Curbside Corrosion: Deep Rusty Thoughts

I returned last week from a very nice summer vacation to the upper Midwest, which is often beautiful this time of year, especially when you are coming there from southeast Texas. Texas had had a pretty decent summer (for Texas) until the last couple of weeks when it finally went over 100 humid degrees Fahrenheit, making it really fortunate I got to hang out up north where the highs were in the 70’s.

For the car spotter, the beautiful climes did not hide a harbinger of the brutal winter to come. Everywhere I looked, I saw that eternal enemy of the automobile: Rust! I thought I would take the opportunity here to show some ugly cars and share some thoughts on this inevitable scourge.

We spent a little over a week in Iowa and Minnesota, visiting family. The trip also provided me with subjects for three other planned articles which I will be working on over the next month or two. All the pictures used in the article here were taken by me. I’m sure there are more dramatic rust porn photos available on the internet, but in the interest of authenticity, these are all parked cars encountered by me randomly over a few days. The Dodge Grand Caravan shown above belongs to my wife’s cousin.


I saw quite a few third and fourth generation Chrysler minivans, and they all looked very rusty. It seems they will keep running until the body disappears. To those of you from this part of the U.S., you see this every day. Maybe you are jealous of those of us for whom this level of rust is exotic. For me, rust is my old nemesis.

I spent most of my childhood in Indiana and Texas, then we moved to Vermont during high school. New England is just as rust-generating as the Midwest and all the cars I owned through high school had advanced degrees of rot. In the 80’s, any vehicle that had spent a few winters driving there showed at least a little bit of rust. By the time you got down to the well-used, low-budget 70’s-mobiles I could afford, perforated sheetmetal was a given.


This is my 76 Buick Estate Wagon, which I bought my senior year. Someday I may do a COAL on it. I liked the car a lot, but rust was a big problem. The bottom of the driver door lost enough metal that it wouldn’t hold the rocker trim anymore and packing tape was used to keep the cold drafts and water out of the door. The front fenders had been replaced by the previous owner, because apparently they were that bad. The exhaust pipe fell out once and another time the gas tank sprang a leak.

After high school, my family moved to Fountain Hills, Arizona (Phoenix area) and I took the wagon with me. It was certainly a horse of a different color there. A brown horse. I had some brake work done on it shortly after we moved and the mechanic charged me extra because it took him so long to get the bolts loose. I think he had an anxiety attack because he had never worked on such a rusty car. In his words, “My God, there is rust EVERYWHERE!”


Rusty rear truck fenders are a Minnesota staple. Early on, perhaps the cladding just falls off.


I got a couple of years out of the wagon in Arizona. The oxidation process had been arrested, but the damage was just too great. It was my last rusty car, because I have since become a complete rust snob. I won’t buy a car that has any rust on the body. Moreover, I won’t even buy a car that has much surface rust on the chassis. Arizona spoiled me. I moved to Houston, Texas where rust, while still minimal, is not quite as rare. One of my favorite cars in Texas developed a rust spot on the body. I sold it.


When it’s worse, the wheel opening gets noticeably bigger


This summer’s trip got me thinking about rust again. Why do I hate it so?

The quick and obvious answer is that I don’t like it on my cars because it’s unattractive and if it’s bad enough, it can interfere with the function of the car. I think, for me at least, it goes deeper than that.


Eventually the fender just looks like a monster took a bite out of it


We Curbside Classic readers love the good curbside find, that old or rare car that defied statistics to be parked in front of you now. Through good luck, light use or exceptional care it survived past the normal lifetime of its peers. If it is old enough or nice enough or desirable enough, it may have reached the tipping point where its odds of surviving in perpetuity are excellent. It will always be able to find a home with someone who values it enough to keep it going.


This Focus looked pretty nice except for the creeping line of brown taking over the underside.


If you have some affection for your cars the way most of us do, you kind of hope that your car will be one of those survivors someday. Personally, I have always bought the nicest cars I could find for my budget and taken good care of them. When the time comes to sell them in a few years, I never have trouble getting a buyer because they are obviously well cared for. Later when I lay in the grass and watch the clouds, I imagine that the future owners will be the same as me and the car will live on indefinitely until I run into it on the street in 20 years and can’t believe how I am so much older and the car has somehow stayed the same.


This Grand Prix is much further along. There used to be a rocker panel under there!


That’s the dream, anyway. What I hate about rust is that it makes that dream not even a possibility. My cars become a companion in life and I tend to forget that they are fundamentally disposable appliances. When rust begins, it makes the disposable quality inevitable and undeniable. Nobody wants to keep a rusty car long-term. Almost anything with rust is guaranteed to hit the junkyard as soon as the mechanical repair costs exceed the value of the vehicle.


In addition to the rocker rust, this Cavalier sports a nice hole in the door.


Sure, nowadays lots of cars from the 50’s and 60’s turn up with substantial body rot and get restored or turned into restomods, if they are lucky enough to be a coupe, convertible, muscle car or even the right pickup truck. I can’t think of very many cars from the 1980’s to today that would ever be considered worth putting hundreds, or even dozens, of man hours of rust repair into (on top of all the other needed restoration).


Being the perfect winter vehicle, it’s surprising this Blazer isn’t in worse shape.


On an even deeper level, I think perhaps rust reminds us of our own mortality. Sure, we know cars are disposable but our bodies are, too, when we think about it. In fact, with enough care a car can live longer than a person. Car rust is sometimes called cancer, and when a car gets it bad, it is terminal. Sadly, much like people. When you see that rust creeping up the rocker panels, you are reminded that nothing lasts forever in this mortal coil. At least if you think morbid thoughts like me!


Not much left of this poor Yukon’s rear fender!


So, I love Minnesota. It’s pleasant in the summer and even in the winter it has a stark beauty. But I do not like the automotive landscape because everywhere you look are doomed cars!

I noticed that all the rusty examples I shot were American models. Perhaps some readers from the region would have an educated opinion on why that was the case. Random or pattern?

You might not recognize the author name. I realized I’ve been writing articles for long enough here that I might as well use my actual name!