Winter, Cars and Tires

We have passed the Winter Solstice and are well on our way into the winter season. The unfortunate part is the limited amounts of snow we are experiencing this winter. Learning to drive just south of the 49th parallel meant snow covered roads from mid-November until mid-March when the North started warming up and the snow started to slowly melt away.

My experience with winter tires can be explained like a great relationship that once gone, realize how wonderful it was.

I learned to drive on old logging roads in the late summer when the blueberries were in their prime. We’d take a drive out to a corner of the woods, surrounded by new growth springing up after a forest fire. Blueberry picking was boring and a little frightening for the sole reason that you never knew where the bears were lurking. It was on these old fire roads I learned to drive and how to get myself out of muddy situations.

The first car I drove was a rear-drive, 1972 4-door Pontiac LeMans, inline 6, 250 ci, 130 hp @ 4000 rpm with a whopping 205 lb-ft of torque @ 1600 rpm. Somehow 20 years later these numbers matter when at the time all that mattered was the roar of the engine and the leaded fuel pushing the car forward faster than I could run. The LeMans had a bench seat in the front and rear that helped our family of six fit rather comfortably. My favourite thing about the car was the high beam light switch on the floor that had to be pushed with your left foot. During the summers, I took great pride in washing the LeMans, using the orange wash bucket with warm soapy water, always taking extra care on the white walls, scrubbing them till they were gleaming white.

Growing up there was always that day in the fall when the summer tires came off the car and the winter tires were put on. Dad would pull the car into the garage and I would unsuccessfully attempt to get my hands in on the job.

By the time I was officially allowed to drive on the road, the LeMans had been replaced with a rear-drive 1984 Delta Eighty-Eight Royale Brougham Oldsmobile, V8, 307 ci, 150 hp @ 3600 rpm with 245 lb-ft of torque @ 1600. This car came equipped with a “turbo-hyrdomatic 200 4R” transmission with an overdrive gear and a torque converter clutch, all things necessary in maximizing fuel economy and faster acceleration “now”. At the time, I was so happy to say good-bye to the faithful LeMans for something more modern. There would be no more “Mom, you can just drop me off here at the bottom of the hill, I’ll walk the rest of the way to school from here.” It was with this car that I experienced winter roads and learned that snow banks and garage doors are not to be trusted!

In my teens, I spend copious amounts of gas driving around for no other reason than I loved driving and generally misbehaving in large unoccupied parking lots. Many times I would have a willing passenger and we’d dream up new and improved manoeuvers to do with the car and find unplowed back roads to try things out. The best part was slaloming through empty parking lots, drifting and doing impressive 360 donuts, something that can only really be enjoyed in a rear-drive vehicle. On the road, however, all the fun ended but it sure made me aware of how to handle the car on icy, snow covered roads.

When I moved away for college, I was on my own without a car and I felt trapped. No more gallivanting around for no reason to some obscure place just to check it out; I had a bus pass and my two legs. By my 3rd year, thankfully, my sister donated her 1989 baby blue manual transmission Mazda 323, I was in heaven; forget that each time I went anywhere I was lifting the hood to tighten the alternator belt, that the back hatch hydraulics’ were worn with the hatch winning numerous times, hitting me in the head and that I had to check the oil level anytime I decided I wanted to drive more than 50 kilometers!

It was the first winter in Southern Ontario with the 323 that I realized how important those winter tires were that dad so consistently put on each year. There were no dramatic into the ditch or snow bank episodes, just some obvious handling differences. Armed with my “all-season” tires, I noticed longer stopping distances and more sliding on icy surfaces. I am no expert on the science behind tires, but I have learned to appreciate winter tires regardless of their irritating whirr when cruising along the highway; the softer compound making for shorter stopping distances and improved traction on icy, snowy roads.

4 thoughts on “Winter, Cars and Tires

  1. Entertainingly good memories! We drove 800+ miles last weekend … and I’m not sure we have winter tires – perhaps they’re all-season. I worried about the trip the entire way. What’s your take on all-season tires?

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    1. Winter tires for me are a must for temperatures below 7 degrees celsius. Since All-season tires are made to work in All-seasons, they are neither high performing in Summer or Winter weather and in my opinion are most effective during a small window between the colder and warmer seasons.

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