The Lengths Gone To – Addressing the Rusty Consequences of Winter-Driving

Oh my. I am not happy starting this article with this photo. But it is the teaser photo I used to end last week’s post on snow removal, and I promised to pick up the story by discussing some of the downsides of modern municipal snow removal practices. Namely, you guessed it, rust. Let’s just say that if you’re willing to stick with this tale, there’s a happy ending. Or at least the promise of a happy ending.

All things considered, I think that the daily driver is still looking pretty good for being 16 years old. This photo was taken not long ago, shortly after the annual mounting of the winter wheels and snow tires. I waited later in the season this year to do that (December, I believe) since winter weather here in New England was so late in appearing. But as I discussed last week, snow did eventually arrive and with it all of the work necessary to clear that snow – both by me on my driveway as well as by professionals on public roads.

Snow predicted after midnight tonight…we are thoroughly brined by noon today.


One of the modern techniques in municipal snow and ice clearing is the pre-treatment of roads before a storm. For environmental and fiscal reasons pre-treatment with some sort of melting-agent is desirable instead of just blanketing roads with tons of rock salt. Pre-treatment is typically effected by applying a “brine” on the road prior to the arrival of snow and/or ice. Unfortunately, for the roads on which I most often drive, the brine that is used is pretty much what it sounds like, liquid salt. This is as opposed to less corrosive pre-treatments such as beet juice, beer/fermentation waste, or even cheese-making byproducts. (Blessed are the Cheesemakers or in fact “any manufacturers of dairy products.”) The Commonwealth of Massachusetts utilizes brine made of sodium chloride (rock salt) and magnesium chloride on state-maintained roads. Individual towns can of course use what they want on their local roads, but beet/beer/cheese juice are likely rather rare here, so corrosive salts it is.

It’s no coincidence that driving in this stuff results in all manner of automotive rust. Arguably that magnesium chloride is even more corrosive than regular salt. Lucky me to live in a state that favors the use of lots of sodium chloride (regular salt) along with magnesium chloride. The end result is that my winter driving brings forth a considerable amount of automotive rust. The above picture is what those innocent bubbles in the lede picture look like on the inner edge of my car’s hatch.

The winter crud doesn’t just seep into unseen automotive crevices. It does do that of course, but it also over time finds ways to simply eat right through the paint on exterior surfaces. This is what it did to my MINI. This particular blemish grew much larger before I eventually got it repaired.

A similar thing has happened to the tailgate on the other daily driver at my house, the 2006 Highlander.  I have had similar spots on the 1976 Volvo wagon. That vehicle barely gets driven in the winter at all, for what should by now be obvious reasons. Nevertheless, rust sprouted up all around its tailgate window the second winter that Hans (the Volvo) came out East from its former home in New Mexico. The Volvo’s tailgate got replaced a few years ago. The Highlander will likely benefit from a similar repair in a year or so. Right now, our Honda Fit’s tailgate has not started to visibly rust, but given that the Fit currently lives in far upstate New York, I’m thinking that I’ll see rust on it come one of its visits home in the not too distant future. I even know where that rust will appear — right below the flimsy piece of plastic that contains the hatch release mechanism. This just seems to be a fact of life here in the House of Only Cars That Have Tailgates.

I just noticed while writing this article, that I’ve not had a vehicle that had a conventional trunk since about 2000 when I sold my Nissan SE-R.  Even then, that car shared a garage with a Saturn SW2, a different Volvo wagon, and ultimately a minivan. No trunks there. For some reason, nearly all the visible rust on vehicles over here has been restricted to the tailgates. Coincidence, or what? I really have no idea.

Both the Highlander and the Volvo 245 have benefited from having their under-bodies serviced with one of those “you need to do it every year” oil undercoating treatments. This has performed well on the Volvo’s frame and floors (but remember, that car really doesn’t get driven in the winter). The Toyota is an absolute rust magnet and seems to developing some rust despite the rust treatment. I’m convinced that I could keep it immersed in a vat of oil most of the year and it would still rust. I’ve seen nothing like it since the cars of the 1970s that I used to own…in the 1980s…before they all rusted away.

You can see in this picture some of the general surface rust that clings to nearly every under body surface on that vehicle. Brake jobs always require doses of PB Blaster (or Kroil oil…name your poison).

