Opinion: Old cars hated winter

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Commentary by Ward Degler

When it gets below zero, I worry that my car won’t start. It’s a legitimate concern, but not as valid as it once was. Today’s cars tolerate extreme cold better than those of even a few years ago.

When I was a kid we lived in northern Wisconsin. Cold weather was a real problem in those days. With one exception, every car we ever owned was cranky and reluctant.

Our first car was a 1933 Hupmobile. Dad named her Limpy because the slightest change in the weather gave her a reason to not start. If it was raining, Limpy wouldn’t start. Overcast? Limpy was sullen. Even parking on the grass instead of the street seemed to give the car a reason to not start.

It was lovely to look at, black with a long, sleek hood. Mom said the hood was so long if it was foggy she couldn’t see the radiator cap.  Of course, if it was foggy, Limpy wouldn’t start, anyway.

When winter arrived that year, Limpy went on a permanent strike. Dad had had enough and traded the car for a brand new 1938 Chevrolet. Sadly, while driving home from the dealership, he spun out of control on an icy road and totaled the car. We never even saw it.

Next in line was a 1939 Hudson Terraplane.  If there was ever a car that was ill-suited for Wisconsin winters, it was the Terraplane.  Every night when Dad got home from work, he drained the radiator. He removed the battery and brought it into the house where it occupied a place of honor next to the stove.

In the morning, Dad replaced the battery in the car and poured several teakettles of hot water into the radiator. Sometimes it worked and the car started. Other times he had to call for a ride.

Exasperation is a powerful motivator, and a few days after Christmas that year Dad announced he was getting a new car. This one was a 1940 Ford.

Miracle of miracles, this car started at the first touch of the starter — every time, no matter what the temperature was. Dad named her Beauty, and she was a faithful friend until the war erupted and Dad reluctantly sold her.

As recently as the 1980s I pampered our cars in winter. Blankets over the hood, electric lights next to the engine, chargers hooked up to the battery.

It’s different now. Cars are made better. Still, when the mercury drops into negative territory, I worry. I probably always will.

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