Frozen cars and trucks

=== by Bob Sutherland ===

What happens to vehicles when the temperature drops to -40 degrees?

Canadian vehicles are not designed to operate at temperatures below -40° Celsius.

At -40° Celsius the seats in your car or truck will be as cold as ice and hard as a rock. There will be no spring or give to them. As a result, even people who never considered themselves to be tall are likely to hit their head on the door frame while trying to get into the vehicle. They will then hit their head a few times on the ceiling when the vehicle is in motion. A short trip to school or the store may be over before your body warms up the seat.

At -40° Celsius the air will deflate in the tires of a parked vehicle causing the rubber against the ground to go flat and then freeze solid. If you manage to get the vehicle started and in motion you will experience what some Canadians refer to as "square tires". As the tires roll along their frozen, flattened side will cause a very bumpy ride. Everyone inside the vehicle will be bouncing around and hitting their heads on the ceiling. While driving slowly (because your vehicle will be too cold to go any faster) it may take about 100 meters of travelling distance for the rubber tires to soften up enough to become somewhat round again although they will remain under inflated.

The liquids we put into our Canadian vehicles often have a maximum cold temperature rating of about -40° Celsius.

Regardless of what the advertised temperature range is of the antifreeze solution that is poured into my pickup truck's radiator the mechanics at various service stations that I have visited across the country have always written the same thing on their vehicle inspection reports. The fluid should be good down to some random temperature that is usually close to but never as cold as -40° Celsius. Maybe that is the instrument limitation of the funny looking squeeze bulb siphon they use to test the radiator fluid.


In Canada, the summer windshield washer fluid sold in hardware stores and gasoline stations is a detergent for washing smeared bugs and dirt off the windshield of your vehicle. During the fall you are suppose to replace the summer windshield washer fluid with winter windshield washer fluid before it freezes into a solid block of ice in your vehicle's reservoir tank. The winter windshield washer fluid is formulated to remove the slush, ice, road salt and dirt that is splashed up on your windows from other vehicles. The winter windshield washer fluid may have a cold temperature rating anywhere from -20 °C to -45 °C advertised on the label of the plastic jug. The colder the temperature rating the more difficult it often is to find that brand and product in hardware stores and gasoline stations of the more populated southern areas of the country.

My experience has been that winter windshield washer fluid is most useful when the outside temperatures are near 0° Celsius. The farther the temperature drops below 0° Celsius the more likely the odds that the windshield washer fluid will do the opposite of what it is intended to do. In cold temperatures it often freezes to your windshield and wiper blades making a big icy mess as it blocks your vision of the road ahead. Windshield washer fluid also has a tendency as the temperature gets colder to freeze and block the thin tubes leading from the windshield washer reservoir tank in your vehicle up to the spray nozzles on or near the windshield wiper blades. The labelling on the winter windshield washer jugs does not seem to take into consideration and warn you that the windshield washer fluid will freeze due to the wind chill effect that the front of your vehicle experiences as it is travelling down a road in cold temperatures.

As the temperature drops towards -40° Celsius small water vapour droplets dissolved in the gasoline are likely to condense and form an ice plug blocking the gas line to the engine. During the winter months the national brand name gasoline companies will advertise that their premium grades of gasoline contain additives to prevent this from happening. I have seen plenty of consumers at gasoline stations pouring a little bottle of an additive into their gasoline tank when filling up hoping it will prevent their gas lines from freezing.

When doing an oil change a typical service station mechanic will pour 10W30 or 5W30 viscosity grade regular oil into my pickup truck unless I specifically request a 0W30 viscosity grade regular oil or 5W30 synthetic oil. The engine of my pickup truck requires the 0W30 regular oil or 5W30 synthetic oil if it is to have any chance of starting when the temperature drops near -40° Celsius.


New Canadian vehicles are now sold by the vehicle dealerships with an engine block heater installed. An engine block heater is a short electric coil similar to an electric stove element that heats the engine oil inside the engine when the vehicle is parked. The engine block heater is attached to an electric cord that sticks out a short distance either above, below or through the front grill of the vehicle. The engine battery may also have a custom fit, plastic coated, electric blanket wrapped around it with a short electric cord sticking out the front grill of the vehicle. The driver takes the electric cords and plugs them into a heavy duty, cold weather, outdoor extension cord. The other end of the outdoor extension cord is then plugged into an electrical outlet on the outside of a house, building, or on fence posts in a parking lot. Typically Canadian drivers will start plugging in their engine block heaters and battery heaters when winter temperatures drop below -25° Celsius.

To reduce electrical costs the owners of parking lots with vehicles plugged into electric outlets will often have timers that cycle the electricity on for a few hours, then off for a few hours, then on for a few hours and so on. The objective is to find the best cycle to keep the engine oil and batteries of the vehicles warm, but not overheat the oil, while trying to minimize electrical costs for the parking lot owner.

Possibly the first time I experienced a morning temperature of -43° Celsius with my first light truck I was able to get the vehicle started. I was a young teacher in a northern mining town. The mining town was in the midst of the bust portion of the economic boom - bust cycles that characterize northern Canadian mining and forest industry towns. Many of the buildings were boarded up and empty or being used for storage. Most of the population had moved away seeking employment elsewhere but I had just arrived fresh from university to fill a low paying teaching position.

