19 Cars in Which to Weather the Weather
Winter is probably the worst season for car ownership. Rust, rock chips, and black ice threaten the casual owner and warn him to keep his garage locked and his car safely tucked away till the blooms of spring. But for those who are willing to take a little extra care, winter turns every road into a rally special-stage and every empty parking lot into a gymkhana. Winter is perhaps the best, most unique time for classic-car ownership, and in that vein, we bring you the most perfect vehicles in which to weather the weather.
(Just remember, use the right tires for the weather and be sure to care for your car regularly to keep the slush and grime from accumulating. Drive Tastefully and drive carefully.)
Winner: 1989-1994 Porsche 911 Carrera 4
1989 was a big year for the Porsche 911. The 964 brought a number of firsts to the 911 range, including one feature that made the car a four-seasons sportster: all-wheel drive. The system, designed for factory Dakar racers in the early-1980s, was refined for the 959 and then unleashed on the worldwide public in the 964. The new Carrera 4 benefitted from more stability through the corners and far better handling in wet or sloppy conditions. But it’s still a 911, with novel floor-mounted pedals and the iconic air-cooled six. Shod with a set of Blizzaks, the Carrera 4 would be an unstoppable, characterful wintertime driving experience.
Alternate: 1945-1950 MG-TC Midget
Okay, the MG-TC is a bit underequipped for winter driving conditions. With its leaky roof and vinyl side curtains, it leaves the driver a bit too exposed for comfortable cruising. But its skinny tires cut through ice like an axe to find the pavement underneath, and have you ever seen wire wheels packed with snow? It’s a true thing of beauty. Winter shouldn’t mean putting your sports car away. Find a good scarf, a warm cap, itchy woolen gloves, and some goggles, then go enjoy Oxford’s finest machines in some truly English weather.
LUXURY SPORTS COUPE
Winner: 1966-1971 Jensen FF
With the FF, Jensen’s graceful Interceptor coupe became something winter aficionados could drive from the pristine avenues of Monaco to the snowpacked roads of Chamonix in ease and comfort. An unusual Ferguson Four drive system sends power rearward from the Chrysler V8, as in an Interceptor, but forward as well, making the Jensen FF the world’s first all-wheel drive car. It was also the first with anti-lock brakes, and with 383 cubic inches of American torque at the ready, it needed all the braking talent it could get. The Interceptor is a true gentleman’s steed, powerful, yet composed, and the addition of all-wheel drive makes the car even more competent. Before you start singing praises to Ferrari’s hatchback, remember the original FF, a true all-season GT.
Alternate: 1971-1981 Mercedes-Benz SLC
The Mercedes SLC is treated like a stepchild in the lineup of classic Benzes; its awkward proportions make it look a bit dowdy compared to the more svelte SL roadster that donated the platform and powertrain. But it was the SLC that brought WRC success to the Mercedes-Benz name, winning the Rallye Côte d’Ivoire in 1979 and 1980. That same racing prowess means that the SLC is a great car for winter. Its size makes it impervious to frost heaves and the powerful, German heater clears the windshield of frost, prevents passenger frostbite, and cooks bacon (almost). And since everyone else will be clamoring for its siblings, a clean SLC can be had for a relative bargain. Buy one, then find a good road and do your best Mikkola impression.
DAILY SPORTY DRIVER
Winner: 1980-1981 Audi Quattro
Of course there’s going to be an Audi Quattro on this list. This car was a legend in its time and introduced the world to Audi’s iconic all-wheel drive system. The ur-Quattro was based on the humble Audi 80 Coupe, but with all-wheel drive and a turbocharged inline-five engine, the car was unstoppable in the World Rally Championship and made competitors from Mercedes and BMW obsolete before they even had a chance to compete. The Quattro’s sharp edges, fender flares, and Giugiaro bodywork prove that it’s from the 1980s, but it wears its suit well. Nice examples are classy, interesting, and unusual, much like Audi itself. And with a nice set of spiked tires, an Audi Quattro would be the perfect entry for a lake race or SCCA Wintercross event.
