Chicago just got pounded with a lot of snow, and driving in it is turning out to be an educational experience. Or maybe I should say a re-educational experience.
After 190,000 miles, my Toyota Camry finally gave up the ghost a few weeks ago. I haven’t got a new car yet, but a friend was nice enough to loan me one of her family’s cars in the meantime. It’s a ’97 Thunderbird, and I’m very grateful, but the car is a bit of a handful in the snow.
I guess I’ve become spoiled by anti-lock brakes and traction control, neither of which the T-bird has. I have to be a little more careful than I’m used to. The worst thing about the T-bird, however, is that it has rear-wheel drive, and I haven’t driven a rear-wheel drive car in the snow in 15 years.
For those of you too young to have driven a rear-wheel drive car, or those of you living too far south to have driven a rear-wheel drive car in the snow, let me explain.
If you give a front-wheel drive car too much gas (assuming you have no traction or stability control system) the excess power going to the front wheels tears them loose from the surface of the snow, and they begin to slide. If you’re in a turn at the time, the front of the car will not turn as tightly as you’d like and you’ll go wide around the turn. If you’re going straight, you’ll just not accelerate, and the front end of the car may twitch a little. The rear wheels, however, have no power going to them at all—they’re just there to hold up the back end of the car—so they’ll just keep rolling along like always.
(Heavy braking—without an anti-lock system—can unstick the rear wheels by locking them up, but they’re not going to slide otherwise unless you severely mishandle the car.)
Recovering from a front-wheel drive slide is easy: Just take your foot off the gas and straighten out the steering wheel. As soon as the tires are pointed roughly in the direction you’re going, you’ll have traction again. Even if you don’t straighten the wheels, the tires will probably pick up traction again as soon as you slow down. With a slight jerk, you’re back in control.
On a rear-wheel drive car like the T-bird, the power is all going to the rear wheels, so stepping on the gas too much will make them tear loose. If you’re going perfectly straight on a level surface, that’s not a big deal: Your car just stops accelerating, and you recover by taking your foot off the gas.
But if there’s any sideways forces acting on the car, such as in a turn, the rear end of the car is going to swing sideways, toward the outside of the turn, and it’s going to swing hard. Even when you’re driving straight, the tilt of a crowned road or even poor wheel alignment can be enough to pull the rear wheels towards the gutters—or towards parked cars.
In the worst case, you can be driving along a normal straight road when suddenly you hit a patch of ice and the rear wheels just take off sideways to the right, twisting the car around to point towards the oncoming traffic lanes.
This is what the T-bird has been doing.
Recovery from this kind of skid takes a little bit of skill. You have to take your foot off the gas, but that’s not enough because your car is still twisted sideways from its direction of travel, and of course there’s no way to turn the rear wheels to recover your traction.
The trick is to turn the front wheels into the skid and keep your foot off the brake so they’ll keep rolling. Pretty quickly, they’ll pull the rear wheels back into line, and they’ll recover their rolling traction. If it happens a little too violently, the rear end may swing past the centerline and fishtail out in the opposite direction, in which case you have to repeat the recovery in the opposite direction.
If you’re not used to a skid like that, it’s pretty scary, and I’ve seen people panic and not take their foot off the gas. The rear end can come completely around, maybe even around-and-around.
(If you do this on purpose, it’s called “doing doughnuts” and you and your friends can take turns seeing who can go around the most times before running out of room.)
Keeping your foot on the gas is less of a problem in front wheel drive car because (a) many of them have traction control, which essentially takes your foot off the gas for you, (b) the spinning wheels can sometimes claw at the snow hard enough to get some traction, and (c) the rear wheels aren’t sliding.
(That’s why you can’t do doughnuts in a modern front-wheel drive car unless you turn off the traction control…and drive backwards…so I’m told.)
When I was growing up in Chicago, I only had rear-wheel drive cars, so learning how to recover from a skid was just part of learning to drive. After some experimentation and a few years of experience, it just becomes second nature. Veteran snow drivers will feel the skid starting and perform the recovery move dozens of times an hour as a normal part of driving, without even thinking about it.
That used to be me, but as I said, it’s been a while. I still know what to do, but it doesn’t come as naturally as it once did. My reactions are blunted by 15 years of front-wheel drive, 10 of them with traction control. I haven’t hit anything, but driving in the snow takes a lot more care now.