Monday, December 21, 2009

Cold Weather Driving - Then & Now

A few days ago the temperature dropped  to  –37º F (–38º C)  in Fairbanks. While we aren’t fond of venturing out in the extreme cold in our modern cars, imagine how demanding it was for Fairbanks motorists a century ago. First, after the day’s use all the car's coolant would have been drained and taken inside, engine oil as well, and the battery if it had one. In the morning both the coolant (a mixture of alcohol and water) and the oil would be heated up on the wood stove. The battery would be placed in the car first, then the heated oil, and last one would slowly pour in the heated coolant. After a few minutes to allow for the warm fluids to warm the engine, one would attempt to start the car and if successful let it warm up some.

Meantime there would be a soap stone or metal heater on the stove warming up, or a “modern foot warmer”  that held hot coals, that would be taken out with all the bundled up passengers going on the drive. Usually the warmer was placed on the floor in the rear of the car and lap blankets were placed over the passengers’ legs, allowing the heat to rise and keep everyone comfy.  The luckiest folks had good heavy fur coats, fur hats and mukluks to help keep them warm. A few cars were also equipped with winter sides, like the Franklin pictured above (photographed in Fox, AK in 1908).

After the car was started and folks were loaded in, one might think it was a breeze from this point.  But, consider that there were no roads, just trails that were not plowed or maintained, so tire chains were usually required and a snow shovel carried just in case. Tires in the early days did not have much traction, especially the balloon tires that were smooth and had no tread at all. When it became cold, the tires became very hard and had no flexibility to help with traction. They were also very susceptible to cracking and actually breaking the beads. Transmissions and rear differentials were very stiff because of the W600 oil that was used in them, and the wheel bearing grease also became very stiff and at times would cause the engine to die or stall when first trying to get it to move.

Upon arriving at the destination and, if planning to stay for more than an hour or two, one would have to once again drain all fluids and take in the battery. This ritual was required so that you could get the car started when it was time to leave again. So today, we northern motorists can be thankful that we have engine heaters, cars with good heaters, heated garages and remote start systems to make life more enjoyable. We also enjoy roads that are paved and maintained, tires with good rubber and radial designs for traction, and arctic grade lubes so that cars can function daily with very little if any problems.

To see more photos of Alaska's first "ice-road truckers," come to the museum! 

Willy

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