Alternate 1: BMW 325ix
The all-wheel drive BMW 325ix, produced from 1986-1991, combines an E30’s near-perfect weight distribution, bulletproof reliability, light weight, and excellent visibility with all-weather traction to create the perfect rally car on a budget. It’s small, flickable, and easy to drive.
Alternate 2: Lancia Delta Integrale
If you prefer Italian cuisine to Bavarian wurst, then you’d probably rather have a Lancia Delta Integrale. While the standard Delta is more like an appliance than a car, the Delta Integrale, complete with wide box-flares and a screaming turbo engine, is a fast, passionate rally car for the road.
DAILY ECONO DRIVER
Winner: Fiat Panda 4X4
No, we’re not kidding. The Fiat Panda is one of Italy’s most reliable and user-friendly cars, and contrary to what you see in movies, Italy isn’t all rear-drive exotics and Maserati sedans. If you were lucky enough to attend the 2006 Torino Olympics, you probably saw a more than a few Panda 4x4s. The little city car’s upright proportions and hatchback body style imbue it with loads of inherent utility, and engines that range from 900cc to 1100cc mean it’s guaranteed zippy performance and thoroughly impressive fuel economy in addition to four-wheel drive utility. It’s still used in rural Italian areas today because of its robust design and frugality compared to SUVs.
Alternate 1: Subaru Justy
The 1987-1994 Subaru Justy has almost everything a car enthusiast doesn’t want: three cylinders, dorky styling, parts rarity, a dreadful optional CVT, and no aftermarket presence. However, the Justy was also available with on-demand 4WD, a button atop the shifter that sends power to the hindquarters via a locked rear differential. This diff gives the Justy surreal traction and means that chucking it into a controlled drift was remarkably easy. And those three cylinders are more than enough power for the tiny car, which easily gets over 40 mpg.
Alternate 2: XT Coupe
While the Justy served the economy-minded masses, the 1985-1991 XT was marketed towards hip young things in search of a stylish performance coupe. Available with two flat-four engines (one of which was turbocharged) and a zesty flat-six, with or without all-wheel drive, the Subaru XT is a little wedge-shaped Pinewood Derby car, cheap to buy, cheap to maintain, and tons of fun along the way. Get the turbo with the digital dashboard for the best in 1980s nerdy luxury.
Winner: 1970-1996 Range Rover
Arguably the first luxury SUV, the Range Rover is still the best. Designed to schlep wealthy hunters and their families to and from their second homes in the Highlands, the Range Rover is an ideal wintertime choice. The permanent four-wheel drive system featured a selectable low range for emergency, low-traction situations, and ample room for five combined with a low step height means that the Range Rover makes an excellent family car. The first-generation design lasted a quarter-century, so parts (and parts cars) are easy to find. And there are very few status symbols quite like the Range Rover; even the Queen owns one!
Alternate 1: Toyota Land Cruiser FJ60
The FJ60 Land Cruiser is the ultimate in utility. The gigantic wagon body is mounted atop a robust frame with straight axles front and rear for ideal ice-crawling conditions. The impressive part-time four-wheel drive and dead-nuts-reliable inline-six engine make the Land Cruiser a perfect companion for bivouacking on Pike’s Peak, heli-skiing at Whistler, and glacier climbing in the Sierra-Nevadas.
Alternate 2: 1966-1977 Ford Bronco
The first-generation Ford Bronco is another great choice for the winter. While its removable top and Baja 500 provenance may make it more ideal for Southern California, the iconic 302 V8 and built-Ford-tough backbone mean the Bronco can take some abuse and still get to its destination safely and reliably. And, on those unseasonably warm winter days, leave the hardtop at home and enjoy the looks you get as you kick up slush in the sunshine.
WINTER RALLY RACER
Winner: Austin/Morris Mini Cooper S
Not only was the original Mini incredibly successful as an economical city car, it made for a truly delightful sports car as well. Proving that light makes might, the Mini’s tiny footprint meant that it didn’t need much to go fast. To wit: the Mini Cooper S. With some minor improvements to the suspension and a not-so-subtle addition of a 1275cc Cooper-tuned four banger, the Mini Cooper S won the Monte Carlo Rally in 1964, 1965, and 1967, and initially took a 1-2-3 finish in the 1966 rally before being disqualified on a technicality. Even though the Mini lacks all-wheel drive, its low weight means that it doesn’t get bogged down in snow or ice, so Minis are very successful in vintage snow rallies as well. Good examples can be had for pretty frugal money, too!
