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Firing Order: Rust-O-Rama

Posted in Features on October 18, 2018
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Has rust ever been spoken of with fond affection? When was the last time you heard a fellow wheeler proudly toss rust into his or her list of 4x4 features?

I’ve spent most of my 55 years in the Midwest, and overall, it’s been a great place to live. There’s one Midwest thing that I could do without though, and that’s road salt. Road salt causes rust, and that’s annoying. We all know that when rust saunters into the picture even the simplest repairs can be filled with drama. I’ve always had older 4x4s that have seen lots of road salt, so I’ve battled corrosion more times than I can remember when completing repairs (often while lying on snow-covered, frozen ground).

Serious Midwest rust forces one to think outside the box for even the simplest repair. I’ve worked with and spoken to several shop techs in the Midwest who battle corrosion daily, and they have adapted to working with rusty parts. I recall working with Attitude Performance in Arlington Heights, Illinois, to install a suspension on a ’99 Super Duty plow truck that was never garaged. It was about -10 degrees F outside when we wheeled the truck into Attitude’s shop, and the crew had to chisel through several inches of rock-hard ice and snow just to get to the suspension, only to be met by the usual number of rusted-in-place fasteners and parts. Nonetheless, the experienced crew made short work of it, and the rig was soon lifted and on its way. “Penetrating oil and a torch are two items we use daily to counteract the effects of corrosion. And we use antiseize liberally during reassembly,” owner Matt Dinelli says.

Rusty parts are one thing; a rusty-bodied 4x4 is another. In the Midwest, an expensive 4x4 can be reduced to a rust bucket in just a few years of winter driving. The majority of 4x4s I’ve owned were purchased used in the Midwest, and as such had the Midwest Gold Standard of corrosion. The list includes a ’77 International Scout that was corroded beyond belief; a ’99 Lincoln Navigator with an incredible amount of underbody rot, including corroded brake lines and rear control arms; and a ’90 Geo Tracker with holes in the floor.

This is what Midwest road salt did to a family member’s CJ. On the upside, vehicle weight was significantly reduced.

I’ve fought back. A few years ago, my wife and I built a new house. She designed the main house, and I planned the garage. It was the first house we had with an attached garage, so to say I was excited would be a gross understatement. Among my garage wants: complete insulation, an insulated overhead door, a water source, a floor drain, a ton of lighting, and heat. With these weapons I could battle rust, and I did for years. Every winter day when my wife would arrive home from work in her salty 4x4 (a 4x4 that HAD to last), I’d get to work giving the machine a total cleaning. I spent as much time underneath the vehicle rinsing away salt as I did on the exterior. It wasn’t always fun. It got monotonous, and when it was below 0 degrees F outdoors the concrete floor would get so cold the water would freeze in spots (a heated garage floor wasn’t in the budget). But it was all worth it. Even after six brutal, salty winters that 4x4 still looked great, both underneath and everywhere else.

In my world, that 4x4 was an anomaly. Most of the used 4x4s I’ve owned were so far gone that I didn’t care. And my buddies had 4x4s that were equally rotted (like the CJ-5 pictured here, which belonged to a family member). They were undeniably total piles of junk, but the four-wheel drive worked and they were inexpensive, so we were happy.

Do you live in an area that is subject to winter road salt? How do you keep your 4x4 from rusting? Do you have a rusty rig that you’re proud of? Drop an email to the address below and tell us about it and include a high-res photo of your rig!

–Ken Brubaker

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