After getting my vehicle started that bitterly cold winter morning I walked around to the front of my light truck. I reached for the electric cords sticking out through the front grill to unplug them from my extension cord. The factory or dealership installed electric cords were so brittle in the cold morning air that they broke off right where I touched them.

Later that day I probably suffered the worst case of frostnip in my hands that I have suffered in the north. I managed to install new plugs on the end of my much shortened electric block heater and electric blanket cords. I had to keep taking my big mittens off to hold the tiny screws and other small parts of the replacement electric cord plugs while working with screwdrivers and pliers. I would have appreciated taking my vehicle inside to do the repairs but the only garage available in that small northern community was the school automobile shop. It had a long lineup of vehicles parked outside waiting to be pushed in by the owners and helpful students who were hoping they could repair the many things that had broken during that cold winter day.


In cold temperatures down around -40° Celsius over the years I have had many plastic, glass and rubber parts of my vehicles break when they became too brittle. The outside rear view mirrors on the doors have shattered because of the extreme cold, as has the plastic moulding holding the mirrors in place. The plastic front engine grill and the plastic bug deflector above it are very prone to having pieces break off when cold. Inside the engine compartment hoses and wires have broken when cold disabling my vehicle.

Over the years the inside door handles of my light trucks have broken off at least half a dozen times on me when they have became frozen stuck because of cold weather. Without a door handle I was left partially trapped inside a vehicle until I managed to wiggle and crawl my way out another door. Wiggling and crawling inside a vehicle to another door is not easy when you consider how many layers of clothing you would be wearing to try to avoid frostbite and freezing to death at -40° Celsius. Three layers of bulky clothing on the legs and seven layers on the chest, plus arctic hats, boots and mittens might keep you warm. With that many layers though you would look and feel like you were Humpty Dumpty or some other humungously large cartoon character. In such situations steering wheels, gear shift or four wheel drive levers sticking up from the vehicle floor, your briefcase and any other objects around you can become major obstacles as you try to wiggle and crawl your way out the passenger door.

Do not expect manual cranking window handles or power window motors to work in cold temperatures. The glass windows of the vehicle doors will remain frozen stuck in whatever position there were left in - up or partially down - until the weather warms up. The manual cranking window handle or power window motor will just break if you try to use it when the temperature is too cold.

On cold mornings the front windshield of any vehicle must be VERY SLOWLY and carefully warmed up and kept warm during highway driving. Any small chip in the glass or a new impact by a flying stone may quickly spread to a large crack across the windshield when the glass is cold or changes temperature too quickly. Slowly heating the windshield is very hard to do when your natural inclination is to turn the defrost heater and fan on full blast. Your body perspiration and the air you are breathing out in big white clouds will be freezing into a frosty layer of ice on the inside of the windows faster than you can defrost them. As outside temperatures drop down toward -40° Celsius it is very likely that you will never get all of the windows of your vehicle, especially the side windows and back windows, completely ice free and defrosted on the inside. This ice will accumulate getting worst from day to day as the winter drags on. Even during long trips of many hours your best hope of defrosting the windows will be if bright sunshine comes to your rescue and warms up the windows. This usually only works on the side of the vehicle facing the sun. I have also had to hope for bright sunshine to thaw frozen door locks even in southern Canada. The problem with hoping for bright sunshine is that in places that experience -40 degree temperatures the sun is unlikely to rise very far above the horizon and only for a few hours each day during the winter months.


Vehicle manufacturers do not make the inside space of vehicles large enough for anyone spending the winter in Canada's northern regions. The arctic boots worn by Canadians living in many northern communities are larger than the boots that were worn by the NASA astronauts when walking on the moon. The bulky snow pants, insulated overalls, winter parkas, fur lined hats, hoods, tubular knit neck warmers stretched up over the face, large oversize leather mittens, and many layers of sweaters, long underwear, wool socks and warm clothing make anyone living in Canada's north look bigger than any astronaut, snowman or Humpty Dumpty. Yet vehicle manufactures send the same new vehicles without size alterations to Canada's north that they send to dealerships in Florida and southern California for bikini clad models wearing thin sandals to drive around in. Someday I would like to see the executives of the big vehicle manufacturers dress up in Canada's arctic clothing and then try to get into their vehicles at a famous car and truck show with all of the news reporters' cameras taking pictures. I bet most of them will not get through their vehicle's doors let alone find enough space to sit in the vehicle's front or back seats. There most certainly will not be enough foot room for their large arctic boots.

General Motors Canada does have a cold climate research facility in Kapaskasing, Ontario. I have often driven through the area during the winter months and seen two or three convoys of about ten new vehicles per group out on the highway following their lead car around. The temperature probably drops to -40 ° Celsius or below in Kapuskasing for a few days during a typical winter.

In all of my travelling back and forth across Canada on northern highways I have never found a cold climate research facility for any of the other vehicle manufacturers.