Road salt is the bane of a classic car owner’s life. The administering of salt on icy surfaces is an absolute necessity in order to keep our roads safe (as well as moving) during the winter, but it can do untold damage to your vehicle.
More than two million tonnes of salt and grit are spread on the UK’s roads each year and there is probably an army of classic car owners who are convinced that the bulk of it ends up within the nooks and crannies of the undersides of their much-loved vehicles.
Gritter lorries dispense a rather powerful cocktail. What you see on the roads is a mixture of salt and sand. The salt helps to prevent ice forming on the road surface, while the sand grit helps to keep the salt in place and add some traction.
This cocktail is much harder on older cars that don’t have the smooth underbodies that exist on modern cars. Salt’s corrosive properties can lead to significant rust to essential components on the car's underside – in some cases, eating away at vital chassis and suspension components and making cars unsafe to drive.
There are a number of ways to try to combat salt damage, however.
Firstly, you can try to limit the effects of salt by reducing the amount you drive your classic car in the winter months. You may like sauntering around in your old favourite in the freezing conditions, but if you do have a more robust, modern daily drive then taking that for your wintry jaunts may be advisable.
Secondly, if you are caught out in a flurry then do your level best to avoid deep snow that can become packed in the wheel arches, suspension and chassis mounts. It’s also advisable to literally steer clear of puddles where salt accumulates.
It is prudent to give gritter lorries a bit of respect by keeping a safe distance when they are doing their work. Older cars are particularly vulnerable to splaying grit because windscreens and radiator grilles are not as hardy as those on modern cars. Glass covered headlamps on classics are also prone to errant salt chunks - another reason to give these vehicles a wide berth as they carry out their duties.
If you have been driving out in the snow, wash your car as soon as possible, ensuring that all salt residue is cleaned off. Try to jet wash the underside of the car whenever you can to remove the salt.
Because salt is corrosive, pay particular attention to any signs of paintwork damage and try to address it straight away if you see peeling, scarring or discolouring. If you park your car in a warm garage and the ice on it melts, there’s a greater risk of the salt residue damaging your car. Rust forms when moisture and oxygen combine on metal and salt accelerates that process because it corrodes.
Owners can take a more proactive approach by preparing the car prior to the rigours of winter. Simply wax polishing the vehicle will help to protect the paintwork, while going a step further and having a permanent coating installed may be worth considering, particularly if you live close to the sea and your classic is more likely to be exposed to the elements.
Getting underneath the car to fill grommet holes and other little nooks with wax products to stop the water and salt doing its worst, is a practice undertaken by the more committed owners, and it is well worth the effort. Products such as Waxoyl or Dinitrol can be used on the underbody to keep the rust at bay.
Wheel arches are vulnerable too since they bear the brunt of the salty water. Another worthwhile idea is to fit modern-style plastic wheel arch liners over the top of the exposed metal. Plastic liners can be sourced from breakers yards at minimal cost, and although it can be quite a time-consuming process, finding the correct sized liners to protect your vehicle’s wheel arches can contribute to a major cost-saving later down the line.
If you’re going to lay your car up over winter instead, head over to our winter storage tips blog.
In the meantime, tell us how you’re going to look after your classic this winter in the comments section below.