idea, as I clearly have no experience in the matter.
Back in high school we all parked our cars for winter. So the trick was to find a cheap car for winter that would get you through.
The $200 special that most bought back then was the Chevy Vega. Yes they rusted and used oil but it could be -20 degrees below zero and they would always start and always had heat. They would go anywhere in the snow and they would never leave you stranded.
Now I have two examples that really shined. One was the black Vega hatch. It was not pretty but a friends cousin who was a little stoned but very artistic drew a detailed Hemi engine on the hood with full details of the engine compartment. It alone was a work of art done in Tire crayon. For oil we never paid a dime. We just used drained oil from Auto Shop for oil as it would burn anyways.
The black Vega made it through several winters till one day going to Autorama in Cleveland it was struck by a TV crew truck. The reporter dropped a card and we limped the car back to Akron with a bent control arm and fender. Later the TV station sent a check for $800 to cover the car that was parted out.
A neighbor had a now rare Vega coupe. It had a smashed quarter panel. He drove it for 5 years keeping his clean Blazer off the road in winter. He finally sent the car to the junk yard only to see it on the road for two more years.
Honorable mention goes to the Fiat 128 Wagon. We mastered the reverse donut in the car. Ran trails and it would not lock yet no one would steal it at Browns games in Cleveland. The only thing is they say to change the timing belt at 25K miles they don't mean 26K.
It met its end when my buddy's brother was smashing through snow piles to fine one that had ice under the snow. It was bent at the fire wall and would flex up and down. We got several good years out of it too.
But the Vega also was a favorite at school. Others used the same process. Two school mates actually got hooked and restored two Cosworths not as winter beaters but just as play toys.
I will get slammed by Fiat-haters for this, but @hyperv6 mentioned one first, so at least I'll have company. My best winter beater was my 1970 (or '71?) Fiat 850 Sedan. With rear-engine, it had pretty good traction (let loose the VW Beetle stories!) and since it was fairly light, it tended to drive up on top of a lot of heavy snow rather than sinking in and getting stuck. Also being light, it didn't take much to brake it when things were slick out. And the plus over a Beetle I saw was that it had a radiator so it warmed up and blew good heat pretty quickly. One year I put studded tires on it and although the wife felt safer driving it, I didn't think they made a ton of improvement. The weight balance was just great for traction regardless of tires.
I've had a number of front-drive and 4WD vehicles and frankly have never found one that I would prefer to drive in winter over that old 850.
To me the criteria is 1) Good/fast heat, heated seats are a plus 2) Engine over drive wheels 3) Dedicated winter tires.
For me the best winter "beaters" have been SAABs (heated seats since the early 70's) from 95 wagons through 99's, 900's 9000's and currently two 9-3's in the fleet. They heat up fast and are like tractors in the snow with proper winter tires. One of our 9-3's is AWD, a great bonus but having the ability to stop and turn with the proper tires outweighs AWD IMHO.
Had a few VW Rabbits that were great ice racers but light on creature comforts.
Our Volvo V 70 AWD and Audi 5000 Q were fantastic with AWD and heated seats all around.
The crazy thing now is that my current winter beater is a 2020 GMC Sierra that I am leasing. Remote start, heated seats and heated steering wheel. Who knew a heated steering wheel could be life changing. Of course it rides on Blizzak's for the winter. I figured I might as well be safe and comfortable. Plus in three years I just turn it in and don't worry about potential corrosion from the highly toxic salt used here in northern Michigan.
I live on a gravel road in the bush on Manitoulin Island, along the North Shore of Lake Huron. Potholes the size of bathtubs, and snow up to your nads in winter. My beater for the last 9 years has been an '07 Ford Focus SE wagon, now with 395km on the clock. This sacrificial anode for road salt has studded Blizzaks on it and if it won't get me where I'm going, I'm not leaving home. I have beaten the snot out of this car and it simply refuses to die.
When I was younger and in college, I drove a 1986 Ford Ranger (manual tranny) with sand bags over the rear axle. That truck had been my father's factory delivery vehicle that was past its prime. That worked well and saved my 1984 Ranger from the salt (it had come from Texas and hadn't seen the brine).
Now, we've used an older AWD Subaru Outback or Toyota Highlander. Both great vehicles and both perform well in the snow. Keeps the salt off from my newer 4Runner (though everyone laughs at me and tells me the 4Runner should really be experiencing the Michigan fun).
Ah, the angst of being "car-people".... 😃
My winter beater is a 1984 Chevy S10. The body was already super rusty when I bought it for $500. It runs good and the frame is solid. With winter tires on the rear and some weight in the bed, it’s never let me down in the winter.