Not an artifact from the Titanic. Just a Toyota rear brake after riding around in Central Massachusetts for 10,000 miles.


I am on the fourth set of brake calipers on the Highlander as they need to be changed just about every other brake job. Yeah, the whole caliper. As a related matter, I’m now deciding if I’m going to bother rebuilding the completely disintegrated parking brake assembly since doing so will require replacement of the rear brake dust shields, which are a pain to do but currently look kind of like large pieces of brown Swiss cheese. My mechanic – who I bring vehicles to when I’m too lazy/untalented/angry to repair myself — says “Don’t bother”. He’s the guy who also gives me my annual inspection stickers, so I tend to take his word for stuff like this.

Getting back to my BMW daily, here’s that car’s rear subframe at 200,000 miles, once it was pulled for replacement. That was 30,000 miles ago.

One could basically just break pieces off of it by hand.  I did.

Here’s the replacement before it was wire-brushed, repainted, and installed.

It’s hard to tell from my photos just how big a hunk of steel this particular piece of BMW is. You can get a better sense from the parts diagram. So, 180,000 miles of riding around in the Northeast – my car had 20,000 miles on it when I bought it – and you get to “you can break pieces off of it by hand”. Yikes.

Now that I can also break off pieces of the car’s tailgate by hand (still works/opens-closes just fine though…), it occurs to me that maybe this too should be addressed.

Replacing the tailgate on a so-equipped car is really not challenging so much as it is awkward. When I did it on the Volvo I was able to accomplish the whole task myself by employing a step ladder as a brace for holding up the gate as I bolted the replacement into place. On a Volvo 245, there are exactly eight bolts that need to be removed in order to release the tailgate from the body. Well, four if you don’t care about the high likelihood of breaking the hinges. That would be ill advised since the hinges are actually more valuable (harder to find) than the tailgate itself. On an E91 BMW, there are only four bolts… period… holding the tailgate on. This ought to be a piece of cake.

The bigger challenge for my car’s tailgate job was in finding one that was in good shape, and because I am an inveterate cheapskate about these sorts of things, in the correct color.  When I did the Volvo’s tailgate, I had a local tech school’s auto shop department paint the replacement from the chocolate brown it was to the basic white that I needed it to be. It turned out quite well. I’m not a perfectionist, but asking the 17 year olds to tackle the Monoco Blau metallic paint on my car that seemingly changes color depending on the ambient light was more than I could reasonably expect. Short of shelling out for a professional paint job – which if done properly would need to be blended into the rest of the 16 year old paint on my car, which in turn would really call for a whole car paint job – the best solution would be to find another 16 (or close) year old Monoco Blau metallic hatch.

I do love a challenge.

Oh look. There’s one.

Actually, this car is a year older and mechanically different from mine. The found car is an X-drive (AWD) with an automatic. Mine is a RWD 6speed.  Mine has a different interior package, different upholstery, etc. But where things counted for me, exterior color and condition, it’s a match! The hatch itself is interchangeable on E91s from 2004 through 2008. This 2007 donor car had some relatively minor damage, as we’ll see in a moment, to the right front end; but a 17 year old BMW that needs a new fender and probably some front suspension bits is a refrigerator waiting to be made. This poor wagon (I could tell it had been owned by friends-of-dogs since it had dog toys still in the rear seat) had been totaled but was well on its way to saving a number of other cars. Its whole drivetrain and front subframe had already been pulled and sold. Selling me the undamaged rear hatch was pure gravy for the fine folks at the salvage yard. The price reflected that. $200 and it was mine.

Except unlike the disassembler in Pennsylvania that I purchased my subframe from (also a stellar deal for an undamaged low mileage part), the folks at this salvage yard do not ship parts. Plus, figuring out how to ship a tailgate without damaging it would be a challenge to anyone. Nope, I quickly realized that the easiest thing would be to pick it up myself.

Pick it up myself from its location in North Carolina, not far from the South Carolina line.

