Salt is killing my sports car this winter, and I’ve made peace with that

To be a car enthusiast in the Midwest is to live in perpetual fear of oxidation. When local Craigslist posts indicate “No Rust,” it usually means there’s corrosion the owner doesn’t know about or hopes you won’t notice. I once looked at a “no rust” fourth-gen Firebird whose underbody was scaling; when I drove it down the dirt road the owner lived on, the steering wheel—like, the whole wheel—flopped about in my hands. “Some rust” usually indicates the car shouldn’t be driven. I even pointed out “some rust” on the rear shock towers of my first car, a Grand Prix GTP. It nevertheless sold within hours of posting.

If you should find a car that actually has all its metal intact, you guard it with your life. That’s my 1993 Miata, which I purchased in 2012. It was a Texas car, stored through winters by the previous owner. When I questioned his “no rust” claim, he grew emphatic. “You put a wrench on a suspension bolt and it just…turns.” Woah.

All that said, I’m ignoring my fear and driving the Miata this winter. I feel kind of bad about it.

miata winter wheel
David Zenlea

Necessity is part of the reason; I recently transitioned out of a job that provided new vehicles to drive and review on a regular basis, and my wife quickly tired of loaning me her Chevy Equinox. My guilt, however, doesn’t stem from the sense that I’m ruining the Miata, but rather how much I’m enjoying it.

The 45-mile commute from metro Detroit to Ann Arbor is not exactly Topanga Canyon. The freeze-thaw cycle and years of deferred infrastructure spending cause entire chunks of the roadway to come loose and fly at unsuspecting windshields. New cars, with their adaptive dampers and semi-autonomous electronic assistants, are designed to let drivers more or less remain ignorant of such conditions.

You can’t do that in an old Miata. Granted, it’s not a Model A. It has something approaching new-car brakes (mine lacks ABS, but it was an option) and more than capable handling. Theoretically, there’s an airbag. Yet we’re still talking about a roadster engineered 30 years ago to ape the experience of British cars built 60 years ago. Which means it’s really small, quite slow, and the defroster barely works. Even with lights flipped up, it’s likely invisible to truckers, not to mention the SUV drivers that barely existed in the early 1990s but now fill every lane. You go down the road in a constant state of high alert, eyes darting from mirrors to potential accidents and potholes far ahead, hands evaluating the slickness of the pavement through the thin-rimmed wheel, feet ever ready to squeeze the brakes or work the clutch and gas for a double-downshift pass. It’s nerve-wracking at first. Then deeply rewarding. This is driving. Dynamic, dangerous, fully involving. Somehow, we all used to do it.

winter driving na miata
David Zenlea

It hasn’t all been bad for the car, either. Like most toys that sit half the year, it had gone a bit stale. Sure, I had installed some performance goodies—new shocks and springs, a roll bar, two sets of summer tires (one for everyday, the other for autocross and the occasional open track day). The daily grind compelled me, however, to turn my attention to less sexy, but no less important stuff old cars need. Some big things—I tackled the timing belt and water pump with help from friends—some smaller. I’d never noticed, for instance, that the washer nozzles were clogged. Everyday brings a new project, and a new way to bond. I don’t mind when I find a small smudge of blood on a piece of paper at my desk, only to realize I’d sliced my hand on this bolt or that belt.

All fine and good, but for the salt. It’s everywhere. I’m employing every rust-prevention measure in the book—caulking seams where water sneaks in, regularly cleaning the drains and wheel wells, spraying copious amounts of anti-corrosion elixirs. It may help. It may not. Living in the Midwest, you know deep down that the rust always wins.

What I’m doing is killing the car, let there be no doubt. Truth is, though, cars die. The life expectancy of a vehicle, per Consumer Reports, is eight to fifteen years. Loving care can greatly extend that: the average age of a Hagerty insured car is a little north of 50 years old. The fact remains that most cars aren’t built to last forever. At the risk of putting too fine a point on it, neither are we. Life’s too short to waste two hours a day in a boring car. So if someone asks how I can drive a rust-free future classic in the snow, I have one good answer: How can I not?

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