I always owned rear drive muscle, pony, or sports cars, which not only did I not want to drive in the winter, but which generally sucked in the snow anyway…so I always bought used beater Cavaliers, they were cheap, and seemed to run forever. The best was actually a wagon, as it gave me more utility for other projects…but 3 years ago I got smart and moved south. Now I actually enjoy the toys more in the winter, when it’s not as hot.
Any 240 or earlier Volvo. Accept no substitutes. Having had 122S and 240 winter cars, they are sturdy, warm and you can stuff a small planet in either car. We've used Cherokees and Travellalls as well -- but we rarely if ever needed the 4x4ness of either. Wagons preferred but we had a 240DL for years that just refused every attempt I made to kill it with bad weather and poor maintenance.
Our new car is a 2007 V50. . .everything else we own was built in the last century, so don't take our advice.
I did have a couple of 145 wagons that were fun in the winter. Requisite great heat, and a ball to power slide around corners. (the kids now call it drifting?). Actually ice raced a 145 in RWD class and a SAAB 99 in FWD class back in the 80's. Both were a ball but in different ways.
My TOYOTAs... hands down, the absolute BEST. They come up to temp quickest, deliver good heat with ram-air only (without fan), and defrost with excellence. ('94 Pickup & '02 Tundra 4.7L) ...and WAY BACK, I had a '69 Corolla Sprinter, that in spite of it's 1076 cc 4, would roast you out. WORST is the wife's Subaru Baja Turbo... takes forever to get heat.
Our 2008 Subaru Outback easily handles the week of snow we get here each year. I would not be without it. The Prius just sits when there is anything cold on the road. The best ever was a 2005 BMW X3 with a six-speed manual on snows, which was unstoppable (and the heated steering wheel won the wife over) — ideal for the five months of snow and ice we had when we lived east of the mountains. Overkill for where we are now, and pricey to maintain — hence back to Subaru, as in years gone by (and in the relative absence of Saabs with the right safety tech, and Saab parts/mechanics where we live). Following the logic? I think I do — just.
I've had a variety of winter beaters, but my favorites are Buick H body LeSabres. My '95 had a great heater, always started, had ABS, traction control and heated seats. With good snow tires it was almost unstoppable. It got 32 MP(imperial)G to.
One of the oddest winter cars I 've seen was a Chevy Chevette. When the floor rotted out, the owner laid in a sheet of cardboard and poured in an inch of concrete ! The fuel consumption wasn't great but he claimed it too could go anywhere !
Back in Michigan in the late 70's I had a Dodge Dart 4 door, slant 6, automatic. Air shocks in the rear and torsion bars all the way up in the front, narrow 15" truck lug tires all around....and ......with a ruined Chevy 396 block in the spare tire well in the floor of the trunk.....was pretty good off road too!
Currently I have 2 beaters here in Minnesota.....2005 Tahoe with Blizzaks all around and over 275,000 miles on it....maintained these go for ever. The other is an '83 Oldsmobile 88 Royal Brougham, 4 Blizzak's with a set up similar to the Dart in the day......only sand in the trunk, no lunched engine block. Better gas mileage than the Tahoe.
For winter use that doesn't require The Nuclear Option, my little '96 Breeze has been great. Over 300,000 miles so far, no real rust to speak of, dependable as an anvil and good to at least 4" of whatever's in front of it. With proper winter tires, of course; on its summer tires, it's point & pray on ice...
At this point, I call it my Science Experiment: just how long can I drive it before major mechanical failure ? Only thing it's needed in several years is a fuel pump, and even then it got me home.
A VW Beetle. Air cooled, with a heater that's anemic at he best of times. But super fun sliding through snow drifts with that flat belly pan. Note: Always carry an ice scraper in the cab, as you may need it to scrape frost from inside the windshield.
When I was poor and the only thing I owned was a 1951 Chevy 2-door I drove it all winter in Michigan. 216 cubic hamsters under the hood and with an early Powerglide that would start in high gear it did not have enough power to break traction. It would go through a lot of deep snow but was by far the slowest car I ever owned.
1979 Granada ESS, 250 6cyl. Paid $800. This was a one owner, 52k mile car, but it was in fairly rough shape. Drove it as a beater for 7 years. When the steering rag joint deteriorated (among other things), I got rid of it.
I have always had mid-nineties Subaru Legacy wagons with 5-speed manuals (because auto boxes stink). They were great in the snow, had a cheap tire size, millions of junk yard parts available, decent MPG's, and ran like tractors with the old 2.2L engine.