As I noted in my COAL, my car actually came from the Research Triangle area of North Carolina in 2010. So in a way a road trip to North Carolina to bring home rescue parts would be fitting. In this case I’d be traveling to a very different part of North Carolina, a location that I last went through in a diesel Chevette in March 1983. The car from that trip looked much like the one from this CC article, except it was a diesel and had hard vinyl upholstery for added discomfort. In 1983, the trip was a spur of the moment decision (like, literally I was asked, said yes, and hit the road in about 15 minutes) to blast from Western Massachusetts to Fort Jackson in Columbia, SC to witness a colleague’s daughter graduate from Army basic training. Clearly I’ve been up for this kind of impromptu multi-state road trip for most of my driving life.

In the presence of all of those military inductees – most of whom were the same age as me — somehow even that manilla envelope seemed scary at the time.


As a college student in 1983, attending and soon to graduate from a college that culturally was about as antithetical to the practice of military service as one could get, I’ll just say that whole trip was surreal. 48 hours in a diesel Chevette was the least of the surreal aspects. I should probably just leave it at that. Unless there are any CC readers who are alumnae of my college, in which case, Hi!

This time, the surrealism was supplied by a New Jersey Turnpike advertisement for the arrival of robotically-created crafted yogurt. While not up to 1983-standards, the whole idea of eating something created by these kind of bossy-looking, strangely hyper-sexual, robots still freaked me out considerably.

The “crafting” is apparently done in this vending machine, which incredible silliness aside, is as fascinating to me as all vending machines are. The machine itself (let’s just forget about the irritating robots) reminds me of the Sinclair Dinoland Mold-A-Rama machines.  My unconfirmed suspicion is that the yogurt probably tastes like the product of a Mold-A-Rama machine.

Don’t ask…I was like 4 years old, ok?

Additional minor league surrealism included the realization that we here in the U.S., nearly a quarter of the way into 21st century, have apparently decided to entirely forego the grammar and punctuation associated with a thousand years of linguistic tradition. Or as my more rigorous friends who live in my head would say, “rules”.

Having spent most of the past 44 years living in the Bay State but regularly driving for one reason or another to the DMV (Delaware-Maryland-Virginia) area, the idea of driving halfway down the Eastern Seaboard seems like basically a drive to the grocery store. I’ve done the drive from Massachusetts to DC literally more times over the past 40 years than I can count. While I do it less often now than I did when my parents were still around, I still make it down there at least a couple of times a year to visit friends or go to work-related meetings.

A very close friend since the Ford administration now lives in Northern Virginia. Not that either of us were in the Ford administration (you needed to be at least in high school to be in the Ford administration), but this seems a better way of keeping track of vast expanses of time than the metric of “dog’s years”. Less math. Anyway, Northern Virginia is often about halfway between where I am and where I need to be. In this way, the trip to North Carolina for a BMW tailgate could include a handy and enjoyable midpoint stop…and the chance to drag my friend into a 10 hour round trip car ride to a junkyard.

Friends of mine tend to get used to these sorts of “opportunities” as they’ve been available since the Carter administration, when I learned how to drive.

I am a frequent-enough visitor to the home of the fine folks in Reston that the cat knows that I know where his food is, and when he expects to be let out.

After a completely routine drive to DC, and an enjoyable dinner, I let the cat out and we hit the road for Hoffman, NC. Arriving around mid day, the donor 2007 E91 was located. In fact, I just wanted to see it but didn’t need to. The tailgate had already been removed as I’d paid for it over the phone. The only down-side of this junkyard visit is that I’d really have liked to have wandered around the yard, but I’d committed to getting my friend back home within the day and myself back to Massachusetts the following day. So there wasn’t actually time to dally. In my haste, I neglected to really scour the donor for useful bits and pieces. For example, I forgot to pull the left front door seal. I need a better one and these things cost ridiculous money new from BMW. I’m sure I could have gotten it off of the donor for free or certainly very cheap if I’d remembered. I did manage to scoop up both side view mirror caps/shells as those are always useful. I also needed a new front-half inner right fender liner, but clearly this car’s damage precluded acquiring that.

Actually, that fender liner that I needed may be what’s crushed under the front bumper. Oh well, those things are always trashed in junkyards.


I know that when it comes to damage assessment on wrecked cars, looks can be deceptive; particularly if the looking is done by an amateur like me. Still, knowing that a car wound up in the junkyard with as little external damage as this one is sobering. It seems that these cars (or any car) are so expensive to fix that a relatively minor accident can really result in totaling if the owner is not persistent or motivated. I don’t know how many miles are on this thing, but given the condition (pre-accident) it is almost certainly less than mine. This is something I think about constantly given the nearly daily observance of fender benders caused by inattentive drivers.

