The Winter Beater: The Backbone of Upstate NY Winters


At time of writing this, it’s the very beginning the first major snowfall of the season. Snow, as it turns out, is the great equalizer, the force of nature that sends the nicer cars scurrying for their car covers in the back of the garage. The amalgamation of cold, salt, and lower coefficients of friction that makes most of us shelve the cars that carry our favor, and instead rely upon ones that don’t. In this article we are going to talk about the unsung hero of the winter season: the winter beater. We are going to pay tribute to some of the better winter beaters out there, give you an idea of what to look for when buying one, and some of the reasons why you should.

Winter Beater Theory

A simple search will turn up no less than 10,000 articles about winter beaters, and some of the favorite makes and models that people throw around in the snow in lieu of destroying their nicer, summer car. There are good reasons for this. Some cars are just naturally made for this weather: old XJ Jeeps and Subaru’s that are cheap and plentiful, but have all wheel drive that make them highly sought after prizes for people trying to plow through a Nor’Easter on their way to Wegmans because they forgot the eggs and milk in their last run home from work.


Chair not included.

If you are a newbie to the Rochester winter, we would suggest getting something with AWD or 4WD. The only difference here is with 4WD, you have to tell the car that all four wheels are getting power, whereas AWD, it is done automatically by a computer. The biggest argument against this is that 4WD and AWD only help you get going, and get you unstuck. These features will not help you when it comes to slowing down or stopping. The biggest thing in picking one of these cars out is getting one that is in good working order, so a used car check should be utilized whenever possible. Another big factor is that not all AWD systems are created equal, and some will only work when the computer feels the car slipping, such as in the Honda CRV or Toyota Rav-4. These are not as good as some of the all time all wheel drive setups of, let’s say, a Mercury Mountaineer or BMW 325Xi. When in doubt, run a used car check, tell your tech you’re looking for something that will get you through the winter. At the end of the day, they don’t care whether you buy the car or not, so they shouldn’t steer you wrong and let you buy a lemon.




front-wheel-drive-vehicleThe next theory in winter driving is the theory of Front Wheel Drive; the Cliffs Notes—you’re going to want to keep this one cheap. GM W-bodies such as Chevy Lumina’s, Pontiac Grand Prix, and Oldsmobile Cutlass’ are typically dirt cheap and fairly reliable. They have been around and usually have survived enough winters to know what goes wrong with them. Which is really, not a whole lot. Additionally, the front wheel drive makes it so that the weight of the engine is over the wheels that are driving the car.

This is good for traction and getting going when things get slippery, which in Rochester, is basically all the time. Additionally, the parts and labor for fixing up a cheap GM W-body are very low. They are much cheaper to fix than something foreign or AWD. A little bit of money in repairs in these cars will last the rest of the winter, and when you’re done with it, throw it out or sell it to the 16 year old down the street. We know a lot of people who have made money on their cars doing just this.




The Third option is taking something that’s rear-wheel drive and putting a lot of weight in the back for traction. The best platforms for this are usually the Ford Crown Vic, or an older Volvo. These are two drastically different options, but hear us out. The Crown Vic is seriously one of the cheapest cars that you can pick up. It has a big V8, a big trunk, and it weighs 2 tons on a thick frame. Throw 200 pounds of sand and gravel in the back of it and you should theoretically be able to drive it on the moon. These cars were made for so long that you can get them almost anywhere. They are a ubiquitous winter beater the world over. Plus, you can take the weight out of the back and one-wheel-peel all over the place, throwing massive drifts and looking like a complete knob, while having more fun than an entire barrel of hooligan monkeys.

Older Volvos, namely the 900 series, can be found quite cheaply in the Northeast. Most Volvos are front wheel drive, but just for this argument’s sake, we are talking about a rear wheel, 900 series model. They are a little more expensive to fix, but their rock solid mechanical construction and big footprint make them great in the snow. Their weight is also quite substantial, which is very important for maintaining traction in inclement weather. There is a reason why everyone in Vermont has one of these things behind their house, and it’s usually for when the snow starts falling. Typically, you can pick a high mileage one up for a few hundred dollars. This is the most important one to get a used car check on. If you get one that has done 300,000 miles, but has been well maintained, it will last much longer than it should. If you get one with 100,000 miles that has been neglected, even Surfwrench won’t be able to save you from the financial devastation that you have brought upon yourself. Please get these checked out, if you don’t, you will absolutely regret it.