Unfortunately, they aren't ten a penny anymore so this year it's a 6-speed Mazda 5 micro van, or I just stay home.
We have been driving an 87 Chevrolet Caprice Classic Brougham as a daily driver and also as a winter driver since 2000. Due to rust this may be her last winter, I'll have to get underneath and have a look in the spring.
Before the Caprice, we drove a 76 Chevy Impala (that came from Florida) as a winter car from 1995 to 2009 (14 years), I had to retire her because the roof was rusting out.
This is no small feat where we live (Ottawa , Canada) - the department of transport (AKA the department of car destruction) puts almost as much salt on the roads as mother nature puts snow. During the winter, the temperatures like to oscillate from - 13 F to 41 F, any where near or above freezing makes prefect corrosion weather.
I have been driving since 1974 and can state that these old GM 'B' cars are one of the best winter cars ever built, put on some BFG snows, you've got rear wheel drive (far superior to FWD), and the best heaters/defroster ever made. And if you take care of your battery - they start every time, even at -15 F.
I am running a second car in the winter, a 2006 Dodge Magnum, RWD. It has fantastic traction, but the heater sucks.
I also spent many years driving VW Beetles in the winter and also used Beetles for pizza delivery, except for the pathetic heaters - they also made great winter cars with RWD and the engine over the back wheels.
Finally an excuse to post this scan:
A week or so before this photo (12/13/82) I drove off with it covered with some six inches of snow since watching it blow off at speed was so much more fun than brushing it off. Instant Karma had its way with me that day since along with the snow up came the hood ruining the hinges. Hovering around single Fahrenheit digits I pulled the hood back down, tied it there and resumed my life. Working days and going to school at night I drove it over 50 miles a day, mostly highway, just like this until the weather warmed up enough to actually fix it. With 350CID, M21, positraction and snow tires all around when necessary it was my four season beater for ten years until it rotted out from under me.
The best winter "beater" I've owned thus far was a 2005 STi on winter tires. I prayed for snow when I had that car. It was so much fun that it should have been illegal. I used it when I had a 2-hours-each-way commute to what they call an "essential worker" job. Many were the times I would drive around snarled swarms of AWD SUVs on all season tires, being careful to avoid their pitiful attempts at regaining control and/or motion. My wife had a similar job and we had her in either a Cherokee or a Legacy, also on winter rubber. The Cherokee would probably be my "beater" choice except that they rust out in ridiculously short order.
Neither of us have jobs like that anymore and so we pretty much just stay home when it snows. Our 2011 Lexus GS350 was surprisingly good in snow on all seasons, although I wouldn't want to try my old commute in it. Current daily is an E350 kombi which has yet to be properly challenged by traction demons.
Back in the day when I was buying winter beaters, my first beater was a 65 Corvair Monza 4spd. Drove it all winter, restored it in the spring and sold it for a profit. Not a bad winter car except for the heater!
Next came old beat up Camaro's. They were not the greatest cars in the snow but 200 pounds of salt in the trunk took care of that (most of the time). In those days, old Camaro's were popular stock cars so I always got my money back in the spring.
Then came front drive Chevy Citation's, Cutlass Ciera's, and Pontiac 6000's, all having bad rack-and-pinion steering issues. Owners didn't want to pay to get them fixed so I bought them cheap, spent an evening on the garage floor installing a rebuilt rack, drove the cars all winter and sold them in the spring for a nice profit. They were probably the best because of front drive.
I still have the 77 Camaro Type LT (purchased new) that started the whole winter beater thing for me. Currently it has 56,000 miles and has never seen winter. Still all original (including exhaust system) except for tires and battery. Did the same with a 1984 Olds Custom Cruiser Wagon. Kept it for 27 years, it never saw winter and sold it for 75% of what I paid for it new with 117,000 miles on it.
I still have 3 vehicles stored every winter (including the Camaro) but no longer drive beaters (retired & too old) and still live in Michigan!
I would never, of course, use it as a winter beater today, but my best vehicle for winter driving was my 1959 GMC Suburban. Never failed to start and would drive through any amount of snow no problem. Basically, a tank.
It’s not exactly a car but….hands down it is my 2 wheel drive Russian built Ural sidecar equipped motorcycle with ice racing spikes on all three wheels. Zero wheelspin and grip like dry pavement during braking. Drawbacks…If the road isn’t ice covered you wear out your spikes pretty quick. Also no heater is a bit of an inconvenience. But for pure traction and fun it cannot be equaled.
