Unless some sort of nuclear warhead has been dropped on your local Wetherspoons since I’ve written this, I’m guessing it’s pretty cold and miserable wherever you are in the UK. Barring those who have an Eskimo fetish, you probably think the British winter sucks as much as I do. Am I right, or am I right?
Now, unfortunately, we can’t all bugger off to Barbados until next April but, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t make the most of the next few months. Don’t go into modding hibernation just yet. Instead think of winter as a golden opportunity. An opportunity to bolt together your dream car, plan your next project or brush up on your snow rally skills in the local car park.
To keep the smiles this season, there’s loads of things that can be done. And even more essentials to make life just that bit more bearable. So, with that in mind here’s our top 10 winter tips to help you punch Jack Frost right in the mush. Have that you cold-weather-waging bastard!
1. GET SOME WINTER WHEELS
If you’ve dropped some serious wedge on the perfect set of polished three-piece wheels this summer, trust me, they’ll look far better sitting in your living room than on your car corroding away because of all the grime and salt on the road. If you’re insisting on keeping them on the car you’ll need an intensive cleaning and sealing regime and who can be bothered with all that? It’s bloody cold outside!
Consider this too: because of the freezing temperatures you’re far more likely to slide out and hit a curb, and that’s gonna seriously ruin
your Christmas. It’s estimated that there’s an extra 250,000 accidents every year in the UK as a direct result of the winter weather. And wheels are by far the most commonly damaged item.
Of course, the best solution is to swap them out for some winter wheels that can take the hit. And there’s plenty of entry-level hoops out there that can serve as a decent substitute. Don’t make the mistake of thinking your winter wheels have to be shite either. Most modern painted or powder-coated finishes will stand up to winter effectively if you’re careful. And we all know there’s plenty of budget items on the market that cost far less to maintain and replace than a set of summer spankers. They don’t necessarily have to be a different size either. Then again, European-style steelies with big chunky tyres always look badass too!
2. DON’T FORGET YOUR TYRES
There’s a reason you see those big RWD BMWs tooling around snowy alpine passes in Europe while the same cars here can’t negotiate a mildly icy traffic island without ending up pointing the wrong way. It’s not (well, not always) the driver. It’s the fact they’re all running proper winter tyres.
They haven’t made it compulsory in the UK just yet, because apparently it doesn’t get cold enough. Although I’ve been to Scotland a few times in February and I happen to disagree. In many parts of Europe though, Germany in particular, you have to run winter tyres during the icy season by law. And there’s a simple reason for that – they’re freaking awesome! Don’t just take my word for it either, ask anyone who’s experienced winter rubber
and they’ll tell you the same.
The use of different tread patterns and compounds gives vastly superior grip in temperatures –7 ̊Centigrade. Where summer tyres will harden and suffer from reduced performance in cold conditions, winter tyres are designed to stay pliant, offering exceptional handling and braking efficiency. They’re so popular nowadays that some dealers, such as ATS Euromaster, will flog you a set of winter wheels and tyres and offer storage for your summer items in one of their network of ‘tyre hotels’. Yep, now I’ve officially heard it all.
3. AIR OUT
Running air ride? Well the water that inevitably condenses in your system is the enemy at the best of times but it’s particularly important to get rid of it in winter. You don’t want it freezing in the lines, expanding and cracking them do you? Thought not.
If you haven’t got a water trap in your setup now’s the time to fit one. Usually these are installed between the tank and the valves (or control manifold) to stop any water that’s condensed in the tank from getting through and damaging the rest of the system. If you’re feeling flash you can fit one between the compressor and tank too. Some need to be drained regularly, some automatically drain to the outside of the car or a catch bottle.
Some of the guys in the US and Canada even recommend using a cap full of air-brake antifreeze in your tank to make draining easier – but that’s only for serious sub-zero temps.
Above all, make sure you drain and purge your air tank every week or so and ‘air out’ the whole system to blow any water out of the bags and lines, do it in your garage or during the warmest part of the day for best results.
4. TEST YOUR BATTERY
Winter is a proper killer when it comes to car batteries because, even when they’re brand new, the cold weather makes them less effective. It’s what the AA calls the ‘triple- whammy’ effect – the temperature drop always reduces a battery’s power output, it also reduces the ability to accept a charge so it doesn’t recharge quite as easily while you’re driving. Obviously the last whammy is the fact that it’s winter, so you’ll be constantly using all sorts of electrical stuff like blowers, heated screens, wipers and lights.
Basically, if you’ve got an old battery that’s already on its way out, you just don’t stand a chance and that’s compounded if you’re leaving your car unused for any length of time. In other words, your best bet is to make sure your battery doesn’t need replacing before it goes wrong.
A pro-style drop-tester can be had for as little as 25-quid and what they do is put a load across the unit to check if it holds the charge effectively, if it says your battery is okay, then one of these can save you a fortune. Most garages also offer a free battery test service using one of these.
In the meantime try to reduce the load when the weather drops by turning off any electrical items and dipping the clutch while starting. It can make more difference than you think.
5. DON’T GET UP EARLY TO FILL UP
If you really like getting your money’s worth and you’re the kind of guy that thinks the McDonald’s Pound-Saver Menu is a bit on the pricy side you’ll probably already know that filling up on a cold winter morning means denser petrol and more for your cash. Well unfortunately, in reality, that’s actually bollocks.