The moral seems to be that rust I can obviously deal with, but even a few thousand dollars of body damage may well turn out to be a whole other thing.

Anyhow, the yard guy and I soon retrieved the already removed tailgate from storage.

And after an interesting janky ride with it bungie-corded on top of the equally janky Subaru that they keep riding around the property in…

The new-old tailgate is in fact perfect aside from some dust. There are a few scratches on the spoiler, but if those don’t buff out sufficiently, I’ll just replace it with the one on my current tailgate. It’s just plastic, so there’s no rust there.


…we got the thing into what will be its forever-home and hit the road back to Virginia.

Of course, one does not travel to North Carolina – even if it’s for less than a day – without a stop for barbecue.

Each of the things on that plate are prepared in a manner unique to this particular bit of North Carolina geography. Even the cole slaw. The same of course can be said for the authentic local barbecue anywhere in the U.S. That’s the very specific magic of barbecue. Drawing equally from the cuisines of our indigenous peoples, immigrants both involuntary and voluntary, and random unknown contributors with ideas from beyond our shores, barbecue is unquestionably our national/native food. That’s why it’s my mission to try it all.

As an expatriate North Carolinian, I hold a special spot for Piedmont or Lexington-style Carolina barbecue.

And hushpuppies.  Always hushpuppies.

There was also time for a bit of Curbside image-grabbing. This VW Fox GL wagon caught in traffic was one of the cleanest I’ve seen in years; not that I’ve seen more than a handful in recent years since they were abundant, new, and cheap in the late 1980s. Perhaps this Fox was a more recent import from Brazil, which could be what the sticker on the tailgate was all about. If it’s a legit sold in America version it couldn’t be newer than 1990, after which the GL wagon was discontinued here. For a 34 year old car, that tailgate is in great shape. Clearly it’s been largely un-brined. If anything ever happens to the rest of the car, I sure hope that another Fox wagon owner will be able to salvage that part for their most likely very rusty Fox.

So I say in my honorary role as self-assigned patron saint of rusty tailgates.

After a second night in Virginia, I released my friend from road trip duty, let the cat out, and hit the road back home.

Where soon enough the new-old part could take up residence in my garage until installation.

I’ve decided that installation will wait a few months for a couple of reasons. First, the old tailgate is still doing its tailgate duty. It’s not pretty – particularly when you look at the inner parts that are invisible from the exterior of the car – but why put a rust-free part on a car to drive around in the brine and road salt any earlier than necessary? If I can get one more full winter out of the existing tailgate, then I can let this new part get a leg up on surviving the briny winters for hopefully many more years.

The second reason is revealed in the above picture. In a random act of mechanical cruelty, BMW engineered the wiring that goes into the hatch without any kind of expected block or terminal connectors. Even Volvo figured out a better way of doing this back in 1976. Instead, all of these wires in the BMW are home runs from well inside the body of car to their termination at things like tail lights, antennas, the wiper motor, etc. in the tailgate. When it comes to replacing the E91’s tailgate, if you take your time to do the job correctly, you disconnect each wire from its termination in the tailgate and pull it out through the various channels and gaskets leading back into the body of the car. On the other hand, if you’re working at a junkyard, you take something like hedge clippers to whack the harness in half where it exits the body and let the new owner deal with it. Thus, while there may only be four bolts holding the hatch onto the car, there are well more than a dozen wires that need to be carefully removed from the old tailgate, repaired as necessary (they’re notoriously fragile and mine have been spliced multiple times already), and then fed carefully into the new gate. Bolting-wise, it’s a 10 minute job. Wiring removal/reinstallation could take a while, during which time I won’t be able to drive the car or even close the hatch. Definitely not something to do during the winter, at least not in my crowded and cramped garage.

So this gives me yet another project in queue for Spring. Or Summer, depending what other things around here decide to break down and demand fixing. There’s always something, and if “things” are driven around on New England roads, there’s a good chance that rust will have something to do with the job. All of which I’m fine with so long as the repair also promises some connection to barbecue and a road trip.