6 winter survival tips from a lifelong northern Minnesota mechanic

Warroad mechanic Donovan Olson
Warroad mechanic Donovan Olson explains the pattern of these large aggressive tires. Even conventional all-season tires are better for winter driving than tires of the past, he said.
John Enger | MPR News

It's time to make sure your car is ready for winter, and brace yourself for the long, cold months ahead.

If anyone knows how to coax a vehicle through any conditions, it's Donovan Olson. He's been a mechanic on Minnesota's harsh northern border in Warroad for 60 years.

He started his auto garage in 1955, when starting a car in the dead of winter involved skill and ingenuity. Some people drained their radiators at night, then poured in boiling water in the morning to heat up the engine. As a teenager Olson befriended the local milkman, and got a pull start from his delivery truck every morning.

"I had a 32 Chevrolet," he said. "It was so light I could drive on snowbanks. I should have kept it."

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Now most new vehicles will start without issue all the way down to 20 degrees below zero. They require a lot less special treatment in cold weather, but Olson said there are still a few things drivers should do to keep things running smoothly through the winter.

He offers up these tips:

1) Get a new battery

"People will try to sneak by with an old battery," Olson said, "but if you want your car to start you have to buy the best battery, not the cheapest one."

Batteries fail without warning, Olson said. A top-of-the-line battery might cost more, but not as much as a call to the tow truck.

2) Get an oil change

Old oil gets thick with grime, making a cold engine harder to start.

3) Get a block heater

Donovan Olson
More than 90 percent of cars in Warroad, Minn., have block heaters, according to mechanic Donovan Olson. A plug hanging out the front of the grill is a dead giveaway.
John Enger | MPR News

They're a relatively small investment, Olson said, and will keep an engine warm and easy to start through the coldest winter nights.

Marvin Windows, one of Warroad's largest employers outfitted their parking lots with electrical posts. Workers plug their block heaters in when they arrive so their cars don't freeze up during their shift.

"You'd probably figure," Olson said, "95 percent of this town has got block heaters."

4) Check your tires

When Olson first started his business, most people had a special set of snow tires in the garage they'd put on every winter. Those were the days when just about every car had rear-wheel drive.

Now, he said, conventional tires on a front-wheel drive car are better than any old style snow tires — just so long as they're not bald.

5) Go for a long drive

In the depths of winter, Olson said people tend to hunker down. They drive only as far as they must. That can be a problem.

If a car is only driven a few miles at a time, Olson said the engine will slowly fill with condensation. When that water freezes, it expands.

"It'll push the side of the block right out," he said, "which ruins the engine, needless to say."

Every now and then, Olson said it's a good idea to take a longer drive to burn away the water.

Most of Olson's tips are pretty basic car maintenance. New batteries, tires and oil changes are vital year-round. Olson said that cars are pretty good at handling the cold these days. That means Olson's winters are a lot less busy than they used to be. He's not always driving out to the school parking lot to jump some kid's frozen Geo Metro — which leads to his final winter tip.

6) Go south for the winter

Cars might be able to handle Warroad's extreme cold, but it's still hard on the human body.

Olson knows the physical cost better than most. He's well over 6 feet tall and 80 years old. His joints aren't as good as they used to be. His artificial knee hurts when it's cold out. So Olson and his wife leave for California in January and don't come back until April.

"There's a place 60 miles south of Palm Springs called the 'fountain of youth,' " Olson said. "They have a hot spring. A month there gets the frost out of our bones."

This, Olson said, is the very best way to get through a northern Minnesota winter.