While the science is spot on, colder fuel is indeed denser (some companies in the US have even been reprimanded for heating fuel so customers get less per dollar), petrol is stored in large tanks underground and the temperature changes on the forecourt make little difference to its density by the time it’s pumped to your car. The same goes for other tricks like turning off the AC and opening the windows; the increased drag cancels out any potential savings… not that you’ll be doing much of that in the winter anyway.
Leaving your car running because it costs more to re-start is also a stupid urban myth so don’t waste your time worrying about all that rubbish – besides, staying in a nice warm bed is a much better way of not ending up a right grumpy bastard, it is for me anyway.
6. SORT OUT YOUR HEADLIGHTS
It’s pretty obvious that you’ll be using your headlights far more often in winter because the sun is only out for about 4-minutes a day. It’s also handy to be able to see better while your driving in the dark, so uprated bulbs or a flash HID kit are always a worthy purchase.
That said, nether are much use if you have misty, faded plastic headlight lenses, so now would be a good time to polish them up with a mild abrasive like cutting compound. Bizarrely, toothpaste works for this process too. Here’s how it’s done…
A. Mask any close trim and paint areas around the headlight. Apply the abrasive sparingly to the surface, working it in with a soft cloth.
B. Go nuts with the buffing, the more effort you put in the better the result you’ll get. Alternatively, be lazy and use a machine polisher. Repeat the process until the lens is clear and then give it another once over with a standard car polish.
C. Apply a sealant that can be used on plastics. This will not only protect the surface but it’ll help stop any muck and road grime sticking while you are driving.
7. FIT AN INDUCTION KIT
One good thing, possibly the only good thing, about the cold weather is that the air is far denser than in the summer and, if you happen to be an engine, that means better performance. Good times.
Scientifically speaking, denser air equals more oxygen molecules for any given volume and that means you can cram more of it into your cylinders. Bung in some more fuel and the ultimate result is more power – when you think about it that’s basically free tuning. In fact, it’d be almost rude not to make the most of it by fitting a high-flow induction kit – undoubtedly the greatest universal tuning mod of all time.
The cold weather is also great for engine cooling and for increasing the efficiency of charge cooling hardware like intercoolers, some top-level race tuners are even known to have dedicated winter engine maps where, as the ambient temperature goes down, the boost goes up.
In any case, if you’ve ever wondered why your car always seems to have so much more to give on a cold winter morning, now you know why.
8. DON’T CHANGE YOUR OIL
I’m not talking about the level – you should be doing that every week. What I mean is, despite what some of the old timers will tell you, it’s not necessary to change to a winter oil – not unless you’re running a vintage motor with a specialist grade, or the temperature has suddenly dropped below minus 30-degrees centigrade. Fair enough if you live in Siberia, I guess.
In the old days, the days of the really retro vintage stuff, engine oil came with a single viscosity. At colder temperatures these oils would get thicker and at warmer temperatures they’d thin out. Thick oil is good for protection but it still has to be thin enough to flow effectively – otherwise it just can’t do its job. That’s why back then you had to change your oil to a lighter-weight grade during the winter. A heavier summer oil like a 40-Weight would be too thick to lubricate the engine during a cold start so you’d replace it with a lighter 10-weight grade until the warmer weather.
Luckily technology has moved on somewhat and we now use multi-viscosity oils engineered to do both jobs at once. That’s why modern oils have a multi-grade (like 10W40) on the label. The ‘W’ here stands for winter and the numbers mean it’ll flow like a 10-weight in freezing conditions (down to -30 deg.C) but still protect like a 40-weight at 100 deg.C. Unless the weather is mental, stick to the manufacturer’s recommendations and you can’t go wrong.
9. BUY A DROP TOP
Convertibles are for summer right? Exactly, that’s why you should always buy yours in winter. Now, as mad as it sounds, there’s a couple of very good reasons for this but the most compelling is you could save up to 10-percent on the price.
There’s an old saying in the car industry and that’s ‘roof goes down, price goes up’ and that’s because you’ll be paying a premium on any rag-top in the summer, after all, that’s when everyone wants to keep them.
For car dealers, it’s all about shifting inventory quickly and by the winter months they’ll be keen to free up the forecourt space for cars with more seasonal appeal. They won’t want to keep a convertible motor until next summer – it’ll be an older car by then.
The other main reason is for sheer practicality. Modern convertibles are usually very good in the wind and rain, but they’re not all perfect. In the winter it’s much easier to check for leaks because the weather is more likely to be shite. A convertible is arguably the only car you should ever buy in the rain.
10. LISTEN TO ALL THOSE LITTLE TRICKS
Nowadays we call them life hacks; years ago it was simply good advice. In any case, the moral of the story is always listen to what people have to say – especially your parents because in their day it always snowed like a bastard; 16-feet of the stuff every year, or so they always seem to reckon.
Anyway there’s literally hundreds of winter tips you’ll pick up in your lifetime and most of ‘em are posted on sites like lifehacker.
So here’s our favourite quick-fire winter car hacks, a top ten inside a top 10 if you will, including tips from gold miners in the arctic circle, oil riggers in Russia and my very own mother…