MINNEAPOLIS — The frost is on the pumpkin, Pat Besanson's BMW is in the garage and his rusty jalopy, with a broken back window, dented rocker panel and icky orange stuff plugging the holes in the roof, is waiting at the curb of his fashionable neighborhood.
With winter chasing the last ghosts of Indian summer, Lucas Segarra has put new snow tires on the battered, tattered, crumbling 1977 Dodge that will be his only transportation for the next six months. His regular car, a sporty 1983 Camaro Z-28, sits idle in a shed.
Kathy Ashby's pride and joy, a spotless, restored, polished black 1950 Mercury coupe, is tucked safely away under a thick blue tarp in a storage barn. She's thinking about buying a clunker.
On the eve of the cruelest months in the northern Midwest, when temperatures drop way down and snow piles way up, thousands of Minnesota drivers are going through a peculiar ritual: They are parking their "summer cars" and revving up their "winter-beaters."
"It's something you do every year," says car buff Ashby, "just like putting on your storm windows."
"People store their good car, put it away like a bear going into hibernation," says Alex Johnson, sales manager at Terry Feldmann Imports, a Minneapolis Mercedes-Benz and Nissan dealer.
Driving a "winter-beater"--a term describing both a beat-up car and the beating it takes from snow, ice, corrosive salt and, occasionally, from other cars--is a winter way of life in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, and is apparently more common here than in other cities in the region, where winter is usually less severe.
Even the term "winter-beater" is "a local regional expression," found primarily around Minneapolis and St. Paul, says Michael Linn, a professor of linguistics and English at the University of Minnesota-Duluth. "I grew up in Montana and I've lived in Illinois and I never heard it in either of those places."
Winter wrecks are not for everybody. They are generally favored by car buffs and owners of luxury automobiles and collector vehicles.
"Some who have what is considered to be a choice automobile--one they don't want exposed to the salt we drop on our highways to keep them free from ice and snow--park it," explains Ken Mohr, director of emergency road service for the American Automobile Assn. in Minneapolis.
"A winter-beater? That's the car you sacrifice to the elements," says switchboard operator Ron Struwe, who will drive a battered 1974 American Motors Hornet this winter.
"The cars just rot away because of the salt," says Kim L. Frick, 35, a technical writer and BMW buff. "Most of the cars we have up here are scrapped because they just dissolve before your eyes."
This winter Frick is planning to drive a 1969 BMW 2000 because "it's pretty rotten."
"The front fender flaps in the breeze, there's rust around the rear wheels and the rocker panels are gone," Frick says. "It's much cheaper to buy another car and discard it after the winter is over than to try and keep your (good) car from rusting."
"Only certain cars qualify as winter-beaters," Ashby says. "It has to be a piece of junk with a defroster and one hell of a heater. It has rust from the front bumper to the back and looks like a goat's been eating on it."
"It's usually a heap, a 1972 Ford Galaxy that's rusted out," auto dealer Johnson says. "They are big and they aren't fuel-efficient and you don't care if somebody hits it. But they start and they drive and they may last a year or two, then they go to the graveyard."
Salt, used as a de-icer throughout the Midwest, is corrosive and a major cause of rust on automobiles.
"They spread so terribly much salt in this state. Literally, after a snowstorm your car is pure white with dried salt all the way up to the door handle," auto mechanic Bruce Carlson says.
Drives $100 Car
"It's like taking a big saltshaker and covering the car with salt two or three times a week. It's a crime," says Carlson, who, in better weather, drives a 1983 Oldsmobile "in excellent condition." Right now, though, he is driving a ragged 1973 Mercury he picked up for $100.
Minnesota's Department of Transportation spreads 120,000 tons of salt on roads it maintains. That averages 2 ounces per square foot of pavement per season, department spokesman Bill Bunde said. The state, like others throughout the region, is testing non-corrosive highway de-icers, not only because of the damage the salt does to cars, but also because salt speeds deterioration of bridge decks and reinforcing steel used in roads.
The City of Minneapolis alone spreads between 14,000 and 17,000 tons of salt each year to keep streets ice-free, says Robert Otto, the city's superintendent of streets, who does not drive a winter-beater.
"I think it's mostly people who have classic cars. It's the exception rather than the rule," Otto notes. "It's cheaper for me to buy a $5 car wash than to buy a second car for winter."