Alternate: Mazda 323 GTX
The Mazda 323 was a sensible economy car, but like the Mini, a few modifications made it a rally-ready screamer. Created as a homologation special, the 323 GTX featured a 132-horsepower turbocharged engine and all-wheel drive with a locking center differential, in addition to a wider track and reinforced underbody for better handling. It’s an excellent car with excellent tuning potential; adding 50 horses is an easy upgrade or two away. However, many of them have been thrashed, and with only 1300 imported to the United States, they’re hard to find. Still, they benefit from Mazda’s traditional excellent build quality and engineering prowess, so well-cared-for examples should run with minimal maintenance.
THE UNUSUAL CHOICE
Winner: Alfa Romeo Matta
Alfa Romeo Matta is Italian for Willys Jeep. Its full name is actually the Alfa Romeo 1900M AR51, but it rapidly was nicknamed “the mad old woman” for its ability to scramble over any obstacle, much like the old Willys. However, in true Alfa Romeo fashion, the Matta was overengineered for performance, using an 1884cc twin-cam four, while the old-fashioned Willys used a larger but less powerful flathead. Adding to the list of the Matta’s advantages, was a top speed slightly higher than the Willys and a four-speed manual transmission to the Jeep’s three-speed. It also technically could seat six, but conditions would undoubtedly be cramped. With production numbers in the low thousands, the Matta is definitely the more unusual choice as well; you’ll never pass another one going the other way. Yet, many parts are shared with other Alfas and some parts are generic and universal. If you can find a better affordable rare Italian 4×4, buy it.
Alternate: AMC Eagle
The American Motor Corporation was known for very few good things. Their muscle cars were overshadowed by the Big Three’s offerings, their stewardship of the Jeep brand brought unreliability, and eventually, they died a quiet, ignominious death. But, even though Subaru claimed the title with its Outback, the informed know that the AMC Eagle was the world’s first sport-utility wagon. Fitted with an all-wheel drive system similar to the Jensen’s Ferguson Four, the Eagle was the world’s first all-wheel drive series-production car, available as a sedan, station wagon, Gremlin-like Kammback, and sporty SX4 coupe. They have a lively enthusiast following and are as easy to maintain as any other simple American car. You almost can’t go wrong.
MONEY’S NO OBJECT
Winner: Porsche 959
The Porsche 959 is the ultimate in Porsche engineering excellence. With a sophisticated sequential-twin-turbocharged flat-six and the state of the art in all-wheel drive technology, the advanced 959 could pound any road into submission. And with a 195-mph top speed that leaves period Lamborghinis and Ferraris in its shadow, there’s no doubt to its exotic credentials. While it would be sacrilegious to drive one during a salty winter, it would nonetheless be thrilling to drift around an empty high-school parking lot, the adjustable suspension and drivetrain scrambling for traction. And it’s far-and-away the most user-friendly, capable 1980s supercar, beating out the terrifying F40 and fragile Countach easily. Just point it where you want to go, floor it, and let the car get you there, drama free. If you’re still not convinced that the 959 is the definitive open-wallet engineering exercise, consider this: now, nearly 30 years later, the Porsche 911 Turbo is only just starting to use some of the suspension technology developed for the 959.
Alternate: Lamborghini LM002
If your expensive supercar simply must have four-wheel drive and locking differentials, then you’re only left with one option: the Rambo Lambo. Development on the 1986 LM002 began in the late-70s, when Lamborghini designed a vehicle intended for the Italian military. While they weren’t interested in the rear-engined prototype, after a few revisions, the LM002 was born with a front-mounted 5.2-liter V12 from the Countach. The LM002 was unbeatable anywhere. The tires, which cost $4000 a set, could be driven in any terrain with no air, thanks to a special, bespoke design by Pirelli. And with a not-insignificant 125-mph top speed, the Rambo was a quick machine as well. But, with only 301 made (one of which was recently destroyed by the US military), they don’t come up for sale often, so jump at the chance to buy if it comes up.