Ice Road Junkers

Maine Winter, Cars, Down East

In Maine, the best way to protect your car from the rigors of ice, snow, and salt is to swap it out for a “winter beater.”

[N]o less a Maine authority than humorist Tim Sample once described a “winter beater” as “the four-wheeled equivalent of a disposable razor” — i.e., a cheap car you use in a pinch, then abandon. The pinch, in this case, is the four- to six-month span during which slick roads, salt, and potholes threaten your ride with fender benders, corrosion, and ravaged tires.

Why subject your primary wheels to all that, many Mainers reason, when you can spend a few hundred bucks on a jalopy that only has to last until spring? A quick Craigslist search recently turned up some two-dozen cars for sale in Maine advertised as “winter beaters.” (A hasty survey of Craigslist in North Dakota and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula suggests the phrase has less cachet outside of northern New England.) So we emailed a few Craigslist peddlers for a boilerplate definition.

“It has to be cheap and run good,” wrote Joe Basile, of Harrison, whose 2001 Dodge Neon was, at $1,200, at the upper end of the price range. “Typically something with a slowly failing engine or transmission that will make it a few months, if they’re easy on it. Sometimes a vehicle that may be too rusty to fix, but solid enough to hold together for winter. . . . Being able to take that last sticker is important.”

Riding out one last valid inspection sticker is key, agrees winter-beater enthusiast Mike Gilheany, of Windham. “The joy of a beater is that you don’t worry about it,” he says. “You don’t worry about washing it. If you dent it? Oh well. I’ve gone out to eat with my wife and paid $150 for a meal. So a car that’s $200?”

That’s what Gilheany paid two winters back for a heap of a 2000 Subaru Outback, to which he added “ingredients to make it a true winter beater”: snow tires, quality washer fluid, a sturdy ice scraper, and a tow strap — “so your buddies can pull you out,” Gilheany explains, since the other perk of driving a beater is that you can do donuts in empty parking lots and crash into snow banks for fun.

In fact, some winter beaters are meant only for off-road snow play. The ur-example may be Boyd Bachelder’s 1982 Subaru GL wagon with bolted-on Mattracks, pictured above, which the Wilton mechanic acquired off of Craigslist some years back (in a trade for a dirt bike and $500). True to winter-beater tradition, he kept the tracks and sold what was left of the body a couple springs later.

“It had heat and a radio,” recalls Bachelder fondly. “A fun little ride.”

Photo credit: Brian Fitzgerald

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Brian Kevin

Brian Kevin is Down East's editor in chief.