Where to Find a Winter Beater

The next real question is, where do you find one of these cars? There are a lot of options, but typically some of the best ones come straight off of people’s front yards. They are cars that have been in the family that grandma used to drive to church and back on the weekends, but still brought it in every 6 months to get checked out. With that being said, estate sales usually have at least one of these options. Additionally, Craigslist is often a good resource, but be warned, there are often used car lots parading as individual sellers that are looking to get a lot more than the car is worth.

Winter Beater Econ 101

That leads to another important question, How much should you pay for a winter beater? While there isn’t a 100% right answer to this question, here are some of the things that you should consider: How much are you going to be driving it, how much money are you going to have to put into it, are you going to resell it or keep it after winter is over? The rule of thumb that most of our friends use is 4 months = $1,000. This is a nice round number that makes all of the accounting in our heads very simple. We typically want something that is going last 4 months and cost us no more than $1000. When going into a negotiation, it makes everything very simple for the seller. You have someone look at the car who knows them very well, have them tell you all of the things that are going to wrong with that car in the 4 months you are going to own it, subtract that from the price, and make sure that that number is less than $1,000.


For example. If you are looking at a 1999 Oldsmobile Cutlass for $600, but were told by your Surfwrench Technician that it needed a heater core, brakes and brake lines, and 2 front ties (this example actually happened) and this would cost $500. We would hit the owner of the car with an offer for $450 because of what was wrong with the car. This way, he gets a closer to the money value for the car, and you are still underneath that $1,000 dollar threshold.

If you are going to keep a winter beater for longer, or are going to hand it down, you can obviously adjust this amount accordingly. However, if you are going to hand off a winter beater to a new driver at the end of the season, keep this $1,000 threshold in mind, as new drivers have a tendency to depreciate the value of vehicles harder than salt, winter, damage, and a meteor strike combined. One such example of this is when someone picks up an XJ Cherokee Jeep. They are often held onto for Mudding and 4-wheeling in the area of the state that we’re in, so they can be bought for more money. Often after a season of mudding, they are useless as a road legal vehicle, so don’t go too much over that line of $1,000.

Why Should I Get a Winter Beater?

Realistically, you're going to be driving through a lot of these.
Realistically, you’re going to be driving  behind a lot of these.

At its heart, driving a winter beater is essentially recycling. You are taking a car that is not long for this world and getting some extra miles out of it before it gets carted off to the shredder. As we have established, driving cars for longer and keeping them on the road longer decreases the aggregate pollution caused by creating that car in the first place. You are getting more use out of something that is otherwise not going to be used. Also, you are probably going to recycle it when it goes bad because the value of scrap cars is close to what you are going to pay for it. In addition, you are keeping a good car good by not exposing it to elements that would otherwise cause it to rust, break, and lead to you getting rid of it faster than you would if it was in good condition. If you can’t get behind recycling for the “good for the earth” benefits, at least get behind it for the economic benefits. If you can’t get behind it for the economic benefits, then f**k off: this is Capitalist America, you have no business being here.

Here’s a simple list of things you should consider when thinking about purchasing a winter beater:

  • Do I like my daily driver?
  • Is my daily driver good in the snow?
  • Will I need to get snow tires for my daily driver?
  • Do I want to keep my daily driver in the condition that it is currently in?
  • Will damage caused by winter driving exceed the value of something that I can buy right now and drive through the winter?
  • Am I a good driver in the snow?
  • Is my driveway impassable at times when it snows?
  • Do I have a significant commute?
  • Do I see cars off the road on my commute?

If you answered yes to the majority of these questions, get a winter beater. Look around, post what it is on Surfwrench, and have someone come and take a look at it. Odds are, you will be able to get an incredible car that is on its last legs, that will save you time, money and hassle in the long run, by taking care of your daily driver through the winter.

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