I remember driving my dad's new '54 Dodge Regent on snowy and hilly back roads---no snow tires---and impressing my friends on not skidding or getting stuck. It was a three-speed manual, and a good way to learn how to cope with--and enjoy--snowy driving.
Now, with car mechanicals updated, the skills aren't quite as mandatory, but help with the the joy of winter driving nonetheless---and maybe help with matters of safety.
Summer roadsters are now put away at our place---but my wife insists on still having two cars ready-to-go. We live in the woods at the end of a long, hilly, and curvy lane. So, she says it has to be AWD. That emerged as a 2016 Ford Escape Titanium (4WD, as Ford called it) bought as a two-year-old. We already had a loaded 2017 Chrysler Pacifica also bought as a two-year-old. Both cars will get in and out in any weather without spinning a wheel---except if there's sheer ice on the hill, and then the result has been fancy rearward steering as the Chrysler moves back at mounting speed, all antilock wheels locked, even shod with Toyo crushed walnut shell rubber in the tires. In these conditions, the Ford will maneuver at any speed, even from a full stop.
These aren't winter-beaters: they're luxury cars, I'd say, (and rust-proofed) and much more cossetting than the roadsters in the garage---the summer-beaters.
My best snow beater was a 1949 Dodge Meadowbrook with a flathead inline 6, and Gyromatic transmission. It was a real slug to drive, but, acted like a Cat D-8 in heavy snowcover. During Milwaukee snow storms it was common to find 3 or 4 cars stuck st stop signs or stop lights. So, each driver would get out and help hand push the line of cars one at a time, then leave the last in line alone to get going. But the old Dodge never wavered. It just plowed right through out into traffic and on down the road.
We bought a Porsche 356B in 1967 and of course I used it through the winter of 1967-1968. We also had a VW Beetle. One day, during a snow storm I took the Porsche out for a ride. I went around a New Hampshire traffic circle. I'm from the midwest and I couldn't believe the state built these skid pads for us immature young kids. I drove directly back home and jumped in the VW and did the same thing. I was reluctant to admit it but the Beetle did much better. I thought it was a good comparison, same 4 1/2 inch tires, same rear weight bias, pretty close in overall weight. The Porsche had 38 more horsepower. Maybe if I had slowed down it would have been more comparable, however slowing down in a Porsche was unthinkable.
any FWD. I do it w/summer tires. Earth Changes R upon us (I live in the NE) so winter comes in Feb, lasts 1, 2 mo.s. Or in mid Jan (this yr up here).
Block heater (R no longer needed) are OK. 4 All Season or winter tires, no more 'cleats' needed. Auto is OK, tho stick is good to rock if stuck...
We usedta carry alota stuff (space blankets, jumpers, chains, shovel, etc) in winter. Even asa ol guy (close to 7th decade) I don't 'gear up'. The question is moot today.
- -From the Berkshires of WesssMasss
My winter beater was a 1966 Ford Falcon station wagon. If memory is correct it had a 240ci inline 6 cylinder and two speed automatic transmission. It came to me with a block heater so no problem starting on those cold mornings. I installed a set of snow tires with studs on and that car took me everywhere I wanted to go. It didn't have enough power to spin the tires so it just putted it's way through everything! Loved that car and wish I still had it!
My best winter beater (well it turned into a beater, kept it 19yrs) was my 1984 Volvo 244 turbo. With a manual transmission, a dana locker at the rear and snows all around I had better acceleration at traffic lights than 4X4's especially if I started off in 2nd gear. With the manual and the hand brake on my right I maneuvered the Swedish brick surprisedly well out of tight situation. I hit a deer one morning on the right front, he ended damaging the right front fender, both right doors and the rear quarter. I "patched" it up and drove it a few more years until I hit a moose. End of story. Cheers.
1976 dodge coroner wagon he wanted $50.00 without battery, I got it for $65.00 with the battery, I ran fine with 150000 miles but didn't move the automatic transmission was bad, i towed it home and pulled the transmission with a floor jack, i worked at a engine and transmission shop in the machine shop,the transmission builder charged me valve job on 6 sets of heads for building the torqflite and gave me a reman converter, i put sears coilovers on the back and a used snowtire on the rr whenever it snowed i would pull into the loading dock put a piece of cardboard in the back and about 6 junk cylinder heads, 1 new years eve blizzard i made more than i had in the car taking people home from a bar 3 or 4 at a time in Milwaukee, this was in the early 80s, i parked on the street that nite because I couldn't get in the driveway, it was plowed in up to the doorhandles! Fun old times